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  • “Saving Whiteface” in Tanzania: Intercultural Discomforts
  • Laura Edmondson (bio)

I learned in my Swahili classes in the US that the word for European, mzungu (plural wazungu), originated from the root word -zungu, meaning “wondrous.” In preparation for fieldwork on Tanzanian theatre, I not only studied Swahili, but also immersed myself in postcolonial theory in an effort to develop an appropriately anti-racist, anti-imperialist approach to my research. As a North American mzungu, I felt uneasy with what seemed an imperialist affirmation of awestruck Africans gazing upon the “wonder” of whiteness. However, upon my arrival in Tanzania in August 1996, I learned that mzungu is also associated with an unofficial meaning of -zungu—“to go in circles.” I felt a sense of relief at this more subversive reading, one that spoke of a refusal to be dazzled by the various white colonial “wonders” arriving on East African shores. Instead, the name mockingly invokes images of dazed Europeans wandering around the tropics in bewilderment.

During the ensuing sixteen months of fieldwork, I found myself careening between these two images—the “dazed wanderer” and the “white wonder.” On occasion, I purposefully occupied one or the other of these roles as a result of either frustration or simple fatigue (as the months wore on, the “appropriateness” of these behaviors sometimes escaped me). More commonly, I became entangled in a web of mythologies and stereotypes surrounding white women regardless of my actions, and I found myself living out these two extremes according to the needs and whims of the so-called objects of study. As the Western ethnographer, or “representer,” I theoretically possessed what Foucault calls power/knowledge over the Tanzanians, or “representeds.” Cast in these Western stereotypes, however, I also performed the spectacle of white womanhood and therefore was vulnerable to scrutiny—even as I sought to scrutinize and study “them.”

As part of my fieldwork, I spent four months in early 1997 doing research at the national College of Arts in the small coastal town of Bagamoyo. 1 I was drawn to the college since its mission to preserve Tanzanian traditional performing arts made it an ideal location for my research on constructions of national identity. Throughout my research I had aspired to a participatory [End Page 31] methodology in an attempt to disrupt the hierarchical relations of the Western researcher and the African subject. In order to participate in the daily activities of the college and thus work toward this methodological ideal, I arranged to teach acting and playwriting classes in exchange for room and board with the students. As a result of these circumstances, an intriguing example of intercultural theatre emerged within the highly charged context of ethnography, a realm characterized by mutual scrutiny and ambivalent intimacy. In this article, I interrogate my experience as an ethnographer, performer, teacher, and director, investigating the multiple negotiations and circulations of power that occurred in this particular intersection of ethnographic research and intercultural performance—an intersection marked with both bewilderment and wonder.

The following analysis shows how the intimacies of the ethnographic encounter enabled the students to challenge and demystify my authority as a teacher and a director. I address the circumstances of this intimacy in the first two sections of the article, in which I describe my experiences as an ethnographer and a performer. Because I lived with the students and was able to converse with them in Swahili, a sense of familiarity emerged that called strict boundaries between self and other into question. The students knew that I, too, was a student in the US; the student/teacher relationship was frequently inverted by their efforts to teach me about their cultural and performance traditions. Furthermore, as a single woman in her mid-twenties with no children, I was considered a kijana (youth) and so belonged to the same age-group as my students—a significant commonality in a highly age-stratified society. Although my racial, national, and economic privilege were never forgotten, these circumstances cleared a space in which the overlapping modalities of historical dominance could be marked and investigated.

The day-to-day experiences of living with the students established the context for my roles as their teacher and director...

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pp. 31-49
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