When I first met my new sister, she was afraid to touch me because of my skin. She had never seen a white person before. Her name was Rautia and she was six years old. When we were introduced, Rautia cowered behind her mother’s legs, only stealing quick glimpses of me from behind her mother’s turquoise dress. I said ‘Hello’ in Oshivambo like I had practiced, but it only frightened her more; she didn’t like a white person speaking her language. That first day Rautia followed her mother around like a skittish cub, careful never to stray too far from her side.
The boys in the family were much more cavalier about it. They tried to rub the whiteness away with dirt, or scrub my blonde hair in soapy water, hoping the color would wash away. Simon, the youngest at four, liked to press on the back of my hand with his fingers and then release it, watching the blood rush back into his white thumbprint. Alfeus, who was eight, was particularly perturbed by my feet. The African sun had tanned the skin around my sandal straps a leathery brown, leaving the skin underneath nearly translucent in comparison. He was teaching me how to wash myself, per his mother’s instructions, in a dented tin basin they used as a bath. At first he was perplexed, then frustrated that my tan wouldn’t wash away. He finally yelled for his mother to come and see, telling her that it wasn’t his fault my feet wouldn’t come clean.
For Rautia, however, my whiteness was much more distressing. On the second day of my three-week stay one of Rautia’s aunts noticed her reluctance to approach me. Kneeling, she spoke to her in Oshivambo, trying to coax her into touching me. Rautia stubbornly resisted. Finally, her aunt grabbed her hand and pulled it forward, forcing it upon my arm. Rautia shrieked and yanked her hand away. She ran, crying, to her mother’s side. Afterwards, the women laughed and teased her.
The family lived in rural Namibia, twenty minutes from the Angolan border, and during my stay I found it particularly difficult being the only white person in the region. I had come to Namibia to study African history and culture at the University of Namibia. The school had arranged for my stay with the family. When I left for the North, I had little idea of what to expect and no clue that many of the people had never seen a white person before. Day after day neighbors would come by to see me, the funny-looking American student, as if I was a circus attraction. Many of them wanted to touch me. I was constantly aware of my whiteness. Away from home for the first time, even amongst so many people, I often felt alone. Many times I even felt uncomfortable in my own skin.