Every day, I walk the streets of Toliara in a brightly colored clown-suit.
The children gather round and point at the clown. Passersby stare and laugh. I do a mime (This one means, I need to find a restroom). My clownish presence brings joy to all!
When I walk out the door, I don’t realize I am wearing the clown-suit. But it turns out I am. Because I am a vezaha. And if you are reading this blog, you are probably a vezaha too.
Simply translated, the word vezaha means “foreigner” although in general use it comes to mean something more like “white-guy.” White folks just so happen to be the most easily identifiable vezahas. So yes, when I walk by the playing children they will get up, point, and chant, “Vezaha! Vezaha! Vezaha! Vezaha!” The rules regarding what is and is not polite are a little different here. Although something like, “Mexican! Mexican! Mexican! Mexican!” would not be an acceptable greeting back in the USA, it is not at all rude here. The expectations in this culture are just a bit different. For example, it is not at all considered impolite to stare at the vezaha. The lady on the seat next to me on the taxibus stared almost the entire time. I looked at her and she made no attempt to hide her stare. She just gaped more. Again, people aren’t rude. They are just curious.
Being a vezaha can be incredibly stressful. Living in a foreign land is always difficult, and being here makes me realize how vulnerable I am as a traveler and a stranger. Some people know this and try to take advantage of the vezahas. For example, they might charge twice as much for a cab fare, knowing there is nothing the vezaha can really do about it.
On the other hand, others take extra good care of vezahas, and this has been my experience a majority of the time. In fact, sometimes it makes me uncomfortable how nice people are to me, the vezaha. If I travel, I get the owner of the house’s bed. When we eat, I get the largest portions. If we are talking, they will find me a chair while they opt to stand.
No matter how long I’m here, I will always be considered a vezaha. My glimmering white skin will always stand out in a crowd. People will always try to talk to me in French. Everyone will always be so surprised that I am eating rice or cassava instead of something like pizza or a sandwich.
Hopefully, I will not forget what it feels like to be a vezaha, because there are plenty of vezahas back in my homeland. Will I treat those strangers the way I like being treated here? Will I show hospitality and helpfulness? I don’t know what I would do here without it.