After a week in the villages of eastern Congo, I think I know what it must be like to be Madonna.
Let me explain.
I haven't adopted a child amid controversy and haven't recently adopted an esoteric faith. I haven't recorded albums, altered fashion tastes, or demonstrated the sort of talent that people pay money to see. But I know what it is to set off a frisson of excitement in every town I pass through.
I have even become known to strangers by a single name: "mzungu." The word, in Swahili, means "white guy," but let's not quibble over details. I'm huge in eastern Congo.
I have just returned from a reporting trip covering a guerrilla insurgency between an ethnic Tutsi militia and the Congolese government. To provide balance, the trip required driving into the zone controlled by the Tutsi rebel general, Laurent Nkunda, as well as spending time inside government territory around the city of Goma itself. Passing across battle lines always contains elements of risk, something all of us reporters accepted before taking the trip, but something we would experience in full before the odyssey ended.
Driving through the government checkpoint was simple: There wasn't anybody there. Nobody quizzed us about who we were and where we were going. Next came the UN peacekeepers, who waved. About 100 yards later, we met the Nkunda rebels. We descended from our cars, shook hands, and introduced ourselves. One of the men I shook hands with, I later discovered, was an accused war criminal, Gen. Ntaganda Bosco. "I'm just visiting," he told me. "Me, too," I replied.
The front lines of the stubborn war divide the town of Sake in half. While the government side of the city is busy, thriving with commercial activity, the Nkunda side is a ghost town. The only civilians are women and young children, carrying belongings on their head toward temporary relief camps, away from the front lines.
Once outside Sake, all signs of war disappear. Farmers are busy planting crops. Herders are leading cows across the green hillsides of volcanic plains that resemble Switzerland. Women are pounding cassava roots into paste. And children are chasing cars full of reporters and shouting, "mzungu!"
As a reporter in India, I got used to having village children shouting "gora," which is the Hindi version of "mzungu." On a trip to a remote town in Madhya Pradesh, one child looked at me and screamed "bhoot!," which means ghost. To some Indian eyes, the pale European pallor looks like the skin of a corpse.
In Afghanistan, I was more able to blend in. With a full beard and long draping Afghan clothes, I could lower my profile in a country where foreigners raise suspicions. Occasionally Afghans would mistake me for a local. In the bazaar, people would stop and ask me, in Persian, for directions. I would respond, in Pashto, "I don't know."
Blending in here in Africa, of course, is more difficult, but skin color rarely has been a source of tension. Outside South Africa, where a racist legal setup kept blacks in inferior positions, and Nigeria, where white oilworkers are often kidnapped, Africans seem to have few qualms about Western visitors. Yes, children stir up a big fuss when you come to town, but when given the chance to tell their story, adults forget petty differences.
I will never forget the apple-cheeked toddler in Kitchanga, Congo, who looked as if she had just come out of diapers. She studied us for a minute or two in silence, clinging to her mother's skirt, and then said, "mzungu." It may have been her first word.
The charm of "mzungu" is in the way it is said, the same giddy excitement that my children use when they say "candy" or "trampoline," or "candy" while on the trampoline. Yet the charm of "mzungu" starts to wear off. I'm sure my fellow single-named colleagues – Madonna, Bono, Sting – have days when they would prefer to cover up with sunglasses and scarf. But like them, we just waved – and waved.
The next day, when it was time to leave rebel territory and head back to Goma, the children started yelling "Olela, mzungu," which means, "Bye-bye, white guy." And for the next two bone-jarring hours in a 4x4, that's what we heard. And we waved.
When we arrived at the government front lines in Sake, I realized that "mzungu" can have a much darker connotation. Boulders had been rolled across the road to block our passage. Police in riot gear held back angry crowds. Word had gotten out that some cars would be returning, full of foreigners who were supporting the rebel General Nkunda. When men used the word "mzungu," banging on our car windows with their fists, it felt racist and ugly.
After authorities escorted us from the angry crowds, confiscated our cameras and recording devices, and subjected us to nearly six hours of detention and questioning by police and military officials, we were allowed to return to our hotels. Eventually, our equipment was returned. But my work was not finished.
A few days later, I went back to the town with the angry crowds. I was writing a story about the emergency response of humanitarian aid to those displaced by the fighting. To do this piece, I had to meet with people who were living, by the tens of thousands, in huts made of bent saplings, thatch, and sheets of plastic. Every night, the torrential rains crept under their tents, drenching the occupants. Their belongings were a few pots and pans, some clothing, only what they could carry on their backs.
Just days before, some of these people may have been prepared to stone me as a presumed supporter of the men who expelled them from their homes. That day they told me their stories.
I looked around me to take in the magnitude of the human suffering. And then I looked down. There were two young boys, giving an army salute. One smiled and said, "Hello, mzungu."