For those new to the Swahili word, ‘mzungu’ or ‘muzungu’ (sounds like “muh-zun-gooo”) is generally taken to mean ‘white man’, although it does apply to women as well. It can also mean some sort of ‘boss’, even if you are black, brown or white!
So, it can mean a white man (or woman!), a European, the boss or the person who is paying! Wikipedia say that the historical roots of the word probably stem from the phrase, “those who wonder aimlessly”, probably linked to African experiences of early explorers, traders and missionaries.
Mzungu is a bit controversial and causes new volunteers a lot of gnashing of teeth, but you’ll hear it a lot. Get used to it!
You will most likely hear mzungu in East Africa; Kenya,Tanzania, Malawi, Uganda and Zambia, although you may hear it as far away as Rwanda, Mozambique and The Congo.
You might find that you go through stages with people calling you mzungu. At first, you might think that it is kind of interesting, amusing even. It might even fit into what you were expecting to experience in Africa etc. After a while though, you may get a bit fed up with being shouted at in the street, the actual words don’t really matter, you might have had a bad day and not want the hassle.
I’ll be honest with you, after a short time in Africa, I got pretty hacked off about the whole mzungu thing.
But then I was young(er!), I was inexperienced, I had left everything that was familiar to me behind, I was facing the complete unknown, I didn’t know what was expected of me and I just couldn’t understand why people would call me “white man” (although it is pretty obvious….since I am a white man!). It sounded negative to my newbie ears.
That was many years ago now, today I understand a little more and it doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, I often turn it into a bit of a joke, break the ice with a number of ‘witty’ retorts!
But, is mzungu a negative term?
Negativity is down to context and tone. Any word can be delivered in a manner that suggests the word means something bad. Mzungu in itself is merely a descriptive term, stating a fact. A rather obvious fact I know, but often the words come almost as a reflex, as if the person is somehow caught unawares or surprised to see a European. And indeed in many places a European IS an unusual sight, well worthy of comment. But in itself I still believe that ‘muzungu’ is not a derogatory or negative term.
So, how should I respond?
I can assure you again, that the word mzungu is NOT in itself a negative term and if you hear it, embrace it and acknowledge the person with a friendly smile and greetings. (because you will already have learned the local greetings, no?). Don’t retaliate by saying “how would you like it if I called you black man”. Because it is not the same. Trust me.
If you are unlucky and someone does shout “Mzungu! Mzungu!” right in your face angrily; act and react as you would if anyone shouted anything at you anywhere. Ignore it and move away. Simple.
Reacting angrily yourself can only lead to ugly scenes and no one want to endure that. As a visitor to Africa you are conspicuous enough without getting into arguments with local guys! Smile, say hello and you never know, you might even make a friend.
And remember that after all, its nice to be noticed isn’t it?
Stay well and feel free to leave a comment about your own experiences as a ‘mzungu’ in Africa!
Incidentally, I used to find it amusing that local kids would say……
“mzungu, mzungu; give me MY money”
……with the emphasis on the “my”. But after generations of ‘aimlessly wandering white folk’ who seemingly give away small amounts of cash with the proviso “it’s only 5 bucks”; it is not too surprising that these bright and sparky kids cotton on pretty quick that there is money to be made.
Very entrepreneurial I say, and as long as there are people giving their money away, there will be people more than willing to take it!
Often, people and especially tourists, will have no idea of local wage levels, not realising that their “it’s only 5 bucks” may equate to a few days wages. Put yourself in their situation, use a comparable figure. Add up a sum that equals 3 or 4 days wages for you and then imagine someone, a complete stranger in the street giving you that sum……….just because you asked for it. Incredible situation isn’t it?
Should I give money to the kids on the street………..
Well, that is one for you to think about and quite possibly the subject of another post for me to ponder on!!
It is certainly NOT an easy question to answer, however, I did develop my own strategy for dealing with this perennial problem!
People have written about their experiences traveling through Africa, about as long as there have been travelers to Africa! You can use their insights to help you on your own journeys.
Here is a good read available from amazon.co.uk (click here if you are reading this in the states)
Jim Bowens book, Just another Mzungu Passing Through is set in Kenya during the 1990’s and is just as relevant today.
The Story centers around a teacher in a small struggling school in Nairobi. How does a naive and privileged mzungu fit in?
With El Nino floods, bulldozed slums, street justice and widespread corruption, it is nearly impossible to work out what on earth is going on sometimes………
Let me know what you think of it!
If you are interested in learning more Swahili so that you can hold your own on the street; The Swahili Phrasebook from the Lonely Planet guys is the one I have and the most popular choice over at amazon. It covers the everyday needs and the basics of the language structure.
I found Swahili quite easy to learn (certainly in comparison to Norwegian!), probably because it was written down by Europeans, which makes it pretty phonetic. It sounds how it reads in other words.
People always appreciate a few words in their mother tongue, the greetings especially are essential.
However, I also know those who swear by the Rough Guide phrase book for Swahili. It has been revised three times so they must be getting it right!
Go to it!