Mzungu! Mzungu! Muzungu!

Hey mzungu!

muzungu or mzungu from african childrenFor 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!

Extra Resources

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 (click here if you are reading this in the states)

mzungu or muzungu passing through book

available at

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!

learn mzungu and more swahili

Learn those greetings!

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!

17 Responses to Mzungu! Mzungu! Muzungu!

  1. Ian says:

    Hey Haylee,
    Oh I hear you Haylee, I really do. I have also been where you are. I also used to think like you but listen, you’re going to need to learn how to flip this thing around or like any other feelings (grief, jealousy, shame, paranoia etc.etc.) it will eat you up if you let it.

    I understand that you are not their for their entertainment but guess what? They don’t see it that way. Look at it from their point of view, there they are, probably just hanging out, not much to do and there you are, by your own admission ‘young and pretty’, just a strollin’ down the street. Of course you’re going to get a reaction. It’s natural and I’m afraid, inevitable.

    I know it’s hard but flip it on it’s head and give the whole thing a big high five. Instead of bristling and reacting with hostility try the opposite. Embrace it, recognise that you’ve brightened a probably otherwise dull moment for these guys and give them a thousand buck smile and a wave. Try it. since it happens so many times a day, run some simulations lol! Try a few different responses, what’s to lose? You can always go back to scowling no?

    I remember watching a lady I met in Rwanda (Amanda, now running as she interacted with the local boys (she too was young, fair and had dreads at one point I seem to remember) and she flipped the whole thing to her advantage; using humour to make that all important connection, learning about their lives, making friends, using the situation to improve her language skills, using them to help her figure out her projects and she is much more effective as an aid worker as a result because she is closer to the people and has a better understanding of their problems.

    I know that’s a lot to take in, but you’ll just have to do it, or your time and energy is going to be diverted from what you’re supposed to be doing into feeding this thing. If I had time, sometimes used to stop, point at my self, and say; who, me?, touch my face and say I’m white? Just to raise a smile.

    Thanks for reaching out Haylee and I hope I’ve started you on a path to learning to live with this, it really isn’t that big a deal really (in the grand scheme of things) trust me, I talked about this in Uganda many times with close African friends, it’s just a thing. Don’t let it drag you down, don’t let it draw your focus away from what you’re there for, that’s what’s important after all.
    Stay well Haylee

  2. haylee says:

    I have lived in Tanzania for 8 months, and I absolutely loathe “mzungu” I’m young and pretty, and cannot walk more than 10 metres without “mzungu” “hey my friend” or “rasta sister” (I have dreads) yelled at me, often from quite far away. They usually never want anything, or are trying to hit on me, just demanding my time and energy when I’m just trying to get my errands done. I get that I’m extremely visible, but I’m not here for anyone’s entertainment. Living in asia I very occassionally got “white person” yelled at me aggressively, but the constant harrassment here is extremely draining. I live in a relatively big town so its not like pale skin is a novelty either. Hate hate hate it

  3. Ian says:

    “How are you?” is great isn’t it. Most folks know it, even if they don’t know any other English words, and what a great way to start a conversation. Nowadays I use it all the time, especially after working in Rwanda and realising that all the white, highly educated young adults I was working with also use it as a universal greeting.

    Interesting your comparison to the daily ‘hassle’ that women encounter on the streets, being less gender aware (as a bloke) I remember likening it (at the time) to how it must feel to be famous lol! Basically it’s the same. You can’t go anywhere without strangers ‘recognising’ you, people always talk to you like they ‘know’ you, people often feel they can take liberties with your personal time, space and even possessions! Plus people always expect something from you (in Uganda for me it was free transport in my vehicle, money for nothing and especially my time).

    Thanks for leaving a comment Ruth, have an interesting time in Kenya!

  4. ruthasan says:

    Hey Ian,

    I have been in Nairobi for a week now and I have been wondering about the connotation of the term mzungu. Having lived in Germany for most of my life and in Spain for a year, I have never really been confronted with my whiteness before. Even though nobody has called me a mzungu to my face, I have read about it a bit, and talked to other people, Kenyans and non-Kenyans, about what it means for your day to day life. I agree with you, I think depends on the context whether it’s meant in a good or a bad way. I think mostly it’s just descriptive, not evaluative at all.

    What I find interesting: As a woman, I am used to people just coming up to me on the street, cat-calling me or telling me to smile, for example. Here, the way strangers say “Hi, how are you?” to you in the street feels different. Not as intrusive, more friendly. And both women and men to it.

    I think being in the “hate ” phase, as you have described it, offers men an interesting glimpse into what it feels like for women all around the globe to be harrassed for the way you look.

  5. Ian says:

    Thanks Eugenio, intent is all that matters in the end.
    Enjoy your experiences in Africa!

  6. Eugenio Giorgianni says:

    I totally agree with you Ian, both on the overall description of the term and on each behavioral suggestion you make. In my experience in Goma, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it came across to discuss the use of muzungu with local adults, who were sincerely astonished about our doubt whether the word was itself a racist insult. I think skin color still stands as a major personal feature for our brains, and the fact of avoiding to mention it doesn’t mean we don’t bother, but rather that bad memories about colonialism and racist violences make this issue politically incorrect in Western countries. One thing my first African trip taught me is exactly what is said in this post: words are neutral boxes, what really matters are intentions.

  7. Ian says:

    Well, we are different and I think our modern politically correct ways deny this. I am white, I do stand out in rural Africa, so what? And like I said, muzungu isn’t just related to race, it can relate to anyone who is paying for work to be done. In the end I disagree with you about tone, I think the tone is crucial.
    Thanks for your thoughts though :-)

  8. che says:

    I’m surprised that you guys have coped with mzungu so well: no matter the tone in which it’s said to you, it sure is an offensively ignorant thing to call a white person. After all, there is no need to call out to someone with a title that refers to his or her race. Unless you call out to everyone referring to race, the practice betrays a racist double standard of treatment. There’s no way to justify that. It reveals how many highly racially homogeneous populations have not yet developed an idea of democracy. “Oh, you’re not in the racial majority; I just have to acknowledge this verbally in front of everyone!” It’s a great example of othering. You people who have ‘learned not to mind it’ are delusional. “Yeah, call me a piece of ____ to my face; I don’t mind it. It’s endearing, and I do deserve to be treated differently from the dominant race.”

  9. wheresalex says:

    I love the way that you address this issue. I agree with some of the comments that being called Mzungu in Kenya never bothered be, the way being called Toubabou in Mali, or Guero in Mexico did. I agree that it’s all to do with the tone that people used – in Mexico, people hissed it at me on the streets, and in Mali, people shouted it at me to ask me for money. Being called Mzungu in Kenya just seemed like people were being funny!

  10. Patrice says:

    My pleasure, Ian.
    Actually when I arrived in Tanzania, Mzungu was not in the short list of the classical swahili words. I became aware of it when I discovered the economical notion of “Mzungu price”, as opposed to “normal” (local) price. This notion is quite important for travelling in Tanzania in a packpackers’ mode, and it applies to almost everything, from the bottle of water to the fees for local transport, from private to public prices. This could be a toppic for another post : )
    But also about travelling in a packpackers’ mode, after several weeks it’s still a great fun, when walking in villages, to see children rushing to you, laughing and shouting with amusement, and peacefully, each one in turn, “Mzungu, mzungu”.

    Patrice (mzungu traveller from french-speaking Belgium)

  11. Ian says:

    Thanks Patrice! Regarding giving something to the kids, my strategy was just to give them something other than money. Usually whatever we had in the truck, bananas or tomatoes usually. Unfortunately, even this strategy was not foolproof as one one occasion I spotted the boy trying to sell some bananas I had given him, just to get cash to buy glue to abuse.

    Sometimes we can only do what our hearts tell us is the right thing, everything else is down to the choices that we are all free to make in life.
    Thanks for stopping to leave a comment Patrice.

    I hope that 2013 brings everything you wish for.
    Kindest regards

  12. Patrice says:

    Thanks a lot for this post. Very complete set of questions and answers, which are not much documented on the web. Strangely, not even in the Lonely Planet country guides.

    I’m very curious: Did you developp in another post in the meantime, your strategy for dealing with the perennial problem you mention at the end of this post?

  13. Ian says:

    Hi Ruthie!
    It’s nice to get a Kenyan view on ‘mzungu’ use! I agree with you, little kids shouting it out in the villages is perfectly understandable and no problem at all. I don’t remember many adults shouting it around me….well, maybe a few….how can I put it politely, less educated folks that hang around the markets!

    Like I said in the post, I got used to it and learned to smile and anyways, it’s not like we can simply ‘blend in’ :-)
    Thanks to commenting Ruthie!
    Stay well

  14. My husband is currently going through the hate phase of that “Mzungu” word. Even though I am Kenyan, I still find it irritating when people keep shouting this word without having anything important to tell when you look at them. I think people shouldn’t over do the mzungu phrase especially if these “white people” are passing by. I wouldn’t mind it if small kids did it, after all they have not seen many white people but grown folks….? No!

  15. Ian says:

    You should! It is almost never a negative thing. I went through phases loving/hating it, until I realised it is just an expression! Uganda is great isn’t it? You should go to Rwanda as well, amazing place.
    Hope you manage to get back soon Lee!
    Cheers and thanks for stopping by.

  16. Lee Horan says:

    I’ve just got bak from Uganda and LOVED being called mzungu by everyone, especially when te kids all chased you shouting it for attention. I’m getting it tattooed on myself in a map of Africa! Can’t wait to go back :))

  17. Sylvia ongalo says:

    Mzungu is actualy the best word they people can call you any way africans love all mzungus.

I'd love to know what you think...