The Return of Mzungu
Our field visits continue to some of the Social Entrepreneurs who have come through the Santa Clara University mentoring program Andy is involved with. We are now in Uganda. Today we went to a remote fishing and farming village on Lake Victoria and several hours outside of Kampala. As we walked through the village with the entrepreneur visiting some of women who sell his products, we were trailed by a growing pack of kids yelling, Mzungu Mzungu! Our guide told us it was a word in Swahili and in the local language meaning “White Person”. I wondered if that was the cleaned up translation, but looking at the kids, it didn’t appear to be. The kids seemed as delighted as if a posse of clowns had suddenly showed up in the village. Soon they were swarming around us, holding our hands and laughing.
Having traveled in a lot of developing countries, this is the point where I usually brace for the begging. I quickly calculate how to remain friendly, but not contribute to a practice that many of these countries themselves discourage. That didn’t seem to be the agenda at all, although, make no mistake, this is a poor village in one of the poorest countries on Earth. Still, Uganda is incredibly fertile and lush, every home had several fruit trees out front and a flourishing vegetable garden. Nearby Lake Victoria is a productive fishing area, so there would have been plenty of work for the men of the village. Later, most of us agreed we’d rather live here than back in the Nairobi slums we visited. Maybe because the village was doing well by local standards, or maybe because it was too isolated for the kids to be exposed to Western consumer goods, the kids were completely uninterested in our stuff. What they did want to do was touch our skin and hold our hands. They were particularly fascinated by the fact that my palms weren’t a different color from the back of my hands — which is a difference I hadn’t thought about. And all the while, they were chanting Mzungu! Mzungu!
And the kids weren’t the only ones who were interested in these funny-looking strangers. Our Social Entrepreneur is from this village, so, as we walked with him, we may not have seemed such interlopers. But the people we passed gave us friendly smiles and loud Jambos (hellos). What fascinated the adults more than our White skin was the one member of our party with completely white hair. No race seems to go grey faster than White people, but, on a sadder note, we wondered if, with life expectancy here, very few people get to the age where they have white hair. Finally, one elderly gentleman came running up to Bob and asked him bluntly how old he was. (I’ve learned that, in many cultures, such a personal question is not considered rude.)
Of course, when I got back to the hotel, I immediately consulted Professor Wikipedia on the meaning of Mzungu. Turns out it is a non-offensive term for White Person. But it means more than that:
Literally translated it meant “someone who roams around aimlessly” or “aimless wanderer.” The term was first used in the African Great Lakes region to describe European explorers in the 18th century, apparently as a result of their propensity to get lost in their wanderings in Africa. The word Muzungu comes from Kiswahili, where ‘zungu’ is the word for spinning around on the same spot. That dizzy lost look was perfected by the first white people arriving in the African Great Lakes. Muzunguzungu is Kiswahili for a dizzy person.The term is now used to refer to “someone with white skin” or “white skin”.
File that information under: Things To Call White People. And by the way, one of our guides told us that in the markets of Kampala, they sell T-Shirts that say, “My name is NOT Mzungu!” Wonder if I should get one?