If you’ve ever been anywhere in East Africa the word Mzungu has certainly found it way to be directed at you. Be it walking down the road and hearing from an unseen window, “Hey Mzungu, how’re you?”, to quiet conversations you just happen to pick up on enough, to your cab driver calmly referring to his buddy on the phone that he just picked up “Some Mzungu’s”, it’s become pandemic.
The words origins can from the word Zungu that literally translates to ‘those that walk around’, or ‘those that walk in circles’. Basically thinking back to the beginning of the colonial era, westerns, typically British, Belgian, or French, would send a team of surveyors to plot the land. These occupations involved a lot of walking and moving about, so naturally a Zungu is what they were. Then somewhere down the link Mzungu took its place and is now stuck as a permanent name for any Westerner.
The problem with this word is that it is shouted, stated, indirected, and blatantly spoken to you anywhere from 10-30 times daily. While sometimes it is simply used to describe this foreign person that shopowners and taxi drivers are dealing with, often, it has negative connotations that surround it and its constant use becomes quite frustrating. Hearing something that translates to, “Hey Whitey!” On a regular basis just seems racist. I mean I’m not walking around Toronto and the second I see someone who isn’t white I yell, “Hey Blacky” and laugh with all my buddies. I mean trust me, it’s not that our society hasn’t been there before, it’s just the idea that you are immediately stereotyped as someone who has lots of money, comes from complete privilege, and should therefore pay the higher ‘Mzungu’ price. It naive to think that racism doesn’t exist anywhere except Africa in the 21st century, however, it’s blatant use still seems outdated.
It becomes difficult to try and integrate yourself into a society when you are constantly publicly ostracized for simply being a westerner. After spending about 2 months here, and knowing i’ll be here for 3 more it becomes a difficult question of what it means to be local, and how you’re affecting these social classes being an outsider.