Mzungu

Here, I am no longer “Gemina.” I am “mzungu.” It is a word I hear every day, sometimes more than others, and that has occupied a great deal of space in my mind.

Mzungu. White person.

What intrigues me the most is both how it is used in Swahili and its origins. The word translates not to a color of skin or to any particular ethnic or geographicgroup, but to “one who wanders without purpose.” When I consider what early European exploration and expansion must have looked like to people living in this region, I can understand the roots of this word. What particularly gets me is that this description resonates with me very personally. Ever since I first knew of Everett Ruess and his desert wanderings, “a vagabond for beauty” has been my namesake. From the outside, I feel like I am the embodiment of “one who wanders without purpose,” not only here, but to all those who either have not lived the life or a traveller or who don’t desire to.

There are many practical reasons, “purposes”, if you will, for some of my global vagabonding: research, work, school, etc. Sometimes the purpose is simply the journey, however, which is difficult to explain to people and cultures that do not share this wanderlust gene. I often think about this in terms my personal styling as well. I sport Maasai earrings, Navajo and Zuni rings, a Tibetan Buddhist mala, a Ghanaian bag, pants from Norway, a traditional Portuguese scarf, a sweater from Argentina, a khanga from Mozambique, bracelets I’ve collected from across the world, and then some. These are my stories. These are my journeys. My friends. My memories. My homes. I know that to people who are rooted in one culture, however, I must look incredibly lost and confused. This is where I start to think that I truly am an mzungu to those here, even though the modern context doesn’t necessary refer back to its origins.

On that note, I find it fascinating that the word as it is used today does not really contain anything specifically derogatory in its usage, it’s just that yes, I am a white person and am thus denoted as such. No matter where I have lived or traveled in Africa, I have found that race is talked about much more openly than we have allowed ourselves to feel comfortable with in America. The same openness applies to my African friends who now live in America. It is not racist, derogatory, or negative to include in a statement the color of that person’s skin (depending of course on the context and content of the rest of the sentence). While I have become accustomed to this, and in fact have come to appreciate it, I have a harder time getting used to being defined, in passing, entirely by the color of my skin.

Daily, “mzungu” leaves someone’s mouth and is directed at me. In the village, it was children who saw you walking down the road. “Mzungu! Mzungu! Mzungu!” Here in Dar, where people are more accustomed to seeing white people, it’s generally just in reference to me – “Did the mzungu tell you what she wants for lunch?” Today in the ladies’ bathroom at work, three women who were chatting when I walked in started throwing around “mzungu” when I was in the stall. (*As an aside: using a squat toilet when I have my traveling clothes on vs. when I have fancy work clothes/shoes on is a whole different experience).

My on-site internship mentor is a wonderfully happy man that goes by Dr. Msami. He is the director of surveillance and diagnostics at the Tanzanian Veterinary Laboratory Agency, where I’m interning. On the way home from work today, we discussed how the Western media portrays Africa and, vice versa, perceptions of wazungu (plural for “mzungu”) and Americans based off movies and other media they see. I told him that my students were continually amazed by the fact that people were actually HAPPY in Africa – that they weren’t all starving, engaged in genocide, or otherwise completely in a state of abject horror. When I think about the movies that have been popular in America that are based in Africa, the ones that come to mind are “Blood Diamond,” “Hotel Rwanda,” “The Last King of Scotland.” And yes, recently, “Invictus”, just to throw a little rugby in the mix. (For more on this topic, google Radi-Aid – it’s pretty amazing).

Conversely, however, what people here see of America is that we are all rich. Last night I again got the question: “There is poverty in America???” I think this is also what makes me uncomfortable at times with being “mzungu” and not “Gemina.” I am aware of the associations made here with a person being white, and, I do not necessarily fulfill some of those standards (and do not necessarily encounter people who care to discern the differences among wazungu). While discussing this, Dr. Msami told me that being mzungu means that yes you are stared at, yes you are a novelty, yes you are judged, but that’s it’s always in a positive way. “You are god-like,” he says. That’s a lot to live up to. It also makes it hard to go walk around outside if you’re not in the mood to have your every movement observed, or, as a blonde, your hair touched from time to time (this, and the horrible water pressure, are why I chopped off a good six inches of my locks before coming here). He then explains that anything big or fancy has the Swahili word for “European” added, even if it’s just a nice big herd of local cattle. Amusingly, the word for a big airplane translates to “European bird.”

No matter what, I will always be an mzungu. In both senses of the word, I imagine. I’m also sure it is something that I will continue to ponder as I become more involved in day-to-day life here.

But for the grand finale, a little irony from Dominique, one of our askaris (guards) in Maji ya Chai, our homestay village for the National Geographic Student Expeditions trip: 

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