Mzungu…An aimless wanderer!!!

Kenyans and Norwegians in Taita

“Mzungu! Taxi! Mzungu! Taxi! Mzungu! Taxi!” This is a call you will definitely hear as you walk on Kenyan city centers anytime a white person passes by the taxi drivers. “Patience, I hate that, if there is anything I won´t miss about Kenya, is the taxi drivers shouting Mzungu! Taxi! Of course, plus the traffic jam madness in Nairobi.” Said Hellen, a Norwegian Journalist, in Nairobi in July 2011.

More drama was yet to come! Together with some of my Kenyan and Norwegian friends including Hellen, we headed for one week at my rural home in Taita. Hellen had already spent at least 10 months in Kenya which means she quite understood Kenyan life but still, I had planned to show them the rural life in Kenya.

As we boarded a bus from Nairobi to Voi, Hellen was wearing a very peculiar T-Shirt, navy blue in colour, with printings (Well spotted, I am a Mzungu) at the front and at the back (And no….I don´t have any money, pens or chocolates!)

Norwegians at a Nairobi restaurant

“Was that true? Didn´t she have any money, a Norwegian ? I guess she was escaping the nagging, but I am sure she would afford to buy chocolates and pens even on a daily basis,” remarked one of my crazy Norwegian friends when I told them about Hellen´s T-Shirt. “You know we are always concerned about money issues in Africa because we are so conscious of being cheated or not being cheated and the fact that most of us have no skills in bargaining.” She added.

On the bus, I could hear Kenyans discuss Hellen´s Tshirt, I looked at one smiley gentleman and he looked at me and said “I love her T-shirt”. I smiled back and said, “Me too.”

With Norwegians in Niarobi

I never thought that the word “Mzungu” could bring such a great disgust to the white people, no, not at all. But, now I know. I have actually promised myself that I will not use that word again. As I already mentioned, in my earlier blog post, 3 weeks back I was at the Gimlekollen School of Journalism and Communication in Kristiansand for a talk with a group of students heading to Africa. Among their concerns was being called, “Mzungu”.

Why will they be concerned about being called Mzungu? Yes, I think it is time we stopped calling the whites “Mzungu”.  I think it is kinda a racist word and as I found out from my Facebook friends, we all have one understanding of who a “Mzungu” is. A “Mzungu” is a white person, period.

Kenyan girl with Norwegians

My late grandma told me, “Mzungu is a word used to describe the whites, coined from the word- Kizungu which means English, hence Mzungu is a white person who speaks English. Of course during my grandma´s time, all they knew was that all whites came from one country and they all spoke English. Just like many whites imagine that Africa is one huge country. As for my grandma, she will be so surprised if she resurrected today and I told her, “In Norway, they speak Norsk and some cannot speak English at all!”

These students together with their lecturer, had it researched out and they told me, “No Patience.” Then, they quoted it from Wikipedia which says: (Mzungu (pronounced [m̩ˈzuŋɡu]) is the southern, central and eastern African term for a person of foreign descent. Literally translated it means “someone who roams around aimlessly” or “aimless wanderer”. The term was first used by Africans  to describe early European explorers. It is now commonly used in most Bantu languages of East, Central and Southern Africa, especially in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Uganda and Zambia.)

Norwegians in Taita!

Imagine yourself being in a new country and out of nowhere, someone calls you “Mzungu”. Since you are not familiar with them, you therefore, do not get a chance to ask them what it means. Then you get to Google search and the above meaning is what you get, your guess is as good as mine, you will feel offended. Especially if you clearly know your way around in that foreign country. Then, you still need to deal with all the perceptions that come along with being a Mzungu.

“Mzungu means a white person with some money to dish out. Even those wazungu’s who have lived here long enough refer to themselves with that name. It is the same way wazungu’s call us all AFRICANS irrespective of our nationalities. It is there polite way of calling us BLACKS. To us it is our polite way of calling them WHITES.” Commented Oliver Omotto on my Facebook page.

Wazungu´s at a Nairobi Restaurant

Then I wonder, does this mean that the white people without money do not qualify as Mzungu? Others even believed that it was a compliment for a black person to be called a Mzungu. Dida Swaleh, another Facebook friend states her sadness with such mentality. “I sense that people (sadly) associate being a Mzungu with wealth and good life. Not surprising, really considering how brainwashed we are through media and such… Why should I being black feel like its a compliment to be called a mzungu? Or why should I feel like I am living “Kizungu” just cause I make good money and live a good life?? Why can´t it be your life is good instead of, you live Mzungu life???? Lets really reflect deeply on this one.

Trekking Taita Hills

Then lots of reflections and I realise that it will be unfair for us as Africans to keep using the word “Mzungu” while they “Wazungus” are not calling us any descriptive words. I am informed they did call us Negros, but that was long time ago, which according to Wikipedia, “Negro is used in the English-speaking world to refer to a person of black ancestry or appearance, whether of African descent or not. The word negro means ‘black’ in Spanish and Portuguese.

During the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, some African-American leaders in the United States, notably Malcolm X, objected to the word, preferring Black, because they associated the word Negro with the long history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination that treated African-Americans as second class citizens, or worse.”

Eating Guavas in Taita, Kenya

This explains why the word was objected since it was associated with a few vices, just like we associate the word Mzungu with a few traits.  One will ask, what is my problem with this word? My problem is, I feel it is quite segregating and excluding, it makes the white people feel distanced from us and maybe it is actually a racist word. But, what do the whites think about my conclusion?

“A real racist will ever be a racist Patience, racists mostly don´t go and see Africa! But I also met some guys in Kenya from Europe and they talked about the “dirty Africans” but I am 100 % sure, that Europeans are more racists than Africans themselves. All my surrounding is mixed and we live peaceful and respectful together. It is very interesting what kind of questions seem to be running through your brain… because I only have 2 races, good and bad and there is good and bad in every race, no matter who that is!

Kenyans and Norwegians at Taita Hills

Still I respect everyone, treat them well and hmm in all my life (I am 62 now and traveled a lot).”Said Christine Glee, a white woman from Germany.

At the heart of racism is the religious assertion that God made a creative mistake when He brought some people into being” Friedrich Otto Hertz


14 thoughts on “Mzungu…An aimless wanderer!!!

  1. You are right patience, but imagine a white taxi driver saying “Nigger, taxi” How would you react. I think the first step would be to bash in his head then persue the racist part of the remark while he recovers in the nearest hospital.

    1. I agree with you Egdar and that is why I said we have to stop this. Imagine someone calling me “Hey Negro, Taxi!!!” Sounds very offensive, so why should we call them “Mzungu Taxi!!! And you know how Taxi drivers can be so annoying especially when they are many, all running after you! Thank you Mwashao for reading my blog post!

  2. This is great Patience. Its even worse with the Bodaboda guys who chase a white person yet they know that she can only be carried by one bodaboda or not interested in taking one at all. I bet you know how those fellows can be rude even to us Africans ourselves. I have a friend of mine who told me her encounter with bodaboda guys when she was in Africa and it was soo sad. I don’t know how those fellas can be taught for them to learn.

    1. I feel you Grace, I do. It can be so annoying. And yes I agree with you that they can be so bad to us even as Africans, so you can imagine how worse it is for a foreigner and a white person for that matter, who adore their space so much. I am happy you see it from my point of view, thought I was alone in this. Grace, thank you for finding time to read my blog post and leave your feedback. Patience

  3. Mzungu!/ Black!!! i really dont think either of the two words are racist, in the context of the meaning of Racism. a muzungu calling negro black, cannever be racism and the converse also holds…..however the meaning may change when other names are accompanied..
    racism is about supremacy of one’s race over the other, and calling a person Mzungu does not imply or puport to rank a race, but to give somebody an identity!!! if 2 people, one of european origin and one of african heritage, are seated together, a stranger when told to describe the two people, the only description will be one was a muzungu and the other was black, and it would mean no offense to either person!
    even a jew will be called a muzungu, but anti-semitic person of european heritage will call a jew a bloody/ dirty white!!! now that is racism!!!!when Himmler and Hitler were initiating the Final Solution, it was racism!
    so, its only rude and informal to shout “mzungu”at a white stranger , and such shouting has nothing to do with derogatory perception of the person’srace! “Mzungu” is not only a noun, it is also an adjective. even whites call each other Wazungus, and why cant a taxi driver call them so???

    1. “if 2 people, one of european origin and one of african heritage, are seated together, a stranger when told to describe the two people, the only description will be one was a mzungu and the other was black, and it would mean no offense to either person!” “Mzungu” is not only a noun, it is also an adjective. even whites call each other Wazungus, and why cant a taxi driver call them so???

      Newtone, if I don´t read from you, I get concerned! Because I love your school of thought. Very outside the box! You see what I do not see and I really do not want to see it from your perspective! If blacks said to each other that the white was a Mzungu, that will be fine, but if we called them Mzungu, that will be wrong for me. Why do we have to call them that? Why does´nt a taxi drive shout “Mwafrika! Taxi?? Actually he will say it this way “We Mwafrika, Taxi!”. Your guess is as good as mine, I will be so hurt! That means a white person will also be hurt by being called “Mzungu”. It is segregating and excluding. That is just my thinking! What do you say?

    2. I agree because mzungu does not imply any racism or supremacy at all. One cannot even compare it to the word “negro” or “nigger” which by the way is freely used by scandinavians. (i live in Sweden).. Those words were used by europeans to distinguish black africans as some kind of lower creature. Those words cannit and shall never be compared to mzungu..For example the swedes have a cake made from oatmeal, butter, and cocoa and a bunch of other ingredients, which is called niggerballs. There has been complaints on this but the name still remains. I do not think that mzungu shall stop being used it is not racist and if people feel so then please prove to me what is racist about it prove to me the deeply racist, supremacy rooted history in that word and i will stop using the term!

  4. This is facebook conversation following this blog post:

    Gamaliel Mwarabu In Kenya mzungu is regarded highly,since then n the whites do not find it offensive,there is musician in Tz who calls himself mzungu kichaa n he is so proud of himself,if they complain as we blaks do people will stop using the name.
    Monday at 12:42pm · LikeUnlike
    Patience Nyange Ok, so how many complaints do we need in order to stop it. I know of 3 who have complained, is that not enough? Last month I had an interveew with Mzungu Kichaa, I asked him about his name, and his response was, quoting verbatim-“Mzungu Kichaa means a crazy whiteman, it is a negative title, which I wouldn´t have choosen if I was giving myself a name, it was given to me by Tanzania musician Juma Nature. I like it because it has worked for my music”!!!
    Monday at 12:49pm · LikeUnlike
    Gamaliel Mwarabu Yes in music it works ,since u can see blak fellow calling himself crazy nigga,many rap guyz have such names to their appealing fans’ plessure.
    Monday at 12:57pm · LikeUnlike
    Patience Nyange Ok, so what about those that are not in the music industry??
    Monday at 12:59pm · LikeUnlike
    Gamaliel Mwarabu There is this white person who used to work for steadman,formely used to be a teacher in st marys taita ,i ve forgoten his name i think he is infotrak,he used to introduce himself as mzungu kutoka taita n was very proud of it,although it sounds offensive,thats what we use deferantiate the colour since we dont have another name to describe ,imagine saying yule mweupe sounds crazy.we should for a descent name like the african american.
    Monday at 1:13pm · LikeUnlike
    Patience Nyange Ok, ok, ok, but my opinion still remains, the word Mzungu is quite segregating and excluding, it makes the white people feel a bit distanced from us and maybe it is actually a racist word.!!
    Monday at 1:20pm · LikeUnlike
    Gamaliel Mwarabu Sawa I agree,but even small kids will shout mzungu then jump n welcome the white person with a friendly smile that doesnt sound offensive like what I hear guyz in Europe,they wouldnt like to sit next u becouse of ur colour.
    Monday at 1:31pm · LikeUnlike
    Patience Nyange Ha hhahaha, pure exaggeration. It all depends on what we call racism, I have heard people say of the same, unfortunately I have not experienced such incident. If I did, would have written about it long time ago! Times are changing and it is true many confess that many years ago, that was the case. But now, there are so many coloured people around so they don´t really get concerned about the colour, once again, that is just my opinion!!
    Monday at 1:35pm · LikeUnlike
    Phil Muoki Una tabia za kizungu, naona wewe ni mzungu, rafiki yangu mzungu etc. i dnt think any of that is racist from the african perspective. on the contrary those words are spoken with awe(given our colonial past) due to the association of the whiteman with superiority. when u translate mzungu to whiteman thats when it sounds kinda racist.
    Monday at 1:36pm · LikeUnlike · 1
    Patience Nyange Mmmmmmm, Phil Muoki, I understand what you say. But I have heard these Mzungus complain about the same and trying to analyze it further, I made a personal conclusion that this word is segregative. Which it is. Why can´t we look beyond the colour and see all of us a common humanity?
    Monday at 1:39pm · LikeUnlike · 2
    Patience Nyange Phil Muoki, I still want to correct this unobjective association of the whitemen with superiority. We have intelligent and not intelligent people everywhere. Whoever thinks that the white men are more intelligent that us,is a mere perception and an inferiority complex on our part. I have never at one point imagined these white people are more intelligent that I am, no!! They are lucky they are in developed countries, that for me makes the difference, and makes me see myself in a better perspective!
    Monday at 1:55pm · LikeUnlike · 1
    Phil Muoki I had a briton friend who used to hate being called ‘mzungu’ bcoz he thot it was annoying and attracted too much attention to him. In terms of superiority/inferiority i think africans can dance with the best but we insist on playing second fiddle to our counterparts. I agree with you we need to step out of our ‘helpless’ coccoons and take our rightful place beside the best in the world.
    Monday at 2:16pm · UnlikeLike · 1
    Gamaliel Mwarabu U amaze me at times,u ve just called them mzungus in ur earlier statement to phil bcoz u dont have another name for them when u sengenya them.
    Monday at 2:24pm · LikeUnlike
    Patience Nyange Nope, that is not the reason, I am not sengenyaing them, I just wanted to use the word in reply to his message, to make him understand what I mean!
    Monday at 2:35pm · LikeUnlike
    Senait Hagos My dear you dont say mzungu to insult them…but Negro can be use to hurt.
    Monday at 9:16pm · LikeUnlike
    Patience Nyange Senait Hagos, mzungu hurts too.

  5. Comment from FK World page:

    Comment by :Susanne Brovold Hvidsten
    Interesting reflections, and a funny story about the t-shirt.

    Anyway – Mzungu – It’s a bit funny that word, because I have a son adopted from South Africa. So he’s black. But he’s also a Norwegian. So is he a Mzungu or not? My Tanzanian friends had to think about it for some time, but has now concluded that he is. And I actually heard a Masai on the beach in Zanzibar whisper to his friend: “Look – a black Mzungu” when he saw him with us.

    So is it really related to race, or is it related to the original meaning – “someone who’s just wandering around” – like most tourists (in other words mostly white people visiting Africa) do…? I don’t know, but it’s something I have been thinking about for some time.

    Anyway – whenever someone shouts “Mzungu” at me, I shout “Mwafrika” back, and we usually just start laughing. Problem solved 😉
    Posted: Dec 06 2011 By: Susanne Brovold Hvidsten

  6. Hahahhahahhahha Sussane,

    Yours is funny. yes you shout Mwafrika back and problem solved. I like this! Guess will have to tell the same to my Mzungu friends!!

    Yes, maybe your son is Mzungu-Mwafrika!

    Thank you for the laughter Sussane!!

  7. Patience, isnt there a way of aknowledging the existence of different races in the society , without risking being perceived to be racist? so, whats the equivalent to “white person” in swahili? in USA and Britain, there is always Race disagregated data on almost everything…like how many blacks/whites/hispanics voted for obama, % of blacks arrested/ in jails compared to whites, No. of Blacks attending Harvard/Stanford and other ivy league schools….even police( i hear) will describe a suspect based on Race , and so you will hear ” the suspect, a young lady, 5ft6, and black was caught doing this or that…..”but you’ll never hear people crying out loud that this is racism…..but when it comes to Africa, it is!!!Patience, dont you think you’re limiting our vocabulary with your self censorship!!!it took several years for the swahili in Pemba, Mombasa`and Lamu to coin the word ” mzungu” . if African can find offense in being called Black/african, then what is the meaning of the adage ” black is beautiful” in DREAMS FROM MY FATHER Obama remarked …..”Its sad to admit that “black is beautiful” nolonger holds and our black pride remains incomplete.i have become familiar with the lexicon of color consciousnes within black community-good hair,bad hair,thick lips or thin.if you are light, you are alright.if you are black, get back!” Think of that Patience!!!!!!!!!

    1. Newtone!!!! As an African I cannot find it offensive if anyone calls me Black/African because this is who I am! But ask yourself again and again, what does the word Mzungu mean? An aimless wanderer? And this is a word we coined to describe these Europeans when they came as explorers and we thought they seemed quite lost. When you land into a new environment, anyone will look lost, that is the same thing that happened when I landed here, I looked so lost until I got used to the surroundings! So why do we call a white person Mzungu even after staying in Africa for a whole decade?

      Then I have an issue with us …shouting at them “mzungu”. If we used it as descriptive word when we are talking about them amongst ourselves, that will be ok. But to shout at a white person “Mzungu, Taxi”, that is a bit rude. But as I earlier said, this is my opinion, think about it Newtone.

  8. Sanguli well I ve gone through the article my comments excellent piece of work.keep the good work of informing as,so that we know whats outside our cacoon.CHAWUCHA MWANEDU.Sorry for being noughty at times.

    1. Haha ha ha ha Gamaliel, thank you for being naughty because in one way or another, you always help me out! Thank you for your contributions all the time and for getting a chance to read my blog post!

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