“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!)
“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.”
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.”
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!
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