Being a mzungu

I’ve never been a racial minority before.

Now, I want to be clear that I’m using the word ‘minority’ with a small ‘m’ not a big one. I’m not at all suggesting that my experience in Tanzania is in any way similar to the experience of oppressed minorities in developed countries.

Nevertheless, white people in Tanzania are statistically a racial minority. We’re something different.

When I walk down the street, suddenly people stop their conversations, get up from their chairs and walk towards me. A choir begins to sing “rafiki!” “I love you!” “Jambo!” “Friendy!” and of course “Mzungu!”

Mzungu simply means foreigner in Swahili, but I’ve come to hate hearing it. It’s what people call you when they know your skin colour, but not your name.

When I convince Tanzanian friends to call me “mgeni” or “visitor” instead of “mzungu”, it feels like an accomplishment. But you can’t escape the true meaning of the word. When people say “mzungu” what they really mean is “I see you are a white person and I’m going to treat you differently.”

There’s a whole different language for wazungu. Tanzanians would never say ‘jambo’ or ‘hakuna matata’ when talking to each other. The first is a creation for tourists, the second is used in Kenya, but not Tanzania. You can’t count on a mzungu knowing much about Africa, but you can be sure they’ve seen the Lion King.

Now, one of the key things that separates white people in Tanzania from minorities in developed countries is the fact that being white brings privilege.

I visited a remote farming village the other day. When my white friend Emanuela and I stepped off the bus, a crowd gathered around us. Someone told me we were the first wazungu to ever visit the village. Our entourage of children, parents and elders watched our every move with eyes wide. I gave one little boy a high five and a cheer erupted.

I tried to chat with individual people to break up the crowd and understand the villagers better. I turned to a woman with a baby on her back and asked her name. “Medicine?” she replied. I didn’t have any.

We were in the village to watch a soccer game. The radio station I volunteer at, Pride FM, was playing against the village soccer team. Throughout the game a drummer played and people danced on the sidelines. When Emanuela and I went to dance, a crowd formed around us, spilling onto the borders of the soccer pitch and interrupting the game.

This respect and these expectations make me uncomfortable. While it is flattering, it’s hard to get past the fact that the treatment is simply based on my skin colour. I don’t think I deserve any respect for being a white person in Tanzania. There are so many inspiring Tanzanians who work hard every day and deserve far more respect from their fellow countrymen than I do. It’s also hard to be seen as a walking cure-all when I have no training as a doctor. People think that wazungu can help with anything. In reality, I can help with little. However, this is hard to express to strangers in my broken Swahili.

The funny thing about being a mzungu is that discrimination comes with it as well. Particularly in Arusha, a classic tourist stop on the way to the Serengeti, wazungu are targets. A healthy thieving industry has built up around the wealthy safari-goers in Arusha.

Despite my shortcomings as a doctor and a role model, there is one aspect of the mzungu stereotype that fits me perfectly. I’m rich. Maybe not by Canadian standards, but by global standards and certainly by Tanzanian standards, I’m incredibly rich. I own a car. I have a university degree. I grew up having the luxury of refusing to eat food I didn’t like.

So, no matter how hard I may try to understand and experience the life of a typical Tanzanian, I never truly will. I’ll always be a mzungu.

It’s a constant reminder that I am separate and I am privileged. I hope I remember that feeling when I’m back in Canada, walking around where I blend in.

4 thoughts on “Being a mzungu

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