MZUNGU. We hear this all the time. Called out to Elliot in our backyard as people pass by; whispered in a tone of surprise when I walk into a shop where people haven’t seen me before; used as a description when someone answers their phone while at our house and explains where they are; hurled at us all the time when we’re on the street. It means ‘white person’.
Lots of white people are offended by the use of ‘mzungu’, especially because it is almost always followed by asking for money or employment. Some refuse to answer it, or ask to be called by their proper name instead.
There’s no differentiation between different wazungu (the plural of mzungu). There are people I’ve known for our whole time in Tanzania who have only just asked me what country I come from. One of our student leaders was going on a trip to Bulgaria and when he had dinner at our house commented that it was a good way to taste some of the food he would get there! We are always getting sympathy because we must be so hot in Dodoma since ‘Ulaya’ (Europe, or perhaps the northern hemisphere, where all white people come from) is so cold. People are always shocked when we tell them about 40+ degrees in summer in Australia! Even one of our mentors who has known many wazungu still insists that she calls well ahead of time to arrange a visit to us because she lived in England where it was a social faux pas to just ‘drop in’.
So being called ‘mzungu’ can feel dehumanising, as if you’re identified by a label and your name doesn’t matter. It comes with assumptions, especially about wealth. If we are constantly reminding Australians that Africa is not a country and there is tremendously ethnic, cultural and social diversity within Tanzania itself, let alone Africa as a whole, I also feel like telling Tanzanians that not all wazungu are the same.
However, I had a moment of clarity about this in my uni lecture this semester. I heard the students calling one another ‘Msukuma’ or ‘Mhaya’, that is, identifying one another according to tribe. I realised, this was not dehumanising behaviour but humanising behaviour. If you only know yourself in the context of others, to be addressed according to tribe gives flesh to a person. It says, ‘I know who you are; I see you.’ I suspect that this is what’s going on (at least in part) with the mzungu label. For all the ignorance around the different nationalities that make up wazungu, it is nevertheless an attempt to identify me according to my people. For an individualist, a title like that is insulting — what about getting to know me as an individual? But for someone from a collective culture, it’s a way of locating you within the world and your own people.
The identification of ‘mzungu’ is more mixed than simply viewing the white person as an ATM machine. Yes it’s a generalisation as infuriating as talking about all Africans as the same, but it’s also an attempt to honour that you are not an island.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.