After Jambo (Hello) and Hakuna Matata (YOLO), it was the first real Kiswahili phrase I learned before coming to Kenya.
It’s not a derogatory term, for the most part. Just a physical characteristic. It brings images of fat tourists, dignified diplomats or do-good aid workers. Annoying in their ways, perhaps, but endearing or at the very least amusing.
The first time I heard it used in context, I was at a shop across the street from school. A small child, maybe four, wearing an orange GAP hoodie came running up behind me. “Mzungu! Mzungu!” he shouted, finger outstretched and eyes wide. His older sister grabbed his shoulder, embarrassment across her face. I smiled, waved and said hello. He blinked his doe eyes in astonishment as he lowered his finger and bit his lower lip.
My friend Kate giggled and looked at me sideways as she asked me if I understood him. I said of course. After I had provided dinner entertainment the night before by way of butchering every Kiswahili phrase Kate patiently taught me, I think she was surprised I knew that one. I was more surprised that it had taken five days to hear it. Kate told me, “I’ve never called you mzungu because you have a name.” I took that as a grand statement of friendship.
As Kate and I rode in a matatu toward her home town for the weekend, a tour bus passed us, the faces of its passengers hidden behind clicking camera lenses. Kate gently tapped me, pointed, and whispered, “Mzungu bus.” We giggled.
Then it became a game. Like Where’s Waldo. I coined it Spot the Mzungu (STM).
It’s part fun, part reflex. To see a pale face is such a shock, I found myself pointing them out, in some sort of unreciprocated commiseration. I see you. Obviously. I think my friends at first did it to make me feel less isolated. But now it’s become a fun joke we share.
Village Market, a mall 20 minutes down Limuru road is filled with mzungus. It is one of the best shopping malls in Kenya and is surrounded by foreign consulates. Kate took me there to get my Kenyan phone and I’d run into a friend from the states as we were exiting. All the mzungus be at ViMa. We decided STM would be off limits there, as we’d be muttering the m word so often we wouldn’t be able to carry on conversation.
Today we went into Nairobi for the afternoon. The city is chaotic, the roads and sidewalks constantly full. We’d run into a bunch of people Grace knew. One young man sat down with us for a while. I’ve gotten very used to sitting in silence as my friends jabber in Shang (Swahili slang) and Kikuyu, waiting until everyone is laughing before I ask for a translation. The young man who’d sat down muttered mzungu enough times, I finally interrupted him and said, “My name is Blair, as it sounds like you’ve forgotten,” as I outstretched my hand. Kate, Grace and Fatma burst into laughter as the young man shook my hand apologetically.
We walked back through the streets of Nairobi to the central depot of busses and matatus. I should say dodged and weaved our way back, as navigating the city is quite similar to one giant game of frogger. Crossing one street I went in front of a truck as Grace and Kate curled around behind it. As I jumped up onto the curb alone, with a sigh of relief at making it to the final lily pad, a man stopped in his tracks and exclaimed, “MZUNGU!” as if a giant polar bear had just unexpectedly emerged from the flow of traffic rather than a frazzled young woman. I’d been caught as the prize in someone else’s game of STM.
But that is one of the reasons I chose to study in Kenya over Stockholm or Scotland. I wanted that experience of being the minority. The first day I was on campus, I sat alone next to a lecture hall soaking up wifi. A security guard wandered over and asked me what I was doing. He grilled me as to my student status, my course of study, my country of origin, my language limitations and my date of departure. I answered his questions with a smile, and he finally walked away, satisfied that I did in fact belong. So that’s what it feels like to be profiled.
Except he didn’t ask to see my identification. Place his hand on his pistol. Demand to search my bag or frisk me. It was a mild encounter, but still a moment of realization.
Kenya imports from America hip hop culture along with second hand clothes. The undergrads throw around the n word in greeting, in passing, in casual conversation. Yo what’s up my n****r?!?
In one particularly rowdy post dinner hang out, I finally admitted how uncomfortable it was making me. They didn’t seem to understand. My friend Charles, a native Kenyan, recently returned from spending most of his life in Evanston, explained that using the N\n word could land you in jail in the States.
Yes, if the wrong person heard it. Yes, even if it was just between blacks. No, we’re not joking.
I tried to paint a picture. Imagine if every time someone called me mzungu, it meant that I didn’t belong. It wasn’t just a description, black or white. It implied that I was dirty, diseased, lower, unwanted. To call me mzungu meant that there was something deeply and irreversibly wrong about me.
“That’s what the n word is like in America. And I would never call any of you that. Not even as a joke. Not even if you told me it was ok. Never.”
I’ve never called you mzungu because you have a name.
The only time I’d felt truly out of place was when we went up to Limuru Town. St. Paul’s is situated about 5km south of Limuru proper, in a neighborhood known as Kibuku. We decided to go up the hill and have a look around. As I stepped out into the main market, I could feel something different. We were far from Nairobi now, the cosmopolitan city. Away from Village Market with its Italian Bistros and international shopping. Beyond the guarded gates of the University. It felt as if everyone we passed was calling out, “MZUNGU!” But the fun pointing and giggling was absent. Only eyes tracking me. Children and beggars holding their hands out with expectancy. Shop keepers startled as I walked by.
But I didn’t feel unsafe. Just slightly unwanted. Since Limuru was not in need of help, I might be there to harm, or at the very least disrupt, the flow of this rural town. They were fearful eyes that tracked me. A town with a famed country club. A stop on the Ugandan Railway. Colonialism had made impressions on this town in a way that my teenaged colleagues could not grasp. They had not lived in that time of oppression.
The way I could not grasp the use of the n word as anything less than hateful. Because we still live in a time of oppression.
I am thankful that I was made aware in my life of my white privilege. And now I have been made aware of the breadth of its influence. No matter how far I go, I cannot escape it.
But I can hope, by the power of God, to transform it. Beginning with the relationships I form here.
I’ve never called you mzungu because you have a name.
Peace and Blessings,