More thoughts on the “M word”

I have written quite a bit over the years, like pretty much every expat/volunteer/tourist to visit East Africa, about the word mzungu. A brief recap: the word (similar with some variation in spelling across much of Sub-Saharan Africa), connotes the idea of an “outsider,” “foreigner,” “white person,” “aimless wanderer,” “traveller,” or pretty much any foreign visitor (or resident) in an African country.

The word is often held in contempt by many on its receiving end. It is chanted by children when you walk down the street, hollered at you by Boda drivers and shop owners trying to get your attention, and constantly stands out in conversations you overhear. If you read my blogs from my 2011 work in Uganda, or my 2009 work in Tanzania, you would know that the word has traditionally driven me crazy. It gets old fast, and even though it is very rarely used in a derisive manner, it is an Othering term, which I think those of us brought up in a culture that emphasizes respect for the diversity that the USA (at least in theory) represents. Plus, you know, I have a name.

Now, this is a nuanced comparison that is made quite often. When we in the states think of these Othering labels, we jump to derogatory and often slanderous words (which do not need to be listed here). Here in Uganda, the term mzungu is not derogatory. It’s just what “we” are called. Calling someone a mzungu is not something to be deemed racist or xenophobic. It’s just a word. There isn’t really an American equivalent.

Where it gets interesting is when you see what I am looking at as I write this: a parent, holding his newly speaking toddler in his arms, pointing to me saying “Mzungu!” in an effort to educate the child in the word for what I am. It is said with a smile on the father’s face, an expression of amusement, curiosity and a little splash of fear on the child’s.

I have previously discussed the word from a point of pride. I am very lucky and blessed to be able to “zunga zunga” from one part of the country/world to another. I can take advantage of such opportunities when they arise, so why waste it? But when I see this word being taught to new generations, I see a future in Uganda that does not progress beyond these Othering terms. And I am not saying it is a matter of progress, I just have a hard time wrapping my mind around it. How long will those with white skin be deemed so radically different that “we” merit a label of separation?

No harm no foul. Just a perplexing state of cross-cultural communication in my opinion. I AM an outsider here, as are all those with my skin color that came before me. It’s the legacy of the Other in Africa. A relic of a world with porous borders that have been crossed by all walks of life, and have often been exploited in myriad ways over time.

To understand the full extent of this word, the implications and connotations, the history behind this Othering process, the neocolonial and neo-imperial undertones, and of course, how this word can be turned into a song that all Ugandan children happen to know…well, you’ll just have to come out here and hear it for yourself.

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