Mzungu

Posted February 22, 2007 in Uganda

Mzungu, n. Swahili word for white person. Various spellings and pronunciations appear in all of East Africa, Central Africa, and Southern Africa.

(This is post 1 of 3 in a series which describes how I am experiencing the phenomenon known as culture shock.)

Yesterday I went to one of the slums to volunteer for an organization called Meeting Point. Meeting Point is a local NGO which helps families struggling through AIDS. This includes running an orphanage (complete with a school) and distributing food to families without bread-winners. The organization itself seems very sensible. It is not just a charity: clients must request the aid themselves; it provides food, counselling, and other services; and it gives its clients a deadline of one year in which to improve their lives, after which support will be cut off (in favour of other needy persons).

My work was quite simple. We started off by divvying up rice from big bags into smaller bags. Then we loaded rice and oil onto a pickup truck and drove from house to house, distributing it. (The rice was donated by Japan, and the oil was donated by Denmark and Canada.) Funnily enough, I watched myself suggest slight improvements in processes (e.g., we don't need to measure this particular oil, because we know that it's exactly 2 litres...). Nothing major, but it goes to show that an engineer's mind certainly comes in handy.

The slum was almost exactly what I expected. That's not to say that I didn't learn a heck of a lot: it's one thing to envision such a degree of destitution in one's mind, and it's quite another thing to see it.

I suppose I was struck by three main observations which I did not expect:

  • There are lots of alcohol distilleries, making gin. Obvious, I know, but I hadn't thought about it.
  • In an entire day in the slum, only one person came up to us and begged. And even then, it was indirect. I saw this same phenomenon in the displacement camp in Gulu, and it takes getting used to after being accosted by so many beggars in North America. I can only conclude that Ugandans are proud and stoic; they have my sincere admiration.
  • Children (who should be in school but whose families cannot afford books or clothing) crowded around, held my hands, danced around me, or stared from a distance, yelling out, mzungu!

A call of mzungu is not an insult, especially coming from children to whom white skin is a novelty. Nonetheless, the word mzungu implies certain connotations: viewed under a certain light, they can be quite negative:

  • Rich
  • Outsider
  • Tourist
  • Uncaring
  • Uninvolved
  • Toying with our lives (more on this in a subsequent post)
  • ...

And in truth, I am most of those things. As are all other mzungus. I take issue with the connotations uncaring and uninvolved, but I must respect why they are there. Despite how so many outsiders want to help so much, there are certain things most outsiders will not put themselves through (for simple and logical reasons). For instance, mzungus won't live in the slums because that would be dangerous and unproductive. Mzungus will build NGO buildings enclosed by barbed-wire-laced concrete walls and protected by a security guard because they have equipment which would otherwise be stolen. Mzungus will turn tail and run when civil war erupts because they are afraid for their lives and they have somewhere else to go.

We mzungus have also done horrible things (e.g., slavery) which have shaped the history of Africa in an unforgettable way. It's a wonder we are greeted as kindly as we are: it shows a level of compassion which I can't really say we deserve.

The children's shouts in the slum aren't the first time I've been called a mzungu. I was planning this post before I even volunteered at Meeting Point. The fact is, I am white and nobody else is. I will always be a mzungu. If I were to live here for the rest of my life, I would still be a mzungu. Because of my upbringing, I can handle the prejudice. But for the first time in my life, I can barely make out a vague, hazy shadow of what it would be like to be found on the bitter end of the phenomenon known as racism; and there is no way to express how lucky I am that I was born the right colour in the right place.

I was also befriended by another volunteer, Michael. He is my age, he knows a heck of a lot about the slums, and he is willing to share his knowledge. He is Ugandan; and yes, that is the first thing I noticed about him. Of course, I don't feel any form of disrespect or negative prejudice upon making this observation; it is simply an unescapable observation.

Actually, I'm already beginning to feel a slight distaste whenever I see another mzungu walking down the street. Go figure. I have to remind myself that mzungus are people, just like me.