For those of you who have traveled to Uganda before, this word likely invokes some sort of memory perhaps in the form of extreme frustration or of smiling, young children. For those that have never been, foreigners in Uganda are referred to as “mzungu (moo-zoon-gu).” It does not directly translate to “white person” and it is not a derogatory term.
So why am I writing about this then? Hearing the repetitive, sing-song chant of “mzungu, mzungu” from children of all age groups on a daily basis is inevitable if living as an expat in Uganda, no matter your color – so it is hard to ignore. As long as you are not a local, you are a mzungu (or sometimes mihindi, muchina, etc. if you happen to be anything other than white). As alluded to earlier, there seem to be two immediate types of reactions to this custom. Some feel offended, annoyed, or frustrated while others accept it, smile, and wave at the children. Though I feel both are seemingly valid reactions, I typically fall in the latter group. I find it hard not to enjoy the attention from the adorable kids.
Before arriving in Uganda, I had been warned of this potentially irritating custom. However, I was also lucky enough to learn a bit more about it and what it means earlier on in my time here. A Ugandan friend had explained to me that the word in fact has no correlation to skin color. It is derived from a Swahili word that means “someone who wanders without purpose.” During my first weeks here, this was certainly accurate! It comes from the time when many tourists, traders, and colonial officials had begun to travel to East Africa. Though I have traveled to and lived in countries before where my skin color was of the minority, I have never been quite so systemically identified as a foreigner on a daily basis. It is actually impressive how this name calling is so consistent throughout the country.
Curiously, no matter which direction I am going, the chanting typically lands at “bye, bye mzungu,” even if I am not leaving at all. I’ve come to expect and enjoy this greeting from the neighborhood children on my 15 minute walk to and from work every morning, typically waving back and returning with a smile and greeting of “wabukire” (which means good morning in the local language, Lhukonzo). Though most are satisfied with this and share a giggle with their friends, a few of the more adventurous ones will come and hold my hand, ask me how I am, or whether we can be friends.
But with every rule there are exceptions! There are mainly two times when I don’t welcome this expression of interest in who I am. First, is when adults (mainly men) will call it, whistle, try to touch me, etc. (only one marriage proposal so far). I have really only seen this happen while in the capital of Kampala and sometimes with the boda boda drivers (motorcycle taxis) parked at the corner here in Kasese. Next, is when I’ve had a particularly long, tiring, or difficult day in which a pang of homesickness hits and I wished, if just for a moment, that I wasn’t called out as an outsider on my walk home at the end of the day. But, of course, these things are expected when moving to a new culture and don’t really bother me deeper than just that brief moment on a superficial level.
With time, I hope to teach the children my name and to learn the average prices of food and taxis so that the market women and boda boda guys know better than to offer me “mzungu prices!” 🙂
So, for now… bye, bye Mzungus!