Thoughts on Racism – Mzungu Style

You learn many things while traveling, but perhaps the most valuable lesson of all is about what it’s like to live from another’s perspective. “Put yourself in someone else’s shoes” is a mantra we all learn from our earliest years. The more kind-hearted of us can do just that from an early age, but for many people, it takes actually living the experience to fully comprehend what that means.

After spending over two months traveling in Africa, I’ve gained some pretty interesting insight into human behavior that I most certainly didn’t have before.

Let me just say, straight off, that I am in no way comparing my experiences while in Africa to the injustices suffered by African Americans during the 1960s and before. Those were undoubtedly more harrowing, illegal, and debasing experiences than anyone should ever have to undergo. What I am trying to do, however, is shed some light on what it is like to live as a minority, and to be treated as such, in as accurate a way as I can, considering I’ve moved through many different countries, cultures, and regions on my trip.

I want to start with the pan-African word “mzungu”, and its plural, “wazungu”, Swahili words co-opted into every African language to mean “whitey.” It’s not uncommon, and in fact, it’s an everyday
occurrence, to be walking down a street in a city, or a dirt path in a village, and hear people mutter “blah blah blah mzungu blah blah” as you pass. Or to walk into a bar or a shop to buy something, and have the other patrons say “mzungu” to each other as you’re standing there. Or to have children shout at you, running down their lawns and waving, shouting, “Wazungu! Wazungu! Good morning, wazungu!”

This last example you might say is cute; little kids running to greet you. But when you consider that children, from an early age, know to shout “mzungu” at a white person, you know that they’re learning to identify you as someone different, and to label you as such. Imagine if white American children shouted the n-word, or even, “Blackie!” at any passing African American.

Another thing that irks me to no end is that the children often follow up their shouts of “mzungu!” with “give me money.” What could be seen as a child’s innocence (what American child doesn’t relish a single dollar bill given by an uncle or a grandparent?) takes on a whole different feeling when legions of children ignore dozens of adults that pass them by, but then key in on a white person and demand money. White people are not made of money, but unfortunately, that’s how we are seen and treated. As a giant, fat wallet just waiting to be opened. It’s the reason you can’t walk down the street without taxis and motorcycles honking at you, touts for hotels or businesses surrounding you, or complete strangers continually approaching you with, “My friend! How are you?”

Mind you, there are plenty of Africans (and I use the term loosely, as these people span multiple countries, cultures, and languages) who have been warm and kind, more than I would expect from even an American friend of mine. And the majority of people will walk past you on the street without even a word, or perhaps with just a greeting. But the constant stream of harassment from people who want your money makes it difficult to befriend people. More times than I can count, people have walked up to me, chatted amiably about any subject, accompanied me along the route I was already going, without trying to lead me anywhere in particular, and then getting angry and demanding when I wouldn’t give them money for being a “guide.” This is often followed up with “help me.” I’m sorry – why let dozens of people walk past you and then focus on the white people, only seeing them as a source of money?

Another Rosa Parks-like injustice is when stepping onto buses or minibus taxis. These things are often over-packed with people, several standing. In the rare cases in which I’ve gotten an actual seat, the money-collector (always separate from the driver, who never interacts with passengers) will usually point at me and aggressively gesture to the back of the bus, demanding that I move to the back to clear space. I’ve been adamant in saying “No, I prefer to sit here. People can walk past me if they want.” Sometimes, though, the driver won’t drive, and you’ll be shuffled along to the back of the bus, bumpy and
uncomfortable, as other passengers fill the front seats.

Again, I realize that having white skin and dressing the way we do will generally mean you come from a wealthier, western country. People don’t know I’m from the USA at a glance, but I’d guess that it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s either the USA, Australia, England, or somewhere in Europe. I also realize that even poor people in those countries tend to have more money on an absolute scale than many people in the countries I’ve been visiting, and that the western world is seen as a ticket to opportunity. But when you are called “mzungu” without being asked your name, hassled with claims of “give me money” multiple times per day, and stared at unashamedly while being shunted to the back of the bus, you begin to feel like an object. A white object that is the same as all the other white objects, and not a person with a personality, feelings, hopes, dreams, desires, a history, a family, a life. You become a ghost that floats through this world you’re walking in, and people see right through you to what they want to see, without noticing the details.

This must definitely only scratch the surface of the racism that some people experience. I haven’t been beaten, harmed, subjugated, or jailed. I HAVE, however, been charged exorbitant fees, not just by market vendors, which is expected, but by official transportation company offices and grocers, been forced to show my ID papers and empty my backpack on the street to ensure I didn’t carry contraband, and treated with a smile one minute and a scowl the next, after it was made clear I was not handing over whatever money was desired.

These thoughts have been building for a while, and it’s by no means an exhaustive account of what I’ve been feeling, nor is it an edited treatise (although I plan to make it so). It’s a top-of-the-head, stream-of-consciousness recounting of how I feel about this issue, without going back to check anything. It’s interesting, to say the least, to live as a minority here, and all I can say is that it’s mentally and emotionally exhausting. You’re constantly aware of your outsider status, and at the moments at which you might forget it and relax, someone will shout “mzungu” at you and bring it right back into focus.

I don’t know if anyone who reads this has had a similar experience living as a minority anywhere, be it Africa, Asia, the USA, or even in a smaller community, but this is an issue I’ve always thought that I understood. I’ve lived my life well, treated people equally, respected differences, and lived as though everyone wanted the same things out of life – to be happy, loved, and peaceful. But never have I fully UNDERSTOOD the trials of living this way. I’m curious to know if anything I’ve been experiencing is on par with how other people have felt under similar circumstances. If so, I’m terribly sorry. It’s a brand new experience to me, and one that I feel that everyone should undergo. As well as I feel I’ve been taught about equal treatment and unfair objectifying of “others,” it’s been a true shock to my system to actually have been here and have lived through what is undoubtedly a minor version, although a no less powerful one, of racism.

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6 responses to “Thoughts on Racism – Mzungu Style

  1. An amazing experience GM. This certainly sensitizes you to the plight of blacks in America pre-civil rights. I’m certain many continue to experience those feelings today in America, but things have certainly changed since I was your age in the mid-70’s, and growing up and coming of age in the 60’s. I think we all hope that the native peoples of Africa can evolve the way most Americans have and accept all peoples with dignity.

  2. Sadly, there is so much abject poverty, anger at being powerless and out of control authorities in these countries that just all ball up together to make discrimination against people from other lands with economic stability very easy. I believe you will find the poor of India to be looking at you as a “dollar bill with legs” even though they will probably be more respectful. You are experiencing first hand what none of us can even imagine.

  3. GM, I don’t doubt your experiences, but especially in the case of children, couldn’t “hello, mzungu” be similar to saying, “hey par’dner” or “hello, stranger?” I mean, tiring as it may be to be approached this way time and again, you and Chris do stand out as the “strangers.” Is it possible that less ill will is being offered than you perceive? I wish it is so. You are the strangers, who are perhaps not so welcomed to take seats on the bus when the tired local riders need them. Be safe, be well.

  4. I really like this post; you’ve concisely summed up a lot of the thoughts (and experiences) that white backpackers in Africa have.

    There is one big danger inherent in all of this. It’s quite easy to become jaded. To brush off the guys who are trying to help you (because you think that they’re going to ask for some $) when, in fact, they’re doing it just because they are Good People. I’ve done this a few times and felt absolutely rotten about it. Being able to discern who is thinking about your wallet and who is actually thinking about you is a really difficult thing to do but it’s something that travellers have to work at. If I’m ever unsure, one of the first things that I’ll say to my guide/helper/whatever is ‘No money, right?’ in as lighthearted a way as I can. It kinda helps clear the path – those who are after money soon disappear and those who are actually out to help you can shrug it off. It sucks but it works.

    With the Muzungu thing — I hated hearing it in South Africa because it is a really racist term (they say ‘Mulungu’; – meaning ‘scum of the sea’). After hearing that quite frequently, I never really took to hearing the variants of this word in other countries (though I’m told that Muzungo means ‘wandering man’ in Chichewa – which is pretty cool).

    Really try to take the Muzungu calls with a pinch of salt. I felt it was a bit dehumanizing (the individual gets lost!) too. Learn the local (non offensive!) word for ‘black’ or ‘black man’ and throw it back at them — ‘hi muzungu’ ‘hi black man’ — (with a smile on your face!!). It normally gets a few laughs and makes them realise that, hey, you are a person after all. It also gives them a taste of their own medicine (and I don’t mean this in a bad way — I mean it .. in that, it makes them realise that they’re putting the colour of your skin as the defining thing in your relationship with them) and lets them know that you’re not ‘just’ another muzungu. It worked for me, anyway.

    • If this were FB and I could “Like” this post, I would! Great advice, I think, to learn the respectful counter term and hand it back.

  5. Throughout the white man’s history in Africa, he has always demonstrated himself as a person of means. It makes perfect sense that people have the reaction to you that they do you. Whether it be a missionary giving candy to kids to entice him to church, or a well intentioned Westerner buying shoes for a child who has none, or an unassuming tourist parading around with his flashy camera and high-tech hiking boots — your predecessors have only perpetuated the notion that the white man = money.

    And… as someone from USA, with the means to travel Africa for 2 months… like it or not, you kind of are made of money compared to the local people. Your feelings about this perception and your inability to be viewed as anything but an outsider are certainly normal and warranted, but it seems that they are fueled from a Western perspective of etiquette. Of course it would be uncouth if white American children shouted “blackie” at passersby, but you are not in America and the sooner you accept that you are an outsider, that you have means, and that people are not operating under the same mores as your culture does, then the sooner you will be able to relax and form real relationships with local people.

    This is all a matter of my own opinion of course, based on my own similar experiences living and traveling in Africa over the course of a few years.

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