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Muzungu in the Middle

Adolescents in Africa

I am a Muzungu in more ways than one. Muzungu (pronounced moo-zoon-goo) comes from the Kiswahili word zungu, meaning to spin around on the same spot. When literally translated, Muzungu (also spelled Mzungu) is someone who roams around aimlessly. While I am not keen on making myself dizzy, I cannot deny that often I am nothing more than an aimless wanderer attempting to put a blurred scenery into focus through my writing. Today, Muzungu is used to refer to any foreigner in East Africa. The story goes that the first white people to arrive in East Africa has a dizzy and lost look in their eyes, giving comedic relief to many Ugandans. The joke hasn’t worn out just yet and Muzungus are usually given quasi-celebrity status in Uganda.

Walking down the crowded streets of Kampala or weaving your way through the narrow paths between vans at the Old Taxi Park is difficult for anybody. Most people, however, just keep their head down and pass through unnoticed. This is not a possibility for Muzungus. When you’re a foreigner in Uganda, you get used to the constant bellows of people around you screaming “Muzungu! Muzungu!”

You become very aware that every move you make, whether it is biting your nails or tripping over a crack in the sidewalk, will be viewed by dozens of people at all times. Sitting in the middle of a matatu (a shared taxi), you smile at those in the front row that have turned around to look at the Muzungu and you pretend not to feel the eyes staring at your head the entire way into town.

When meeting little kids, you would think you were the first white person they’ve seen in their entire lives. They like touching Muzungu hair and petting Muzungu skin to see if the color makes a difference in texture. In Uganda especially, there are a number of expats, so it is doubtful that you are the first white person to cross their path. Whether you are the first Muzungu or the 101st Muzungu they’ve met, you are still a rarity and something to be marveled at.

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​Craft markets and the occasional vegetable market have regular prices and Muzungu prices. Muzungu prices are always much higher because sellers know Muzungus are less likely to know the real cost of a product or they simply won’t be brave enough to haggle as is expected. But if you do haggle as a Muzungu and refuse to pay the Muzungu prices, you often gain respect in the eyes of some of the locals.

When walking along the road, boda drivers roll past, staring over their shoulder until I am well out of their view and making me cringe every time – not only is it slightly uncomfortable, but I’m always terrified they will cause a crash by not looking at the road. And yes, it can be frustrating when walking home after a long day at work and groups of men start their catcalls: “Sexy Muzungu!” “Where you going Muzungu baby?” “Hey, Muzungu, what a nice girl!” Sure, it can get annoying after a while. But these statements aren’t made simply because I’m a Muzungu, but because I’m a woman traveling alone. I have never been to a country where statements of this sort aren’t a problem. Even in the most well-mannered towns of the United States, catcalls are inevitable.

Muzungu is never meant to be an offensive term. My housemates and I come home every evening and tell our favorite Muzungu stories of the day, laughing at every encounter. Women on matatus gossip in Luganda about the Muzungu sitting in the middle, while we just smile and say, “Yeah, Muzungu!” Children wave as we pass, sometimes with mouths wide open. Yesterday, a man approached and offered me his fist. I gave him a solid fist bump as everyone at the boda (motorcycle taxi) stage died of laughter, yelling “Muzungu!” as they gasped for air.

 

Being Muzungu is not negative comment, but simply a way of referring to people who obviously don’t belong. I am often amazed to see who is considered Muzungu. The woman who owns the house I live in is a British expat. Her daughter, who is half British, half Ugandan has lived in Uganda her entire life, yet is still considered a Muzungu. People who were born in Kampala, but grew up in Canada are also Muzungu.

 

Although Muzungus can be easily identified by their skin color, ethnicity isn’t everything. Muzungus dress differently, act differently and speak differently than born and raised Ugandans with a fully Ugandan background and lineage. On the other hand, once you are Muzungu, you can never not be Muzungu. You can speak the language, adopt the customs and even spend your entire life in Uganda, but if you were born with a passport outside of East Africa, white skin or black skin, you will forever be Muzungu.

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The word Muzungu only has a connotation based on the situation. Uganda, while not as conservative as some of the holy places I’ve visited in Jerusalem, are still very religious and dressing modestly is the proper and polite thing to do. Even on the hottest days when the only thing to wear is a tank top, I still put on a sweater before walking through the town.

 

I was sitting in a matatu one time when men and women alike began muttering “Muzungu” angrily under their breath. While I don’t speak Luganda it wasn’t difficult to figure out that they were probably swearing or saying other negative comments. I looked out the window with them and saw a Muzungu wearing a strapless dress that barely covered the top half of her thighs.

 

A few kilometers down the road was my stop and all those angry mutterers cheerily waved at me, saying “Bye, Muzungu!” I was still Muzungu, but I was respectful of their customs, which made me the Sandra Bullock of Muzungus instead of the more infamous Kim Kardashian-type of Muzungu. This pseudo superstar status, while affecting a foreigner’s abilities to ingrain themselves within the culture, often allow Muzungus to interact with locals in ways not possible for other Ugandans.

 

The other day I sat on a wall, writing up some notes before a meeting in Bukoto when four little boys walking the wall started giggling at the sight of me. I scooted forward so they could continue on the wall behind me. They each put their hands on my shoulders and said “Weebale” (thank you in Luganda) as they passed. After continuing on down the wall for a few more meters, they hopped off and ran back towards me. We all said hello and the four-year-old ringleader stuck out his hand to shake mine. As we shook hands, the three-year-old started to shake my left hand. Before I knew it, each boy had both hands wrapped around my fingers, joining in on a mass handshake.

 

When they decided they were done with the handshaking, they began petting my arms, poking my cheeks and comparing the color of their hand to the color of my chest. Other than telling me their names, they didn’t say anything. Each just giggled and marveled at my white skin. I smiled at them and said, “Muzungu right?” They cracked up, bursting with smiles and nodding in agreement.

 

They soon ran away, but came back in another few minutes for another round of handshaking that soon turned into a strange version of patty-cake. They began to pet my skin some more as one of the smaller boys looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Good Muzungu.” It was the kindest compliment I have received since coming to Africa. After a time they ran away again, waving behind them and shouting “Have a good day, Muzungu!”

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