As I sedately drove along the meandering dusty roads of Rubavu upcountry hills, my white Nissan Patrol vehicle attracted horde after horde of children screaming and shouting muzungu!, muzungu!, every time we went through a village.
Finally, after we had driven through half a dozen villages, my companion in the passenger seat, a Canadian tourist on vacation, wanted to know what the word ‘muzungu’ was all about. “Who… What is Muzungu?” he wanted to know.
I looked at him with unveiled amusement. This is because Peter, as my companion was called, in asking me the question, unwittingly sent my memory literally flying way back to those days when I lived in the Muzungu land, in pursuit of the Golden Fleece.
At that time, whenever I got a chance of venturing in the countryside in company of white friends, I inevitably attracted a throng of young white admirers.
The word, ‘Muzungu’, as I explained to Peter, means ‘white man’ in the Swahili language, popularly spoken in East and Central Africa. However, people in this and other regions that have not come in close contact with white men, may fail to distinguish persons with light skin such as Indians or Arabs.
To these people, especially the elderly and mostly children, they are all Bazungu, simply because of their light skin. It should come as no surprise therefore, that if a white man ventures up country for instance, he will find himself pursued by a band of noisy children shouting: Muzungu, Muzungu, at the top of their voices.
However, it is pertinent to note that, this is only out of mischief but in no way abusive.
For instance, in Kinyarwanda and Kirundi white people are also known as ‘rutuku’ which means red. But this is not used formally because its prefix ru- makes it sounds a little bit derogative.
When the children shout muzungu muzungu, they are simply enjoying themselves; that’s all. And if the Muzungu happens to be close by, they will not even hesitate to touch him, physically.
And that reminded me of a practical joke a Rwandan friend of mine told me, about his experience while he was at the university in West Germany. So, as we drove on, I related it to Peter who loved it, and so will you.
Children are the same all over the world. They are innocent, playful, full of mischief, but above all else, they are ever curious.
And in their curiosity, they may become embarrassing.
This Rwandan friend of mine was an undergraduate at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda.
He was majoring in Modern Languages, (French and German combined.) In his third year, he obtained a scholarship to study in Germany, in order to learn the spoken language first hand. Once in Germany, as was the tradition on the University’s curriculum, foreign students were introduced to German families, so as to encourage interaction and thereby, help them in polishing up their speaking ability of the language. One day, naturally, the German family my friend had been introduced to invited him for dinner at their residence.
In the evening of the day of the dinner, the host, (who was a professor of languages at the University) and his wife, came to pick him up and drove him to their house.
To cut the long story shot, they arrived at the house.
Once inside the house, the large number of the people present struck my friend as odd. They were of all ages. The host must have read his mind for he quickly explained: This was a family dinner.
So, those present among the elderly were: His father and mother, the father and mother of his spouse. Also present was his brother and his wife and their three children, and the brother of his spouse, his wife, and their two children. The host further explained that with the exception of his own wife, all of them spoke no other language except German.
Now, dear readers, this is the time for the joke. As the dinner was in progress and conversation went on with my friend blowing away in German with a very good accent or rather with no accent at all, all around him, especially the old people watched him with keen interest and mixed expressions of admiration, respect and something akin to reverence. But not the children! The children were fascinated.
The expression on their faces showed suspicion, awe, fascination, and curiosity. They were so curious that one of them, a six-year-old and the son of his host, did what all of them would have liked to do.
Touch him. The boy was sitting immediately on his right. Unable to suppress his nagging inquisitiveness, the young man, in his juvenile innocence took my friend’s left hand, rubbed his forefinger hard on the proffered hand and, lo and behold, there was no soot on his white finger.
Bood rushed to the faces of all those who had witnessed the act. The atmosphere was electric. Quickly realising what a foolish thing he had done, the small boy tried to escape, but my friend was faster. He was the only one to have kept his wits about him. He grabbed the boy’s hand and rubbed his own black forefinger on the boy’s hand, looked at his finger, showed it to the visibly frightened boy and, lo and behold, there was no chalk on it. Surprised, the boy burst out laughing, and in so doing he caused all the rest of the diners to laugh hysterically. In a flash, my friend had, just by being cool and calm, defused the tension and everybody was breathing easy.
I forgot to say when I mentioned that the surprised boy burst out laughing, my friend Peter also laughed so hilariously I had to stop the vehicle. Of course he had caught on to the joke of what it meant to be a Mweusi (Blackman) as opposed to Muzungu, in Saarbrucken, West Germany. If my Rwandan friend had taken it personal instead of taking it cool, he would be living with it today. And of course Peter didn’t take personal what happened in Rubavu, because as he told me, this thing happens everywhere in the world, even in Canada.