A friend of mine recently asked me an interesting question. During our conversation she became quite aware of the fact that I was constantly referring to her and people like her as Mzungu.
She wanted to know whether the term was in any way derogatory.
I promptly gave her a detailed explanation concerning the etymology of the word. For those who were not privy to my coffee break with Emily, the word basically refers to a white person particularly from Europe, Australia, and North America.
It is never used to refer to South East Asians, Indians or even albinos. And it is not at all derogatory.
The plural for Mzungu is Wazungu and not Mzungus. This mistake is often made by those who try to apply English grammar rules by adding a ‘s’ at the end of the word.
The word is derived from a contraction of words meaning “one who moves around,” and was coined to describe Europeans who traveled through East Africa in the 18th century.
A month ago, a Canadian friend of mine asked me young children were calling her Mzungu yet she was not even white. My response was that her mannerisms and appearance easily gave her away as a foreigner (Mzungu).
Therefore the word does not simply denote skin colour but also behaviour.
Having lived all my life in East Africa, I have over time gained the necessary skills that now enable me to easily identify peculiar Mzungu behaviour. Kigali has got a good number of white people.
Some are tourists, business people, missionaries, humanitarian workers, journalists, or embassy staff.
Interestingly, they all seem to be united by the way they go about their business here this goes along way in aiding locals to identify them. While here, most of them prefer to reside in upscale Kigali neighbourhoods like Kimihurura, Kacyiru, Kiyovu or in the different hotels around town.
They love these neighbourhoods because they are close to town and are relatively more organised than other parts of Kigali. It is quite rare to find an Mzungu living in places like Gatsata or Gikondo.
There is also the ‘budget’ Mzungu. This one is often seen with a huge dirty backpack, a sun hat, sun glasses, and a digital camera in hand, and he/she occasionally stops to check on their map to see if they are heading in the right direction.
Their dress style often revolves around T-shirts and jeans or multi-pocket tour trousers plus sandals. Some simply wear flip-flops (considered bathroom wear by locals) as they stroll on the clean streets of Kigali.
During the day, a typical Mzungu is likely to be found hanging out at any of the Bourbon Coffee outlets in town.
Others will be found at Blues café adjacent to the Union Trade Centre and several hotel lobbies. With a cup of coffee on the side, they type away at their branded laptops (Apple, Dell, Gateway, HP, or a Compaq).
Their Mzungu-ness is often exhibited by their ability to tell the different coffee flavours apart.
Most of us (locals) cannot tell much of the difference when it comes to things like espresso macchiato, cappuccino, café latte/mocha, white choco mocha etc. All we know is that there is tea and coffee, and either of the two could be in water or milk period.
A sneak peek at their screens often reveals efforts to load pictures from a gorilla tracking trip onto their Facebook pages.
Others will be busy trying to respond to emails from concerned loved ones back in Europe and America asking whether they are doing ok in Africa (not Rwanda!).
Those not surfing the internet, can be seen enjoying the tropical sun while reading one of the huge volume books about Africa or precisely about the 1994 Genocide.
Once they leave their small comfort pads in the coffee shops, they pack their laptops in their laptop bags and call over a motorcycle for a ride back home.
They seem to know a fixed price, and any deviation by the rider is often taken to be a sign of a local trying to take advantage of them.
Meanwhile, an inquisitive eye will notice a water bottle sticking from the side of the laptop bag. These guys always carry their water with them.
I wonder whether it has to do with Western media’s obsession of Sub-Saharan Africa being a place with no clean drinking water.
For those Wazungu interested in checking out Kigali’s night life, the following places are common destinations.
Torero’s, KBC’s Planet discotheque, Papyrus in Kimihurura, Carwash Executive and a few will be found at Laico Umubano hotel (former Novotel) for the live music performances.
In the comfort of their Kigali homes, the Mzungu will not forget to swallow his anti-malarial tablets or to smear themselves with mosquito repelling lotions before they go to bed.
The term Mzungu also often implies that one is bound to get preferential treatment from the locals. One day another Mzungu friend of mine offered me a lift to town.
When she hinted at dropping me off at a no-parking spot, I told her that she could get in trouble with the traffic cops. However, she simply shrugged it off by saying, “I am Mzungu and so I can plead innocence.”
The only downside to being Mzungu, is that the locals especially those selling crafts, tend to have a different, often higher price for you.
It is also not much fun being swarmed by street kids begging for money simply because one is white.
I hope the next time a small child calls out “bye Mzungu” you do not waste mental energy thinking of why they are saying so.
They, like me can easily tell that you are not typically from around here.