Memoirs of a white person in Africa 1

Close your eyes; take a dose of sanity and ask yourself a question; what would we do here in Africa without the good old Mzungu? Open your eyes and read further.

Close your eyes; take a dose of sanity and ask yourself a question; what would we do here in Africa without the good old Mzungu?

Open your eyes and read further.

The Mzungu has been here for as long as our humble communities evolved from small-and sometimes big chiefdoms, into the megalomaniac states we have today.
Mzungu, for good and bad has been part of it all.

And yet we have never accepted him/her as a normal feature of our African society. Instead, whenever a white person walks around in a city suburb, many children will innocently run around following them, for as long as two miles in some cases.

They are like a mobile circus. In most cases the children will be begging for sweets, pens, money and many other things.

In one incident, I witnessed two kids as they squeezed the skin of an American friend at the Kimuhurura junction just to test, and then they run away without saying a word!

When children grow up with these experiences, it ensures that racial stereotypes in society persist and it is not helped by the fact that many opinion leaders, always take refugee in inferiority complexes and give in to misconceptions and hatred based on racism, they go ahead to heap blame for all the mess in Africa on Mzungu in lazy intelligentsia debates. Most do this in a white man’s language!

It is predictable that every time things go wrong in Africa as they are wont, the Mzungu has been the punching bag. If it has been famine, he takes the blame, low prices for agricultural produce, tribalism, war, family disintegration and others. Hell the white man is responsible for all the mess in Africa, and we black people are the angels, you get the feeling.

We do good things. You see we are a humble kind, prone to being pushed about forcefully to do things that we have no idea about or even don’t like.

Today The Hammock offers to start a discussion about the experiences of a white person in Africa and in particular in Rwanda. What is the Kinya-Rwanda noun for a white person?

Mzungu is what quickly and normally comes to mind. Mzungu comes from a Swahili word known as Zunguka which means “moving around in circles with no sense of direction and or purpose.”

By definition our word for a white person is not only offensive, it is also factually wrong. In fact Swahili is so crude to white people that Ulaya is the noun for the continent where white people are said to come from, Ulaya itself seems to conjure images of Malaya, another Swahili word for prostitute. And it must not be confused with Wilaya, the Swahili word for province or continent.

One could argue that black people who were born and bred in Europe, North America and other parts of the world, are also referred to as NIGGER by white people.

Valid as it may appear, it is not entirely true as there “are other more respectful ways to refer to black people if you need to describe their appearance. So when someone chooses the word “nigger” that’s deliberately degrading,” says one Mzungu.

However, there’s no respectable substitute for Mzungu in Swahili and possibly in Kinya-Rwanda too.

In our first attempt to record the memoirs of a Mzungu we will consult with an Integrated Mzungu, (I.W.). This is a white person, again for lack of a better word, who decides to live in a very remote part of an African country where they do not have tarmac roads, sushi and Mexican restaurants.

Their chosen place of residence normally has no street pavements and lights or even theme nights in entertainment districts of our cities which themselves are copycats of the I.W. cradle.

The I.W. in this case is really a youthful and beautiful young woman in her early 20s who, not bothered by all the clichés about Africa; chooses to live in a small cramped abode way out of the glitz that many expatriates in Africa live in. And yet even with this ‘normal’ lifestyle I.W still feels the generalizations thrown at her because she is a white person.

She says it is frustrating to be classified with such trademarks such as the ones that Africans associate with Mzungu generally, these include; them being rich, ignorant, they do not understand what is happening here and are taking pictures of little children because they are going to sell them or their stories.

I.W. adds that this could be the reason that the first time one is surrounded by people of a different colour, all the clichés apply, and they feel everyone is staring at them, talking about them and in Rwanda, sometimes pointing a finger in their direction. 

You stand out. It  could be the reason you rarely see a single white person alone, and if they are alone, you will probably see kids running after them, If they happen to be women, even old men often times stalking them.

“Everyone likes to believe they are unique,” I.W. says and adds that it is the reason that; “Many Bazungu get away with hardly ever being the only one- they live and/or work and/or travel always with others.

Anyone who comes to Africa knows that racial stereotypes exist, Bazungu are known to be rich, they have a sort of physical helplessness which means they can’t walk for long distances or climb mountains, they are sexually promiscuous, and their lives are generally easy.”

I.W. continues that her concerns and subtle discrimination while in Africa, cannot be in any way compared with the experiences of black people that live in other parts of the world but “it gives you a tiny, tiny window on what minorities experience in the West.”

The first memoir is meant to offer us insights into the issues that do concern and often times disturb the I.W. in Africa. (WE can write about the one in South Africa and Zimbabwe another day.) For the next memoirs we will attempt to get the Mzungu’s idea of Rwanda today in terms of our own cloudy identity.

As quite often we have blamed the Mzungu in our history for polarizing the Hutu and Tutsi, we can testify to this as own identity today has been raped-in large parts because of our own internal racism.

Today we’d rather not mention who is Tutsi or Hutu. Does our visiting Mzungu have capacity to tell the difference between us? Which magic does the Mzungu use to circle out a Hutu or Tutsi?

Till next week.