Mzungu (n., Swahili, used throughout East Africa) – “Someone who roams around aimlessly;” White person.
“Among these palm trees and vines, in this bush and jungle, the white man is a sort of outlandish and unseemly intruder. Pale, weak, his shirt drenched with sweat, his hair pasted down on his head, he is continually tormented by thirst, and feels impotent, melancholic. He is ever afraid: of mosquitoes, amoebas, scorpions, snakes–everything that moves fills him with fear, terror, panic.”
– Ryszard Kapuściński, The Shadow of the Sun
To be a mzungu in Africa is to be constantly scratching your head in bewilderment. You will be overcharged, stared at, glared at, laughed at, yelled at, smiled at, flirted with, and generally made to feel like an alien.
What on Earth are you doing here, the locals wonder? Why do you wear such drab clothing, complain so incessantly, and drink so much water and coffee? Why are you so arrogant, so self-righteous, so sickly, so sensitive, so sarcastic, so impatient, so condescending, so didactic, so anal, so obsessed with control? Controlling time, your body, your environment. Can’t you just relax? Why do you worship peace, quiet, and privacy so much? Why must you insist on such ice-cold beverages, and this massive zone of “personal space” you imprison yourself in? What are these pills that you take, these lotions you put on your skin, these silver computers you’re attached to, these silly shorts and ridiculous shoes you wear? Why are you always in such a hurry? And what is this “culture shock” you speak of? Oh Mzungu, you are such a mzungu…
They stare at you because you are different, Mzungu. It may be rude to stare where you are from, but not here. If they glare it’s because people who look like you very nearly destroyed them (not to mention the world). If they laugh at you, it’s because you are so strange to them. If they overcharge you, steal from you, or cut you in line, it’s because you ignorantly let them. The rules of the game are different here, and if you don’t learn them, it’s your own fault. They are not backwards; they are simply different. And you are not modern, Mzungu. You are Western.
Yes, everything takes longer here, but the locals have herculean patience. Learn this from them. You will spend much time waiting, Mzungu. Rather than spend this time complaining, why not relax, reflect, socialize, read, write; anything other than complain. Things here will often not work out the way you expect them too. Hakuna matata, Mzungu. It’s not just a silly song from The Lion King. It’s a real Swahili phrase and a wise piece of advice.
Mzungu, you feel like an alien because you are one. You do not look like the locals, talk like them, act like them, think like them, dress like them, smell like them, eat like them, or use the same body language. You stumble around with your expensive camera (and if I see you take a picture of someone without first asking them, Mzungu, I will slap you right in your sunburnt face!) and useless map, perpetually parched, scratching your mosquito bites, praying for your immune system, gut flora, pale skin, and circadian rhythm to adapt to this foreign land. And then the culture shock sets in.
Culture shock. How pathetic that an overdose of culture can shock our systems in such a way. It is a sad testament to our rigidity. However, there is a cure.
First, Mzungu, you must realize that everything you think you know, everything you hold as a universal truth, is relative to your culture. As hard as it is, you must accept it; you must swallow it like one of your expensive Malarone pills. Your ideas of what is polite and appropriate may make sense in your own country, but they don’t always apply here. Open your mind, Mzungu. It’s time to learn humility. Realize that almost everything you’ve learned, you’ve learned in your own country. One country, out of 196. Understand that here the individual is nothing and the community is everything. You don’t have to abandon your own values, but do not impose them upon others. You don’t have to adopt values that are foreign to you, but you must respect them.
Learn their ways, Mzungu, as fast as you can. Learn their history, their customs, and most importantly, their language. Would you like it if they moved to your country without learning yours? Would you like it if they imposed their standards and principles upon you in your own country? Everything that you think is so strange about them has an explanation, which is probably different from what you assume. Both your paranoia (“My watch has been stolen!” Actually you just misplaced it) and your naiveté (“They wouldn’t overcharge me just because I’m white, would they??” Yes they would, and it works, doesn’t it?) are caused by your ignorance. Get rid of it, shed it like a snake sheds its itchy, outgrown skin.
Engage with the people, Mzungu, interact with them, even if they are apprehensive. You will kill the alienation where it stands. Show them you’re different. Shatter their preconceptions and let them shatter yours. You can adapt to their culture, and if you’re really committed, you can even master it. Do not give in to the temptation to isolate yourself, to eat mzungu food, to spend time only with other wazungu. Penetrate their society; charge right in, but keep an open mind.
Do not try to “save” them, you silly mzungu. You should be full of questions, not answers. Listen to them. Collaborate with them, learn from them, and perhaps they will even learn something from you. Do this, Mzungu and you will be rewarded with the greatest experience and some of the greatest friends you will ever have.
Related – On Expats
Please check out my other creative nonfiction pieces here.