Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Life as a Mzungu

Post by Josh.

Wherever we have traveled, we have constantly been marked as foreigners by our skin color, language, and backpacks, which instantly makes us objects of social attention. Shopkeepers and souvenir hawkers try to get us into their shops, young adults try to practice their English on us and crowds of small children come to us to stare in amazement or to ask for money. How we are approached has varied per region. In Southeast Asia, we were called Mister. In Turkey and Egypt, it was always a warm "Hello my friend!". Zanzibar has continued then trend, with many people calling us 'Rafiki,' or friend in Swahili. Most places tended to treat us as curiosities or treated us as part of the tourist destinations that they found us in.

Most African countries have so far proved more direct; in Ethiopia we were Ferengies, the Amharic word for foreigner (also a alien race in Star Trek), while in Kenya and Tanzania we have been Mzungu, a Swahili word meaning to spin in place dizzily, or to wander aimlessly. It was originally applied to the European explorers and colonisers who spun circuitous paths around the continent in the 1800s and has stuck to all foreigners, particularly white ones. We hear it slip in conversation around us, or as "Hey Mzungu" when the conductor on a shared taxi wants to direct us. It is our identity. We are not individuals or even nationalities, but simply one of The Other - a foreigner, a Ferengi, a Mzungu.

Because all foreigners do stuff like this, obviously.

This made me think about what equivalent term we have in the US, but I don't think we have a good cognate. Visually, anyone could be an American - we have no definite racial or facial cast - so cannot immediately label people like that. Only after we know a bit about the people around us can we tell if they are locals, traveling Americans, new immigrants, or actual foreigners or tourists. The mixed nature of our social makeup has forced us to be more circumspect in drawing the line between 'us' and 'the other.'  Having been on the 'other' side of that line for a few months now, I am starting to look forward to being back where it is less distinct.

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