To Be, or Not to Be: Mzungu

Back at the kindergarten – All of us were sprawled about the floor for activity time. Some of us coloring, others writing letters and numbers. Hoards of four and five-year-olds thrust their notebooks under my nose shouting, “Mzungu! Mzungu! Me, me!”

Now what was the word for teacher? I couldn’t remember. M-something? Muhzilu, mwazimu? I couldn’t figure out what the children were saying. My Swahili vocabulary comprises maybe ten words.

And then I remembered. Mzungu. Of all the indignities. They were calling me “whitey.”

I suppose I’m not in bad company, though. We asked our two Meru guides and they assured us Oprah Winfrey is mzungu. So is Mike Tyson. There was some argument over Michael Jordan, one saying mzungu, the other saying black.

In Tanzania, Mzungu = not African, as in European, Asian, Indian or Arab. Mostly though, as our guides explained, mzungu is used for white folk, particularly Europeans and Americans. Even the black ones.

It’s all very complex. In South Africa, the Apartheid regime devised an extremely intricate system of racial categorization, which I won’t attempt here to unravel. However, in terms of mzungus and Africans, to qualify as Black in South Africa, one had to be purely indigenous African. And to count as White (mzungu), one had to be purely of European descent. None of this mixing and matching blood. There was also the category of Asian, but the largest category of all was Colored, an even more complicated section that had numerous subsets of categories. For Oprah, the Michaels and myself – we’d all have been classified as Colored, not Black and certainly never White.

Well. I suppose the simplicity of the American “one drop” rule had its advantages.

The word for teacher, by the way, is mwalimu.

2 thoughts on “To Be, or Not to Be: Mzungu

  1. A very interesting post. To me it proves again that “race” is a social construct. There is only one race — the human race. Of course history has been deeply affected by the fact that on this subject, and many others, scientific ideas and facts do not prevail. False ideas dominate and control many spheres of life and human endeavor. And it is not strictly a matter of history, or the past, either. This is what opponents of affirmative action have so much trouble seeing. The legacy of the past lives on in the present and it is not easily, simply or quickly undone.
    The apartheid system of “racial categorization” was another version of ideas developed — and practiced — by the Nazis in Hitler’s Germany.

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