Tired of Being Mzungu in Tanzania

January 7, 2013
Tired of Being Mzungu in Tanzania

I leave Tanzania in three days and it’s time to go. It’s been three months of cold showers, upset stomachs, and tough lessons, perhaps the toughest of which was this: I will forever be a tourist here. No matter how long I stay or how many local kids I love or how good my Swahili gets, I will never fit in. I can’t escape the label that my skin sticks bright and clear on my forehead. I am just a mzungu, only a white person.

That’s all there is to me. I am not a friend, not an enemy, sometimes not even a fellow human, but a representation, a generalization, water to oil. I am here to give things: my time, money, toys and clothes. These things are my identity.

A few times a week a volunteer like me, walking innocently along, not bothering anyone, is approached by kids or grown-ups (usually kids) who hold out a flat palm and demand in a hard voice, “Give me my money!” First of all, none of us carry large amounts of money with us because a) we don’t have much – we’re volunteers, remember? – and b) we might get mugged.

The habit of expecting money from mzungus is engrained in their culture. Somebody taught them this, and that somebody is not going to teach them otherwise.

Our standard response is to imitate them: we hold out our hands and say, “You give me my money!” But it never does any good. The habit of expecting money from mzungus is engrained in their culture. Somebody taught them this, and that somebody is not going to teach them otherwise.

As far as I can tell, the confusedness of race relations here for the most part stems from nothing more hostile than ignorance, passed down through the generations. There were maybe two or three Tanzanians on my flight from Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro; the rest of us were American or European tourists. Whereas in the west travel for leisure is a popular pastime, the majority of Tanzanians cannot afford such a hobby.

I don’t think they get out of their country much, and especially not off their continent.

Most of them don’t have televisions, cutting off access to documentaries and international news channels. They must eventually study history or geography in school, but I have no idea whether the national curriculum includes any study of Europe or Asia, for example, or North America.

No, I am not rich. I’m not poor like you, but I’m not rich like you think I am. One of the things I’m most looking forward to about going home is getting away from all the attention people pay us in the street here due one hundred percent to the color of our skin.

I know that my students didn’t even know Tanzania was part of Africa, so I’m not holding out much hope for the existence of vast world knowledge on their part. Due probably in part to this lack of understanding, everything is black and white to most Tanzanians I’ve encountered – literally black and white.

No, I am not rich. I’m not poor like you, but I’m not rich like you think I am. One of the things I’m most looking forward to about going home is getting away from all the attention people pay us in the street here due one hundred percent to the color of our skin. I often walk part of the trip to and from work with other volunteers.

Daladala conductors grab our wrists; taxi and bodaboda drivers shout after us offering rides; we hear hisses, catcalls, whistles, shouts.

Generally I choose not to respond, a habit acquired from months of receiving this treatment. If I’m in a good mood I’ll offer a simple, quiet greeting and/or a small smile in return.

Mostly people just holler “Mzungu!” or “Hey ‘zungu!” Generally I choose not to respond, a habit acquired from months of receiving this treatment. If I’m in a good mood I’ll offer a simple, quiet greeting and/or a small smile in return. Always dissatisfied, they keep yelling. They shout harshly at my back after I walk past: “Mzungu! Mzungu! Ay, mzungu! ‘Zungu! MA-ZUNG-U!”

These are not hostile greetings, but neither are they friendly; locals speak to me on the street in exactly the kind of tone you might use with a disobedient dog named Mzungu.

Our natural first reaction is to think, “Would you like it if you were walking down the street and I yelled ‘hey, black person!’ at you? Because it’s the same thing.” I want to inform these people that I do have an actual name, and it is not “mzungu.” That word’s definition encompasses, in my opinion, only a small portion of my identity – but to them, it’s all I have to offer. For this reason and for the manner in which it is often delivered, I’ve come to find it offensive.

I think that while it is not intended as such on every occasion, “mzungu” definitely crawls with shades of not-so-nice connotations, especially used, as one volunteer heard it, in the context of a hospital delivery room.

I think that while it is not intended as such on every occasion, “mzungu” definitely crawls with shades of not-so-nice connotations, especially used, as one volunteer heard it, in the context of a hospital delivery room. Women here give birth without much medication and if they scream or cry during labor, they’re mockingly called mzungus. That’s funny because it’s true, but not so flattering, hm?

Frankly, I have never in my life been on this end of racism and I hate it. But after I have time to cool down after particularly frustrating incidents, I consider that perhaps it’s good for me to feel this way, to be treated like this. I understand that people with so little might feel resentful of people with so much that they can afford to give it away, who can afford to work for free.

And so many people every day all over the world fall victim to abuse because of the color of their skin, but rarely does this happen to white people – we’re overdue for a little battering around, you might say. I’ve found that I don’t handle it as gracefully as I should.

I’ve found that I’m ready to go home and not hear that grating, segregating word ever again.

Mzungu

Tired of Being Mzungu in Tanzania
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26 thoughts on “Tired of Being Mzungu in Tanzania

  1. Avatar
    West funny
    October 7, 2020
    Reply

    I am not disagreeing or disregarding your experiences but I feel what you call racism is not nearly as bad as what black people experience in some European countries. In Tanzania or much of Africa, you are seen as a status but for black people, a significant amount of white people see them as a lower human or sub human. You won’t get denied services or have police randomly search or harrass you. You aren’t viewed suspicious although in some places it varies. For instance if a white person goes to a zone where there is mining and locals are not happy due to either environment and water degradation or exploitation, then it can turn nasty.
    But overall I would rather this experience than what black people face in terms of racism. In fact I don’t see racism, I see genuine ignorance from the locals. Also the reason why the locals don’t see you as one of them is that most white people when they visit or stay in Africa, they mostly stay at places where majority of the locals can’t afford. The place they stay is like another mini Europe and for the most part, there is much less interaction with locals besides official matters. Let’s be real, will you stay at a kijiji as average locals or you will look for a 5 star neighborhood or hotel?

  2. Avatar
    Elly
    May 1, 2020
    Reply

    I think that it is very unfortunate that people are treated differently depending on their skin color. I partly blame the lack of exposure people have in Tanzania that leads them to behave that way. I’ve been called mzungu too or mwarabu or indian. When I dye my hair blonde they tag me as oh Mzungu , when I’m wearing an arab outfit so does the name calling. Sometimes they just want to shake with you, at times they would like to touch your hair to feel the texture. However, I feel there is a small population of educated Tanzanians that act differently. They see you above your color although it seems they do feel alittle intimidated. It makes me immensely sad when one identifies you from your skin. Ive also been asked for money alot. It seems anyone with a lighter skin tone has more money. I’m hoping for this to eventually change. I know men who love fairer women but regard them completely different in terms of their culture and beliefs.

  3. Avatar
    Hailey Norman
    March 15, 2020
    Reply

    Thanks for writing this. I’m leaving Uganda in a few days and I’ve felt the same way. It’s very emotionally draining, and some days I just want to cry. They make me feel like I’m a bad person because I don’t give them money that I don’t have. I see many comments of people saying to look up the definition of the word “muzungu.” However, if I ask ANYONE on the streets what “muzungu” means, they all tell me that it means “white person.” I love many people here, but I don’t love the way I am always treated, and expected to “give them their money”

  4. Avatar
    deevan
    November 15, 2019
    Reply

    I think the term Mzungu as used by Africans is really tinged with envy and admiration. After all you are an attractive white girl to them. I can see how you feel intimidated when they shout MZUNGU MZUNGU on the streets, but take it as a compliment. You are the attraction.

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