In Mozambique, My Name is “A’zungu”
A’zungu (plural): From the Bantu languages of southern and eastern Africa, used to describe individuals of European/Caucasian descent.
M’zungu (singular): The singular form of the plural word “A’zungu.”
Chi’zungu (possessive): 1. Of or pertaining to wealth, privilege, or the foreign lifestyle.
2. The English language.
It’s so easy to get insulted by the word “A’zungu.” It’s a harsh-sounding word. The hissing “Z” is followed by a deep and guttural “OO,” creating a sound that is both sharp and blunt at the same time. In the right situation, it can be a stomach-dropping, heart-twisting word. Like it or not, however, it’s also my name.
When I first arrived in Mozambique, I tried to duck around the word “A’zungu.”
“My name is Lisa,” I would explain. I wanted to fit in. I was taking such care to learn Portuguese, and I didn’t feel like I deserved such a blunt and callous label. After all, Africa was my new home.
But despite my best, and somewhat desperate, efforts, “A’zungu” just kept coming.
Even now, some twenty months later, I still hear it every day. It comes in bits and spurts, and it comes from different places. A walk to the market will yield tens of different names in at least four different languages:
“Good morning, Ticha!”
“Ahh, A’phunzitsi! Mwatswera bwanji!?”
“Leeza! Leeza! Bom dia!”
And I’ve learned to accept, like so many volunteers before me, that A’zungu is simply just one of my many names.
We ARE A’zungu. We absolutely, unequivocally ARE.
Here’s the thing that we need to understand (and by “we,” I mean Peace Corps Volunteers, Missionaries, US AID workers, and all of the other loving, giving, and fantastic individuals who have dedicated some portion of our lives to service abroad): We ARE A’zungu. We absolutely, unequivocally ARE. It doesn’t matter which definition you go with— “wealthy foreigner”, “traveler/wanderer”, or simply, “whitey”— it is still an accurate snapshot of who we are as quick-glance individuals. We are more than that, of course, but such depth and understanding comes later. At first glance, I am indeed a M’zungu.
It is only with time and patience that you earn your other names.
If you are going to travel through Africa, you must accept the fact that you will be called “A’zungu.” You are, after all, foreign, privileged, and comparatively wealthy. Even Peace Corps Volunteers, the grassroots rung of the foreign-service ladder, are spoiled in comparison to most of their local friends and neighbors.
And while American and European volunteers have big hearts and good intentions, the truth is that we are also much more financially secure.
Though most Peace Corps Volunteers are poor by American standards, they are exceedingly comfortable by the standards of their host nation. In exchange for 2 years of service abroad, the US Peace Corps provides volunteers with two way plane tickets, medical and dental support, and a monthly salary of $200 a month, to be matched with a re -adjustment allowance upon return. Such “Chi’zungu” privilege is nearly unimaginable to my Mozambican neighbors.
The fact remains that much of Africa is still wildly, desperately poor. And while American and European volunteers have big hearts and good intentions, the truth is that we are also much more financially secure. So if somebody takes one look at me and says, “A’zungu”— foreigner, wealthy, traveler— who am I to disagree?
And it’s not just about race and privilege. It’s also about misconceptions and the shallowness of first impressions. I think that the Africa of our western imagination— dusty and mud-hutted—is just as incomplete as the African image of the “A’zungu.” Africa, and especially southern Africa, where I live, is at turns lush, barren, blazingly hot, slate-grey and rainy, wide-open, or chokingly crowded.
“Africa” has more than just one name, and so do I.
Some villages are experiencing a population boom, exploding with people and traffic and money-to-be-earned, while others remain quiescent and untouched, continuing quietly in much the same way that they have for the last hundred years. And despite all of the differences across a wide and shifting landscape, most Westerners don’t really understand the quilted society that is “Africa.”
How could we? It’s far too complicated and vast to really grasp from afar. But by that same measure, how can we expect our fellow Africans to understand what drives each and every “M’zungu”? At first glance, we are simply foreigners. Just as, to us, Africa is foreign in our eyes. But with time and patience and respect, we both can earn our names. “Africa” has more than just one name, and so do I.
I am a “M’zungu.” It’s true. I live in Africa.
But I am also Lisa, and I live in Mozambique.
I am a teacher, and I live in Zobue.
I am a wife, a reader, and a writer. I live next door to Seni, Alzira, Gilda, Tabita, Feta, and Romao.
Who we are, and who we are understood to be, grows and changes with time. To my students, I am “Teacher.” To my neighbors, I am “Lisa.” To the smallest kids, I am a cuddle and a high five and a lovingly purred, “A’zooooongoo!” And to all of the strangers on the minibus, I am still just another “M’zungu.” But that’s okay. Because we are all earning our names slowly, through actions over time.
Lisa Jo Spencer is a Peace Corps Volunteer, living in Zobue, Mozambique. Her writing does not reflect the views of the US government or US Peace Corps Service, but it probably could, because it is honest, fair, and written with the best of intentions. To learn more about Volunteerism and living abroad, visit her website at lisajospencer.blogspot.com.
Living in Mozambique: In Mozambique, My Name is “A’zungu”