Before I arrived in Kenya I was told that the word for white people in Kiswahili is mzungu. I quickly forgot the word, and it wasn’t on my practice language CD’s. It takes a great deal of repetition for me to learn a new Kiswahili word. I am not a quick verbal learner at all. I am a visual learner.
As I was entering a building today I saw a group of people look at me and I heard the word ‘mzungu’ pass between them. I thought, ‘oh, that’s the word for white person; I should learn that word.’ By the time I got home I had forgotten the word, although I could still see in my mind’s eye the people sitting on the wall, laughing, looking at me, and using that word that begins with m that I couldn’t remember.
I looked up the word ‘white’ in my Kiswahili dictionary when I got home. Hmmm. White is ‘nyeupe’. I googled ‘white person Kiswahili’ and there it was: ‘mzungu.’ Now I have learned a new word.
The word mzungu means ‘the English’, or, ‘a person of European descent.’ But here’s what is so interesting. Literally translated it means ‘someone who roams around aimlessly’ or ‘aimless wanderer.’ What a perfect description for someone like me. But it gets better. The term was first used in the to describe European explorers in the 19th century, apparently as a result of their propensity to get lost in their wanderings in Africa. In Kiswahili ‘zungu’ is the word for spinning around on the same spot. A dizzy lost look was exhibited by the first white people as they arrived in Kenya, and not much has changed in the last few hundred years. Aimless, lost, and dizzy. I know people in my family who would use the same words to describe me. I am sure I have fit the stereotype perfectly in the streets of Nairobi as I encounter this new culture. It may be a derogatory word, but it is accurate.
I am a mzungu.