Kenya, Rants


It’s something I’ve been battling with since I came to Kenya in 2007. This evening I was walking through Uthiru after work and some kids saw me and shouted, “Mzungu!” You’d think I’d be used it by now but alas, even after two years of living in Tala and hearing kids shout that and more at me every day as I walked the two kilometers to the market, it still bothers me. Plenty of well-meaning Kenyans have tried to explain to me that it just means “white person,” but I’m yet to be persuaded — a “mzungu” is a person who comes from the magical country of “zungu.” Huh?

You see, the rules of the Swahili language basically say that you prefix the name of a country with an “m” to denote a person who is a native of that country. For example, an “mkenya” is a person from Kenya and an “mtanzania” is a person from Tanzania. I don’t know what a person from America is, because I’ve only heard it like once. I think it’s something like “mamericano,” but that sounds like something you’d order at Starbucks and it’s irrelevant anyways. It’s irrelevant because even if they were yelling “American,” that doesn’t make any sense either. In what universe is it acceptable to yell someone’s country at them as a greeting? Besides, you don’t hear Kenyans yelling “Ugandan!” when a Ugandan dude walks by — they say, “Niaje?!” (what’s up?).

In Kenya, as long as you’re not black or Indian, you’re a mzungu. Unless you’re Asian, in which case you are “Jackie Chan” and everyone thinks you know karate. Even if you’re Filipino or Japanese (or whatever else that ISN’T Chinese). Pole sana, guys (so sorry)!

15 Comments to “Mzungu!”

  1. Joy

    Alan, sorry about that, but it’s a kidds thing.
    there are some kids, no matter how many mzungus
    they see, they will still be amazed!

    It can be annoying, especially if the follow you around, but that’s just it.. Pole sana!

  2. Alexandra

    I don’t get it. When kids in our country see Chinese people, do they shout “Chinese! Chinese!” When they see a black person, do they shout “African!” I know its a kid thing, but its just rude. And you can’t even say its a kid thing, because parents ACTIVELY ENCOURAGE their kids to do it. I see parents every day, showing me to their kids and teaching them say “Jambo mzungu.” DON’T TEACH THIS TO YOUR KIDS. How many parents in our country do we see teaching their kids to say say “How Red Indian” when you see a native American? No. How many would protest if we began doing this? Its just so frustrating, so offensive somehow. Please, Kenyans, stop calling us mzungu. Its rude. We hate it.

    1. Alan Author

      I feel like you and I wrote the same blog post, haha. The ONLY reason new babies learn this is because parents teach them… where else would it be coming from!? It’s just so annoying.

      1. Alexandra

        hahahah. Exactly. I don’t know why they do this. Do they think we like it? Or they just get off on it for some reason?

  3. Quick swahili lesson

    Mzungu doesn’t mean someone from Zungu-land much the same as mjinga doesn’t mean someone from Jinga-land or mkubwa (with its multiple meanings) doesn’t mean someone from Kubwa-land and so on.

    Regarding etymology of the term, mzungu comes from “zunguka” (go around). It was a term given to the first white men to venture off the coast into the hinterland – the explorers. Therefore these wanderers were called wazungu because of going around. As is typical of certain words in many languages, the meaning later evolved and became a blanket term for European settlers and finally all people of European descent.

    Don’t take offense in being called mzungu. It’s proper Swahili

    1. Oh. I forgot to say that being called mzungu isn’t particularly polite (who would like to be called “African” or “black” in a greeting?), but you’ll have to put up with it unless you want people to use “polite” terms like bwana which they don’t use while addressing each other and will only alienate you. In Nairobi they usually use “boss” or “chief” when respectfully referring to someone whose name they do not know, but on the flip side they won’t do so to a white foreigner due to the colonial connotations unless they’re deliberately trying to be rude.

      though not ideal, mzungu, is the only option left

    2. Alan Author

      While I was joking about the “zungu land” bit, you do have a point; I hadn’t thought about other titles like mjinga or mkubwa which are perfectly acceptable. It just seems like the “mzungu” name serves no purpose in modern day Kenya, and only persists because parents tell their kids to use it. We’re not venturing off into the wilderness anymore, I’m just walking down the street like any other chap!

      Anyways, I don’t live in the village any more, so this isn’t as common anymore. Kids in the city are more exposed, so they don’t do it quite as often. Also, if they do, I usually say something back like “Mwafrika” ;)

  4. Lucy

    Hey guys,this is a one sided argument… You think Kenyans are rude coz they call u mzungu??? You should consider yourselves lucky if thats all you get! I have been to your country and it is worse!!! At least in Kenya mostly its children who do that…In the US,i had to deal with grown ups making monkey noises at me,talking to me in slow motion and using sign language!!!Anyway,that aside….
    The fact that you are referred to as mzungu has its own benefits… A white person in Kenya is treated better… If you were objective in your observations,you must have noticed this,and i don’t seen you complain!! So,i understand how you feel coz i have gone through the same thing,but this does not only happen in Africa or Kenya!!

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