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)!