The word of the month: muzungu

May 7, 2009

Hearing “muzungu,” can fill some people with dread.  MUZUNGU.  FOREIGNER.  Calling someone muzungu isn’t insulting.  Stating the obvious (physical attributes) isn’t offensive here.  People generously use words like fat, thin, small, big, tall, short, black, white, and red  to describe others.  Once I was taken aback when someone refered to the person standing next to me as “that fat one.”  I wanted to apologize to my neighbor on behalf of the speaker.

If you don’t look African, then the term “muzungu” applies to you.  Once upon a time, the great Muzungu greeting was probably reserved for white folks, but now it refers to anyone who’s non-Bantu.  The term also suggests that one’s loaded.  Yes, if you’re white, then you’re a walking wallet; but if you’re brown as I, then you’re a stingy walking wallet.  There’s a significant number of business owners from the Indian subcontinent in Uganda.  A well-intentioned volunteer informed me that I should be wary of those Ugandan business owners who would assume I’m an Indian Ugandan and would resist giving a good bargain.  Now I can bargain.  I bought 3 bell peppers for 100 shillings.  I even tried to bargain the price of some cheap candy.  Yes, bargain I can.  It must be in my blood.

I don’t want to be entitled to any special call-outs.  Though the word challenges me.  I honestly want to stop in my track, turn to the person, and say, “musoga.” (a resident of the Busoga kingdom) Once I  said “muzungu” back, and got perplexed looks.  Fractal was concerned that I might offend the children by calling them something they weren’t.  I changed my tactic.  When children call Fractal & me “muzungu,” I stick out two fingers to suggest there’re two of us and say, “buzungu.”     At least, I can teach them some grammar.  After all, I’m a teacher.

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