What ‘m’ word you may well be wondering? Mother, machine, monster? No, MZUNGU! I first encountered this particular ‘m’ word last year in Uganda. Stepping out of my house or workplace, walking the streets of Kampala, wherever I went, the word followed me, I just couldn’t get away from it. What does it mean?
I asked my Ugandan colleagues ‘Oh, it’s nothing bad, it’s the Bantu word for foreigner’, they explained patiently. But why do so many people feel the need to tell me I’m a foreigner? I know that already. My Ugandan translators shrugged; they couldn’t give me an answer to this question. Lo and behold, when I arrived in Rwanda a year ago, there was the ‘m’ word again, spoken loudly, clearly and all too frequently. I believe I speak, not just for myself, but for many of the white-skinned residents of Rwanda, when I say we like living in Rwanda a lot but we really really don’t like being called ‘MZUNGU’.
We can be walking down the street, buying vegetables in the market, sitting on a bus and out of nowhere, comes the ‘m’ word from the mouth of a young child or an old man. Sometimes, it’s just said quietly, sometimes it’s shouted aggressively or jeeringly. However it comes out, at the risk of repeating myself, we don’t like it. Apart from anything else, it makes us feel unwelcome.
To those who protest, no harm is meant by it, it’s just a word for foreigners, I say, if the person or people who are addressed in a certain way, feel upset, disrespected or offended by it, it shouldn’t be used. Words like ‘Paki’, ‘nigger’ and many others are now taboo for this very reason Words are important – they affect everything and everyone – the person speaking as well as the person being spoken to.
I’m happy to be called ‘sister’, ‘mamie’ or ‘auntie’ or why not keep it simple and just greet us with ‘mware mutze’ or ‘mirriwe’? No ‘mzungu’ required! Right up there in my wishlist is , the banning by law of the ‘m’ word, with hefty fines for those who continue to use it. But I know this is just idle daydreaming so, I’ll end by asking a big favour – teachers, parents, Rwandans, ask anyone who will listen, not to call us white people ‘mzungu’. Please!
I'm a VSO and am based at REB but go around Rwanda running writers' workshops to produce local children's stories. I've lived and worked in Gambia and Uganda and have travelled widely in Africa