I leave Tanzania in three days and it’s time to go. It’s been three months of cold showers, upset stomachs, and tough lessons, perhaps the toughest of which was this: I will forever be a tourist here. No matter how long I stay or how many local kids I love or how good my Swahili gets, I will never fit in. I can’t escape the label that my skin sticks bright and clear on my forehead. I am just a mzungu, only a white person. That’s all there is to me. I am not a friend, not an enemy, sometimes not even a fellow human, but a representation, a generalization, water to oil. I am here to give things: my time, money, toys and clothes. These things are my identity.
A few times a week a volunteer like me, walking innocently along, not bothering anyone, is approached by kids or grown-ups (usually kids) who hold out a flat palm and demand in a hard voice, “Give me my money!” First of all, none of us carry large amounts of money with us because a) we don’t have much – we’re volunteers, remember? – and b) we might get mugged. Our standard response is to imitate them: we hold out our hands and say, “You give me my money!” But it never does any good. The habit of expecting money from mzungus is engrained in their culture. Somebody taught them this, and that somebody is not going to teach them otherwise.
As far as I can tell, the confusedness of race relations here for the most part stems from nothing more hostile than ignorance, passed down through the generations. There were maybe two or three Tanzanians on my flight from Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro; the rest of us were American or European tourists. Whereas in the west travel for leisure is a popular pastime, the majority of Tanzanians cannot afford such a hobby. I don’t think they get out of their country much, and especially not off their continent. Most of them don’t have televisions, cutting off access to documentaries and international news channels. They must eventually study history or geography in school, but I have no idea whether the national curriculum includes any study of Europe or Asia, for example, or North America. I know that my students didn’t even know Tanzania was part of Africa, so I’m not holding out much hope for the existence of vast world knowledge on their part.
Due probably in part to this lack of understanding, everything is black and white to most Tanzanians I’ve encountered – literally black and white. No, I am not rich. I’m not poor like you, but I’m not rich like you think I am. One of the things I’m most looking forward to about going home is getting away from all the attention people pay us in the street here due one hundred percent to the color of our skin. I often walk part of the trip to and from work with other volunteers. Daladala conductors grab our wrists; taxi and bodaboda drivers shout after us offering rides; we hear hisses, catcalls, whistles, shouts. Mostly people just holler “Mzungu!” or “Hey ‘zungu!” Generally I choose not to respond, a habit acquired from months of receiving this treatment. If I’m in a good mood I’ll offer a simple, quiet greeting and/or a small smile in return. Always dissatisfied, they keep yelling. They shout harshly at my back after I walk past: “Mzungu! Mzungu! Ay, mzungu! ‘Zungu! MA-ZUNG-U!” These are not hostile greetings, but neither are they friendly; locals speak to me on the street in exactly the kind of tone you might use with a disobedient dog named Mzungu.
Our natural first reaction is to think, “Would you like it if you were walking down the street and I yelled ‘hey, black person!’ at you? Because it’s the same thing.” I want to inform these people that I do have an actual name, and it is not “mzungu.” That word’s definition encompasses, in my opinion, only a small portion of my identity – but to them, it’s all I have to offer. For this reason and for the manner in which it is often delivered, I’ve come to find it offensive. I think that while it is not intended as such on every occasion, “mzungu” definitely crawls with shades of not-so-nice connotations, especially used, as one volunteer heard it, in the context of a hospital delivery room. Women here give birth without much medication and if they scream or cry during labor, they’re mockingly called mzungus. That’s funny because it’s true, but not so flattering, hm?
Frankly, I have never in my life been on this end of racism and I hate it. But after I have time to cool down after particularly frustrating incidents, I consider that perhaps it’s good for me to feel this way, to be treated like this. I understand that people with so little might feel resentful of people with so much that they can afford to give it away, who can afford to work for free. And so many people every day all over the world fall victim to abuse because of the color of their skin, but rarely does this happen to white people – we’re overdue for a little battering around, you might say. I’ve found that I don’t handle it as gracefully as I should. I’ve found that I’m ready to go home and not hear that grating, segregating word ever again.