Mzungu: a story of a White girl in a Black Tanzania

Mzungu: (noun) a foreigner. A White person. Me.

Walking through the streets of Mwanza, that’s what I heard. Today the other interns and I went to the Mikono Yetu Centre to meet the staff and to start brainstorming for this summer’s projects. Maimuna had asked two people that work at Mikono Yetu, Haleema and Nlola, to meet us at the hostel this morning. The centre is across the city from us, so we walked a while and then caught a dala dala (a bus) until we reached Mikono Yetu. I was very happy that Halima and Mlola were there to lead us, or we would have spent hours trying to navigate the city.

Once at Mikono Yetu, we had a productive and encouraging morning. We met the staff at the centre and worked out some ideas and an agenda for getting an event in August underway. Creative juices flowed, and we got a lot of notes after picking Maimuna’s brain. Our homework is to research venues, food, and details for our four-day-long even celebrating Black women. Maimuna shared with us that many African women bleach their skin with chemicals to make their black skin lighter, and she is trying to create an event to celebrate African women and their beauty. And she’s getting a White girl to help her with it.

After a wonderful time at the centre, Mlola and Miraji (another man that works with Maimuna) helped us get back to our hostel. On the way back we picked up some more Swahili. Conversation among most of the Tanzanian passengers on the dala dala concerned patrilineal tribal inheritances, where Samira’s mom is from (Samira is the other WHE intern with us), and whether or not I actually know what “asante” means, or if I just say it because I’m told to. When we got off the dala dala, Mlola and Miraji brought us to the market where we bought kangas, traditional Tanzanian wraps. People in the market would say “karibu” or “habari,” try out the English that they knew, or just yell out “mzungu!” Miraji kept telling us to speak Swahili, and was very helpful when teaching us new words and phrases. Samira (her mom is from Tanzania) and Mlola also helped a lot.

Living in Canada, it is difficult to think of Western equivalents to these kinds of experiences. I walk through the market here and everyone knows I’m a mzungu. I had people ask me if I speak Swahili, and even though I didn’t know what passersby were saying, I could often pick out “mzungu.” I don’t know if this is because I’m in the majority in Canada and I don’t experience being singled out because of how I look, or if Canada just has a different kind of history and diversity that Tanzania doesn’t experience. Regardless, I stuck out in a Tanzanian marketplace, with my white skin, backpack, and constant questions like “how do you say this in Swahili?” and “can you say that again slower? (pole pole!)”. My deer-in-the-headlights expression that is probably a permanent feature of my face by now doesn’t help either. As a majority in Canada, it’s humbling to come to a place where I am so visibly and unforgettably different. I experienced what it is like to be a lone White girl in a Tanzanian marketplace surrounded by local, Black Tanzanians. I didn’t dislike these experiences; it was just different.

Overall, today was encouraging. We made new friends, learned new things, and began to fill up this week’s schedule. This mzungu is going to bed early.

One thought on “Mzungu: a story of a White girl in a Black Tanzania

  1. Amara

    That time when I realize how much your writing has leveled up. I mean don’t get me wrong I knew that you had gotten better but I’m impressed.

    It sounds very difficult, trying to deal with the language barrier while being watched under a microscope. I wonder if over time people will become more accustomed or if in 3 months you will simply be able to understand and converse better.

    In any case young mzungu, much to see, you have.
    Much excitement to hear, I have.


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