“Nijui, mimi mzungu”: reflections from that foreigner walking down the street

Yes, I’m a white person. Yes, I’m a foreigner. No, I don’t need you to remind me. Thanks.

I have totally gotten used to people yelling out “mzungu!” or “wazungu!” at me and the other interns when we’re walking around town, or even in the more rural regions of Mwanza. I get that I’m visibly different and that there are connotations that surround my presence that makes people think they can remark on my foreign-ness. It’s not a big deal anymore. I guess it’s a little wearing, though.

Now, instead of glancing around wide-eyed whenever I hear that word, I keep my head down or look straight ahead and ignore it. I mutter “yes I’m a mzungu, thanks for letting me know” to whoever is with me. I chuckle a little. I wait for the persistent guy across the road to call me “dada” instead before I look over and tell him that I’m fine (I refuse to answer to people yelling “mzungu” at me, I’ve chosen to consider it rude). I roll my eyes and keep walking.

What I don’t like is when they start to talk about me. It doesn’t phase me as much as it could, I suppose. I can only pick out a couple of words in a whole conversation, so I really have no idea what they’re talking about. But I do know that they’re talking about me, or one of the other girls I’m with, or both of us. I usually suspect it’s both of us, interchangeably.

Like today. Nuri and I trekked to Buswelu so that I could meet with Maimuna about what she was looking for in terms of case studies and interviews (yay progress!). After a productive meeting, we decided to head back to town, get lunch, and then go back home to nap. Miraji (he works at MikonoYetu) was already going into town to go to the market (“sukoni” in Swahili), so he accompanied us on our dala dala ride. Probably ten minutes after we were picked up at our stop, the dala dala stopped for a few minutes to let people on. A few fine gentlemen poked their heads through the window and saw some wazungu. In a Swahili-English hybrid, they proceeded to profess their love to Nuri and me. Was I flattered? Not really. Miraji gave us the gist of what they were saying, although we knew they were talking and yelling about us. We understood particular words and could also tell who the topic of this lively conversation was by the entire population of the dala dala sneaking glances back at us and chuckling (or openly laughing, in some cases). They wanted to marry us, Miraji informed us. We were foreigners, and wazungu have lots of money. I laughed along, not willing to take these guys seriously enough to be traumatized, offended, or embarrassed. The dala dala rolled away to the sound of one guy shouting, “Mzungu, my name is [I don’t remember his name, what a shame] and I love you!”

I told Miraji that they were wrong anyways, we’re students and don’t have any money. I joked with Nuri that they’d only be inheriting our debt. But then I got thinking. Even if I’m not incredibly well-off in Canadian terms, my presence here makes me rich. My nationality makes me rich. Not even in the sense that I can afford this trip (although those kinds of power dynamics are still in play). I’m rich in the sense that when I go home, I return to a developed infrastructure that will support my employment. I have managed to pay for my university education and this internship because I have emotional support from family and friends and financial support from the industrialized economy that is in Canada. I was lucky enough to have access to my retail job at an independent bookstore, and likewise my parents have access to employment in their chosen vocations. That alone makes me a rich foreigner.

I realized all of this while sitting on the dala dala while Miraji taught us more Swahili and showed us pictures of his son (who is ten and has a great big smile in pretty much every picture).

Nuri and I went to a restaurant where we know we can get a relatively inexpensive plate of fruit for lunch, and then stopped by the bakery close by to grab some food that we could munch on for dinner. It’s the end of the week, and both of us are exhausted, so we opted to get our food run out of the way before we got home and parked ourselves in our rooms for the rest of the day. I got a few samosas, remembering that I had some extra chapatti at home from getting food with Iris yesterday. Then Nuri and I walked home.

We know where street kids tend to be by now. We know to expect them. We know what to do and what to say. I remarked to Nuri earlier this morning when passing by some particularly young street kids that I feel a little less like a monster if I talk to them and treat them like human beings instead of ignoring them whenever they beg. Still, our conversations are limited to me walking by and silencing their pleas for food by uttering “hapana” and “pole” over and over until they give up and move onto the pedestrians behind me. I usually try to smile at them, even as I tell them that I have nothing for them. Sometimes I get a smile back.

I had my bag of samosas in my hand as Nuri and I walked down the street in the direction of the hostel. Nuri’s food was tucked away in her backpack. As we walked by, a small child ran up to me with his hands outstretched and exclaimed “mzungu!” I was the foreigner that represented wealth again. This time I had my dinner in my hand, right where he could see.

I didn’t even think before opening the bag and giving a samosa. Another boy ran up and tapped me on the arm a second after I doled out the first bit of food. Before I knew it, my four samosas were gone and I was saying “pole” to the fifth boy that jogged up to me to get a bite of food. I’ll eat peanut butter and some crackers for dinner. Or I’ll see if the mango I bought a couple of days ago is finally ripe. I have options.

Walking away from the street kids, a thought suddenly hit me. What if, by giving anything to these children, I am only enforcing the image of the white, rich foreigner with a saviour complex? What if I’m harming their perceptions of people that are different from them? They identified me as a mzungu even before they asked me for anything. Do they see me as a compassionate person that is willing to give them the food she’s just bought, or am I just another mzungu that has resources to spare and will sometimes deign to give my leftovers?

I realize I’m a foreigner. This fact is pretty unavoidable. I stick out like a sore thumb when traipsing across town or shuffling my way to the back seat of a dala dala. I also have no problems with being openly recognized as a foreigner or being called out because of my obvious difference. I’m used to it by now. The issue is when I realize that there are characteristics that are attached to this “foreign-ness” that run deeper than just my skin colour. Characteristics that make me less relatable, a novelty, and a person with motives or attitudes that I don’t necessarily want to be associated with.

[Note: This post was originally written on Friday, June 17th. I haven’t had wifi all weekend, so I decided to write down my thoughts and then worry about posting later]

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One thought on ““Nijui, mimi mzungu”: reflections from that foreigner walking down the street

  1. Amara

    Sometimes Andrea I think you think too much. You can’t spend your entire life wondering if every single on of your actions are going to be attributed to your entire culture. It would be different if you were worrying about your actions in your job because you are assuming the responsibility of the reputation of others in that circumstance. However when you are interacting with society as one of its members, you can only be you and hope that they understand that, you are you, a person, a human.

    Also I was looking up flights to Tanzania when reading that part about those guys. If you see him again warn him that your short coordination challenged friend will come after him.

    Like

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