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“Mzungu! Mzungu!”

July 21, 2011

By Gary Decker

Mzungu”, meaning “white person” in Kiswahili, is how I am often greeted in Tanzania. During my time here, it has been a part of the very first sentence (if not the very first word) of each interaction with a new person or group. Since leaving Dar es Salaam over two weeks ago, I have encountered approximately six mzungu: the Director of the program, Reme Moya, who hails from Spain; the sighting of a white man about 100 meters away in Tarime (the people in town thought he was German, I was told); a quick glimpse of three white gold mine personnel as they zipped past our car in their shiny SUV going at least 120 km/hr, filling the air with a thick cloud of red dust; and lastly, myself, on the infrequent occasions that I glance in the mirror. During these sporadic glimpses at my reflection, I can almost hear it: “Mzungu! Mzungu!”

Issues of race and identity can be sensitive and politically charged subject; for me, it has always been deeply personal. I am the product of a white father and a black mother and I have six siblings, ranging in age from 42 to 25, with three fathers amongst the six of us.

For those of you who don’t know me well, my early years were quite complicated indeed.

In light of this, throughout my life I have encountered the age-old question on countless occasions: “What are you?” The question is rarely, if ever, phrased any other way. In my 25 years, I have been categorized in a virtual cornucopia of ways: mzungu, half-caste, biracial, mulatto, mixed, “a mutt”, white, black, coloured, gringo, and others that fail to come to mind. This listing does not include all of the guesses people have ventured about my family origins: Greek, Italian, Egyptian, Lebanese, Israeli, Libyan, Turkish, Armenian, a spattering of Latin American nationalities, and several others.

Over the years, when asked the question (if I feel like giving an answer), I do say that I am biracial, white father and black mother. But, personally, I do not identify myself as part of a race at all. Is that even possible? Is that allowed?

Here in Tanzania, I have a definite race and being mzungu has its advantages and disadvantages. On the negative side, I am asked for money or favors or even charged a “mzungu tax” on purchases, as it’s commonly referred to. I’ve been able to avoid this tax (for the most part) through help from our local Tanzanian staff and my ability to quickly gauge the actual prices of items, which is bolstered by my affinity for negotiating. Second disadvantage, there is very little opportunity for personal space when in public. There is nowhere else I have traveled, or no situation I have ever been in where I have been so keenly aware of my otherness. I know that I am different here. I have been in over a dozen countries but have never experienced the constant stares I receive in Tanzania. Nonetheless, I go about my daily routines with as much normalcy as I can; my crude uses of Kiswahili greetings have given many a chuckle, including myself. But blending into the scenery and relaxing in the comfort of anonymity is next to impossible.

As for the perceived advantages, they are simultaneously interesting and troubling.

Beauty and success are frequently associated with being white. Many women turn to skin bleaching creams to lighten themselves, despite lasting harm to their health. I am well aware that the US has its own similar notions of beauty, but have never been quite so struck by them; something that may be due primarily to my outsider status, and pronounced otherness.

There is also a certain credibility granted by association with mzungu (or the plural, wazungu). Before a couple of our community meetings to introduce the staff and our program, staff members asked whether I, or our Director, would be in attendance. When I pursued an explanation of this request, it was explained that wazungu are frequently associated with success, legitimacy, organization, influence, and money. The staff was certain that if they were introduced alongside a mzungu initially, that the group as a whole would be received warmly and that at a later date, when it was only Tanzanian staff, there would be no issues with their efforts.

While I may not consider my own race on a daily basis, I am forced to do so now. And it is impossible not to see the racial dynamics that are acutely at play in the field of international development. And conflict resolution. Much of the work Search does not revolve around race specifically, but it almost always touches on identity and how people see themselves and each other.  It has certainly given me pause.


Gary Decker is an international intern working with SFCG in Tanzania. He is currently working toward a Master of International Relations and International Economics at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 21, 2011 12:34 pm

    A really good and honest article.

  2. July 21, 2011 2:15 pm

    Thanks Gary for your honest and thoughtful response. As the director for SFCG on Race here in the USA, it’s important for me, and others, to know the dynamics that race plays in our international work as well. I was really struck by the realization that here in the US you would be typically regarded as “black” because of your mother, where as in Tanzania you are typically regarded as “white.” Your story is a perfect example of how arbitrary, but how powerful, race is.

  3. July 22, 2011 4:06 am

    As a fellow international intern from neighboring Rwanda (who has also had the wonderful privilege to visit and work in our Burundi office for a short time as well), I have just a couple of additions.

    It’s my understanding that Mzungu refers to someone of foreign dissent, not necessarily a white person. The root of the word – zungu- is Swahili for “one who wanders aimlessly.” Mzungu is also used sometimes to describe the owner of an establishment or the “person who pays,” regardless of gender or race.

    About the “Mzungu tax,” this seems to be part of the way pricing works in a lot of places where there are not set prices. You are given a price based on what the vendor thinks you will be able or willing to pay. In markets men are also given a higher price sometimes because, as one woman explained to me, they don’t know what to ask for. No matter how good of a bargainer you are, as a foreigner (and a male!) are paying much more than a local woman who goes to that market or takes that bike everyday.

    This isn’t to say that it hasn’t been difficult being stared at, mobbed and swindled on a daily basis. If you ever need to commiserate with others going through a similar experience (as a foreigner), may I recommend: . Also, as a side note I’ve started to respond to calls of “mzungu!’ with “murwanda!” or “murundi!” That usually gets a chuckle out of people…

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