On being called mzungu

I’ve always had trouble convincing people to call me by my name.

I’m constantly correcting strangers, acquaintances, even relatives.  “It’s Megan, not Meh-gan.”  “With a long e.” “Yes, spelled M-e-g-a-n.”  And this minor correction, about something as fundamental as my name, inevitably opens the floodgates to a long diatribe about grammar, vowels, consonants, phonetics, and spelling. It’s spelled wrong, they insist. It should be pronounced Meh-gan, they argue. Why don’t you change the spelling, they suggest, that would make things easier.  For who, I wonder.

And then there are those who launch into an apologetic story about how their friend / mother / sister / aunt / cousin is named Meh-gan and so, they say distractedly, perhaps checking their phone, you’ll forgive me if I slip up and call you Meh-gan too.  And I think to myself, no, two different names entirely, and I will not forgive you if you cannot remember my name.

When I was fourteen and shy and in the throes of junior high, I nearly gave up the fight.  It started when the new math teacher mispronounced my name on the first day of school.  I was scared of him, and fearful in general, and the thought of raising my hand to correct him in front of the entire class was unfathomable.  And so I let it go.  It happened again and again and soon it was too late to say anything.  I learned to respond to Meh-gan.  As the weeks passed, I almost believed it was my name.  And then parent-teacher interviews came along, and my parents corrected the math teacher, and the next day he asked me kindly why I never had.  There is no good answer to that question.

I’ve come to hate the name Meh-gan.  This weak woman who I am not.  This identity that is not mine.

And so I understand that names and words are important.

In Tanzania, nobody mispronounces my name as Meh-gan.  Instead, I am called mzungu.  This word is yelled at me at least several times a day, flung across the street, used by children who are trying to get my attention, street vendors, colleagues, bajaj drivers, strangers, my landlord.  It means “white person” or “foreigner”, or so I am told.

I still don’t know quite what to make of this new name.  This label.  I asked my Swahili teacher about it, and he reassured me that it is not meant to be derogatory.  “The melting pot or mosaic metaphor doesn’t apply in Tanzania”, he said, “so the mzungu stands out.”  A woman I work with confirmed that she views it as a neutral term, not meant to cause alarm or offence.

Wikipedia explains that the term mzungu originates from the Swahili root zungu, which literally translates to “one who wanders aimlessly”.  According to the website, the term was used in the colonial context to describe European explorers, missionaries, and slave traders who traveled through East African countries in the 18th century.

I’m not a European explorer, missionary, or slave trader, but I do have a few things in common with them.  The privilege to wander aimlessly, for example.  To climb the highest mountains, to drive through the Serengeti, to fly to tropical islands for weekend adventures.  With the added comfort of knowing that if I get lost there is someone out there who will help me get back home.  This is no small thing.  Especially when one lives in a place where the average annual income is $280, and people travel out of necessity, to find work in an urban area or to escape conflict from a neighbouring country.  The freedom to wander without purpose is not universal.

To live in Dar as a mzungu is to live with an ugly history.  Even today, white skin means safe passage to the nicest restaurants and hotels without a questioning glance or a second thought.

The use of the term mzungu makes race and post-colonial relations tangible and immediate.  It’s not a pleasant term.  And it’s uncomfortable.  Maybe that’s why my expat friends object to it so strenuously.  Maybe that’s why they have started a Facebook support group for themselves, the aim of which is to eradicate the use of this word.

I won’t pretend I like being called mzungu.  I would prefer to be called by my name.  I kind of like the strong ‘e’,  especially after all we have been through.  But at least the word mzungu has a history and a meaning that I can try to grapple with.  A context that those of us who are living in this borrowed country should all try to come to terms with.  It’s no slip up.

Unlike the term Meh-gan, which implies a lack of meaning and a lack of thought.  “So sorry I let that slip”, they always say sweetly, “you must correct me if it happens again”.

So call me mzungu if you want.  Just don’t ever call me Meh-gan.


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17 responses to “On being called mzungu”

  1. frenchimmersion says :

    Hi, I hope you don’t mind but i’ve nominated you for the Leibster Blog Award. – for several reasons including thought provoking posts like the one above! It’s for blogs with less than 200 followers which should have a wider readership. If you’d like to accept the award all you have to do is copy the image off my blog – frenchimmersion.wordpress.com – and then, if you want, chose another five blogs whom you think deserve the award. That’s the fun part!
    To see my award posting please go to:
    Thanks for writing, I love your posts, and forward them to my husband in Nigeria. They inspire my day!

    • Megan says :

      Dear Miranda, of course I don’t mind. That is so nice of you and such a great surprise to see a description of my blog on your website. Thank you for your lovely comments!

      • roamingtheworld says :

        My mom is also named Megan with a long “e” or Mee-gan. She’s gotten accustomed to constant misprounciation but as a kid it always annoyed me. I’d think, it’s so easy, Just get it right already.

        I imagine your frustration.

        Oh the memoirs of being called a Mzungu. Some days (during my 9 month solo travels in Africa), I longed to be any other color than white, paint me purple, pink, green… because then they would have to give me a different name). haha.

  2. mwilliscroft says :

    Oh, Meeeegan. How I miss you!

  3. A says :

    I still prefer M’gan the most…

  4. yeahnup says :

    I remember when I first landed in Australia at 12 there was a girl in school called Megan – I called her “me-gan”, and everyone made fun of me because apparently it was pronounced “meh-gan”. Confusing all this pronunciation, really.

  5. Meaghan says :

    Oh man, I understand this EXACTLY – as a “Meh-ghan” who sometimes gets called “Mee-ghan” and then is told that I spell my name wrong! And I hate being called Mee-ghan just as much – because it’s not my name!

    I can see how it would be uncomfortable to be called Mzungu, although with or without the term, white people tend to stick out in a lot of other countries, especially where the population is much more homogenous than in NA. I’ve just arrived in Manila for work, and I stick out a lot. There doesn’t seem to be a term for us, but the level of deferential treatment is high and is making me feel pretty uncomfortable, given the history of various colonializations here.

    • Megan says :

      Yes! Someone else who can empathize.

      I just checked out your blog – love it and can’t wait to hear more about the Philippines. It is on my list of places to visit.

  6. Axel Pliopas says :

    I have a long name and some nicknames… One very special friend, Michele, gave up trying to remember my nicknames when she was trying to use all of them and started calling me by a name instead of a nickname – but it was never MY name. So usually any name can work, if I know she’s talking to me. Latelly she’s been calling me Francisco, then Francesco (italian accent), and then Francis… People listen to her calling me “Francis” and ask me “oh! so your name is Francisco?” I reply: “No no, Francis is just a nickname. My name is Axel!” -> which should be said with an English-speaker accent, but in Brazil many people read it “Axééél”, with a long e instead of a strong A in the beginning… Well, but all this is just talking…

    What I really loved in your post is this contrast of the present features of language and culture with the past, with the history of the place and the people living there… Sometimes history seems to change just too fast; but sometimes there’s an amazing inertia and old things are really here today, completely alive! But as you noticed, it goes well beyond language. “The freedom to wander without purpose is not universal.” So you are different from them… in the past the difference was that the white people were european explorers, missionaries, or slave traders… Today it is another difference, but the old word mzungu kept adapting… I think we can’t deny our past but we can prove everyone that we are not our ancestors in their mistakes, we can learn and be better and, if there will always be differences, we can work to make a good difference and disappear with the bad ones… Thinking about this in a “big scale”, I think of a north-american visiting Hiroshima today, or may be a german guy who is friend of a jew… The dark events of history are there – and very dark they are!!! – , but there is this strong feeling of “hey, it was not ME!” – which is completely true… I won’t get to any conclusion here, but I wanted to share these thoughts… as you can see, your post inspired us to think 😉

  7. Zoe G. says :

    i feel i am there with you in africa when i read your posts. you do a great job of describing the feeling of the place, not just the visual. I am usually thinking about your posts days and sometimes weeks after i have read them, and this one is no exception.
    p.s the ex pats have started a facebook support group…really!

  8. vi negre says :

    When I was in Senegal “toubab” was the name thrown at me by kids and vendors alike. While it has a similar meaning to mzungu, the history of Tanzania and Senegal are very different, so “toubab” tends to refer specifically to French foreigners, but in general to white people. Anyway I LOVE your blog, I think just 6 months of posts in the last hour! I envy your trips everywhere too! Have fun and keep up the great posts and photos!

  9. thecarolinepowell says :

    thank you for this- i am wrestling with the same balance between not liking being called a mzungu particularly and the realisation that it is what comes with all the privileges that I still have as an “aimless wanderer” in africa. i found your essay when i searched mzungu in reserach for my own blog post “becoming human” which i am busy completing today…glad i found your piece and not the facebook “support group” that would have put me right off completing my essay! you write beautifully and sensitively, thank you 🙂

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