On being called mzungu
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.