Tuesday, February 2, 2010


This is the greeting I'm met with whenever I leave the village gates. Its translation is "whiteman" but the historical context is what gives this sentiment its offense. Muzungu is the term the Rwandans called the colonizers, and now the word has been expanded to typecast all non- Africans.  Even some Africans who act "western" are ridiculed as "Muzungu".  After 2 months of living here I cannot stand being beckoned by a blanket term instead of being inquired my name. It makes my life here feel more foreign in a place I'm trying to make home and identifies me as an unwanted outsider.  The adults scream Muzungu just as much as the kids, but they do it to tease us, whereas some children are actually in awe of seeing someone of my complexion. The burden of being white in Rwanda can not be compared to the guilt of privilege that historians and sociologists contort many white Americans feel. It is a different breed of burden. My skin represents unsurmountable wealth and generosity. This complex burden has been shaped by the presence of ineffective aid. When the children here call us Muzungu it is usually accompanied by the only other English words they know, "Give me money".  They assume, based on the role of other white people they've seen in their lives, that I have pockets full of money and unlimited resources to give them on the street. You can only imagine how hard it is to reconcile this expectation on a daily basis. So, my solution is minimal, baby steps. When someone shouts "MUZUNNGUUUUU" after me in a market or tugs at my arm on the street, I respond "Ifete Izina." This means, "I have a name."  I say it calmly, my tone is plain as day.  I don't mean to be condescending, I mean to be understood.  Sometimes I am met with giggles and sometimes they follow-up by asking my name. "Ntwa Barrie." Baby steps. 

My friend told that she heard on the radio that the government recognizes this as a problem and is planning to fine any citizens who are found openly mocking foreigners with "Muzungu".  Children, instead of being fined will be enrolled in an international etiquette seminar.