Saturday, May 21, 2011

Yoo Hoo, Mzungu!

I believe I mentioned in a previous post that in Swahili the word Mzungu means “foreigner.”
The etymology of the word stems from a contraction of words meaning "one who wanders aimlessly" (from swahili words zunguzunguzungu,zungukazungushamzungukaji-meaning to go round and round; from Luganda okuzunga which means to wander aimlessly ) and was coined to describe European explorers, missionaries and slave traders who traveled through East African countries in the 18th century. (I "borrowed" that from Wikipedia. I thought it was interesting because I am one who wanders aimlessly most of the time).  It’s most often used when referring to a white foreigner but, according to my home-stay mom, it isn’t meant as an insult, it just exists as a way to point out an “other.” The first few days I was here I didn't really notice if anyone was using this word, I just went a long with business as usual, la-la-la. It wasn't until a couple of days ago when Ashleigh and I were walking to Hamomi that I really took notice of it. It must have been point out a Mzungu day, or something, because every single child we passed called out, “Mzungu! Mzungu!” the most memorable being a child, no more than four or five, looking up at me and whispering, in awe, “Mzungu,” as I passed. After this, I began to notice how much this word was being used around me. It wasn’t being used very often in English and most of the time I could just barely pick it out from a nearby conversation.

Suddenly I had a flashback to my Bonderman interview. I vaguely remember being asked about how I would handle being in a different country and standing out (obviously the interviewers were more eloquent but that was the general idea). I remember not so subtly looking down at my freckled skin, taking a quick look at my red hair, laughing and saying something like, “I’m going to stand out, there’s just no way around it.” The question of course was: how would I handle it? In other words, what would I do once I became the minority, the “other” in society? In Thailand the situation was similar, instead of Mzungu I was a “Falang” (Farang?). In Thailand, and all through South East Asia, I found ways to ignore my foreigner status; my otherness took a backseat to my backpacker identity. Here, there is no way around it. Every day I walk through an area that houses no Mzungu. My presence is odd and disruptive. To some my walking to Hamomi everyday is nothing out of the ordinary, something to take note of but nothing of great importance. To others, like the old man we passed last week, my presence is unsettling and because of it I was on the receiving end of what I’m sure was some pretty harsh sentiments (all in Swahili so I don’t know what was actually said, but tone is a pretty good indicator that it wasn’t a good thing). Luckily I remembered a piece of advice given to me before I left and have been following it pretty religiously; that advice goes a little something like this, “follow the mamas” (mama meaning older, and obviously, wiser women). Upon hearing the older gentlemen’s speech, these two awesome women turned around and told him off on our behalf. It was a beautiful thing and even though I’m sure he was fairly harmless, I felt safe walking beside these women.

This incident made me realize, as much as I want to live among and learn from the cultures I’m seeing there are just some things that I will never be able to be a part of.  This was something I was willing to deal with until Friday.

On Friday I had requested to teach in grade five/six. Since I didn’t feel like taking on the challenge of teaching Math I asked if I could do two periods of English instead. Sure no problem. I was to shadow the regular teacher for the first period, then teach the second. Once I was in the classroom I could tell the overall tone of the class shifted. The teacher obviously picked up on it. Instead of having me get to know the class better, or encourage them to relax he simply said, “Don’t be afraid of the Mzungu.” And then later, “Just because the Mzungu is here you are afraid to answer.” Not only did I feel like he was singling me out but also blaming me for the class’ lack of participation. Wow. I truly am different, I thought, because of me they don’t feel comfortable enough to speak in class. What am I doing here if my presence alone is making it difficult for them to learn? After going over his own class period by about fifteen minutes the teacher finally left me, the mzungu, to teach an entire class who I believed was terrified of me, for another thirty minutes. Timidly I picked up where he had left off. I asked for a volunteer to read and then wrote a question on the board for them to answer. I don’t mean to boast, but by the end of the class period I had almost every hand in class raised at least once. Later that day this happened:

Being a foreigner works to my advantage with the children. Children are so much more innocent and accepting than adults. I realized later that it wasn’t the children I was making nervous by being in the classroom, it was the teacher. No one likes being watched or evaluated while teaching. Anyone who has ever taught will testify to that. Having someone watch over your shoulder is unnerving. Instead of accepting that he was nervous because someone was there watching, he blamed my “otherness” for making his students unresponsive.

The redeeming Mzungu moment came yesterday during break time. As Ashleigh and I sat at the top of the hill, playing music for, and talking with some of the students a couple of the younger, first and second grade, girls were whispering Mzungu as they played with our hair. From somewhere in the distance I heard this, “That one is not a Mzungu, that one is called Brittany.” And my heart melted. One of the third grade girls, Jephries (Jeff-rees) had defended me. Wise little one that she is, she knew that Mzungu was not something you called someone who had an identity. To her I’m not just another white foreigner; I am Brittany, her teacher. Not an unknown, an “other,” or an aimless wanderer, but another human being.


1 comment:

  1. This was beautiful. I'm proud of you, Brittany.

    I am missing you at the ol' desk, but am glad to know that you are out there in the big wide world touching lives in your own wonderful way. These kids will remember you always.