My Name is Not Mzungu

by Abbott Bailey

Elaine and Abbott found t-shirts that read, "My name is not Mzungu."

Mzungu.  White person.  Wherever we go, particularly outside Kampala, the children (and some adults) look at us, point, laugh, and say “Mzungu.”  White person.  Here it is not just a matter of pointing out the obvious.  There are layers of meaning that are difficult to untangle and understand – some good, some bad, some indifferent, but always complex and often fraught.  I have hesitated to write about what I do not comprehend, but it is unavoidable if sharing as fully as possible about the experience of being here.

Mzungu are to be respected.  The other day, we all went to the bank so that Marylove and I could add her name as a signatory to the Circle of Peace School’s account.  It was imperative that I go with her, start the process, and begin the conversation with the account manager.  While my presence was helpful for technical reasons, it was also helpful for facilitating the transaction in other less obvious ways.  Technically, I had to show the account manager the letter that Joanita sent to me via email on my computer.  (Recall, the School does not have a printer, so we would have had to find somewhere where we could take the document on flash drive, download, and print before going to be bank.  By bringing my computer, I could show both the email and the document.)  This began the process, which then entailed leaving the bank, forwarding the email and the letter directly to the bank manager, re-entering the bank to resume the process, and completing and signing forms.  Once that was done, I had to again email Joanita and ask her to email the bank manager directly with a letter, then Marylove will be added to the account in about four days time.  As an aside, this “roundabout way” is often how work is accomplished.  It often involves multiple steps, instead of, for instance, a quick call to the bank for instructions, and one trip to the bank for the transaction.

I was most needed, however, simply by being a Mzungu. I was told we Mzungu are respected and trusted more than Bgandans (even by other Bgandans), so my presence and involvement conveyed accountability and credibility to the transaction. My guess from what I have been told is that the request either would have been refused or taken much longer with many more steps involved.

Lunch at Kyaggwe Village

The other day when we were at the village, we sat down to eat lunch on mats.  There was one small wooden stool available for someone to sit on.  Being younger, I chose to sit on the mat on the ground out of respect so that one of my “elders” could have the stool.  Elaine could have taken the stool, but not Marylove because it would have been a disgrace for her to sit on the stool while we Mzungu women sat on the mat.  We were told that we “Mzungu” are “higher” than them and so Marylove would have been scorned by taking a “higher” place than us on the mats.  Marylove told us that the Bgandans have been told their whole lives that Mzungu are better than them in every way, so that it is inside of them, and it is not easy to simply pluck something out that has become part of how they understand themselves.

Mzungu are rich.  I guess this goes without saying, but comparatively speaking almost all of us from the United States are extremely wealthy, and this is how they see us, especially if we are able to come to Uganda for a visit.  They are surprised to learn that we have poverty in the United States, because in their imagination, the United States is, quite literally, heaven on earth.   What this means, however, is that when Bgandans see us, they hope that we can help them in some way.  In their view, with a little bit of our money, we could make everything better.

Each day when Elaine and I play with the children, at some point for a couple of minutes this is what happens – a child takes Elaine’s hand and says, “I go with this one.” Then another child takes my hand and says, “I go with this one.”  Then another child goes to Elaine’s hand and says, “I go with this one” and so on. Obviously, they are saying they would like to come home with us.  As soon as Elaine and I realize that they are starting to do this, we redirect by beginning another game.

Elaine passing out toothbrushes and toothpaste with Teacher Helen's help

One day, as I was talking to one of the children, Shakira, she asked me if I would please take her home with me.  She said, “You are only one in your house, and you could take me home with you.”  When I said, “You would miss you mother, brothers and sisters.  They are here, so this is your home,” she said, “My mother would allow it,” and then she burst into tears.  It took two days before she felt comfortable approaching me again without being both embarrassed and broken-hearted.  I know it about broke my heart.

Abbott passes out toothbrushes and toothpaste to the children

All of these children at the school live in fear that they will not be able to continue with their education from term to term because their families have so little money, and they know that the school has limited funds.  They may not know entirely what an education can do for them, but they know enough that without it, they will have little chance of improving their lives beyond the daily fight for survival.  They think if they are able to get to the United States then all their problems would be solved.

Even Marylove has experienced the challenge of coming home after being in the United States for ten years.  People think that having lived and worked there, she must now be wealthy and can help all of them with education, health care, clothing, jobs, etc.  Each day more and more people come to her hoping that she will help them, not understanding that she has limited funds and cannot “save” everyone (though my goodness she does try!).

Based on the legacy of colonization and exploitation, it is unclear to me how we are to be trusted at all, let alone in any way revered.  The years of domination, manipulation and control has left an indelible mark that will effect relations and the process of development for years to come.  Even so, I am aware that the Bgandans have found subtle and not so subtle ways to disrupt and rupture these dynamics for the sake of their dignity, self-determination, and independence.  As yet, my untrained ‘Mzungu-eyes’ only see glimpses of their means of resistance, though the resilience, determination, resolve, creativity, and keen intellect of the Bgandans is evident at every turn.

As Mzungu who have come to be helpful to the School, I am aware of the complexity involved in forming relationships that do not reinforce and re-inscribe these dynamics based on hierarchy, power, and dependence.  My guess is that it is not entirely avoidable, and I know I have made, and will continue to make mistakes. Simple awareness of the surface dynamics is not enough, but hopefully it is something, and while it is tempting to want to help everyone, I understand that organic, systemic change is most often always better than grand gestures that amount to small band-aids.

Marylove (top left) and the Bbaale Family

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13 Responses to My Name is Not Mzungu

  1. Marty Bowles says:

    What a beautiful family the Bbaale family is! Such strength and love in their faces. And what wonderful work they are doing to help so many to be educated and to learn to take care of themselves. We Mzungu have a lot to learn from their Spirit. They have a lot to teach us. How blessed I have felt to know Mary Love and her two sisters in America. I would love to meet the rest of the family some day.
    Marty Bowles

  2. Christine Delano says:

    Thanks for this recent chapter of your trip. You have touched a an subject that those of us in the west rarely get a glimpse of. As you leave a lasting impression to the children around you; you too will be profoundly impressed by your experiences in Uganda.
    Thanks again for sharing.
    Christine Delano

  3. Abbott, Elaine and MaryLove, I visited with Flo today and read her your blog posts. She was very moved by your experiences, as we all are, and asked that I send her love and regards. Bringing flip flops to the children really impressed her as a clever idea as she knows how much kids love flip flops. It is amazing how many hearts are being touched by your stories. Prayers coming every day. Blessings, Barbara

  4. Mike Culver says:

    So much of systemic change is by example, sort of that idea that we might be the only copy of the Gospel some people might ever see. Yes, there are layers and layers and layers, but if we are following our call – and you are – then it is going to be good. Some anthropologist, I forget who, said it takes 400 years for a paradigm shift, his example being slavery. These people don’t have 400 years…The example of nobody taking the stool is beautiful. Though might be, it is yet another incarnation of ‘behold, I do a new thing.’

    Traveling Mercies,

  5. Marty Watkin says:

    Since Mary Love has many Mzungu friends, does some of that clout rub off on her, I wonder. It wd. be great if it did — if it facilitated future transactions and interactions with Bgandans, it’d almost be worth it to have been treated unequally as a Mzungu. Sort of, “Tinman, I give a heart, to you Lion, courage, and to you, Mary Love, my Mzungu clout.”

  6. mawbymcb says:

    Hi! I’m linking to this post from a post on my blog. In a search for the t-shirt my Ugandan friend Sylvia described, I found the picture of you two. 🙂 Had just written a post talking about the note she wrote to “warn” me that the kids might all call me “muzungu” when we got to the school.

    Love your post and want people who want to know more to click through and read it.

    • beth says:

      “Mzungu” is not meant to be offensive. I lived in Kenya for many years and at first, I was set back by the use of the word because we don’t address people that way in the states. I think wearing t-shirts around town that say “my name is not mzungu” is actually offensive to the local people and will create more problems than solve. You are actually making yourself look more foolish by doing so. Why don’t you just have a coversation with the person verbally and tell them your name. That seems to be the more human way of combating your offenses.

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  8. Ana Edwads says:

    Dear Abbott,

    In Mali the Bambara term (the language of 80% of the population) for “white person” is Tubabu. The colonial language, and that of the educated, wealthy and government is French. Imagine my chagrin when it was applied to me – an African American woman, albeit mixed Black/white. I got several responses when I asked friends and colleagues why – from the colonial history to the more recent use for anyone who is a stranger to Mali, from white to Malians who have moved away and don’t speak Bambara. Nevertheless I found myself wanting to be acknowledged as even a little bit Farafina (Black).

    I just wanted to applaud not only the sensitivity of your observations, which obviously come from an open and smart heart, but your determination to convey the complexity of the dynamics, past and present, race and class, human ambition and hope in the face of subtle and not-so-subtle barriers thick as concrete walls. Mali is one of the world’s poorest nations as well and yet everywhere the great shame is the wasting of entrepreneurial spirit, towering work ethics, great visions and simple desire to provide for self and family because these resource-rich nations are still viewed as harvest grounds for more predatory nations. That you specifically describe the Bgandans’ responses to Mzungu dynamics in their lives as resistence is especially important – in and of itself, and to those who would offer help or “aid”. Listening, learning and taking direction from the Bgandans themselves, that is the starting point.

    Thanks for the telling. Ana

  9. John says:

    Mzungu is used in Africa as a disparaging noun for a white person. It is similar to a white person calling a black person a coon.

    • Milena says:

      No John, it’s not similar because there is not the same history of oppression behind the term. If you ever called me a coon, I would rip your face off. Coon is an offensive term that has it’s roots in slavery. You can see from the article that muzungus are still respected because of the socialization people received into believing that whiteness was supreme that occurred during colonialism. Muzungu is a very neutral world, it’s just how we address white people.

  10. Pingback: Mzungu vs Nigger (Neger) – Are they Equal? Are they Racist? | Mkenya Ujerumani

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