The other day I tried to find my way around Dar es Salaam to cold call on people I needed to meet with but had not arranged an appointment in advance. Sometimes Google Maps is helpful, but in the case of finding particular bureaucratic offices in Dar es Salaam, it is usually not. My inability to navigate Dar is the primary reason why I take taxis — I would normally be happy to walk, if only I knew where I was going. From my hotel to the National AIDS Control Programme (NACP) office, it’s a healthy walk, but I’d likely get lost. So, I took a taxi. I was told the previous day that the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) office was in the same area (I presumed even the same compound of buildings), so in trying to get there, I decided I would just walk. (It was not just because it was close but also because I didn’t expect a taxi driver would know the office or where it was any better than I would — they’re best at locating hotels and major landmarks, not obscure government offices.)
Since I remembered someone telling me that NIMR was near NACP (where I was stalking bureaucrats early in the morning before I knew they would head out for a day-long workshop), I figured I would just walk around and find it by following signposts. I didn’t see any signposts, but I figured it couldn’t be far from the hospital, so I walked into the hospital. I found myself entering a wing labeled “Cancer Institute.” I asked for directions to NIMR and was taken to a head nurse who walked me to the building’s exit and directed me where to go, but also told me to ask directions along the way. I didn’t realize that I had to exit the gate to the main road behind the hospital so had to double back, as at least 20 Tanzanians visiting sick patients in the hospital watched. It was then that I felt like a true mzungu, walking around without any direction.
Mzungu in East and Southern Africa generally refers to a European, or a white person, or someone who comes from somewhere else. When I first came to Tanzania in 2004, I would often hear children chant “Mzungu! Mzungu!” as I walked to/from my home in Kijenge Kati passing an elementary school. I also hear[d] it when vendors seek my attention. By the end of my stay in 2004, I would even shout it at other wazungu (plural for mzungu in Kiswahili) in Tanzania that were friends of mine, as a joke.
A few years ago, I was told the [alleged] etymology of mzungu. In Kiswahili, kuzunguka means to circle. Kuzungukazunguka means to wander aimlessly with no purpose. It seems plausible that the East and Southern Africans that first came into contact with British colonialists thought this of them: that they seemed to wander without any purpose, that they were just circling. I’m sure it was confounding that these white people would walk around (usually not knowing exactly where they were headed), perhaps taking down information, and engaging in strange activities that didn’t include farming or business. I’m not sure much has changed today, decades after independence. Wazungu continue to come to East and Southern Africa, seem not to know where they’re headed most times, and engage in strange activities that don’t make apparent their usefulness. Only this trip, children aren’t yelling “Mzungu!” at me, but instead softly whisper “shikamoo” instead. I’m not sure if it’s because I look older now, or if I look a little less lost than I really am.
Has anyone else heard other etymologies of mzungu?