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Muzungu in Uganda
by Jon Symmonds
(New York City, USA)
Aug 10, 2015
I have been to Uganda a few times for work - not had chance to stay longer that 2 weeks.
And everytime I have ventured into the city, I have heard people call me 'muzungu' which ha made me quite uncomfortable sometimes.
What do they actually mean - Is it racist?
If you are white ... and not Asian or Chinese (looks inclusive), this will probably be your first name as you stroll down the streets or in rural Uganda. Kids will most certainly call you 'Muzungu'.
Most Ugandans will quite easily and quickly identify Asians or Chinese and not refer to them as 'muzungu'.
First, it's not racist - at least not the intent of the majority... It can be! depends on where you are and the situation; If say you've been introduced to your colleagues at work, they know your name but continue to call you 'muzungu', then that would be unacceptable - not racist though! I believe racism will have a connotation of segregation to it which might not be the case - but watch , it could turn out to be!
If you are downtown in a busy place, quite often the vendors, touts and the boda-boda(moped) riders will shout out 'muzungu' - which in a way you would understand because that is the only way they can quickly attract your attention ... and they are so often quite friendly! but just like the saying goes; 'a hand shake beyond the elbow could turn out to be a blow' Study the situation, it could turn out to be unfriendly and unwelcoming. Best is to quickly find your way out of there.
And there could be other situations ...
... But more to this; 'muzungu' also has some other undertones - They will particularly look at you as someone who has money, wealth, a well-to-do person; the kids will particularly say - 'muzungu, give me money' - Note; you are not in any way expected to give anything - It's one of those stereotypes!
'Muzungu' is as old as anyone I have talked to can remember - I am told (from a bit of research) this comes from a swahili word 'kuzunguka' - to 'go around'. Reference was made to the first white people who came down to East Africa as people who moved from place to place - who were quite knowledgeable as well ... and therefore the Muzungu Concept!
Jon, nothing to worry about ... but if there are particular situations that have made you quite uncomfortable, let me know and we could explore this further. I know some of my visitors here will have something to say as well.
I hope this helps.
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