If you’re a faithful reader of this blog you might remember that Chris and I are often called “mzungus”, the Kinyarwandan word borrowed from Swahili for “white person”. The prevalence of the term is magnified in the rural area where we are staying because there are only a handful of white people in the entire district, making us true novelties.
Having the term mzungu directed at me so frequently has been frustrating in several respects. First, the term is widely associated with power, wealth, etc—all things that inhibit my ability have open, honest conversations with a broad cross-section of the local community. That I’m usually riding in a car when I pass by people walking or pushing bikes along the road only reinforces this dynamic. Second, it forces me to represent “white people” as a group rather than just myself. Finally, I, like most people, prefer to be called by my name rather than objectified.
Two weeks ago we took NCV’s kids out to a nearby field for a soccer game. Much of the neighborhood soon joined, and, not surprisingly, “mzungu mzungu!” rang in my ears as I traversed the field. In response, I began telling the kids “my name is Daniel, what’s your name?” Despite their limited English, nearly all of them responded with their name—many were shy, some hesitant. While I only remembered a few of the names (there were SO many, and most were difficult to pronounce), this exchange of names helped me feel less like an object of fascination and more like a kid out playing soccer.
As I walked through the same field a few days later, I heard “Daniel, Daniel”. When I turned around, I realized it was some of the kids I had met during the soccer game. I waved; they waved back. Progress.
On an unrelated note, I only have four days left here in Rwanda. Tempus fugit. (Latin phrase for “time flies”)