I have lived most of my life in South Carolina [other states include North Carolina,…
Back when I worked in the hospitals, occasionally some misguided soul would yell out ‘hey, respiratory,’ as I walked by, and I’d continue to walk on by. And then the misguided soul would continue ‘hey, I’m talking to you’, and I’d feigned innocence, and say ‘oh you’re talking to me? I had no idea.’ and the conversation would continue with ‘I called your name’ and here’s where I’d get all passive-aggressive aggressive and say ‘No, you yelled ‘respiratory.’ That’ not my name; it’s my job title. You want me, you yell my name. It’s Michelle, in case you don’t know. I don’t answer to respiratory.’ Most people only did that once, and the ones who did it more than once were assholes.
Something similar happens in Rwanda [and Uganda. And Tanzania. And Madagascar. And I imagine every other African country where foreigners aren’t common] every.damn.day and it irks me to no end.
In Rwanda, especially Rwandan villages, white people are not common. And should you happen to be white, it’s assumed that you are French [or Belgium] both because Belgium was the motherland–the former colonial power, and most foreigners in fact speak French. When I lived in Mexico, people though I was from Spain. And when I lived in Moscow, people thought I was English. And when I traveled throughout South America, it was back to being from Spain. And let’s be honest, even in America no one ever really thinks I’m from South Carolina upon first meeting me. So, it’s not that people not knowing where I’m from that’s bothersome, it’s not that someone is essentially calling me ‘white foreigner’ bothers me, it’s the fact that no one calls me by my name or even a local version of my name that bothers me.
In Rwanda, it’s ‘hey look at what that muzungu is doing‘ and it’s essentially like saying ‘hey, look at that nigger [or wetback or chinc or whatever other ethnic derogatory term one can come up with].’ It’s not as if they don’t know that calling someone ‘muzungu’ is being offensive because Every.Single.Volunteer.Ever has told them some form of ‘hey, that’s not nice’.
So, the greeting that most people give a white person is “bonjour muzungu”. Or, they call out to you “ Muzungu!” And I just keep on walking. Some PCVs think the term “muzungu” is insulting, and to some it is–because it means that everyone is being grouped together with all other white foreigners simply based on our skin color. I really don’t care that they are calling me white, pink, or purple. For me, it’s the simple thing that if I take the time and effort to learn their name, they should do the same. After all, there are many, many more Rwandan people in town for me to learn their names; and I am the only white person in town so learning Michelle or Mischa or even a Rwandan version of Michelle should not be that hard.
PCVs work hard to integrate in the local communities, and so being called ‘muzungu’ means that people don’t understand what I’m doing here and why I’m different. I am always reminding people that I’m not a tourist and I’m here to help. After all, if I were a ‘muzungu’ like they usually see, why would I be studying Kinyarwanda? I wouldn’t be; I’d be paying someone to fetch my water, do my laundry, and shop for and cook for me. Yet, I do all these things, often alongside of my neighbors.
The thing is, I know that for kids here, it’s hard to wrap their heads around the fact that there could even be a foreigner who isn’t French. To many of them, it’s ingrained in their heads from an early age that any time you see a white person, they are a muzungu, and you say to them “bonjour muzungu”. [As a side note they also seem to pick up the phrase “Donne-moi de l’argent” or ‘Give me money’ fairly young, too, because I get that a lot. Did someone tell them that demanding money impolitely in French or English and holding out their hand actually works? And sometimes, just to fuck with them because I’m wired like that, I’ll speak to them in Spanish or German or Spanish-Russian and they stare at me like I have three heads, and I go on about my business ignoring them because as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not French nor do I speak it.]
I’ve seen, on multiple occasions, mothers teaching their babies the word “muzungu” by pointing at me. Depending on my mood that day, I’ll kindly inform them that no, my name is not “muzungu”, it’s Michelle, or I’ll roll my eyes and walk away. These days I get especially frustrated by it because even though I live in a larger village, you’d think word would have spread somewhat that the white woman who walks around carrying a funny looking helmet, who shops in the market, and fetches her own water is American and in fact does not speak a lick of French.
As much as it bothers me to be called ‘muzungu’, I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on what life is like here for Asian- and African-American volunteers. To start, for many Rwandan village people it’s unfathomable that someone could be American but not look white. African-Americans often get the assumption that they’re Rwandan (which can be a good thing), but when they say they’re American, people still ask “no, but where are you from?” The fact that you could be dark-skinned but be from America is hard for a lot of people to wrap their head around here. It’s also similar for Asian-American volunteers, who are unfortunately subject to the type of comments [you have slant-y eyes] that would be considered horribly rude and offensive back at home, but here are just simple commentary– not meant as an insult, just an observation. So volunteers who are American but not Caucasian have a different set of challenges to overcome.
So, the ‘muzungu’ issue is something that will continue to be a challenge for me much like ignorant co-workers calling me ‘hey, respiratory’. I always hoped that I wound cease to be a novelty, but I know that I’ll never stop getting called ‘muzungu’. Some days it affects me more than others; Somedays I can turn these situations into ‘teaching opportunities’– opportunities to teach people about what I am doing here, why health matters, why washing hands is important, why checking babies’ weight is a big deal, and how I’m different.
And, that my name is Michelle, not ‘muzungu’.