Mr. Whitey

I’ve grown pretty accustomed to being pursued by bunches of kids call me “azungu!”, which is a Bantu word that approximately means “whitey” or “honkey” (or for my kama’aina readers, “haole“). In fact, I’m killing time writing this right now after running out of stuff to do with the current group. They usually have nothing more interesting to do than stare at me as I count surveys or whatever, which isn’t really too surprising: besides there not being too much in the way of activites for them, I must look like some sort of crazy mutant to them. Kids from super-white parts of the US have similar reactions to people from other races, it’s just standard childhood curiosity/fear.

Azungu comes originally form Swahili, in which the relevant word is mzungu (and the plural is wazungu), from kuzungu, meaning to wander aimlessly. I don’t mind Malawians using it to describe me (or even yelling it at me, which adorable little kids are wont to do) at all – I find it kind of amusing, and it’s basically never meant in anger. Even if it were, who gives a crap? Objecting to a word doesn’t change anything about the underlying sentiment. I’ve been called “sir” and had it be more insulting than some times when my friends call me cuss words.

But I do find it kind of confusing, or at least I did until recently. “Azungu” is plural – it refers to more than one white person, wheras the singular form is “mzungu”* – but it’s used almost exclusively to address and refer to me, alone. I developed a few theories about this. One is that maybe we white folk always travel in packs, so the kids perceive me as a scout, a harbinger of many whities to come. Another idea I had was that the arrival of a white guy was sufficiently exciting that it needed to be emphasized with the plural, like a kid that yells “ELEPHANTS!” to his friends after seeing one.

The truth, as best I’ve been able to determine by asking Malawians about this, is even weirder. Chichewa, like many Bantu languages (and also all the Romance languages I’m aware of), often uses the plural in order to show respect. So when I greet a man I call him “abambo”, which is the plural of the word for father. Many (all?) Romance languages have a similar pattern where you use the plural form of verbs to talk respectfully to someone.** Thus the whole time that these kids have been shouting “white folks!” at me, they’ve really been calling me “Mr. Whitey!” They may be staring at me in terror, and shouting racial epithets, but damned if they’re not going to be showing appropriate deference while doing so.

EDIT: This crossed my mind again today (August 23rd, if you’re keeping score) and I realized I was mistaken about romance languages and plurals for formality – in Spanish, for example, you use the third-person singular, not the second-person plural, to be respectful. That’s sort of an odd error to make, as I was mentally conjugating the verbs correctly and just misidentifying the person. It might be related to my efforts to wall off the parts of my brain used for Spanish and Swahili, which tend to interfere with my Chichewa skills. More on this at a later date.

*According to Wikipedia, the singular form of azungu in Chichewa is “muzungu”, which is the same as the equivalent in Luganda. My dictionary disagrees, and says it’s “mzungu”, same as Swahili.

**I’m kind of curious why this is so common across many different languages; as a native English speaker the whole idea of special grammar to show politeness seems weird in general, and the fact that it’s so frequently the same approach is pretty striking.

7 thoughts on “Mr. Whitey”

    1. That’s fascinating. White folks did something similar with the word haole, whose actual origin is unclear. However, I think the origin of mzungu has been destroyed even more thoroughly than Jay realizes. He says that “Its funny because even we still use this term Mzungu to mean person from outside who comes to travel about and explore our ways, that is why even if you are Afro-European or African-American we still refer to you as Mzungu, revealing the true meaning of the word.” When we were in TZ, I noticed that the black volunteers weren’t being called “mzungu”, and I asked a couple of Tanzanian guys at a party what the word for black Americans or Europeans was. They suggested that the answer was the n-bomb, but that “they don’t like it very much.”

  1. Funny I’m reading this now I’m home. But I think it’s cool how the same term, or derivatives of it are used all over East Africa. Malawai, Kenya, Tanzania all use mzungu…. and Mozambique uses mulungu, even though they barely (don’t?) share any common languages other than English (and in Mozam, barely).

    Interestingly, when traveling with my friend in Tanzania who is of Asian descent, I was a muzungu and she was a china (but prounounced like cheena). We asked many locals to clarify what we were. Apparently Asians aren’t muzungus (in Arusha at least).

    1. I wonder about the extent to which “mzungu” (and also “bwana” which is ubiquitous) were spread by white colonialists between the countries where they settled. As for not sharing common languages, I believe almost all Mozambicans still speak Bantu languages as their primary tongues, and there is some overlap with neighboring countries. By the way, in Chichewa “mulungu” means “God” and also “week”.

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