What Does Muzungu Mean?

What does Muzungu mean?

The most important part of any website is the ‘name’, it encompasses everything that your site is about. It’s a brand, it defines you, who you are and what your trying to express with your art… but nobody wants to type in vafaandersonphotography.com … its TOO LONG! Well then, what defines me? Is it my culture, my background, my experiences, my beliefs or a mélange of everything? After several long lists and ideas thrown in the trash, one word remained stuck in my mind the most… “Muzungu”.

Muzungu in Kinyarwanda means “aimless wanderer” and was first used when the British explored the great lakes region of Africa. Nowadays, the definition has shifted to ‘white person’ but also carries the social context implying the person is ‘rich’. Muzungu may mean many other things, but I choose it because of the unique perspective it has given me on my purpose in life.

Growing up in Rwanda about 15 years ago was definitely an interesting experience. At that time, Rwanda was just stabilizing from the 1994 genocide, the cities were safe but there definitely weren’t many foreigners living there. At that time, out of a population 7 million, there must have been only around 5000 foreigners total in the entire country, most of them working with the United Nations or other NGOs. It was rare to see foreigners out in the streets, as they usually remained in their vehicles or protected compounds. I remember walking along the dusty side streets near my home with my parents. The people passing by would stop and stare at us, whispering ‘Muzungu Muzungu’ in bewilderment. Sometimes large crowds of people would gather and begin walking with us. The children were so excited, entire soccer matches in the street would stop as we passed through. Sometimes kids would come up to you and pull on your ‘straight’ hair or want to touch your skin to see if you were real. For some, this was their first time seeing a ‘white’ person up close in person. It was sort of cool at first, but sometimes it became uncomfortable… I felt like I was at a zoo, except it was us, the Muzungus, that were the main attraction.

Growing up in Rwanda, despite all the unwanted attention, I learned that being ‘different’ gives you so many opportunities to be of service. I was very fortunate to have amazing parents who understood the benefits of grassroots projects, and strived to make a difference in the communities they visited. I remember on the weekends, we would drive out into the countryside with our broken down pickup truck, chugging along through the farmlands and rolling hills. We visited communities for social economic development projects, people would come from far and wide on foot to participate. Originally I thought I was going there to teach, but being after meeting such humble, helpful, pure hearted and selfless individuals, I felt that I had learned more from being with them than I could have ever contributed in return. Being called a ‘Muzungu’ quickly faded and turned into ‘Yi shuti yange’ or ‘friend’.

“Do not be content with showing friendship in words alone, let you heart burn with loving kindness for all who may cross your path.” Bahá’u’lláh

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About the author

Vafa Anderson is a world traveler, photographer, musician and digital artist. He enjoys sharing the beauty and diversity of the world through his stories and art.

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