Mzungu

by zunguzungu

My flight arrived early, my bags came through intact, my visa was easily obtained, and it wasn’t even hot enough to break a sweat. Perhaps not minor miracles, but after a tortuous 48 hour sleepless journey, I was willing to look on these things as gift from the divine. And my friend Liz showed up at the airport almost immediately after my arrival; also fortuitous, since rush hour in Dar is something to be avoided at all costs.

So, buoyed up by this auspicious arrival, we set off to procure a flight to Zanzibar. The people at the Coastal Air window didn’t seem interested in dealing with us, so after being offered a better price from some guys who approached us in the concourse, for some reason, we decided to take them up on it. I say “we” but I was mostly a silent partner in the whole exchange; whereas I was struggling to remember even the simplest phrases in swahili, Liz was utterly at ease, laughing and joking with the guys who were taking us to where they would sell us a ticket, and seemed to have wholly won them over. I was happy to be along for the ride, but it was quickly becoming apparent that I had a lot of work to do in the language department. We wound around and around the tiny little airport on a little access road, swatting mosquitoes and dodging hand pulled carts, until at the other side, we went into a little office and started to negotiate.

Now Liz applied for a residence permit on her last trip to TZ, has paid all her fees, and has visited a variety of Uhamiaji offices enough times to know where all the bathrooms are, what day they sweep the floors (they don’t), and the first names of the mail carriers that come to each one. Needless to say, she does not, at this point in her saga, possess a residence permit. But it quickly becomes apparent that this is utterly irrelevent as she negotiates back and forth with our new friends in the airline industry; though she doesn’t even have her passport with her, they like her swahili enough to declare her to be a resident and me to be mzungu. Fair enough–a difference of a not inconsiderable number of dollars, but I’m not going to quibble. I certainly feel like a foreigner right now, sitting in a tiny windowless office (an office by virtue of the fact that there’s a desk in it) buying a plane ticket for a flight that hasn’t yet been scheduled, paying what they judiciously decide I should pay, and getting nary a ticket nor receipt for our trouble. They’re not even wearing particularly formal seeming clothes, and they record our names in what suspect is a school exercise book. Fair enough. I’m game.

And the amazing thing is, after we wait an hour or so in the departure lounge for a flight that is not written on the “departures” board and for which, I am almost positive, there exists no formal record in any flight log, they take us out to a tiny little prop plane, we get in it, we take off, we land, and we find that we have indeed arrived in Zanzibar. I must really be an mzungu, because these things surprise me.

I’ve called this blog “zunguzungu” because its one of the things that children shout out at you as you pass. Mzungu means “foreigner,” sort of; it has shades of meaning that specifically refer to a person with money, generally (but not necessarily) a white person, and has particular reference to the kind of person who is used to having his passport checked multiple times before flying to another country, to getting righteously angry when his flight is delayed, and to checking in with friends or family immediately before and after the flight lands. But in Tanzania, I find that its an almost existential problem that faces a Westernized person once they arrive: are you an mzungu?

On one level, you absolutely are–of course you are, and you know it. But that’s the thing. You strive not to be, even without realizing it. No one wants to be a tourist, no one wants to be one of those inappropriatedly dressed water buffalo taking pictures of street venders and gliding across the surface of the society with none of the deep, penetrating social insight that you, the non-tourist, employ as you see directly into the heart of this strange place. Well, maybe you don’t say that, but you think it, don’t you? Or at least you strive to be that person.
The Tanzanians, on the other hand, laugh at the wazungu who have come all this way from the same place and they don’t even greet each other when they see each other on the street. Look! Another wazungu! But the wazungu don’t want to greet each other, don’t want to be reminded of their zunguzungu, so they avert their eyes or give a curt little nod and pass by.