“White People” doesn’t have to mean “Those who travel and traffic in ignorance” (but often does)
Let me give you the first line from a terrible Paul Theroux piece in the New York Review of Books (via):
Until I went to live in Africa, I had not known that most people in the world believe that they are the People, and their language is the Word, and strangers are not fully human—at least not human in the way the People are—nor is a stranger’s language anything but the gabbling of incoherent and inspissated felicities.
The rest of the piece — from a newly published book, The Tao of Travel — is a lazy list of claims about the words that (brown) people from various locales use to describe (white) foreigners, most of which seem to range between misframed and straight-up inaccurate. People in the comment boxes correct several of his mistakes, to which I would add that his use of the Swahili word “Mzungu” is pretty misinformed. He writes:
In Swahili, the word muzungu (plural, wazungu) has its root in the word for ghost or spirit, and cognates of the word—mzungu in Chichewa and murungu in Shona and other Bantu languages—have the meaning of a powerful spirit, even a god. Foreigners had once seemed godlike when they first appeared in some places.
I don’t know anything about Shona, but what he says about Swahili is just wrong. The word he must be thinking of is “kizuka,” which does mean “ghost,” but it’s derived from the verb stem -zua, to make or invent. The word “Mzungu,” on the other hand, is derived from a different stem, the verb -zungua, which means “to go around,” and because of the way Swahili works — you’ll just have to trust me on this — that distinction is pretty obvious. When I was learning Swahili in Tanzania, I had many conversations about the word, and I never heard anything like the story he’s telling. Which is not to say that there isn’t someone somewhere who believes it; clearly, someone told Paul Theroux this derivation. But it’s not only uncommon enough that I never heard it, it’s contradicted by the basic rules that constitute Kiswahili as a linguistic system: “-zua” and “-zungua” are not really similar. Someone who doesn’t know the Roman alphabet might, for example, make the mistake of thinking “H” and “X” are similar letters, but they would both be wrong and reveal themselves to be non-experts. No one who actually uses the alphabet in question would make that mistake, and by the same token, only a non-speaker of Swahili make the mistake of thinking Mzungu and Kizuka are likely to be related. They’re not even the same noun class. It’s just icing on the cake to note that he also makes the classic Mzungu blunder, pronouncing “um-zungu” as “mu-zungu” because it’s easier for an English speaker to say.
Anyway, as the story usually goes, white people in East Africa were given the name “wazungu” because they went “around and around.” This may even be true, and might have interesting consequences (potentially) for how we understand the history of white people in East Africa. What isn’t true is Theroux’s claim that the word has anything to do with ghosts. It has never meant that, it doesn’t mean that now, and anyone who thinks it does mean that is a fool, who hasn‘t done even the most basic homework. Which is what Paul Theroux really learned when he “went to live in Africa”: You can say any fool thing about Africans — flattering your white audience’s sense of superiority — and you are as likely to be celebrated for it as called on it.
But let’s go back to his first line, his
“Until I went to live in Africa, I had not known that most people in the world believe that they are the People, and their language is the Word, and strangers are not fully human…”
This is wrong in a no less direct and far more pernicious sense: when Europeans went to places like Africa, it was the Europeans who were convinced of all of these things. This is not really a controversial claim; it is, in fact, remarkably easy to demonstrate that, historically, “most people in the world” greeted Europeans with far more hospitality and openness than they ever received in return, and that while Western European invaders tended to be insular, ethnocentric provincials who believed that non-Christians were not fully human, the people they called “natives” were actually deeply cosmopolitan in practice.
In the 19th century, for example, your average Briton lived on an island, in every sense, and almost never met anyone who didn’t. But if this average Briton happened to get himself into the lucrative business of imperial conquest — as a great many did — he might find himself attempting to subjugate, de-humanize, and re-educate someone like your average 19th century Gikuyu, a person who would not only be likely to have met a variety of different “ethnic” types, but would very likely be actually related to a person who spoke a different language than him or her. While the Maa speaking peoples who roamed Maasailand in the 19th century were ethnically distinct from the Gikuyu peoples — by language, religious practice, and lifeways — trade and intermarriage between the two groups was not only common, it was constant and normal, part of a broad regional pattern of population transfer that also wove together and incorporated many more neighboring “tribal” groups into a single, internally differentiated population economy. And this sort of thing was common across much of Africa, a practice of culture in which trade and intermarriage with other ethnic groups was not only thinkable, but a thoroughly practical way of preparing for the future. The wider your kinship network, the more secure it would be against the possibility of famine or war. And so, when white Europeans first came to Africa, they found a great many people who were very open to ideas and practices — as the spread of Islam and Christianity demonstrates, in fact — and proved themselves to be the precise opposite. Theroux only knows the Swahili word “mzungu,” but let me offer him another one: “mgeni,” which means foreigner, and also guest.
This is just one example, but it would be easy to go on. And it is this shameful history that Theroux seems to want to forget, projecting the thing which he — and his culture — want to disavow from themselves onto the historical victims of that intolerance and violence.
Of course, there’s another problem here, and in some ways it’s even worse: the ridiculous presentism of his etymological investigations. What does the etymological origin of a word have to do with what, say, Swahili speakers use it to mean now? His phrase “most people in the world believe” is a claim about people living in the world right now, but it’s a claim that doesn’t even pass the slightest bit of muster even if his etymology weren’t hopelessly flawed. All of the people who use all of those words that he lists are well aware that they live in a big world filled with all sorts of very different people from themselves. And they are aware of it, in part, because most of them were conquered and colonized, a century ago, by people who believed that their intrinsic difference made them superior. The Swahili, for example, were sailing around the Indian ocean and sending caravans into the East African interior for many centuries before Europeans even arrived. When the Portuguese finally managed to round the Cape of Good Hope and make contact with Swahili traders, it was these very cosmopolitan merchants who helped them get to South Asia in the first place. The idea that these people would think white people were ghosts is one of the most ignorant things I’ve ever heard.
Anyway, the point is really this: there might have been a time — in the remote past — where some of these people he talks about were unaware of people unlike them, and there might have been a moment where the word “people” was the same as the word they didn’t use to describe their ethnic group in particular (since, after all, you can’t differentiate yourself from foreigners you didn’t know existed). But while the most fundamental problem with Theroux’s myth of native intolerance is that it is really hard to be xenophobic against people whose existence you don’t suspect, the fact that he thinks this (mostly hypothetical) story about ancient original xenophobia has anything to do with now is what really puts him over the top in the competition to be the most obnoxiously oblivious traveler possible. After all, if you dig around in the etymologies of words that you use every day, you’ll find a lot of interesting traces of history, but you will also find very little reference into what you and your peers actually use the word to mean now. The same is true with a word like mzungu: though laden with history, it still means what it means because of what people who use it now use it to mean. Even if it had once been related to ghost, it certainly doesn’t mean that now. And if it has negative connotations, don’t you think it has more to do with what East Africans do know about white people — the historical legacy of conquest, enslavement, exploitation, and bigotry — than what they don’t?
Let me close, then, with some words from my explanation for why I named this blog what I did:
I learned a long time ago that I’m a white guy from the United States, long before I ever left Appalachia. But being called an “Mzungu” can teach you different things, if you let it. Too many people take the name Mzungu as an insult, and it isn’t that, or at lest not always. Tanzanians sometimes use it as a compliment for other Tanzanians who are successful in business; wewe kizungu sana! It isn’t always that either, though. And while race is physicial, “kizungu” is tabia or utamaduni, words that get mistranslated as culture or civilization, but mean something deeper about how and why people choose to relate to other people the way that they do. And so, some people like to be called “Western,” and some people don’t. Some people have that option and some people don’t. As for me, I’ve taken the name zunguzungu for this blog less as a claim than as a reminder for myself, a reminder that I’m really not sure what it means, on the deepest level, and that I need to remember that ignorance so that I can learn from it. Because then it might be a good thing. Whatever “zunguzungu” is, I know that I am it. The task, then, is to make that “it” into something good.
Also, this on how “zunguzungu” has nothing to do with the King Yellowman song “Zunguzungunguzunguzeng.”
 A quick scan of the table of contents implies, by the way, that the only people who have traveled in history are people of European descent.
 This discussion at Kamusi gives you a sense for the contours of that conversation. It’s mostly speculative and there is no consensus, but note how no one in the entire conversation even suggests or entertains the derivation Theroux is trumpeting as authoritative.
great post. european colonizers love to represent their colonial others as imagining them as deities, spirits, otherworldly. “ghosts” here, “gods” in the conventional story about what the mexica thought about the spaniards when they arrived. matthew restall (seven myths of the spanish conquest) shows that there’s not any consistent evidence from the time about this, and definitely none from indigenous sources. he argues that the only way the story makes sense is if the indigenous people are stupid, child-like, in short mentally inferior.
It’s easier to say racist things if you don’t have to actually say them, right? Just build a story that requires/implies some polite racism as its finishing touch, and then let your audience fill it in!
[…] Furthermore, I tend to think that Theroux (and probably most travel writers — myself in my modest attempts at the genre as well, I’d imagine) tends to rely on the ignorance of his audience. I first really noticed this when I read his book Dark Star Safari in which he recounted his trip from Cairo to the Cape. In some ways it is a fine book. But at the same time I noticed something that set off alarms in my head: The further south he went, the more I found Theroux writing things that were misguided or simply wrong. And I would suspect that it is no coincidence that my own expertise as an Africanist expands the further one goes from north to south. In other words, the more I knew, the more I realized just how much Theroux did not know. And while there is the possibility that this was mere coincidence, I had the sneaking suspicion that other Africanists who focus on other regions would find the same shortcomings in Theroux’s writings about their regions of strength. Over at zunguzungu Aaron Bady confirms these suspicions and then some. […]
Madan’s Swahili-English dictionary lists “msuka” as “one who appears suddenly,–and so, an apparition, ghost, spirit, goblin.”
It’s the word before “msungu.” I have no idea if they are etymologically related or not. The same claim appears in Theroux’s Fresh Air Fiend.
Hmm… I use the Kamusi because it’s easy, but Madan’s is also classic Victorian dictionary writing; things like the z/s distinction are the sorts of things he got wrong, I suppose (though there could also be regional variation; don’t know anything about where he got his data). But msuka/mzuka and kizuka are built from the same basic stem (-zuka) and my original point still applies: -zuka and -zungua are pretty clearly not the same.
To me, Theroux’s claim sounds like something he read in a book. It wasn’t easy for someone who knows nothing about the languages to find a reference to it, but I did see this: “The eastern Bantu peoples and the Wasawahilil at the coast of Kenya and Tanzania called Europe, Uzungu, and the Europeans Wazungu. According to C. W. Reichenbach, Swahili-English Dictionary (Catholic University Press, 1967), 608; the word unzung literally means “strangeness, unusualness, novelty, peculiarity.” However the term mzungu as D. C. Scott in his 1929 Dictionary of the Nyanja Language has been able to demonstrate, also came to have the nuance of spirit, since spirits are strange and they often perplex (James Henry Owino Kombo, The Doctrine of God in African Christian Thought [Brill, 2007]: p2 n3).
Thank you for this post. Detailed and thorough routing of Theroux. If he writes aiming for his audience’s ignorance, he also anticipates what they want, as you point out: most of his readership want their ignorant expectations of Africa and Africans confirmed (and not necessarily in a malicious manner).
People want what they expect, I suppose, because they know how to deal with it, right?
Exhibit B, via @resnikoff on twitter: http://travel.nytimes.com/2011/04/03/travel/03Cover.html
Will definitely do well to procure a copy of the book.Objectively speaking, the Africans are amongst the most dynamic ,friendly and welcoming people no matter what some people think.There are people who have left Africa on their first trips with vastly positive impressions contrary to the negative impressions that some feed to what may be considered an ignorant audience.Fortunately,the world is a global village today and people can their own home work and find out realities for themselves
While I was joking about the zungu land bit, you do have a point; I hadn’t thuoght about other titles like mjinga or mkubwa which are perfectly acceptable. It just seems like the mzungu name serves no purpose in modern day Kenya, and only persists because parents tell their kids to use it. We’re not venturing off into the wilderness anymore, I’m just walking down the street like any other chap!Anyways, I don’t live in the village any more, so this isn’t as common anymore. Kids in the city are more exposed, so they don’t do it quite as often. Also, if they do, I usually say something back like Mwafrika 😉
Theroux lives in Hawaii six months of the year. Here, white people are called Haole, which, according to popular understanding, literally means “breathless” in the Hawaiian language. Whether or not this came about because Hawaiians felt that their first white visitors were “undead,” or just smug, unfeeling bastards, is something people here like to wonder about. There are different linguistic theories about the origins of the word. Today it is generally used to refer to white people, or anyone or anything foreign, often with derogatory connotations.
Anwyay, perhaps Theroux muddled up his Hawaiian and his Swahili etymologies… At the end of the day he is just a travel writer and a novelist. Why would we expect him to be an expert on anything? Still, I appreciate this post’s incisive criticism of an often vaunted author’s ethno-centricism. (His novel Honolulu Hotel is hilarious, and captures an interesting slice of Hawaiian race and class relations – perhaps a subject he know a little more about)
Not only that, but the total absence of any atepmtt at traffic management during repair really gets to me. If you are lucky there will be a jamaa with a red rag who is generally ignored. Frequently they just divert traffic to the wrong side of the road and expect the drivers to work it out. When that is a high speed dual carriageway the result is often lethal but no-one seems to give a damn.
I am reading Petina Gappa’s book ‘out of darkness – shining light”. She is Zimbabwean and her native language is Shona. However, she uses Mzungu and wazungu to mean white person and white people. Is she wrong?
So, if Africa’s out, where can I travel and be regarded as a pasty-faced god? Maybe New Jersey. The television tells me that they have primitive, tanned, superstitious indigenous peoples there…the kind Batman could scare…oh well.
This is the funniest comment in the world. New Jersey! ROTFL!
[…] Aaron Bady takes down Paul Theroux’s “myth of native intolerance” in Africa. […]
[…] of malaria, famine, civil conflict, and AIDS, such a report is easy to formulate. Embellishment and pure fabrication can be employed if the story is not dramatic enough.In a misguided attempt to entertain my readers, […]
Brilliant post! Loved it. Clear, articulate, informed. Wow. I grew up in Zambia and am trying to write a novel set in Africa, and was googling to try and find more about the orgiin, meaning and usage of mzungu. Well – here it was. All the best. Keith
I loved this post! I’m heading to Tanzania in June so I googled some things and stumbled across your blog. I really enjoyed reading it. Also, I am from Appalachia so you earned street cred from me! 🙂
Enjoyed. Live in Tanzania now. From the U.S. learning Kiswahili. There are some other definitions of Mzungu I have come across and wish I had written them all down. Truly get tired of being called that. The local hotel staff when I visit Arusha refuse to call me by my name though I have stayed here a dozen times. It turns out I am the only Mzungu that ever stays here, it is a nice cheap guest house, so they delight in just yelling Mzungu at me everytime I am near. Hoping some day they will just call me by my name. Perhaps when I am fluent. Thanks for the insights.
I don’t get it. When kids in our country see Chinese pepole, do they shout Chinese! Chinese! When they see a black person, do they shout African! I know its a kid thing, but its just rude. And you can’t even say its a kid thing, because parents ACTIVELY ENCOURAGE their kids to do it. I see parents every day, showing me to their kids and teaching them say Jambo mzungu. DON’T TEACH THIS TO YOUR KIDS. How many parents in our country do we see teaching their kids to say say How Red Indian when you see a native American? No. How many would protest if we began doing this? Its just so frustrating, so offensive somehow. Please, Kenyans, stop calling us mzungu. Its rude. We hate it.
I take all your points on this, and don’t disagree with any of it, except that, for myself, I don’t actually find it rude and I don’t hate it. I grew up in Africa and it’s part of my experience when I go home. Not just in Kenya – never been there – but elsewhere on the continent. So, for me at least, please don’t stop!
Yeah that’s what I’m talking about baby–nice work!
[…] the Internet is – surprisingly – scarce, but the most reliable-looking source I found explains that the word is “derived from a different stem, the verb -zungua, which means “to go […]
The concept of Colors: Bantu Perspective
It is very common for words to have more than one meaning: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. which may be somehow related to each other. It is true that the word “mzungu” originates from the verb kuzungua (Eastern Africa) and kuzungulula/ kuzunguluka in the DRC which means go to around as correctly stated by Zungungu. The verb kuzungua/kuzungulula/kuzunguluka mean also to turn back or to return to initial state. In this context, kuzunguluka (Swahili) and kujinga/kuzinga (Kikongo) mean the same thing, to go around, to surround. Kizunguzungu means dizziness or vertigo. In the sense, like in terms of metal, for instance, kuzungua means to melt, to turn from solid state of a metal to the liquid form. This is the work that a blacksmith does. You can imagine the process by which a blacksmith turns a metal to a liquid: through heat, at high temperatures. A metal goes from black/gray color to reddish or pinkish color, the color attributed to the white people. In a sense, Zunguzungu is right that mzungu does not originate from zua, instead of zungua. At the same time, Paul Theroux’s statement is not entirely false. Amongst the bakongo people, for instance, the Whites were perceived as the dead coming back to life. The dead people who live in the cold area of the Kalunga ( a word that stands for the after death and the Ocean) acquiring white color was widely is a well-established concept. When Diego-Cao and his colleagues arrived at the coast of the Atlantic Ocean near the mouth of the Congo River, they were warmly welcomed as their the comes back from the Kalunga to visit the living people. Therefore, I will not say that Paul Theroux is completely wrong. Bantu tribes share similar common beliefs, in addition, the language conceptual etymology. I attribute his error to translation from dead, the comers back (retuning) instead of spirits.
To read smelt instead of melt and comers-back instead of comes back
You know I read parts of your story and most of the comments and I realize that white people actually do have a claim for Reverse Racism in the world. As a non-white person whose ancestors were colonized by Europeans in one way or another I’m pretty grateful that my tribe isn’t still eating each other in the jungle. And while yes in recent times white people have wage war on the largest scales, with the largest losses, against the most innocence… simply dismissing Paul Theroux words as some sort of misguided belief that all white people have is just a broad stroke. Like Theroux’s it’s also a pretty irresponsible one too. I am not black, and technically I am from the “Americas” (south) and also of Lebanase descent, but I certainly don’t look white. Idk, maybe this is a black and white thing literally. Ive found so often, crazed non-whites speaking out for some sort of lifelong racism ive endured. Hilarious.
But, if there were any people on the fence of division before, you and Paul have certainly helped them chose a side with your sweeping generalizations and overall dismisall of the Europeans trading. Even comparing them to the Swahili? Wait a second, we can count the truest brave sailors from the samoa, people living on a tiny rock surrounded by endless water, and choosing to leave by star. I digress, I’m getting petty, much like what ive been reading. There is a zulu word for white person, something like “mizungo”? Not surs, literally just watched a movie where a zulu calls a white man “mizungo” in obvious anger threatening to find him and cut off his arm (District 9). Could he have mistaken the words? Him not being a fucking Swahili teacher and all?
i think i know a better origin of Mzungu,,,,,,, i think the Mswahili who first introduced the ‘white’ man into the interior of Africa wanted to claim ‘familiariyt’ and ‘closeness’ to the ‘stranger’ wanted to dispel fears, so he introduced him as ‘mwenzangu’ meaning ‘my friend’….. as hasty to know who the white skinned person was, the coined ‘mzungu’….
now you all know where Mzungu came from, ‘MWENZANGU’
The famous novel, petals of blood, of ngugi wa thiong’o, about 2 pages of its second part, also translates mzungu as spirit, so paul theroux might have it from there. Surely to base oneself on the writings of such a writer exonerates him in this matter. But true, theroux can be very careless with fact like eg saying in his book on his travel from cape town to luanda that kwanyama people are different to ovambo people…any namibian knows that aaKwanyama are the largest group of the ovambo people..
[…] “White People” doesn’t have to mean “Those who travel and traffic in ignorance” (but often… […]
I’m impressed most, by the tone of your commentary. This is not to mean that the commentary itself isn’t solid. It is and you do show a balanced mind at work around a complex set of circumstances. The tone for me, is key because I have come to use it (maybe unfairly) as a guide to the motivation (and intent) of the writer, in matters at the intersection of race, religion, politics & history. There are culprits on either either side of the racial divide whose feverish impulse to demonize the ‘other’ has resulted in further distortion of distorted truisms resulting in a towering babel bedlam. Oh, and the total lack of hubris is refreshing. More grease to your elbow!👍