“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[1]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.[2] 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.”

[1] 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.

[2] 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.