Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mzungu Musings

I pay more attention to the sky here. At night we gather by the pool and try to remember the names of constellations. Here, Orion looks sideways to me and the dippers are hard to find. Every evening I wish that I had paid more attention when were doing astronomy in elementary school.

The sunsets are stunning every single night and we try to find the perfect sundowners to watch them from. We all return to the hostel after days of research and errands and long walks and rooftop climbs. “I found the best sundowner today,” We say.

My days here begin when light streams through my window. I lift the white mosquito net canopy and pin it above my bed. I put water on to boil to make instant coffee, cringing every time. I eat my toast outside. My feet are dirty by nine am. We discovered a praying mantis in the toilet yesterday.

Some mornings we’ll go on outings to the nearby American-style shopping malls for a cappuccino and grocery shopping. Some mornings I’ll do my washing in an outdoor sink and hang clothes on the line. After nearly eight months of frequent wear, my jeans are beginning to fall apart.

Some mornings I will read a novel or write lengthy e-mails to friends or try to figure out logistics for my last two project countries At night we’ll often cook together and tell stories from the day; our own little family of young travelers floating around southern Africa. Some nights we’ll walk in a big group to nearby restaurants. I get hopelessly lost here. Most houses in the neighborhood are surrounded by huge walls and security signs. Some of them have barbed wire and broken beer bottles at the top to prevent people from climbing over. Beware of Dogs is scrawled with spray paint on the gates. The streets all look the same to me; It is hard to remember landmarks when they are all enclosed behind light brown barriers. We laugh uncomfortably when we walk by prostitutes on the street corners. There is no Red Light District in Lusaka, instead, there are a few women who stand on corners in the more well to do neighborhoods. They start at 7pm.

Lately, people have been asking me how I spend my days here, and these are things that are consistent.

Some days, I leave the walled-in area of urban sprawl where I am living and go into the outskirts of the city: the compounds. I go with Levis, my research assistant, or Tina and Sahzi, two women who work at the hostel. I visit Garden and Ng’ombe and they are a jumble of color and people. There is color in the endless advertisements painted on walls, the fruits and vegetables on the side of the road, the litter that covers the sidewalk, the women’s chitenjes. It smells of the small dried fish for sale and of burning trash. It makes my eyes water.

In the compounds I have a different name. My name means the color of my skin. As soon as I arrive children begin a chorus of “mzungu” or address me directly, “Hello mzunugu,” they say. Once I stopped at a stall selling vegetables and a woman called to the owner, “Come quick, mzungu at your shop.” Another woman asked to touch my hair.

Some children fall over laughing when they look at me. Others turn away in fear. Most of them stare, wide eyed, and I want to know what is going through their minds. “Hellohowareyou” the braver ones say, practicing what they have memorized at school. Mzungu is not only a title, something that describes me; people also use it as my name. Yesterday, on the way home from Ng’ombe, a minibus driver turned to me. “Mzungu, I would like your telephone number.”

“I would like you to concentrate on your driving.”

When I am Mzungu, it is assumed that I speak English. It is assumed I have a lot of money. It is assumed I will walk around the compounds and then leave and never come back. It is assumed that I shop at the western style shopping malls on the other side of town. It is assumed that where I come from there is no corruption and no HIV and no nshima. It is assumed that when someone asks “How are you?” I will respond, “Fine,” because that is the mzungu answer to a mzungu question.

I go to the houses that Levis or Sahzi or Tina tell me to go to. I try to absorb it all; the bright sunlight, the wooden stools brought for me to sit on, the darkness inside the stone houses, the chickens’ feet soaking in a bowl, a boy in an Obama t-shirt, a bicycle accident, a baby who sees with only one eye. Sometimes people say things to me that Levis and Sahzi and Tina do not translate.

There is a lot we do not talk about.

Sometimes when I go to these houses I want to lie about why I’m there. “I’m here to talk about water,” I want to say. Or about food. Or sickness, or money, or work. About anything but names.

There are moments when I want to believe we find ways to connect. When this divided city feels a little more whole. After I talk to families for a while about my research, they tend to enjoy it when I take out my digital camera and show them what they look like on it. People like it when I try to speak Nyanja. And, while it may feel insignificant, people like it when they get to talk about children’s names. I like listening.

I do not really mind the name Mzungu. In some ways, I like how direct people are about racial differences; it feels more honest than covering them up, like we often do in the U.S.

But while I don’t mind the name, being mzungu is exhausting. Especially after nearly eight months of being mzungu in places where I stick out.

Sometimes when I walk away from these houses, I wonder what is being said about me. I wonder what these conversations about names and meanings and traditions might amount to—for me and for them. I wonder if when I leave they will walk over and tell their neighbors, in Nyanja or Bemba or Tonga, “A muzungu lady came to the house today.”

I can’t help but hope, selfishly and optimistically and desperately, that one day they might say, “Today I met Nell.”


  1. Dear Nell,

    I really enjoyed the humble attitude you manage to communicate through your blog. It is a miracle to me how you are able to reflect this in such depth as you are still in the middle of it, it really is a gift! More so, I imagine even though this blog is of great help, it is still far to weak a tool to grasp everything that must surround you. I really enjoyed reading it!

  2. This is really moving, but I think it's so understandable. I just remembered the first time my sister and I (growing up in a small village) saw a "black" man. My sister started crying in panic, and wouldn't stop, even when he kneeled down in front of her and handed her a sweetie. How horrible that must have been.
    I love reading this and hope to welcome you again as Nell to Germany.