I never thought I was a white man or that people could ever see me in this way. Well, there was that one conversation with my friend Wycuie at age 14 when I stupidly said that “my people” were French – Huguenots to be precise. This was the only family history that had been passed to me and not knowing any better, I just mentioned this to him in the heat of some conversation. To this, Wycuie just looked at me, said nothing about my not being French and left it alone, kinda (Wycuie had a quiet scream that he could wield against you). I was lost then and he figured that he would let me find my way.
I was and am an African-American..... well, mostly. My great grandfather on my father’s side was a Choctaw or Cherokee Indian and my great grandfather on my mother’s side was white (victimizing his servant in the tradition of Strom Thurmond and Thomas Jefferson). All of the other folks were black and thus, after my Wycuie intervention, I normally stuck with the majority. So did all the people I interacted with throughout all aspects of my life.
This changed when I went to Rwanda. There I was Mizungu (Me-sun-goo) – alternatively meaning: a white person, a foreigner, an outsider, money, a mark. Now this was news to me. I did not know I was a Mizungu until we pulled up to an orphanage in a remote part of the country. As we got out of the car, children in the hundreds ran up from where they were playing, screaming “Mizungu, Mizungu!”
The name/label/insult did not seem threatening. Somehow I knew it wasn’t “hi” or “nigger,” but I did not know what it was and my interpreters were not telling me. This was not like the time I was called “Shvartze” by Adam at Junior High School 104 in New York City and all my Jewish “friends” wouldn’t tell me what it meant as they giggled, but it was pretty damn close.
Following that experience, I picked out the word quite frequently from the babble of language that surrounded me – muttered underneath the sound of cars passing by or stepping into a market or café.
I finally got it one day, however, when we were trying to figure out where we would have lunch. One of my hosts started to suggest one location, but they quickly withdrew the idea, saying that I would probably not want to go there because it was Rwandan. I responded that I was in Rwanda and why would I not want to try their food. They said that some other Mizungu didn’t like it. I said, “who was that person and what the hell is a Mizungu?” They then went on to tell me that a Mizungu was someone not from Rwanda. The other definitions came over the next few minutes.
Now, I was offended because the other person they were comparing me to was a white man from Toronto. I went off at that point, likely overreacting because of exhaustion, mind-altering medicine and recovering from 400 years of slavery. I was like, “do you have any idea how insulting that is to an African-American. I may not have come to Africa to find myself but I sure didn’t come here to get lost.” [note: I have no problems with either white people or Toronto]
We then had a long conversation about race relations in the West. Although white Canadians are generally better than American whites on many dimensions when it comes to racism and discrimination, it is still offensive to tell an African American that they are like some anglo-canuck. “I mean damn,” I continued, “you all are going to have one hell of a time incorporating into the global market if you lump together black people from Manhattan with white people from Toronto.”
Accepting the point (after several days of returning to the issue), my hosts and I went through different ways of qualifying Mizungu to allow for some nuance (otherness with adjectives, as it were). The top contenders were: NeoMizungu, Blazungu (my favorite) and CocoaMizungu. Acknowledging that Kinyarwanda is a bit more resistant to innovation than English, we laughed and they said they would try to accommodate my request.
Later on the trip, we were at a museum of Rwandan history and art. After greeting the attendant, the host paid and walked through the little gate. After greeting the attendant in the proper Rwandan manner, I pulled out some money and then asked my host some question about someone that we were supposed to meet later. Upon hearing me speak English, the attendant looked kind of pale and asked my host if I was Mizungu. He smiled and said yes, afterwhich my fee was tripled - literally, in my face. Immediately I was pissed, talking about how that wasn’t fair. Evidently, I greeted the attendant so well and they were used to people coming back to Rwanda from all over the world, I was briefly able to pass. When I realized that for a second I was an African, I corrected my tone, gladly paid the high fee and went in to see some ancient huts, the Tutsi lineage as well as some assorted historical artifacts from the region.
Although we both kind of left the topic alone, the Mizungu thing stayed with me; how could it not? I heard it daily. As is my way, I started to ponder the idea and make jokes about it. Actually, after a while and observing stupid little things that foreigners did in Rwanda, I thought that a good comic strip in the locale paper could be called “Oh, Those Crazy Mizungus.” The show would be set in a school or a bar, hotel, around a travel guide or interpreter who would interact with a wide variety of Mizungus. As they interacted with them, they would invariably do something inappropriate and when that happened, the whole cast would stop and say “Oh, Those Crazy Mizungus.” It couldn’t lose. Several episodes came to mind: working through lunch, coming to places on time, tanning by the pool or misunderstanding the logic behind effective bargaining for a mask. The sheer number of episodes was a source of constant amusement. The thought of this almost made me forget that for a while they thought I was a white man... almost.