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What is a Muzungu?


If you’re a white person coming to Uganda, get used to it: you will have this greeting running through your brain from morning until night as you move around Uganda (and much of East Africa in fact).

Like it or love it, if you are a muzungu, you stand out like a sore thumb. My advice is to embrace it!

Lord knows how many kids have kept this muzungu running when I’ve been feeling too knackered (or lazy) to put one trainer in front of another. When groups of excited kids are cheering you from the sidelines and screaming at you, you can’t let them down and start walking can you? On Monday night runs with Kampala Hash House Harriers, the waving and greetings wear me out as much as the actual run. They keep me going though and I LOVE IT.

Muzungu! Bye!

You might think you’re the first white person these kids have ever seen, but that’s probably not the case, in Kampala anyway. It’s Laugh Out Loud funny just thinking about it, I mean what’s so special about being a Muzungu anyway?

It’s the adults who bark loudly at me from the other side of the street that I find a bit annoying. No such thing as trying to keep your head down and pass unnoticed when you’re a muzungu in Uganda!

The great thing about Uganda (unlike many other countries) is that people rarely ask you for money. Or, if they do, a polite but firm no is enough, so don’t be shy. Wave back at the kids. Yell back at the kids! Spend time with them and enjoy your quasi-celebrity status.

So what is the definition of Muzungu?

The word Muzungu comes from Kiswahili, where ‘zungu’ is the word for spinning around on the same spot. That dizzy lost look was perfected by the first white people arriving in East Africa – or so the story goes – and Ugandans haven’t stopped laughing at us yet!

Muzunguzungu is Kiswahili for a dizzy person. What a great word!

What is the meaning of the word Mzungu or Muzungu?

According to Wikipedia, Mzungu is the southern, central and eastern African term for a person of foreign descent. Literally translated it means “someone who roams around aimlessly” or “aimless wanderer” (from the Swahili and Ganda words). It’s now commonly used in most Bantu languages of East, Central and Southern Africa, especially in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia.

Wachizungu or Bachizungu are literally ‘things of the aimless wanderers’ and have come to mean Western culture, lifestyle and cuisine. Now I hadn’t heard that before …

I’m from Mongolia, will I be called a Muzungu?

Yes, you will!

These days, anyone who looks like they are from outside East Africa may be called a Muzungu.

A Ugandan friend who grew up in Los Angeles gets called Muzungu: he dresses differently, his Luganda has an accent, he doesn’t know his way around Kampala very well – in fact I was his guide! – so he looks just as lost as those first white people who landed in East Africa!

Funny really.

If you’re a muzungu in Uganda, how do you feel about the word?