As we roam about Moshi and travel to other parts of Tanzania, one thing remains the same … people treat us like celebrities. This is not because we are special, per se, but because we are westerners. All westerners, specifically Caucasian westerners, are treated nearly like royalty here. We do not completely understand all of the reasons why this happens, but here is some information that we have discovered through reading and firsthand experience.
Strangers – typically buying produce or enjoying a beverage at a local pub – often call out at us from across the street. They yell jumbled English, such as, “Hey Mzungu, HAWA YOU?!” This is translated as, “Hey westerner, how are you?” Not only do people yell at us from the street, but we are often honked at by nearly everyone. Sometimes, it is because we looked the wrong way and did not see a daladala, but usually they are just saying, “Hi!”
Men on motorcycles stop to talk to us, school children interrupt their teacher’s lecture and holler at us, and random children who are barely old enough to walk come up to us and hold our hands. It is the strangest phenomenon. No matter who we are with or where we are, we hear the same thing; “Mzungu!”
Mzungu is literally translated as person who walks in circles. It is used to refer to tourists, who are also typically wealthy, Caucasian westerners. It is a fairly accurate description of most visitors to any place. Visitors get lost and end up wandering around to figure out where they are.
Sometimes we walk by a Tanzanian and say “Jambo” (hello) and they respond with, “Mzungu.” There is no disrespect meant by the term. It is simply how the locals refer to the Caucasian tourists who are visiting the area.
One book we have read, called Tanzania – Culture Smart, describes the celebrity treatment:
Caucasians, in particular, stand out [in Tanzania]. Their white skin is the color of Hollywood movie stars and their cameras and designer clothes would be unimaginably expensive for many Tanzanians. As a result, westerners are typically perceived as having bottomless bank accounts and exalted lifestyles. And, compared with a Tanzanian living in abject poverty, most visitors do.
One of the most astonishing instances occurred when we were walking past a primary school to visit a BCC day center. There were dozens of children, all under the age of 10, playing outside the school; the classes must have been in recess, or they were just dismissed for the day. Sure enough, one child spotted us and screamed, “Mzungu!” That was enough to get every child’s attention. They all started yelling “Mzungu, Mzungu” and running towards us. Before we could really understand what was happening, there were close to 40 children holding our hands, touching our arms, and looking at us in awe. We were completely confused and looked at our Tanzanian co-workers in hopes of some help. They just laughed and proceeded towards the day center. After every child had their turn of touching our skin and holding our hands, they vanished as quickly as they had appeared.
Initially this treatment was a little concerning. Since we are in Tanzania for a year, we wanted to do our best to be seen as part of the community instead of an average tourist. People are slowly recognizing us along our major walking routes; however, after nearly three months of walking the same route, people still yell out their shop windows, interrupt their conversations, and honk their horns yelling, “Hey Mzungu!” We try to enjoy the experience, laugh a little, and use the opportunity to practice our Swahili!
So, anyone who is preparing to visit Tanzania, get ready to hear the phrase, “Hey Mzungu!”