It means “white person” or “foreigner.”
It follows me like a shadow. Children shout it from a distance—either hailing me or pointing me out to one another, I’m not always sure which. Old women mutter it to one another as I walk past. Men on bike taxis call it, maybe surprised to see me, maybe just hoping I want to pay for a ride.
Some days I accept it with amusement.
“Well, they’re not wrong,” I’ve said on more than one occasion.
When I’m in good humour, if it’s children calling it, I’ll pause on my way and turn to call back to them, “Sinitwa ‘umuzungu’—nitwa Elizabeth!” (“My name is not ‘umuzungu’—my name is Elizabeth!”) Sometimes they repeat this, laughing. If they keep up with me, I often ask their names in return.
Sometimes it intimidates them and they stop following me and simply watch, eyes wide, maybe surprised to hear me speak their language, maybe surprised a foreigner could have a name, maybe surprised I responded at all.
When I’m in a bad humour, I walk a little faster, hold my head a little higher, keep my eyes forward and pretend not to have heard. On these days, instead of drawing a laugh, the word twists my stomach into a nervous cramp.
It grows tiring, this constant attention. The stares in the streets, the shouts of ragged English behind me, the children giggling and daring each other to run toward me or hanging back, watching…
This week a toddler on the back of a slow-moving bicycle turned to watch me walk up behind him. In awed tones he said, “Umuzungu!”
As I passed, I heard the woman walking beside him say, “Oya.”—“No.” And then, in careful English, she said, “This is a person.”
I almost turned and thanked her.
I almost cried.
In the past month, I’ve grown accustomed to having most of my identity disregarded every moment I’m in public. I’ve become used to knowing that when people see me, the whiteness of my skin supercedes anything else I may be. That I am a writer, an American, a recent graduate, a musician, or anything else is unimportant. That I so much as have a name becomes secondary to the fact that I am umuzungu.
I have accepted this fact so thoroughly that in that moment I was surprised by the overwhelming rush of gratitude and relief on hearing a stranger teach her child that I am a person first and a foreigner second.
But she may have been teaching me, too.
In the past month, I have also grown accustomed to disregarding other people’s identities.
I ask passing children their names for lack of better conversation, but I forget them immediately. I cease to see them as individuals, as siblings or friends, as aspiring teachers or doctors or social workers, as mucisians or athletes or anything else. Instead I begin to see them as “the polite child” or “the one who always asks for money.”
I may not reduce people to the colour of their skin, but I reduce them to the quality of their words.
On good days, I may class all the strangers I pass as curious, benevolent bystanders. On bad days, I may reduce them all to hostile, invasive watchers. Either way, I deny their individuality.
I begin to see them all as either clean or dirty, as either welcoming or unfriendly, as likely to either cheat me or deal fairly.
Any of these things might be true, just as it is indisputably true that I am umuzungu.
I am a white foreigner, but before that, I am a person.
And, thanks to a wise young woman I happened to pass one morning, I’m trying to keep in mind that each of these people watching me is also, before anything else, a person.