The Mzungu Thing

Late in 2007 I arranged a meeting in Arusha, Tanzania with an American in the travel business. Underneath a pile of titles and affiliations, this big gregarious dude, whom I'll call Morgan, worked to bring tourists to desolate villages, a specialty sometimes called "poorism." I'd planned to write a magazine story about delivering tourism dollars to the Barbaig, a polygamous tribe who wear plaid blankets and sandals cut from tires, like the more famous Maasai.

Many foreigners have a complicated relationship to Africa's woes: we want to help, but we also take pleasure in Africa as it is.

From Flickr via Brad Ruggles.

Late in 2007 I arranged a meeting in Arusha, Tanzania with an American in the travel business. Underneath a pile of titles and affiliations, this big gregarious dude, whom I’ll call Morgan, worked to bring tourists to desolate villages, a specialty sometimes called “poorism.” I’d planned to write a magazine story about delivering tourism dollars to the Barbaig, a polygamous tribe who wear plaid blankets and sandals cut from tires, like the more famous Maasai.

As the departure point for safaris in the Serengeti and a short drive from Mount Kilimanjaro, Arusha is the Aspen of Africa. Morgan and I sat by a hotel pool charting a path through the interior. We’d drive five hours to a small town and then hike to a Barbaig village where they would demonstrate stick fighting and honey harvesting. For dinner they’d cook a stew and we’d sleep on dried goatskins in the hut or outside with the snakes.

Feeling ill departure morning, I climbed with Morgan and our driver into our mzungu special, a giant SUV as white as Joe Biden’s teeth. Outside Arusha we passed a safari lodge and dropped in on the owner, a white South African who wore skinny jeans and a mullet. We sat on the porch drinking passion fruit juice and watching antelope zebra graze on the plains. Morgan talked shop with our host as my fever mounted.

After a few more hours of driving, I was curled up on the back seat, sweaty and shivering. After we dropped our bags, Morgan brought me to the cottage housing the town clinic. A nurse pricked my finger and looked through a microscope, which might have been the only functioning piece of equipment there. I had a mild strain of malaria. Sitting at a wooden desk, the young doctor recommended a course of pills I’d packed as a precaution. By the next morning I was ready for an excursion.

We arrived at the Barbaig village juiced on professional purpose and good intentions. The women who came out to greet us wore beaded necklaces and leather skirts cut into fringe. Snot covered their kids’ faces. Hair sprouted from their scalps in patches and flies assembled in their eyes like zebras at a watering hole. Even the babies didn’t bother brushing them away. One girl wore a Mao-cut jacket as a dress, faded to no color at all. Inside the unlit hut, gourds hung from the walls and we sat on the floor. The kids enjoyed the fruit and snacks we’d brought from Arusha.

We’re all familiar with pictures of African shantytowns. But those slums are populated by urban refugees who fled places like this clearing. It was poverty at its most explicit: a hut on a hot empty plain. Slums have churches and clinics, schools and charities, things to buy and sell. There is the suggestion of a social safety net. Video halls show movies and football. The Barbaig maintain their traditional culture, but Morgan’s work was still impossible. Almost no tourists will drive five hours to see human life at its barest.

The cultural program was informal. A woman with colored beads hanging from the coin-sized holes in her ears used a rock to grind corn into ugali, a tasteless mush that is the staple food in East Africa. (Frank Bruni was disappointed when the ugali at a restaurant in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District tasted like “wet salt.” Really it’s more like wet sand; the point of ugali is to fill the stomach.) We then returned outside to stand in the piercing metallic sunlight and watch several men pretend to fight with sticks. Morgan and I distributed tips frequently. A group of us took a walk and watched one man climb a tree, upsetting a beehive. One landed on my malarial brow and stung me. Everyone laughed as I ran in circles, slapping my head and yelling “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”

Nearby, a few men stood around a rust-coated oil drum containing the day’s batch of sorghum beer, a stringy milky liquid speckled with black seeds. They were deep into the barrel and not in a mood to make friends. We persuaded one of them to scoop us up a gourdful of the beer, which tasted like concentrated bathwater. As we left an old man with a twisted walking stick and a few brown teeth followed us and began arguing with one of our guides. The dispute was settled with a very small sum of money.


The safer parts of Africa have become a workshop for high-concept philanthropy, wrapping adventurism in a veneer of charity. Young Americans bring yarn to a small Ugandan town, where they teach women to crochet hats to sell back in the States. Two British girls on a gap-year teach kids photography in Nairobi slums. They plan on selling the kids’ work from a London gallery and, if the plan works out, somehow reinvesting the profit in the kids. A fitness-oriented charity attempted to organize “an endurance running challenge: 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 weeks in 2010. This Guinness World Record-breaking endeavor will push our team members to their personal limits with the goal of bringing fundraising and awareness to the AIDS orphans of East Africa.” Running the Antarctica Marathon for the sheer idiocy of it no longer registers on the self-satisfaction meter.

I can sympathize. It wasn’t enough to go to Africa; I had to feel important doing it. So I found a generous organization that would sponsor me to go find Africa’s untold good news, although I’d never been there. I wanted to write about social entrepreneurship, fair trade, and microfinance—this last the biggest thing in poverty reduction since Live Aid. Since I wanted to sell my stories to the mainstream American media, it would help if my central characters were white. I needed to find people like Daniel Sheridan.

As a student at Coventry University, Sheridan invented a seesaw that generates electricity. Like most ideas for saving Africa, at first it sounds miraculous: an inexhaustible source of free, clean renewable energy powered by exercising children. Several reporters did cover this irresistible story. Unfortunately, as the BBC didn’t note, Sheridan’s innovation is unworkable. The seesaws are large and expensive. Who will pay for them? Technologies like cell phones and plastic jerry cans for carrying water have eased African village life because they are cheap and don’t require installation. It’s a credit to Sheridan’s intelligence and intentions that his work deserves tough questions. But the average African village is more likely to see Bono swoop in and personally dig a latrine than have an “Energee-Saw” installed.

Westerners less entrepreneurial than Sheridan often volunteer at orphanages, HIV wards, and animal nurseries, facilities that struggle to find chores for them. Many of these groups are smart enough to charge volunteers and base themselves in places like Arusha, where local merchants already know do-gooders’ preferences for brewed coffee and bars that aren’t full of prostitutes.

The Africa books that these volunteers buy in Nairobi and Kampala can be divided into two broad types. The first tell stories so awful they could only happen in Africa. A relative of mine wrote one such book about Kenyan women called I Laugh So I Won’t Cry. Other exemplary titles include No Place Left to Bury the Dead and The Graves Are Not Yet Full. The memoirs of these events written by Africans boast evocative but vague titles which might be condensed into, as a friend put it, “Even God Told Us to Fuck Off.” The works by journalists, the kind I had hoped to write, inject heroic yet self-effacing first-person narratives into descriptions of atrocities.

The other category is white people who fall in love. Emma’s War is a journalistic account of an aid worker who marries a Sudanese warlord. Every British subject who went more than 50 miles inland before 1900 has a biography. The excellent King Leopold’s Ghost is about the Belgian monarch’s torrid romance with, and ruthless exploitation of, the Congo, which he never visited. In the memoir I Dreamed of Africa, an Italian woman finds herself seduced by the vast spaces, acacia trees, and (I’m guessing here) elephants marching in silhouette against the red and yellow sunset. At an editorial meeting of a Kenyan literary magazine, a woman called this fever “the mzungu thing.”

Mzungu, the Swahili word for white person, has become a standard way to greet whites across East Africa. Young children with open palms call “Mzungu! Mzungu! Mzungu!” as they chase foreigners. By calling themselves Mzungus (the Swahili plural is wazungu), visitors form a defensive crouch against charges of ignorance, the way dumb American tourists in France sometimes refer to themselves as “dumb American tourists.”

Many foreigners have a complicated relationship to Africa’s woes: we want to help, but we also take pleasure in Africa as it is—riding motorcycles at night down dirt alleys, dancing in smoky neon clubs constructed from shipping containers. The nature, you may have heard, is marvelous and, more prosaically, there isn’t a white person in Africa who does their own laundry. In exchange for these luxuries, most of us have money to share with people who know how to ask.


Well-scrubbed kids in school uniforms approach whites asking for coins and ice cream. Adults ask white strangers to pay for childrens’ school fees and relatives’ hospital bills. The average arrival might be a soft touch for three hours. After that fundraising requires the political acumen of someone like Dan Ogola.

Ogola is a member of the Luo tribe, same as President Obama’s father. Like the president, Ogola has a gift for talking to anyone. Born in western Kenya, as a teenager he moved to Nairobi and stayed with a brother in Kibera, by some accounts Africa’s biggest slum. Ogola is about my age. Around when I was wasting freshman year, Ogola was selling used shoes from a market stall. Later he worked at a pharmaceutical company where he was injured by an exploding aerosol can.

It’s daunting, Kibera. Every breath scrapes the sinuses with caustic fumes from exposed sewage and charcoal fires. The slum itself is a valley of rusted metal roofed shanties leading down to a filthy-beyond description stream. It has a reputation for crime. About ten years ago Ogola met an American on a semester abroad program and showed him around. Ogola became an unofficial Kibera tour guide for students too afraid to visit on their own. One student was so impressed by him that she called her mother, a doctor in California.

Dr. Gail Wagner flew to Kenya to meet Dan. The encounter led Dr. Wagner to found a medical NGO called The Matibabu Foundation. “I have a full-time job. I have a life and I’m spending half of it worrying about Kenya,” Dr. Wagner told me over Skype during the country’s election crisis. At the time, Ogola was running Matibabu’s logistics, organizing supply shipments in a convoy to the country’s dangerous west. He also moved his family to a comfortable house with a small courtyard and garden on the outskirts of Kibera.

Ogola makes upward mobility in Kenya seem easy in part because he is a skilled collector of foreign patrons. Every mzungu wants to help; Ogola finds people who are capable of it. He constantly pumps his network for favors, contacts, money, anything. “It’s expensive to be my friend,” he half-jokes. This is important. The typical American in Africa is less likely to know five people willing to donate $100 than a quintet eager to fly over and give an awareness-raising rockapella concert.

In Uganda I obtained the phone number of someone I believed to be the pastor of an isolated community on an island in Lake Victoria. I called and arranged to meet with the person who answered; this turned out to be Ben, a twentyish convert to Mormonism, who met me in downtown Kampala wearing clothing several sizes too big for his small frame. His younger brother joined us. The pastor was their uncle.

The younger brother wanted to be a writer, so after we ate lunch, they invited me back to their house to read his work. We rode for an hour in a minibus, eventually reaching a neighborhood of squat houses with concrete walls but without indoor toilets—a step above slum, by local standards. We passed a Saudi-sponsored nursery school and arrived at Ben’s three-room house. He introduced me to his mother, who served an immense plate of rice, beans, and matoke—mashed green plantains steamed and roasted.

The brother’s blue notebook mostly contained brief biographies, copied from an encyclopedia, of European and African tyrants: Hitler, Mobutu, Mussolini, Bokassa. I know they were copied because when he asked my religion he’d never heard of a Jew, though we’d received a shout-out in his Hitler essay. He also listed a few random bits of trivia in the notebook, including Idi Amin’s official title, an honorific that might inspire psychopathic tendencies in anyone: “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.”

After hanging out with Ben and his brother, I became Their Mzungu. Ben, after I’d met him once, sent me text messages like “HI ALEX HOW ARE YOU ?. ILOVE U SO MUCH  IWISH U HAPPY STAY IN UG. NICE TIME. BEN”. My roommate at the time was accustomed to regular phone calls soliciting school fees for the caller’s deaf friend. But Ben disarmed me by hardly asking for anything, except once for a small amount of cell phone airtime, which I sent via text message.

The anticipated pitch never arrived. I was confused enough that during my next visit I brought Ben gifts and then took the brothers shopping, buying them two live chickens, plantains still attached to the branch in the standard manner, and a crate of soda. Not long after I left Uganda, Ben emailed asking for my help procuring the $1 million he had won in a lottery. He apologized after I said it was probably a fake.


A few years ago, a Chinese tourist was standing on the rim of Mount Nyiragongo, a live volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo, snapping photographs as the lake of lava smoked and bubbled hundreds of yards below her. Straining for an angle, out on a ledge, something happened and she fell like a cartoon character down the inside of the crater. Apparently still alive, she lay a distance from the lava but a first rescue attempt, using a United Nations helicopter, had to be aborted. When a rescue team of climbers finally reached her, she had died. A rebar cross juts out of the volcano’s lip where she fell. Within 50 miles of Mount Nyiragongo, tens of thousands of people live in refugee camps. The UN provides them with calories and tarps to sleep under. I don’t think it would fish a refugee out of the volcano.

Every day Africans are reminded just how little the world thinks their lives are worth. Many spend their days being counted, patronized, and poked by well-meaning foreigners. Many more are completely ignored. Occasionally someone pokes back. At a Kampala nightclub I met a Ugandan wearing shiny white leather shoes who said his name was Richard. He danced without moving his feet and spent much of the evening making out with his American girlfriend. I don’t remember how he got my number, but the next day he called and said he had a business proposition.

I met Richard at a Chinese restaurant. He brought a well-dressed friend who didn’t speak. Richard explained that he was impressed by my marketing and research potential, as well as my media experience. He asked me to fly to Nairobi pick up a laptop and take it to Europe, where I’d make a presentation. He offered me a few thousand dollars plus a business-class ticket. I felt flattered. Nonetheless, I told them I wasn’t available and we didn’t speak again. A few months before, an Australian woman had met Richard or someone like him and accepted the offer. She was arrested at the Barcelona airport and convicted of drug smuggling. She’ll be in a Spanish prison for roughly nine years.

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