Wednesday, August 5, 2009

"Mzungu (white person), give me my money"

Walking down the street my first morning in Moshi a group of small children approached me, held out their hands, and said "Mzungu, give me my money". I just laughed and told them habari and kept going. I thought it was kind of cute. I didn't realize that I would be hearing this phrase, multiple times a day, everyday, from children and adults, for the next 6 weeks. Sometimes people said it with a smile as if they were joking. Some said it with expectant looks. Some said it with scornful looks. Most said it as a reflex to my caucasian skin, as if they were not thinking about what they were saying at all. Some who said it clearly lived in poverty, others clearly did not. But virtually everyone said it.

After a few weeks this started to annoy me. Sometimes I would rudely reply "you give me my money" (this was after I my wallet had been borrowed along with all of my shillings - check out the Victoria blog for more info) or "I don't have YOUR money". I would say it with agitation. Afterward, I would wonder if I were telling the truth. I wondered if somewhere in the convoluted and corrupt history of the socioeconomic web that covers and connects our planet, maybe I had received their money. I don't know. I didn't ponder these questions too long I just filed them away and went about my business. And most of the time I tried to be polite. And I think I was. But this phrase still bothers me.

It was clear that these people were taught from a very young age to associate light skin with money. I would see volunteers and tourists from Europe and the Americas going down the street and giving money and random things to random children and then not having things to give to other random children watching further down the street. I was not sure about the benefit of this and decided not to participate in the "acts of random santa clause" as I labeled it in my head. Instead, I would try to talk to the kids, finding out their names and where they go to school. I would try to treat them as equals. I don't know if they realized that was what I was doing but by the time I moved out of the international house every kid on the street, and most of the adults, knew my name. As I passed in the morning or evening they would run up to me screaming Nicho-laus or Neek-O. Sometimes they would say give me my money and then smile and leave before I had a chance to reply. By the way, "mzungu, give me my money" was about the only english phrase many of them could speak.

I am not going to lie. I hate this phrase. The word for white person in Swahili is one letter different from the word for God (mzungu, and Mungu) and I doubt that is a coincidence. I hate that a generation of people are taught that they are inferior. I saw the frustration on some of their faces as they spoke to me. I imagined that they were thinking in Swahili and asking themselves and wondering "now why am I asking this loser for money again?" If that is what they were thinking I don't blame them at all. And I don't like the random acts of santa clause either. Not only do they exclude some children but they feed into the collective social consciousness of inferiority that seems to be the general rule in this part of Africa.

I didn't really know what to do but I wanted my actions to empower, not belittle. I don't want these children thinking that they have to ask wazungu for handouts the rest of their life. I want them studying and working to change the face of Tanzanian society because they know that they are equal to any person, no matter the color of their skin, though they have many obstacles. And thank God many of them are doing just that. I am excited about what some of my new friends will do. Well, these are my opinions and theories on the phrase "mzungu, give me my money". I can't prove them. And I hope that they are wrong.

I am writing this blog by hand in my Barometer Soup travel journal in the Brussels airport. I will post it when I get back to Birmingham. As I write I am surrounded by wealthy wazungu and I am thinking about sitting on the floor and putting my hat out and saying "mzungu, give me my money". With my old clothes and shaggy appearance I might be able to get enough to buy some food. My $10 US will barely get a coke here. But I am not going to do it. I am way too proud for that. Plus, I don't need to, I get on the plane in a couple of hours and they will give me lunch. If not, I have several granola bars and cookies in my backpack.

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