24 October 2009

mzungu and other swahili expressions

Languages show so much about a culture, and Swahili is no exception. Mzungu, for example, is what the locals use to refer to white people (and what most foreigners will hear kids shouting as they walk by). It's kind of funny to be just walking along and then suddenly hear children's voices screaming, "Mzungu mzungu mzungu!" in rapid-fire succession. I'd heard mzungu wasn't offensive, but I learned from Simoni that it's much more positive than I would have expected.

Pole (po-lay) means sorry, and pole pole means slowly. The opposite of pole pole is zungu, which means to rush around. I asked if zungu was the root of mzungu, and Simoni said no and explained the proper derivation.

Mzungu actually comes from mzunguko, which means around. It started with the British when they took control of Tanzania after World War I-- they were called mzungu because they were always around. The British thought it meant clever, and in fact, the Tanzanians did consider them clever (even though the name didn't originally convey that).

Now, Tanzanians prize thinness in women (Simoni pointed out that most African women are naturally more like "big mamas"), and women who are slim are said to have a mzungu figure. Likewise, Simoni said that Tanzanians who are clever, honest and faithful are called black mzungu (or wazungu, which is the plural form of mzungu). It made me a little sad that such positive qualities were associated with being white.

There are a large number of Indians here, and they are considered good merchants and businesspeople, but they are not mzungu. Chinese people are known for helping Tanzania with infrastructure when others (Americans and Europeans, for example) wouldn't, and many of the buildings, bridges and railroads were built by the Chinese. But they are also not mzungu. It reminds me of the South African hierarchy of black, white and colored.

While it's good that foreigners are viewed positively (especially when you're the foreigners traveling here), it made me sad that they didn't seem to own their good qualities and associated them with their former colonists, instead. It's as if they bought into the idea that they were inferior.

The good news is that younger Tanzanians (children, especially) feel strong Tanzanian pride and take more ownership of their good traits. Shikamoo, for example, is how you traditionally greet elders to show your respect, but children don't like to use it because its literal translation is "I am under your feet." The traditional response is Marahaba, which means "And you'll continue to stay under my feet forever." It isn't surprising that they associate it with slavery and don't want to be under anyone's feet.

It was also insightful to learn that mzungu also means wandering or lost, referring to the foreigners who have left their homes and are just wandering around, traveling through other people's lands. Village life and a sense of community is so important here-- even in Dar, the big New York City of Tanzania, known for its quick and clever inhabitants, interactions with people still come before everything else.

We learned some "street Swahili" and felt rather hip when we were able to interact with the young people in a non-stiff way. Mambo means "How's it going?" And the proper response, poa, means "Cool."

Older locals will ask Habari?, which is the traditional "How are you?" And the proper response, mzuri, means good.

Lastly, jambo (how are you?) is a greeting used pretty much for tourists exclusively. If you say jambo back, it shows you don't speak any Swahili. If you say sijambo, it means "I'm fine" and shows you aren't an easy target and have taken the time and made the effort to learn a little Swahili. If you only know sijambo and asante (thank you), you'll already be the proud recipient of many more smiles than someone who just comes and speaks English/French/German/etc.

Locals do use hamjambo, which means "How are you all doing?" The proper way to greet someone/ask how someone (singular) is is hujambo, but I have never heard it used.

Instead of the traditional kwaheri (goodbye), you can say badai, which means see you later. And if you really want to impress the locals, greet them with Mambo vip (veep or veepee), which comes from V.I.P. (very important person) and will be sure to earn you smiles (and potentially some surprised laughter).

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