Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Are you muzungu?

I was at a talk yesterday, given by two colleagues who had just returned from doing some charity work in Uganda. In and amongst all the stunning photos, cute stories of village children and tales of goat kebabs, the phrase 'white people' kept popping up and it was starting to make me feel uncomfortable. The term was used to describe the volunteers who go over to help the mainly black (and Asian) native people.

However, not all volunteers, travellers and tourists to the region are white. In fact the representative from our company, who went last year, is black himself. Therefore the liberally applied 'white people' term just cannot be used to describe all foreigners who come out to help.

When I questioned it, I was told it was a translation of the word muzungu, which means white person and this is the term of address and exclamation of general excitement and amazement when a non-Ugandan person is spotted. Regardless of the words direct translation, when we translate words, we translate the meaning in context and not the literal translation.

For example, in Japanese the term gaijin literally means outside person. However, on my return to England I would not refer to all the non-Japanese I had seen as 'outside people'. Even if I was relating some Japanese conversations about gaijin , I would most likely translate it as foreigner, or perhaps Westerner, depending on the context.

The Ugandans use the word muzungu to refer to visitors who are not Ugandan. True, they may be mostly white but not exclusively so. We have to be aware of the power of our words and talking about the help that 'white people' offer Uganda, to a multicultural London audience is just not right. It alienates those who are not white. A more suitable term may be foreigner, although these word is not free from controversy. Or perhaps Westerner as these may be in the majority, but I'm sure there may be Indians or Japanese, for example, who may fancy a bit of a holiday or some volunteer work, so the term Westerner doesn't really fit the bill either.

A little bit of Wiki magic reveals the origins of muzungu to be a description of 'one who moves around'. Not exclusively white then, hey?

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