Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Call me Mzungu

White visitors to East Africa will very quickly understand the meaning of the word "mzungu". For a long period, I assumed that it was a direct reference to skin colour, but in fact it is derived from the linguistic root zungu, which in most Bantu languages means to wander about aimlessly. A comment, then, on behaviour rather than skin colour. Not so surprising, when one thinks back to the apparently aimless wandering that characterised the early European exploration of the African interior.

Regardless of its derivation, there is no doubt that mzungu now means "white". A day seldom goes by when children in my neighbourhood (who must see me almost every day) shout "mzungu" as I drive past. It is common currency on the street and in the media. And mzungus (more properly bazungu) themselves use it playfully when referring to one another.

Much as it can be irritating at times, I was surprised when a Ugandan friend asked me whether or not I thought it was a racist expression. After a few moments' consideration, I replied that I thought it probably was. My reasoning was that just as in the same way that the English use of the word "frog" or "kraut" were derogatory slang expressions for French and German people, so "mzungu" probably fell into the same category. When I expressed this view, my friend disagreed, on the grounds that we had very different histories, and that I fundamentally misunderstood what racism is.

I was reminded of this discussion by a radio item covering the English football race-row furore when a former black Premier League footballer expressed his view that there is no absolute definition of racism: rather, it depends on the context of the event and the perception of the person to whom the event is addressed. That is to say, if I believe that it is racist, then it is racist. At the time, this seemed absurd to me - surely there needed to be an objective, rather than subjective, test of what constitutes racism.

Having thought about it in more depth, I am beiginning to understand. Racism is, in essence, an unpleasant form of bullying or harassment, which depends on context, on history and on individual perception. Just as bullying or harassment is generally directed by the strong to the weak, by the haves to the have-nots, so racism is directed by the majority to the minority, by the settler to the colonized, or by the slaver to the enslaved. While mzungu therefore might be a racial expression, to speak of it being racist could only be true under very particular circumstances of the abuse of power by the majority.

There are variations on the T-shirt pictured above, my favourite of which is "Don't call me Mzungu". I wouldn't want to wear it, though. Since my discovery of the derivation of the word, I feel very happy to be thought of as an aimless wanderer through life.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Chipolopolo: reasons to be cheerful (part 4)

Earlier this month, I made a visit to Malawi. Not long ago, I wrote with pleasure about how much progress seemed to have been made in this lovely country, so it was with no little disappointment for me to witness a considerable deterioration in the Malawian economy over the last year or more. Malawi is suffering from a shortage of foreign exchange, partly as a result of the suspension of aid by some bilateral donors, and partly because of a structural imbalance in trade. In scenes reminiscent of Zimbabwe at the turn of the century, long queues of cars at filling stations provide visual confirmation of shortages in fuel supplies, while the increasing divergence between official and "parallel" (ie black market) foreign exchange rates threatens further destabilisation of the economy. One would have thought that politicians should by now have learnt that seeking to fix exchange rates in all but the most short-term of circumstances is an exercise in futility.

As always, despite all its problems, visiting Malawi was a pleasure. There is a gentleness and quiet courtesy about the country which has great charm. For once, the national tourist statement "the warm heart of Africa" is an entirely accurate description. It was therefore with some surprise that on a quiet evening at Pedro's Lodge in Blantyre, I heard a big shout echo across the city. Experience from Kampala suggested that shouts like that correlate very highly with a goal being scored in a soccer match and, sure enough, I quickly learned that Zambia had taken the lead in the semi-final of the Africa Cup of Nations. Malawi and Zambia are neighbours and friends, and the whole of Malawi was very much supporting the Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) of Zambia in the competition.

Not only did Chipolopolo go on to beat Ghana, but in a dramatic penalty shoot-out they also went on to win the final and become champions of Africa for the first time. That they should have deservedly beaten the two teams widely expected to win the tournament, Ghana and Cote d"Ivoire, and generally played the most attractive football throughout the three weeks of competition are themselves worthy of great praise, but what makes Chipolopolo's success all the more worthy of celebration is that they achieved their victory in Libreville, Gabon, where 19 years earlier the entire Zambian national football team perished in a plane crash.

Their achievement should delight the whole world, and serve as a reminder to cynics everywhere that, every now and again, fairy tales come true.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Mangoes for sale

Taken yesterday by the roadside on Malawi's M1 between Dedza and Lilongwe. 100 Kwacha per dish of ripe mangoes (that's about 40 US cents). Wherever you travel across the continent, there will be similar roadside stalls during the mango season.

And yet, in Malawi's supermarkets, all you can find are cartons of imported fruit juice and sweetened juice drinks. The value chain is broken.