By Grace Hart
Literally translated, the word ‘mzungu’ means ‘wanderer’. It has since come to mean ‘white person’ or ‘foreigner’.
My parents moved to the small, sprawling town of Iringa in the southern highlands of Tanzania when I was 10 months old. I spent the first ten years of my life in love with the heavy scent of rain above red earth and took comfort in the smell of earthy sunshine on my still pale skin whenever we had to visit the UK. My home was comfortably in Tanzania.
Within the eucalyptus fences of my little international school, I was only vaguely aware of my
whiteness. It would be easier to list the world religions that were represented in my class, than those that weren’t, and several of my friends were trilingual by the time they reached kindergarten. Despite our apparent differences, I felt part of a strong family unit there.
When I left the safety of my school compound, however, cries of “Eh, Mzungu!” followed me along Uhuru Avenue and through the local market or snapped at my heels on the walk home from school. Looking back, I know there was no malice in it, I was simply a visual oddity that other children walking home from school could point and giggle at. But to be called a foreigner almost daily in my hometown was painful to say the least, jarring, and exhausting.
My parents would often complain in jest that in Tanzania, as a small child, I would ask for the
expensive, tasteless apples wrapped in plastic, over the vibrant pyramids of local fruits in the market stalls. When we returned to England on leave, they were finally able to offer me apples, at which I turned up my nose and announced a craving for mangoes instead! Similarly, my ties always seemed bound up to the country I had just left. In each place, I had a conspicuous ‘otherness’ about me, obvious in varying degrees: my blonde hair and pale skin, or my funny hybrid accent and aversion to shoes. Recognising I didn’t belong in either place, it was easier to be cast into or assume the role of the ‘other’, as attempting to fit in was a much longer or even impossible process.
I recognise that my experiences as a visual outsider pale in comparison to those of Tanzanians who might have found home in the UK. Whilst my family would always be regarded as outsiders, the colour of our skin did mean that we were assumed to hold some sort of economic power and given differential treatment accordingly. People of colour in the UK and across the Western world are not afforded those same privileges.
The ideas of ‘otherness’ that perpetuate divisions in society need to be broken down, both internally and actively in our everyday relationships, in order to make real progress. In our current global society, the notion of nationalism is such a ridiculous one, as very few of us really comes from one singular place anymore. With more and more of us culturally adrift in our identities, we need to be more accommodating and welcoming, so that there are less
kids growing up who are told they don’t belong at home.