I have come to hate the word mzungu.

For those of you who don’t know, mzungu is the word the Tanzanians (and I’d assume other Swahili speakers use it as well) to describe any person with white skin. The first time I was here in January, it was endearing. Every time we drove down the streets people would shout it at us. Everyone noticed us. Everyone wanted to say hi to us. Everyone acted sort of like we were celebrities.

In the beginning of May when I first arrived, it was funny. It was cute that kids shouted it at us and chased our car. It was comical when older people said it, because honestly, that is what we are.

But as time has worn on and I consistently still hear it when I am walking around Machame or riding the dolla dolla (bus) or working in the hospital, it has become a pressing and continual reminder that, as much as I love these people and this place, I really don’t belong here. I could learn to speak Swahili fluently. I could move here permanently. I could make every effort to fully integrate myself into the community. But there will always be some kind of gap between us. I will always be different from them.

I will always be the mzungu.

I’ve had so many interactions with children since being here. One I remember vividly was way back towards the middle to the end of May when the other STEMM interns and I went out with some staff to Maasai land. One day, we walked to a bohma, which is the word for a small Maasai village that consists of an extended family. There was a group of little kids there, but only one little girl was brave enough to come near the white people. She came and sat down between me and my friend Abby and she started running her little dark hand up and down my arm. I could tell she was trying to figure out what the difference was between her and me.

In my mind, I was trying to figure out the difference too.

Because it just doesn’t make sense to me why God chose to place me half way around the world in the richest country in the world and chose to place this little girl in a bohma in the middle of the desert in Tanzania.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that one is better than the other, or that God loves me more because I am richer or anything of that sort. I feel extremely blessed, but in no way do I feel superior.

I simply just wonder why God places us where He does. And I wonder what role that plays in what we are called to do.

You see, the crazy thing about God is that He has this plan. The Bible clearly shows us that God has mapped out an intricate and beautiful blueprint to bring complete restoration and healing to a broken world. And while you and I can never know exactly how He is going to do it, we get to witness bits and pieces of this great tapestry being created as it is being sewn. And when we become followers of Christ we get the privilege of being worked into this wonderful plan.

I spend a lot of time wondering how I will fit versus how the little Maasai girl I met will fit. And I wonder why God chose to bring us together, even if it was only for a short time. I know that I have a great responsibility to the kingdom of God as a wealthy person (Luke 12:48). And again, this doesn’t make me better; My family and I have done nothing to achieve our status of wealthy white Americans, even though we as people of Western Culture tend to believe that our socioeconomic status is soley based off hard work and entrepreneurship (News flash: it’s not-the socioeconomic status you are in now or have attained is heavily based off the socioeconomic status you were born into).

Why did I grow up in a three-bed, two-bath house in Northwest Iowa and this girl in a mud hut (which was beautiful, by the way) in the middle of Africa? There MUST be a reason. There must be a reason why I am mzungu and she is beautiful, brown-skinned Tanzanian.

There must be a reason why we are different.

The truth is, I still haven’t figured it out. I tend to look at the differences between me and the other people here in Tanzania as a negative thing that divides us, but the truth is that God uses these things for His glory. And even though I have had moments wishing I didn’t have white skin and I wasn’t from America, I realize that God made me this way for a reason. I’m not sure what the reasoning is, but I will aim to keep my heart in tune to the Holy Spirit and continue learning in scripture and maybe, someday, I will figure out why I’ve fallen in love with a country and a people that are so different from me. I will figure out why an unworthy mzungu like me got to come and be apart of a beautiful place like this.

But in the meantime, I will follow His lead in hopes He will someday show me how He has been fitting little old me into His immaculate and beautiful plan for an entirely broken world.


4 thoughts on “Mzungu

  1. Beautifully written! Jim and I have struggled with the same feeling’s when we go to Mexico!! Such extreme poverty. Now I live with a heart of gratitude not because of wealth but because of His grace. I’m amazed that He has chosen me to be his child!!! But it is good 4 us to wonder about our ,God of mystery!!!


  2. Such great insight into the struggle we have as we come face to face with the harsh reality of poverty and the questions that result from that encounter. To see the beauty and the goodness that exist in the faces and lives of the people that you meet . . and then try to deal with the question of why God has allowed you to get a glimpse into their lives and what is He calling us to do where He has placed us. I think the struggle and the questions will have a way of making us better followers of Christ if we allow Him to direct our steps. Praying for you Tairin . . . thank you for sharing your heart and opening yourself to experience the beauty of God’s people in Tanzania.


  3. Mzungu don’t worry it is the name we used to call White people from Europe and America. It doesn’t carry negative or bad connotation. When they call White person ”Mzungu” it means a person with white skin, white heart who does not cheat, helper, giver and keeps promise. Also they regard you as Rich and Wealth people. Everybody want to be around ”MZUNGU” when you visit their Community. The Problem is Language!


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