The M-Word or What Mark Twain taught me about Rwanda

The use and impact of the m-word, by which of course I mean muzungu, is a topic of disagreement among PCVs in Rwanda. Some find its use highly offensive, almost obliging the PCV to stop and confront the person who used it. Others brush it off, attributing the usage to ignorance but not malice.

I tend to react to the word on a case-by-case basis. When a leering bus driver calls me muzungu I either ignore it or sternly correct them. When a smiling child yells it as they run to me for a hug, I let it pass. In fact, I even sometimes use it myself. For instance, if a Rwandan person remarks on all the kids running to say hello and says, “The children love you!” I’ll reply, “It’s just because I’m a muzungu. They’d treat any white person that way.”

When it seems appropriate, I”ll correct colleagues and acquaintances and ask them not to call me muzungu. They agree but usually, I think, they don’t really “get” the request; they’re just trying to oblige me. ‘

Sometimes, I get glimpses into their attitude toward the word, which are interesting. I met some students last week who had known the PCV who was here before me. “Right,” they said in Kinyarwanda, “she told us another ‘white person’ would be coming.” Instead of saying muzungu, he switched into English and said “white person” instead. He had obviously been taught that muzungu was an offensive word and was trying to be considerate but it just felt like watching a movie on TV with the curse words censored. I appreciated the sentiment nonetheless, though.

I just finished reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn this week. As you may know, the book has been frequently banned for reasons including its use of the word “nigger.” As I re-read it I was surprised to see how similar with use of the word nigger in 19th century Missouri was to the use of muzungu in 21st century Rwanda!

I think we often consider nigger to be pejorative, at least when used by white people towards black people, but Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer et. al. used the word to refer to Jim even when they’re complimenting him. A character says about Jim, the run-away slave, “I never seen a nigger that was a better nurse, or faithfuller, and yet he was risking his freedom to do it.” He likes Jim and maybe even respects him but he can’t get past the us vs. them, insider/outsider categories he’s got in his head and in his culture.

It’s the same here. My neighbors like me and we get along well. They know my name and usually use it. Sometimes, though, they’ll slip up and say something like, “Hey, muzungu, your clothes on the clothesline are dry. Do you want me to bring them in for you?” They’re doing me a favor but still calling me a muzungu. They don’t mean anything by it but, in their head, a muzungu is a totally different entity, and that fact just can’t be disregarded.

So, in coming to Rwanda I somewhat unexpectedly am discovering what it feels like to objectified on a daily basis. It’s never pleasant and sometimes quite hurtful. But, through the experience, I’m also learning how to turn the other cheek and love someone who sees me as just a white face, and potentially, a source of American dollars. It’s a good lesson to learn.


4 thoughts on “The M-Word or What Mark Twain taught me about Rwanda

  1. This is such a wonderful explanation! I always felt offended by the same attitude when I lived in Chile. Your commentary doesn’t excuse or discount it, but seeing the whole problem this way is helpful.

    Praise Him whose love knows no bounds for the patience that He is giving you!

  2. Hey Gretchen, this is great. Having grown up over here and now working in Uganda I resonate completely with your sentiment. I find people often use the term when they are in crowds or with friends, perhaps as a way to bolster personal confidence at the expense of the foreigner. I tend to try and ignore it. I find that responding with humility and in the local language goes a long way toward seeing eye-to-eye; toward becoming just another vulnerable human and not the proverbial “white man.” Seeing those barriers fall down is one of the most fulfilling things about being out here.

    • Hi Robert! Good to hear from you! I agree, if you reply with gentleness and humility then people often reciprocate. The resulting interactions and relationships can be really rewarding. It’s a good lesson, for sure.

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