There are many tales of the one week mzungu (owm).

Because time is various in Africa, one week can be 7 days, 5 days, or 2 days.

In fact, the Daily Nation had a diary a few weeks ago from a owm. She came, saw the slums, dressed in a khanga, and in her diary she writes she became “an African woman.”

Or, you can see it on tv, on those country swap games. A man comes with his family, spends three hours with some very rural community, goes through some elaborate made-for-tv ritual and proclaims himself to be an elder in the community.

But these, these are minor examples.

My favorite genre of the owm is the EXPERT. Having spent three hours on a matatu, she can expound on transport in Africa; or, having spent two hours at Maasai Market, he can lecture on African art (African, not Kenyan).

Owm believes that being present, no matter the duration, makes one an expert on Africans, so easily known, so little to discover. Thus, one owm who had been here about 6 days announced that we have “no free time” and “no middle class.”


So, we packed up our bags after the meeting and went to Kileleshwa, Spring Valley, Westlands, and Loresho, where there is no middle class. We then watched TV, went for movies, played outside, attended art galleries and poetry readings, went to bars and clubs, read books and newspapers, and lamented the absence of free time.

Some of us react with rage at the owm, most of us with indifference. I do little justice here to what really should be a series.

What is your owm story?

8 thoughts on “10.25.08

  1. Keguro, I have actually been thinking a lot about this recently. My mom and I were watching something on the ultimate OWM Bono and got into this huge argument that left me feeling like a jerk. See the thing is, I generally take offense.. maybe that’s an exaggeration… well, I tend to be more skeptical of Bono’s messianic endeavors in Africa whereas she sees nothing wrong with it. In the program, Bono claimed to have reduced African debt by a third and she cited this as reason enough to approve of his involvement. My issue is that I just do not like how being the white superstar he gets all the credit for something that probably took a lot more people to achieve – I don’t know the details of his philanthropic work so this is only a deduction I believe is logical, seeing as that even Bono, despite his megalomanic tendencies, could not have possibly achieved this on his own. So then her counter-argument was that I am missing the point, that my privilege has prevented me from appreciating this “good work.” And this of course elicited a great sense of guilt. For Kenyans like me, who had the the luxury of a “leisurely” life provided by our parents, those African inheritors of colonization (to paraphrase something you had said elsewhere), are we not “missing the point” as my mother puts it?

    Still, I have my reservations – like when I recently came across a blog with “African interests.” The writer (though he seems well intentioned and very intelligent) unwittingly chose to name his blog after the Swahili word for “dizzy” thinking it to mean something else. Isn’t this just a great metaphor for the OWM’s misconceptions? But then again I have to wonder though, if by thinking this way, I am simply getting caught up in irrelevant abstractions and “missing the point.”

  2. Iman I guess you mean Kizunguzungu.The root of the word Zungunka-i.e going around. The first whites the the people of the coast came across were the sea going Portuguese, who came and went and traveled to other places,i.e. walizunguka. A person who ‘zungukas’ (travels back and forth) is a ‘mzungu’ and thus the name stuck. That is how the Swahili name of white people became ‘wazungu’.

    Similarly you might have had of Sikhs being called Kalasinga in Kenya. That is because in the 19th century, there was an Indian Sikh trader who traveled across East Africa trading with the people he met.He mostly traded indian cloth. His name was Kala Singh. The name that transmuted to ‘Kalasinga’ and it became the standard name for any bearded, turban wearing indian (sikhs).

    That is our lesson for today. Class is dismissed.

  3. TB,

    Hmm… I don’t think you are correct. What about the proto-Bantu ‘mlungu’ or ‘mrungu’? Do more research and you will find that Kiswahili is not a ‘coastal’ language of Arabic derivation.

  4. ‘zungu’ is from the bantu part of Kiswahili (Miji Kenda)is not from the Arabic part (which makes 30% of swahili language).The Arabic part only give language to issues revolving around Law and Order ( Sheria na Ustaarabu).The Swahili were the main traders from the Congo all the way to Mozambique for more than 1000 years and as intermediaries between the hinter land the coast.That is how slaves got to the coast and the gold from Zimbabwe and the central african kingdoms got to the East coast.You will notice that in the western central African part (Angola, etc the local languages do not use the zungu root as the white because they had limited interaction with the Eastern Coast Swahili traders.

  5. What’s your back-up for the statement “mlungu and mrungu are derivatives of mzungu?”

    Or that Arabic makes up thirty percent of the language?

    And were the so-called Swahili (actually it was the Sabaens) trading for more than 1000 years post or prior to Sungwaya?

  6. http://www.glcom.com/hassan/swahili_history.html

    Most of the vocabulary for law and government comes from the Arabic languge. From Waziri, Rais, Sheria. This is an known fact.It has also been influence by other languages ( Meza and Pesa from Portuguese).But apart from the local Bantu, Arabic has had the most influence.

    Until the 19th century Swahili was written in Arabic script.

  7. Oh the owm! Erghhhh! No one on the face of this earth makes me madder than the owm! Get a grip, Bella Noire, you don’t want to get high blood pressure and cancer. Erghhhhhhh!

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