What’s a mzungu?


Mama, nisuona nyora. Nisendra bazari. Nisutsaha maji ya baridi.

Now, because I have the book in front of me, I can tell you what that means: Mummy, I’m thirsty. I’m going to the market. I want some cold water. I should be able to tell you without the book, but I haven’t been revising. Well, I can’t do it all: write a bestseller (ahem…), blogging 101 and revise my shimaoré.

Shimaroé is what they speak in Mayotte. ‘They’ being the Mahorais, who were living there when Passot bought it. Ethnically, they’re Mahorais, but their nationality is French. Which means we need a word to distinguish the French French from the Mahorais French. The Mahorais for French is mzungu, which by extension means ‘white’, since the only white people they saw for a long time were French. Strictly speaking, though, a non-white French person isn’t a mzungu (in the restricted sense), and nor is a non-French white person a mzungu (in the extended sense). Are you following?

I am a mzungu, being both white and French (naturalised). However, a Mahorais, on discovering that I’m British by birth, might prefer to say I’m a mungereza, which means English. In which case, I could point out to them that I’m not English but Welsh, but then they might go mad.

Mayotte being French, a mzungu isn’t an expat either, except for those (in the extended sense) who come from somewhere else. Which I do, but being naturalised (French), I’m not an expat any more. Unless there’s a part of you that never quite gets naturalised, in which case I still have some bewildered expat remnants floating about in my brain.

If you happen to be one, a simple solution is to call yourself a métro, short for métropolitain, meaning someone who comes from metropolitan France. Because France isn’t France unless you happen to be in France France, as opposed to one of the colonies departments France has overseas. If you’re in overseas France, then France France is la métropole, and the people who live there are métros (unless they’re Mahorais).

Of course, none of this alters the fact that the Mahorais are in fact Comorian. But that’s another story.

5 thoughts on “What’s a mzungu?

  1. wow, fascinating. i love the interplay of languages and cultures.
    though i must admit i would have to read and reread this to understand it all properly… fascinating!



    • Thanks for the comment, Debbie. Yes, it is pretty complicated! I’ll be posting more about the consequences of Mayotte being French, which are quite far-reaching. I’m not sure if it was completely thought through at the time…

      Liked by 1 person

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