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Archive for the ‘Rwandan culture’ Category

As you can imagine, I stand out here. I’ve grown accustomed to hearing “muzungu!” about once every ten minutes when I’m out in public. Curious about the etymology of my new moniker, I did some Wikipedia research and here’s what i found:

Mzungu(pronounced “Mmm-zoo-ngooo”) is the southern, central and eastern African term for “person of European descent“. Literally translated, it means “white person”. The term was first used by Africans to describe early European explorers…The etymology of the word stems from a contraction of words meaning “one who wanders aimlessly” (from Swahili words zunguzunguzunguzungukazungushamzungukaji – meaning to go round and round) and was coined to describe European explorers, missionaries and slave traders who traveled through East African countries in the 18th century.”

I suppose it’s a fitting term for me, given that I’m often wandering, traveling, strolling, or looking for something that turns out to be far from where my directions took me. (I’d say I now have about 70% of Kigali’s layout down pat but venturing through the other 30% does usually end up in aimless wanderings.)

It’s an interesting phenomenon to always be on display. As I was recently discussing with Mary and Caitlin, this must be what being famous feels like: people approach me all the time to shake my hand, greet and welcome me to their country, hand me their babies, pet my hair, sometimes even ask for a picture with me, and take the time to practice whatever English they know, regardless of the time of day. (I can’t help chuckling when people shout “Good morning!” when they pass me at 9 pm.)

It used to bother me more to always be pointed out but now I’m fairly unfazed and simply take it as a greeting from curious people. Rwandan friends of mine tell me it isn’t meant to be offensive at all – shouting “muzungu!” is usually intended as a way of welcoming a foreigner, showing excitement or surprise, or just trying to get our attention. I equate it to the way kids love pointing out an airplane – though they’ve usually seen it before, it’s still exciting and a fun thing to share with friends.

Not only do muzungus obviously stand out for aesthetic reasons, our skin color also comes with unshakable implications. What gets tiring is the way that some people, mostly street children, see my white skin and immediately see a dollar sign. I’ve also grown accustomed to but not as comfortable with hearing “Muzungu! Give me money!” I like to respond with “Umwirabura (black person)! Give me money!” That usually sufficiently confuses them and gives me enough time to weave my way into a crowd or dart across the street.

It’s a nice relief to occasionally find myself surrounded by mostly muzungus, which isn’t too uncommon with the bustling ex-pat community here in Kigali. One such case of bizarre but blissful blending in was a trivia night that I went to a few weeks ago at Sol e Luna, an Italian restaurant featuring a twinkling vista of the whole city, outdoor sprawling canopies that made me feel like I was in a Mediterranean tree house, and, of course, muzungu-priced pizzas. Caitlin, Mary, and I came in somewhere around 9th place out of about 20 teams.

I can’t claim that I now know how all minorities feel because being a minority in a place like the U.S. or Europe often comes with different implications. However I can say I know what it feels like to be a permanent outsider – though it comes with its stresses and frustrations, it’s a good feeling to know that I’m expanding my comfort zone every day.

In other news, Happy 10/10/10!

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*Translation: I speak a little Kinyarwanda.

As many of you probably know, I love learning new languages and I love challenges. There’s something so thrilling about plunging headfirst into a new way of thinking and new forms of self-expression. And I also really enjoy surprising people who don’t expect Americans to know anything other than “hello” and “where is the bathroom?” (“muraho” and “aho kwituma ni he?”)

After three weeks here, I can proudly say that I can sort of get around and communicate the most essential ideas and requests in Kinyarwanda (Hello, how’s it going?, what are you staring at?, my name is Helaina, I’m hungry, I’d like four chapatis please, the food is delicious, cockroach!, thank you, I’d like a cold beer, do you have any bread?, that’s too expensive!, are you happy?, I don’t understand that, I don’t have any money, good job!, etc.). However I still have a lot of trouble understanding the responses to questions…it’s a work in progress.

Of the languages I speak/have learned (English, French, Spanish, Haitian Creole, Hebrew), I actually find Kinyarwanda the most difficult – mostly because of the pronunciation and because so many words are really similar. For example, the words for water, fish, eggs, milk, and butter are (in order): amazi, amafi, amagi, amata, and amavuta. I also haven’t yet been able to wrap my head around many verb conjugations, but that will hopefully come with time.

Besides speaking with locals and Rwandan friends, a resource that I’ve found invaluable for learning the language is a fairly comprehensive Kinyarwanda-English dictionary that a travel blogger named Morgan put together a few years ago. I’ve also started a tandem language exchange with a student who is teaching me Kinyarwanda and Swahili in exchange for helping him work on his pronunciation. A particular problem he has, which is common for many East Africans, is distinguishing between l and r. It’s not uncommon to hear “I look forward to corrabolating with you” or “would you like some lice and beans?” Mmm, crunchy.

In other news, this past weekend Caitlin did end up cutting my hair…it’s pretty drastic! I think she took 4-5 inches off. Although I’m still kind of in the requisite mourning period, it makes showering ten times faster and it feels a lot healthier. I’ll try to upload a picture sometime in the near future.

Turongera!

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