The different shades of Muzungu in Rwanda


Muzungu in Kinyarwanda means Foreigner. I’ve been living in Rwanda for 2 months now and have been called “muzungu” while I passed the streets, by shopkeepers and moto(moped taxi). Although the word means foreigner, a group of children have made me realize that a word can have different meanings.

I stay at Ivuka arts center for my stay in Rwanda. Ivuka is a vibrant Rwandan art gallery and it houses artists who paint and entertain guests all day. The artists take time twice a week to teach dancing and sketching to local children. I happened to be present on one such occasion and had a chance to interact with the children and they first called me “muzungu”. The local kids play near the art gallery so I would bump into them occasionally, as I passed the locality.

I know very little Kinyarwanda and the kids are learning English, so, I was able to make out Muzungu in my initial days.  I noticed that the word expressed a lot more meaning based on context. An analogy would be a rainbow, each meaning seemed to exhibit different shades of colors representing each an underlying emotion.

Mooosunguuu’s:  An excited howl. This was a howl to announce that I was here and was one of the loudest among the lot. One of the kids would shriek to call their peers to come and play with me. The others playing around would come running to me and would occasionally receive a hug.

Mochungu:  A naughty shriek. This was a shriek almost like a call for help, the call would be made by a kid running towards me with a bigger kid after him. The shriek had an aura of naughtiness hidden inside hinting that the little kid had been mischievous and needed my protection.

Mosungoo: A pleading squeal. Occasionally, I carry the little kids, since I carry one at a time, the other kids feel left out so they signal me to carry them. The call me and usually pull my shirt to indicate that they want to be carried so they call me and squeal with a little bit of restlessness to convey that it’s their turn.

Moosun-guuuuu: A joyous shout. When I carry the kids, I shake them around a bit if I sense they are getting bored and they yell and it’s followed by tinkles of laughter. This is prominent when one of the kids is getting a piggyback ride. I wobble or jump and I hear this call with excitement.

Moo—sung—uuu: A gloomy gasp. Not all calls are positive, occasionally the kids fight and one of them ends up getting hurt. I try to pacify them by carrying them on my shoulder and patting them. The kid in tears usually tells my name and tells me that one of the kids hit him/her. The tone is quite soft and followed by a lot of sniffs.

Mosungu: A selfish request. The kids have a habit of pleading for my phone and occasionally I give it to them. I have noticed that even when I do, they don’t share it with everyone. A few kids want the phone to themselves and they call me with a sour expression. When I come closer, they plead Musungu phone and point at it.

Moosun-gu: A nervous warning. As I carry the kids or play with them, I focus on keeping the kid safe and have a tendency to be clumsy and messy with myself. The kids call me out of concern suggesting that I avoid the wall or be wary of the dust on the floor. I like the fact that they want me to be safe and look good all the time.

These color of the rainbow describe few of my experiences with the children at Ivuka,  There silver lining at the end of this journey, the kids call me Vikram now (with similar variations and more). They see me walking on the streets and yell my name and sometimes come running to me which lights up my day. I will cherish the memories of the times they called me Muzungu. Although the word means foreigner, these children taught me that foreigner need not be foreign.

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Me drawing with the kids

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