The children of Mella near Tororo

The children of Mella near Tororo

Musungu, musungu,” the children along the side of the roads yell as we drive into the villages and towns all over Uganda. It is thought even by most Ugandans that this means white person. This same  pattern of greeting is repeated throughout Uganda, though perhaps they are not so excited to see one of us in the capital where they are more used to seeing musungus.

The greeting is offered by nearly every child under twelve that I see and even some of the older, cooler teens. They love to wave at me to see if they can get me to wave back. When I would sit on the porch of the guesthouse on Buvuma Island, the children 100 yards away and across the road and through the thin tree line would gather and point, and then I would hear the distant call, trying to get my attention, and of course, I would always wave – they acted like this just made their day!

The church at Mella near Tororo

Today I was in thevillage of Mella, outside the city of Tororo. We were very far back off the road and could look a half mile across the little valley and see into Kenya. Because of its isolation, they seldom see musungus in Mella. So the children were somewhat fascinated with me, staring at me, looking away in fright if I made eye-contact, even running away if I glanced at them, then, like small forest animals sneaking back to pick up a few dropped crumbs at a picnic, they would quickly return to stand in a group and stare. I finally approached the braver one from this group and taught him to greet me with a high five. Then I had them. They all wanted to learn and to practice slapping five with the musungu, even the little girl who previously led the panicked flight away from me every time I looked at her.

Looking East into Kenya from Mella

Looking East into Kenya from Mella

The term musungu is not even completely understood by most Ugandans who use it to refer to any white person. When I first asked about it, I was told that it simply meant white. I was fairly uncomfortable with that, being an American who grew up during the civil rights revolution of the 1960’s. But then it was explained that it is a term of respect, rather than simplya term of color. It is even used occasionally of a Ugandan who has become a successful businessperson or public figure. In that context it would be our equivalent to Sir or Ma’am, or maybe even the British Your Lordship, Your Ladyship (American genes again not feeling real comfortable with that).

But then, last fall I had a conversation with my new friend Pastor Moses Kivunike, who is a statesman and elder of the church. He set me straight on the origin of the term musungu. He said that when the white men first came to the shores of Africa, they were very curious about all the new and exotic things they were seeing. They were always going here and there busily writing notes, drawing diagrams of plants and animals, creating maps of the regions, exploring, discovering, and always with great hustle and bustle, loaded with many packs of luggage and equipment in great caravans, and generally raising the dust everywhere they went. Africans had never seen such a people, always asking questions, hungry to discover new things, rushing here, rushing there, operating on Western schedules with timepieces. Moses explained that the original Swahili term from which musungu is derived meant a person who is always rushing about asking questions and organizing explorations. The literal meaning may be something like one who always runs to and fro, from one thing to another, in a rapid and curious manner.

The mountain around which lies the city of Tororo

The mountain around which lies the city of Tororo

Eventually, since it was applied to the white race who operated on such a different cultural framework from anything they had every observed, the term came to be slang for white person, which is how most Africans now use it. But the word certainly has a rich and deep heritage, and I am much more comfortable with its application to me now that I understand its background and lack of racial implications.

And when it comes right down to it, though the truth is that it is more a reaction of curiosity than real greeting, sort of like trying to get the chimps at the zoo to entertain you by making faces back at you, I enjoy hearing the high-pitched cries of the children, and seeing them running alongside the road as we pass, waving and yelling to me. I feel popular, I wave back, I laugh, and I smile. We are all enjoying ourselves!

Frankly, I wish we could train that sophisticated generation of American children back at home to get as excited as these African children at simply seeing a passing stranger.  I wish we could train the children of my neighborhood back in Texas to run alongside my car as I pull in my driveway, yelling a greeting of some kind at me. Musungu would be fine, and I would feel just as gratified and popular in the US as I do here everywhere I go. Maybe I’ll teach my seven grandchildren to run out yelling, “Musungu,” when they see me coming.

I kid, of course. No granddad is as blessed as I am with wonderful and loving grandchildren. They actually smile when they see me, and run to me and say, “Pa, how are you?” and they all, from the littlest 2 year old to the 16 year old High School Junior want to hug me every time they see me. It just doesn’t get better than that, whether I am the alien musungu visiting an African village or the misty-eyed grandpa getting loved on by his grand-kids.

My room in the guesthouse where we are staying in Tororo

My room in the guesthouse where we are staying in Tororo

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