The mzungu, or white man, in Swahili, has an interesting etymology: originally the word meant ‘someone who wanders without purpose, one who wants to see everything.’

It’s wonderful to have a single word mean so much, although it’s an oxymoron—the two definitions contradict each other. Wazungu is the plural, and I guess these days in means a busload of tourists. And my favorite, kizungu, means behaving rich! Presumably that’s a euphemism for stuck-up.

I’m in a kind of meandering mzungu mood, tired from my travels, so I’ve pulled the centerboard up and let the boat drift. Stuck-up is the title of a bizarre book containing one hundred X-rays of objects humans have (or have had) inserted into themselves—the usual mucous membranes apply, and the accompanying ridiculous (I sat on it) excuses.

The first I heard about these feats of human eclipse was at the tender age of eleven. My mother, who seemed to have an inexplicable attraction to weird books, secured a copy of ‘Everything you want to know about sex.’ This was in fascist Portugal, where any guy who had hair covering his ears was called a ‘Teddy Boy.’

Anyhow, the book dwelt briefly on the use of sex toys by gay guys. One fellow had been rushed to hospital: when the doc inserted a probe to find out what was up there, he was confronted with a colon bathed in a heavenly glow—the patient had contrived to stick a lighted torch up his ass.

So maybe my Rabbit got the book off a friend, it would definitely have been censored—you couldn’t even buy Beatles albums. As an aside, I had to trawl through some of her emails yesterday for a phone number I needed—I don’t know if you have a collection of mail from someone who’s died, someone you love, but reading some of that stuff from my mother was very painful.

Email’s vivid memories make you jump like the slam of a door. And there’s so much of it, not like the folded fading love letters hidden in a back drawer. I guess the worst torture must be for someone who has lost a child. I’d hate reading anything like that, every word like a bullet. I suppose as I turn into a mzee, the Swahili word for old man, I’ll see more and more messages from people who can no longer communicate via the ethernet, only via the ether. Or they’ll see mine.

And I wonder what the legal status is on that, since in many cases a repository will remain on a server somewhere. One thing I’m sure of: whatever bravery the brave new world brings, lawyers will make money.

You can't get more English than this. But to me it brings back echoes of Quadrophenia, and the fights between Mods and Rockers on Brighton pier.

You can’t get more English than this. But to me it brings back echoes of Quadrophenia, and the fights between mods and rockers on Brighton pier.

My last few days back in England were like a time-warp from South Africa. I stayed at a hotel on the south coast entirely occupied by old people. It had motorized baby-blue shopping scooters, wheelchairs, and retirees sitting at tables in the reception. In fact, everywhere I looked there were guests eating, drinking pints of ale, and at night (which finished well before 10 pm), dancing to music from the 1950s.

I stood out like a mzungu on the Cape Flats, and people spoke to me, trying to find out what a child of my vintage was doing there. England is completely segmented for age, so you’ll find the reverse in central London, where no patron will be older than thirty. You get funny looks in there too.

I don’t see much profit in structuring society that way. When I was a kid I learned the English saying that ‘children should be seen and not heard,’ but I think it extends through life: as an adult you can be both seen and heard, and then comes that final stage where you’re hidden away, neither seen nor heard.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.


One Response to “Mzungu”

  1. Laura Says:

    For some reason, this (specifically, the part of reading the emails of someone you loved) made me think of the novel Deus X by Norman Spinrad ( You might like it (and you might not; who knows).

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