Jake Rutherford Photography

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A Mzungu of the Wazungu

(Image at top) A student in uniform at the Ringroad Dayschool in Kisumu, Kenya.

She was posing for me, although I didn’t ask her to. It’s a quite common interaction with students and orphans that regularly meet traveling wazungu from the west, with their fancy cameras. The more wazungu visiting, the more comfortability with me and my camera.

A mzungu (plural: wazungu) is a term used in the African Great Lakes region to refer to people of European descent. Originally the word (or similar words) meant “someone who roams around aimlessly” or “aimless wanderer”, apparently because 18th Century European explorers to Africa kept getting lost in the jungles and savannahs. The kiswahili root of the word, “zungu”, means spinning in the same spot, a.k.a. “dizzy”. Today, the word evolved into meaning anyone with white skin. 

(Image at bottom) A older boy surrounded by his younger comrades on the rural hillside near the summit of Mt. Elgon, at the Kenyan-Ugandan border. 

He posed for me in a different way. Not to display his handsomeness, but to intimidate me. He wanted me to know his strength. Most of these children had lost their families in a terrible tribal war in the remote village land on Mt. Elgon. He was strong, indeed. 

Children affected by this violence had emerged from the trees and fields to see us, a head count closer to a hundred than not. We were the first wazungu that most had seen in their entire lives. For me, the interaction was tense and underlit with equal fear and curiosity, on both sides. This moment has stayed with me.