Gringo. Gavacho. Farang. Keenok. Suddha. Mzungu. As foreigners in a foreign land, the first word we learn in the local dialect is what they call us, the white people. Schoolchildren shout it as we pass by. It jumps out in conversations held by locals. Sometimes it is derogatory in nature. Other times it is used matter-of-factly: we are the outsiders.
Here, in Rwanda, and throughout much of Africa, we are greeted with Mzungu! Mzungu! A Swahili term meaning ‘aimless wanderer’, the tag was originally applied to European explorers. Also used is the Kinyarwanda word Rutuku, or ‘red’, for the color we turn in the sun. Which is, in some ways, better than a name originating from bird shit or pink/white fruit, as is the case in Thailand.
And, despite the large number of expats in Kigali, never before have we been so clearly the foreigners. With almost nothing to speak of in the way of tourism (aside from some incredibly expensive gorillas), the number of white folks coming through Rwanda is miniscule compared to some of the more touristic countries. We are, in some ways, still a novelty: children run up to us in mobs to say hello, good afternoon, and touch our hands; I’ve even received a couple of hugs.
Our skin color, our hair, our clothing, our language, all of these things make us noticeably and immediately different. Unfortunately, the world over, these things make people assume we are inherently wealthy. We have discovered that it also means that, here in Rwanda, they assume we have the correct answer for every situation. Although, that is probably just because they don't have the hordes of drunk tourists visible in some places (another assumption we try to dissuade people from making about Westerners).
And though my name is not Mzungu, and I will not pay higher, mzungu prices, we try always to be good ambassadors for the white people, our fellow gringos, the farang spread across the globe, doling out handshakes, conversations, and hugs, dispersing myths of automatic wealth and knowledge, and spreading smiles.