“Beware the Mzungu”: Why children run away

“When I was a child, my parents told me: ‘Saïd, if you cry, if you do not help us in the fields, if you are naughty, the mzungu will come and take you away’”. Not only that, explained our guide, Saïd, but because Africans carry things on their heads, not on their backs – only children are carried on one’s back – the backpack-wearing white man inspires great fear. Children believe our bags are for stolen babies.

“From the age of 3, we are trained to carry things on our heads”, continued Saïd. It shows: people prefer to carry suitcases that way, rather than pulling them on their wheels; women descending steep, rough paths barefoot, bearing piles of firewood or great tubs filled with fruit; even a child almost hidden from view by a large mattress carefully balanced on his head.

(photo by CK)

Older children, of course, know we’re not dangerous and even the littlest ones, in the safety of a group, shout out to us. From across two fields, they spot the aliens in their landscape, and they wave and call at the tops of their voices, “Jambo!”. Or when they see my camera: “picha picha!”, or sometimes, “Give me money!”.

It wasn’t only the kids who were excited to see us in small-town Lushoto. Exploring alone one day I was passing a small house, when from inside, a woman called out: “Mzungu! Karibu! (Welcome, white person), giggling then with embarrassment. I chatted to them – with the few words we had in common – and then they happily posed for a photograph. I wondered if they’d expect some money in return, but no, they were simply happy to meet someone, perhaps enjoying the attention. I asked if they had an e-mail address, thinking I could send them the photos – but no. And it was only afterwards as I made my way home again, that I thought: how sad, in a way, that it’s so exciting to have your picture taken, just for the sake of it, with no possibility of ever having a copy of the picture.

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