tanzanian kids say the darndest things

These are the three most common greetings I get from children in Tanzania.

3. “Give me my money!” Before moving to Tanzania, I expected to be asked for money often.  I am.  And I know pronouns are one of the easiest things to get confused in any language — it seems Tanzanian children have an especially hard time with possessive pronouns.  But my question is why are they even wanting to say, “give me YOUR money?”  Are they holding up a bank?!  Shouldn’t it just be, “give me money,” with no pronoun at all?  Anyway, this phrase can be pretty annoying, because it’s often said with such force that it sounds angry and demanding.

How I want to respond: While waving a 1000 shilling bill in the air, “I was going to give you this, kid, but you asked so very rudely.  I guess I’ll give it to that child over there who politely addressed me in proper Swahili.  Maybe I’ll buy him some ice cream, too.”

2. Mzungu!” This is what westerners are called in Tanzania.  Its origins in Swahili seem to refer to foreigners always being busy, doing this and that, running back and forth, refusing to just sit still.  I think “mzungu” would originally have been best translated as “one who runs around in circles.”  But it’s come to mean “foreigner from the west” and in some places is the equivalent of “whitey.”  Kids are especially good about yelling and screaming “mzungu” hundreds of times when I pass their homes during my morning run.  You would think they had been given the task of standing watch while their families cooked stews made from white people parts.  What is truly ironic about these deafening mzungu alarms is that the kids do this while physically and literally running in circles.  Yeah, who’s the mzungu now?

How I want to respond: By screaming “Mtanzania (Tanzanian), Mtanzania, Mtanzania,” while I jump up and down and point.

1. “What is my name?” And I’m not trying to say they ask me MY name; no, they ask me their name.  Again, it’s this confusion with possessive pronouns.  But there is just something hilarious to me about a teenage guy yelling “mzungu” to get my attention, and immediately following up by asking me to use my light-skin powers of extrasensory perception to tell him what his name is.  And all of this is done inside of the three seconds it takes me to jog past where this guy’s sitting on the side of the road.  No hello, conversation, small talk, or excuse me — just “Mzungu!  What is my name?!”  Like I’m on some sort of high speed quiz show.  But I guarantee if I get the answer right, he doesn’t pay me with HIS money.

How I want to respond (and exactly the way I do): “I do not know your name,” as I smile and continue running past.

What funny things do kids say where you live?



Filed under living in africa, slightly humorous or amusing?, tanzania, top ten lists

28 responses to “tanzanian kids say the darndest things

  1. Mzungu: I like that variation.

    In Hong Kong they call you and me Gweilo (white ghost). They call your wife Gweipo (same meaning).

    In mainland China they call us Lao Wai, old foreigner.

    In Thailand, Farang. I was told that came originally from a mispronunciation of “Francais”, but never corroborated that.

    But being called, in effect, “one who is always busy” is an infinitely more telling and devastating descriptor.

    I’m now going to go sit somewhere and do nothing. Oh wait, I’m a dad, I can’t do that….

    • when i lived in china (3 years), i was called ‘lao wai’ a lot. but i always enjoyed more being called ‘yan guizi’ (maybe ‘yang’? i don’t remember, but the same ‘yan’ used for ‘yan con,’ meaning onion), meaning foreign devil (or ghost). but it was always enjoyable because i’d respond in chinese — which would surprise them — by saying that i indeed was not a ‘yan guizi,’ but rather a ‘tu guizi,’ a local devil. it’s a lot funnier pun in chinese, i promise.

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  3. My kids say “don’t do thaaaat” because it has the equivalent pattern to the korean “ha-ji-maaaa” which means “don’t do that.”

    A similar one is “re(low)ally(high)?” It’s hard to describe it here, but it’s basically “chinCHA?” which is the Korean way to say “Really?” Maybe it’d be written realLY?

    • luke, you’ve made me sad… or regretful at least. i lived in china for three years and never visited korea. there was one point at which i was forced to decide whether to spend money i’d saved to go to the world cup in korea or to buy a new road bike. i bought the bike.

      just last week i had two guests from korea in my home. they’re both americans who are teaching in an international school there in seoul. i checked out your blog, and your talk of the prevalence of coffee shops is something about which we had a big conversation last week.

      thanks for stopping by.

  4. Beka

    So can i have some money? 🙂

    Loved reading this!

    • sure thing, beka. you know how we missionaries and development workers roll. the question is whether you’d prefer your cash in rolls of 100’s or in the form of one of my many benzes…

  5. David Robinson

    My daughter just started saying, “bye Bob.” She’s 19 months and this is really her first sentence. But they way she says it is so funny.

    Our new next door neighbor is naturally named “bob.” We just moved in two and a half weeks ago, but she seems to really love the man. She says his name pretty much all day. Then we go out on a walk and I prod her along by telling her, “let’s go see Bob.” He and his wife are always on their porch after work chillaxing drinking wine. So we go up and talk to them. As we leave Anna walks away with this air about her. She says, “bye Bob” while she walks away from the porch as if it is completely normal for her to speak in complete sentences.

    Sorry that my story doesn’t involve other languages. I feel a little inferior but this is all I could come up with, and my blog reading-to-comment ratio was dipping down to “I appear not to care” levels… I do care.

    • When I visited Sierra Leone the small children called us a name that literally means, “white on you.” Once we stopped to have a tire repaired in a remote village. Taking several minutes, a couple of small boys carefully worked their way close to where we were sitting in the shade. The smallest one finally got close enough to reach over and try to wipe the white off the arm of one of my co-workers. I could only chuckle.

    • david, i’m happy to hear stories about your daughter — even if she can’t speak another language yet. baylor’s saying “bye, bob” all the time now, but usually in swahili. sometimes in greek and hebrew, but her pronunciation’s not great in those languages. i think it has something to do with the fact that she learned it through reading, rather than just picking it up in conversation.

      and don’t feel like you have to comment to show you care. i know you care. the roses you send every week let me know you care.

  6. Hi Brett & Christie, Greetings from India. I got here thru Missionary Blogs.

    Your blog is very interesting.

    I really don ‘t know what kids here say to foreigners. But the one s on the streets , beg for money. Some say Hi and a few sentences in English.

    • one day i hope to travel to india. and i surely expect to hear both english and requests for money. it seems missionary blogs has sent me quite a few readers the last couple of days. glad you’re here, amrita.

  7. Oh, that is hilarious! Especially the last one. That made me laugh. I must say that I understand your desired response to “Mzungu!” from my brief stay in China.

    I am still chuckling. “I don’t know your name.” ha!

  8. Ahh, this post brings back such great memories from my trip to Kenya back in March! I didn’t hear some of the same phrases because I was in a different country but we were close enough to you to recognize a few things. I heard “Mzungu” a lot. Walking through the slums of Kenya I would quickly be surrounded by groups of children chanting “How are you…how are you…how are you…” They didn’t know what it meant but had heard it enough to assume it was some sort of greeting.

    Thanks for the post. Great memories. Makes me want to go back.

    I am, hopefully, going to be going back to Kenya in the next year or so and, when I do, I’m planning on making a side-trip to Tanzania. We have a child we sponsor there through Compassion that I’d love to meet one day.

    • brad, thanks for stopping by. i regularly read your blog, and enjoy it a great deal. i’m glad my post could elicit a few memories for you.

      where in tanzania is your compassion child? and when you’re here, let me know. if you’re close to us (it’s a big country) i’d love to share a coffee or a meal. actually you’d be more than welcome to stay at our place. especially if you want to see some of “real” africa — rural areas, villages, and the like.

  9. Man, you had me crying with laughter whilst I read about the kids “holding you up” for money. VERY FUNNY, sir.

    In South Africa, we whitey’s are called mlungu, by children and adults alike.

    • crying with laughter, huh? that’s success, i suppose. glad i could oblige.

      and here adults call me mzungu, too. it’s just the adults don’t scream it over and over again while running around their front yards.

  10. Hi, James! I got your comment on my blog- thanks for saying hi and ha, I kind of feel like a stalker- didn’t know you’d know I linked you! 🙂 But yes, I’m teaching at HOPAC (teaching Art) and I’m here with Young Life- so I’m friends with the Baums and Cooks, and Kate Connell is one of my roommates. They were talking about you and I made the connection that I’d read your blog…. crazy small world! Hope to meet you and your family soon when you’re out here (for the big city life in Dar)! 🙂

    (and yes, this post is hilarious…. I totally laughed out loud when I read it. So true!)

    • i did indeed know you linked to me (one of the perks of using wordpress, indeed). and, wow, you sent a lot of readers my way. i think i’ve had 20 visitors come to my blog from yours. thanks… you, stalker, you.

      and welcome to t-zed. kate and the baums are great — i can’t speak for the cooks, never met them — i’m sure they’re great, though. you will indeed meet us soon. i’ve subscribed to your blog and will keep up with life in dar through you after the baums leave (they’re good at keeping up with their blog; kate and carley are not).

  11. Emily

    I was in Tanzania about 2.5 years ago doing some mission work with my church and am headed back next month. I too heard a lot of “give me my money” and “Mzungu! Mzungu! Mzungu!”

    • that’s great to hear, emily. i’m glad you’re willing to give of your time (and money) to help the people of tanzania. if you don’t mind me asking, where does your church go? and what do you do there?

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  16. Pam Fincher Workman

    When we lived in Kenya, we did indeed answer them back with waKenya when they called out Mzungu! In Jamaica, they call you “white boy” not such a fun name for a grown man. Loved this post.

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