Monday, August 01, 2011

African Cat-calls - Magan's World, Jul 2010

Sat 07 Jul 2010

Colourful terms for the white man on African catcalls

MAGAN'S WORLD:I’M JUST BACK from four weeks travel. Real travel, by which I mean endless bone-juddering, coccyx-splintering journeys through the bush in the back of pickups and nights camped out on the roofs of hostels. The sort of travel that I grew up on, but now at age 40, seems more and more unbecoming, inappropriate, delinquent.

I was in Mozambique, and it was the first time in a long while that I didn’t speak the language, or at least have a guide with me who could translate. I was reminded again of the sweet, terrifying sense of alienation that comes from not being able to communicate.

The heightened sensation it brings to every encounter – every meal one negotiates, every bus ticket one buys. In such situations each activity relies on a degree of trust, of intuition, and, most of all, on the willingness of some local to help out. I’d love to be able to calculate how much of people’s time I wasted over the course of the month. What was the cumulative effect of all those encounters with people explaining the phone system to me, showing me where to buy water at midnight, where to transfer from one bus to another, or how to prepare the smoked fish I bought at the market.

White people in Africa complain about the constant attention they get, the chorus of catcalls that follow them, but it is this attention, this outsider status, that ensures people are so patient with us; that no matter how weary, annoyed, resentful they are they still take the time to convey whatever needs to be communicated to our thick heads.

The most common catcall in Africa is the local name for ‘white person’ - mzungu, ferengi, baturai, mundele or yovo. Mzungu is probably the best known, it’s found in most Bantu-speaking countries in East and Southern Africa. The derivation is thought to be from ‘the people who travel’, or ‘the people who walk in circles,’ which some claim stems from the fact that the early colonisers all looked the same to Africans, so they thought it might be the same few albinos going around in circles. Each term reveals something about how we’re perceived by locals. The Nigerian word baturai, means ‘man with no skin,’ making it clear why our appearance in remote villages can still lead to such consternation – we are ghoulish, ghostly figures, like half-formed larval humans. Yovo is the word commonly heard throughout Benin and Togo, often chanted as part of a song "Yovo, yovo, Bon soir. It’s an old term that linguists say originally meant ‘cunning dog’ - an appropriate term for the first colonists who were bent on hood-winking and exploiting the locals, and still remarkably apt centuries later in a place like West Africa where the French were using people as slaves long after the Russians had sent a man into space. The Congolese word Mundele is connected to their boogie man character known as Mundele ya Mwinda, the White Man with the Lantern, which stems from the time when Belgian slave traders would sneak into a village at night with lanterns and round up the men for forced labour. The locals regarded them as demons carrying a light that hypnotised them into surrender.

The catcalls can range from being a warm pleasantry to a barbed insult depending on the context, and one’s reaction to them depends on how one is feeling at the time. Often, it’s delightful to be welcomed into a village with your own personal chorus, but when you’re feverish and exhausted the sound of twenty children screaming mzungu can drive one demented. How to reply depends on the situation: if the term is meant in a benignly descriptive way one can provoke a laugh by replying ‘Hello, Ethiopian’ or ‘Hello Kenyan Person,’ if it’s pejorative or mocking better get the hell away from there as quickly as possible.