Definition: Azungu - Chichewa for stranger, foreigner, white person.


I know about 10 phrases in Chichewa. Out of that vast vocabulary my second favorite word is "Azungu". It's not a particularly malicious word. It can often be heard shouted at white folk as they/we drive by in crowded streets followed by a wave. However, I can't help but see Azungu peppered into layers of culture.

My first memorable Azungu experience came a couple days ago on Saturday. The Hutchinson family (for ease of writing the "Hutchinsons" will include Beth and myself unless otherwise noted) decided to go on a hike at the plateau in Zomba Town. As we eased Black Mamba into the town center the streets became progressively more narrow and cramped to the point where it felt like a single car couldn't even get through. We took several turns into what felt like a automotive chinese finger trap. The more we tried to find something, the more we got further and further stuck in the depths of Zomba Town. As time went on we slowly accumulated more and more stares from the residents of Zomba Town. It was reminiscent of scenes from Resident Evil 5 - which is a truly awful analogy but it was honestly the first thing that popped into my head while on the dirt roads. We finally were so lost we had to U-turn in what must have been a 10 foot space and ask a camo'ed guard for direction. 

Once we arrived at the plateau we were greeted by a 3 star resort with whatever modern day amenities you could want - including a life size chess board. Hospitality was abundant and we had an unending number of vendors attempting to sell souvenirs. I was initially weary of these meticulous souvenirs on the side of the road next to a fancy hotel. I thought they had to be manufactured somewhere else. But then I saw one of the vendors making one of the wooden art pieces by hand. Foolish was I to think I would be sold knock-off items in the heart of Africa. For us, it was a 180 degree turn in a matter of 30 minutes from dirt roads, shacks, and roadside butchers to posh amenities and a full service staff. 

The next experience was a 2 year old child who I saw in Consultant Clinic later that week. The children I have seen have largely been stoic but this child came in crying. I'm honestly blanking on the symptoms the child had but what stood out is the fact that the child cried every time she looked at me. I joked to Julius, my interpreter who's in clinical training, and said "Azungu". He confirmed it with an emphatic "Azungu" in return. It held a lighter tone than my first experience but was a notable one nonetheless. 

Later that day Beth and I was were waiting outside of Ndirande for the Black Mamba to take us back home. We decided to venture into the unrelenting sun to see the daily soccer, sorry, football match that occurs every day after school in the designated dirt pit. The ball appears to be made of a combo of plastic bags and fabric but is looks like better quality than most stuff we have. Once outside, Beth and I instantly received a bevy of stares in our direction. One of the kids yelled out "You are beautiful!" in our direction. I'd like to think I looked quite dapper in the Malawi sun but he was undoubtedly speaking to Beth. They also yelled "Give me my money". I bargained money after they scored a goal as we pulled away in the Mamba. 

More recently I've had more somber Azungu experiences. Today, Beth and I helped out at medical school grading OSCE's (essentially mock patient interactions). Afterwards, we had a debriefing with the other clinicians and faculty members. One in particular was speaking glowingly about one of the students. We'll call him Wussell Rilson. The conversation went something like this:

Non-Malawian, White Doc: Wussell has been great. He is clearly on another level than the other students. He clearly was not schooled in Malawi *slight catch*. He must have been schooled in the UK or elsewhere.

*Stare and silence of Malawian doctors ensues*

It was a brief moment that probably lasted a total of 1 second which was quickly followed by talking about the other students. However, it was a moment that stood out like a tall half Asian, half white guy trying to buy grilled corn on the side of the street in Blantyre. The statement wasn't necessarily untrue but it was one that further emphasized the Assign. 

The most poignant example of Azungu came last night. The Hutchinson Family sat down and watched a movie. The choice for this particular evening was "The Power of One". It's a fictional movie from the early 90's that was tale about an English boy who bridged the gap between whites (English, Afrikaners) and blacks in South Africa. Now it was obviously about Apartheid and isn't really relatable to Malawi in a direct manner but the movie included scenes of dilapidated housing and segregated facilities for the native Africans. What I haven't mentioned until now is that we watched this movie with Blessings, our wonderful, Malawian gardener/handyman extraoordinaire. By comparative Malawi standards, Blessings gets paid very well for what he does. He's going to school and he is treated like one of the family. But I still couldn't help but feel the stark difference in how we live each day. 

No amount of money I give or guilt I feel can ever make anything right. There is no easy answer in remedying the boundless distance that separates our worlds. 

So for now, I can only settle for popping open a couple of coke bottles and sharing a meal with Blessings while practicing my favorite word in Chichewa, "Tisangalalae" - Let us enjoy this.

-Ben Davis