the muzungu and the kettles

One of the things I liked about Tanzania was picking up tiny bits of Kiswahili. Known as Swahili in English, it is the national language in Tanzania.

One of the words I heard most was ‘Muzungu’. It means ‘white person’ and is pronounced just how you think it would be. As I am white, and also a person, it was often yelled out at me from both children and adults alike.

I had to giggle at a new friend I met, also a Muzungu, who has been in Tanzania for the last few years and speaks fluent Kiswahili. Frustrated with constant cries of ‘Muzungu, Muzungu!!’ as she walked through her local neighbourhood, one day she just exploded (in Kiswahili, of course) – “I don’t walk through here yelling ‘African, African!’ everytime I see one of you. Why do you call me according to the colour of my skin? You’re all humans and I’m a human too! If you want to call me anything, call me human being!”.

One of her fellow muzungu friends thought it rather strange when, a few days later and walking through the same neighbourhood, she was not confronted with ‘Muzungu’ cries, but various grinning neighbours calling “Human being! Human being!”

Anyhow, one of the things I like about Kiswahili is that, the majority of the time, it is spelt how it sounds, and sounds like it is spelt. I am assuming then that the ‘bomba’, a compound of multiple houses, is spelt just like that – ‘b.o.m.b.a’. Then again, it might be an Arabic word, or from a Maasai language. I couldn’t be too sure.


Here’s a bit of a dodgy photo of a ‘bomba’ we saw on the way from Arusha to Ngorongoro Crater. It’s in the heart of Maasai country, where the men have many wives. This guy here has 30 wives. 150 children. And a whopping 169 grandchildren. It actually made me feel a little sick, thinking about it all and the ramifications for everyone invovled.

While this was certainly the biggest bomba we saw, it wasn’t the first.

The first was located on the side of a hill on the road between Musoma and Shirati, in the north of Tanzania and to the east of Lake Victoria. We were driving through the region with a couple of local guys who pointed out interesting bits in the scenery, or explained the significance of particular regions and towns. It was Frances who brought our attention to the bomba.

“This man here, he is very rich. Look, he has twelve houses.”

We all stared silently, each counting the small mud huts clustered together away from the busyness of the pot-holed road.

“Yes, twelve houses. Oh he is very rich. There is one house for each of his wives. And one for all his kettles.”

I turned quizzically to Frances. “His kettles?” I asked, the tone of my voice getting squeeky at the end.

“Yes, his kettles.”


I sat confused. Kettles? Exactly how many kettles did this guy have that he needed to devote an entire house to them?? And since when were kettles a sign of material wealth?? I understand that wealth often means different things in different cultures. While we use plastic cash and metal coins, I know some smaller, more traditional cultures still use things like shells or beads.

But kettles?

And then it all became crystal clear. Kettles did not refer to a metal or plastic jug used to boil water, but to four-legged, large mammals also known as ‘cattle’. A little miscommunication that had me smiling for days.

(PS – Head to to see some photos!)


One thought on “the muzungu and the kettles

  1. I have the shirt from Uganda that is black with white writing. Muzungu on the front, Uganda on the back.

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