The Mzungu Tax(i)

In the 18th century, as European explorers reached Eastern Africa, they translated “Mzungu” to mean “came around” or “wanderer” in KiSwahili.  It commonly refers to someone with “white skin or fair-skinned foreigners” but in general it means foreigner. 

Children will yell at you across the street attaching a “Mambo” or “Jambo.”  They will curiously reach out and touch your fair skin, surprised that it feels like theirs, possibly with a bit more hair.  They will associate the name with tourists and bark demands for sweets, water bottles or money.  With adults it is used more as a general description and often without negative connotation, “We have a Mzungu teacher in our village.” 

Now the Mzungu tax is that price that comes with goods and services that will be imposed on you as a foreigner.  It can be found in taxis, food stalls and markets, bus fares, SIM cards.  You are Mzungu and therefore can afford to pay more.  That is unless you negotiate.  Every country that is based on bargaining will impose their “special tax.”   

Example 1.  3 am after clubbing in Arusha with some Tanzanian friends and ready to go home we approached several taxi drivers that were quoting us outrageous prices.  My friends looked at me, told me to duck behind one of the parked cars while they negotiated with a driver about the number of people and where we were going.  They got their price and said “okay, let’s go” I came out and jumped into the back of the taxi and the driver was steaming, “how could they be so misleading.  You didn’t say there would be a white lady with you.”  A deal is a deal, but that is the Mzungu tax.

Example 2.  We had been on Safari for 6 days and I needed to get a local SIM card.  I was dirty and tired and picked one up from a roadside table. I had a quick transaction as my safari guide remained in the car, and I had a strong suspision I was ripped off.  Even now, I feel ashamed and embarrassed that I could allow myself to be swindled by such an amount, regardless of how expensive mobile data is in Africa.

The following morning, I was consumed by immense guilt for overpaying. I called a friend, confessed the price I had paid, and he came to pick me up. Together, we went to the small table where the transaction had taken place.  My friend confronted the guy for taking advantage of me and demanded a refund for the difference.  The vendor left and returned half an hour later wearing different clothes, insisting that he was a different person.  When I interjected and said, “He may think all Mzungus look the same, but changing your clothes doesn’t change your face,” he was taken aback.  As a result, we managed to retrieve my money, but I felt a bit of my pride was lef.

Example 3.  Less to do with the Mzungu Tax and more to do with being Mzungu.  I needed my haircut so my friend Fadhili said he knew someone.  We went thru the busy market to a small hair salon that was bright and busy.  My friend explained what I wanted in Swahili and showed them a picture of me with my short hairstyle.  Apprehensive at first, but willing to make the effort as they had never cut a white girl’s hair before – they were thorough, patient and determined to make it proper.  Afterwards I was equally as pleased and posed for some photos for their shop so they could proudly offer services to a whole new clientele – Mzungus.

Locals and Mzungus alike take the taxi buses such as this one driving through a market in Arusha, Tanzania.
Local Taxi in Arusha


4 Responses

  1. Pingback: The Bracelet Scam
  2. Hi Laura. So glad to have met you… I love your travel stories… will definitely keep on reading. Travel safe my friend. Hope to catch up in Cape Town.

    1. Brent thank you so much. It was a pleasure. Just 200km a what a change back to be back in hills. Safe travels back to Cape Town. We will reach out when back in the western Cape.

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