One of the first words every visitor to east Africa learns is the Swahili word mzungu (plural: wazungu). Mzungu means “white person”. It’s not a derogatory term, but merely descriptive. For example, when we first arrived in Tanzania and walked through the local villages, lots of little local kids would jump up and down excitedly, waving and smiling and pointing at my kids who have such strange blond hair, yelling, “Wazungu, wazungu!”

It was only after living in Tanzania several months that I learned that the root meeting of mzungu has nothing to nothing with color. Rather, it has to do with behavior. The word is derived from the Swahili verb zunguka, which means “go around” or “wander around”. When European traders and missionaries first began visiting east Africa centuries ago, their “wandering around” was their distinctive characteristic. Africans were much more likely to stay put, being rooted in a local family and village. The Europeans, on the other hand, were constantly coming and going. Thus, they earned the title wazungu: wanderers.

It’s striking that in another sense all of us who bear the name of Christ are wazungu, regardless of skin color. When we are baptized into Christ we are given a new life, which also means that we are uprooted from our old life. We have a new identity, a new righteousness, and a new home.   “Our citizenship is in heaven.” (Phil. 3:20) We are “strangers and exiles on the earth.” (Heb. 11:13) “We know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (2 Cor. 5:1)

We were made by God to have a home, and because of that our hearts yearn for permanence, stability, and solidity, but it is our corrupt sinful nature to seek for home in the wrong places. We look to changeable created things rather than to the changeless Creator. We naively hope that a hefty savings account will give us stability and control over the future. We want to believe we can carve out a comfortable life and a safe little niche for ourselves amidst the world’s unpredictability.

As my family continues its transition, waiting to move into our new house here in Nairobi – our “permanent” house – it is a temptation for us to make that house an idol, to think, “Once we finally settle in to the new place, then we’ll be home.” The reality is that we won’t be home. The reality is that even if we lived in the United States in the place where I was born, we would not be home. Together with all Christians around the globe, we are wanzungu. We are wanderers. We are sojourners. Our King in Jesus Christ, and our citizenship is in heaven.

The Gospel call is a call to come home. God reaches out with His Word to citizens of every country and He makes them citizens of His eternal country. He reaches out to those who feel at home in the sinful flesh and makes them sojourners waiting for a better home.

Wherever you are, if you feel a little homesick, don’t be concerned. There’s a reason for it. Our Lord said, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (Jn. 14:3) When Jesus comes to take His Church to Himself, we will no longer be wazungu. Then we will be home.

One thought on “Wazungu

  1. Having been to Tanzania I am familiar with wazungu, but had never learned the root or considered it in this way. Thank you so much for this post! I thought when I left Tanzania many years ago that I quit being a mzungu. Grateful nostalgically and realistically to be reminded I am not home yet!


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