One of the values of Hands at Work that I find most alluring is to know each child by name. There is something powerful about a name. If a child is a number or a checkmark on a list, no relationship will flourish with him/her. Think about it, have you ever been in that awkward situation where you meet someone for a second time (or third, or fourth) and they remember your name while you have no clue what theirs is? We are quick to devise a plan to remedy the situation. We convince someone else to introduce themselves so that we can find out the name surreptitiously. Or, if that doesn’t work, maybe we start putting their phone number into our mobile and deviously ask, “So, how do you spell that again?” Unfortunately, I’ve been a culprit of both schemes recently. It displays how much people appreciate the personal connection found in knowing each other by name.
The problem I’ve found myself in, since being in Africa, is somewhat more complicated. I’ve enjoyed learning children’s names and stumbling over the unfamiliar syllables numerous times, prompting laughter from the children who struggle as much to say my name. Even though it’s short and simple in my mind, the vast majority of the time we are known as Mzungu rather than by our confusing English names. I don’t mind nicknames, but for a while this one has slightly troubled me:
We’ve taken in a handful of Swahili church services in the Congo, not understanding much of the content, but enjoying the colorful melodies of the small buildings filled with African ladies’ not-so-small voices. On occasion we would recognize an old English hymn being sung in their language. The word Mzungu kept landing in the same place as the word God would have, had I been the one leading the song. Suddenly, I became apprehensive about how much the word for God resembled the nickname given to white foreigners. I was ready to accept a nickname which I had assumed translated as “white person” because after all, we are indisputably white. But, if there was some kind of reference to deity or the historical superiority of white colonialists, I was prepared to launch a search-and-destroy mission to eradicate the term.
Thankfully, after a short investigation, I discovered the term Mzungu translates as “people who wander aimlessly,” innocently referring to the fact that, historically, much of the European presence in predominately Swahili territories consisted of transient traders, missionaries and tourists. Now, rather than spending my time on some sort of misguided kamikaze mission against every person that calls me Mzungu instead of Todd, I can embrace the name.
Coming from a culture that may be notoriously well-known for glorifying busyness and coveting transience, applying the phrase “people who wander aimlessly” to my life should prove to be a crucial tool in the destruction of those tendencies, as well as a constant reminder to live in the present. It’s too easy for me to perpetually think of family, friends or the NHL playoffs back home in Canada, and not being present. We must ensure to have a clear goal in sight to avoid wandering aimlessly through our counted days on earth.
“Without love, breathing is just the ticking of and unwinding clock counting down the time it takes for you to comprehend the sheer magnitude of every single precious breath you’ve ever wasted.”