Simply translated, Mzungu (pronounced “mu-zun-goo”) means “white person” in Kiswahili, the most common language in East Africa. Unfortunately, Mzungu cannot be simply translated, for any visiting Westerner, whether they have white, brown, or black skin, will be called Mzungu. In fact, “white person” is rarely what an East African is saying at all.
White person is not what the drivers mean as they talk among themselves while struggling to load the excessive luggage for a mission team. White person is not what is meant when the teacher of a slum school explains to the orphaned children that they will receive their first pair of shoes from visiting donors. White person is not what airport security personnel means when they rush a group of 20 students in matching t-shirts through long lines.
When Mzungu Meets Mission
Anyone who has been paying attention in the last decade has seen the tension rise around the Short Term Missions (STM) conversation. On one side of the issue is the booming STM industry, made wildly successful by rapid technological innovation providing a constant stream of global information and relatively affordable travel, allowing the Church to send large numbers of students all over the world. The internet has made the developing world’s needs suddenly visible—the orphan crisis or child hunger, for example—creating an opportunity for the Church to address those needs and provide STM opportunities.
Additionally, every major research study on adolescent spiritual development continues to point to transformational service and mission work as a central ingredient to a growing and lasting faith among teens. There is no end to the stories of STM shaping new worldviews, inspiring humanitarian vocational choices, initiating a vocational call to mission work, and most importantly, producing the kind of faith in Jesus Christ that integrates both belief and practice into the lives of students. STM trips are often the catalysts that push teens from a nominal, disinterested faith toward a vibrant and committed faith, making them invaluable to the Church and its commitment to disciple teens. To that end, the Church has enthusiastically responded to the world’s natural disasters, hunger crises, health epidemics, and political unrest by using STM to create discipleship opportunities for their teens and meet the worlds’ needs at the same time.
Unfortunately, STM teams rarely stop to learn what it means to be Mzungus, and this has caused some problems.
More Harm than Good?
Watch the news, listen to the radio, peruse the Christian blogosphere, or scroll through Twitter, and you will find many people who are ready to wash their hands of STM altogether, making a strong case that these efforts—“voluntourism,” as many have come to call them—cause far more harm than good. Many important and meaningful critiques have been made naming the cultural insensitivity, financial negligence, religious intolerance, sustainability and dependency issues, and significant harm done to people groups, mission projects, and human dignity in the name of Christian missions.
What the Church set out to do, often with the best intentions, has sorely backfired for many of the people and places it has aimed to serve. Mzungus arrived, often untrained, sometimes uninvited, and set out to save the day—frequently in matching t-shirts. Anyone serving in youth ministry for any length of time has likely been on these kinds of trips, and has likely even led these kinds of trips, leaving us wondering if indeed we should put an end to STM.
Visiting With Vision, Not Sightseeing
In 2006, I began using some of my time and energy serving with a project in Nakuru, Kenya that allows me to spend several weeks in Nakuru annually to work with our medical and educational projects, support our Kenyan staff as they oversee the programs, and lead STM teams as needed. Being both an American youth minister and part-time Kenyan project leader has given me a bird’s eye view to this issue, convincing me that there is a better way.
Rather than give up on STM and turn away from the great needs of the developing world, I believe that there are steps we can take to learn from our mistakes in order to make systemic changes. Providing quality mission opportunities for our teens should always leave the places we have been with greater dignity and a mutually shared appreciation for our time spent learning from and serving each other. This will require training resources and best practices informed by the voice of the people and places we aim to serve, requiring that we spend far more time listening with humility before any attempt to go or, more importantly, to serve.
I spent three months in Kenya this past year researching the impact of STM on various community development and mission projects. I interviewed local leaders trying to get a sense of how hosting Mzungus really works out for them, the projects, and the people being served. If these project leaders could speak freely, without fear of losing financial donors or Western connections, what would they say has been most helpful and most hurtful? Did they feel like teams arrived adequately prepared for the mission? How would they train and prepare STM groups if they were in charge? How did these local leaders see STM moving forward? Did they even want the STM model to continue? What do they really mean when they say Mzungu?
Three strong themes have emerged from my research:
1. Good intentions don’t matter. Doing the right thing matters.
Good intentions are never enough to justify mission work that is not invited and instructed by local people and projects. If the service work, evangelism, or mission agenda that STM aims to do happens at the expense of human dignity, it should not be done. The stories I heard were definitely cringe-worthy and made me wish I could issue sweeping apologies on behalf of all Westerners. In these cases, Mzungu meant STM participants putting their own desires to “feel good” or “be important” above the direction of the project leaders, even if their actions created lasting problems for the local people.
Interestingly, for every negative example I was given, all of my interview participants had far more positive examples about how beautiful the relationship can be when mission work is done skillfully and thoughtfully. I watched people weep with joy as they recounted stories of people who came on STM trips to equip and encourage local people, to provide oversight and development training, to fund and manage programs, to foster credibility and create lasting change, and to spread the hope of Jesus Christ, all in service to the leadership of the local organization. When good intentions are paired with doing what is right for the local people and project, everyone wins.
2. If you’re not prepared to come, then please don’t come.
Again and again, my interviews spoke to the value of team training and the difference it makes when groups arrive in country with cultural training, healthy team dynamics, spiritual preparation, skill development, travel preparedness, communication and conflict resolution, and service work expectations. However, when teams arrived unprepared, conflict and chaos always ensued and the local people were injured or taken advantage of as a result. In this case Mzungu could be defined as an assuming outsider, confident that they know better than the locals, resulting in being unreliable and ultimately ineffective in serving the agenda of the mission project.
The project leaders spoke frankly about their many ideas to train teams, how to create a better and more sustainable partnership with STM groups, and the great work they believe could happen when everyone is committed to the same goals.
3. Stay involved for the long haul.
My interviews produced a distinct pattern of naming the importance of mutual dependence and a trusting relationship between the local project leadership and the visiting STM team, only made possible over time and through shared experience. The concept of a “one-and-done” mission trip that primarily allows the trip participant to serve someone in need, often without careful thought to how their agenda could affect the people served once they were gone, has deeply wounded people and made them feel used. In this case Mzungu often looked like a STM participant getting caught up in the emotional service experience, making promises and plans for future involvement or partnership, but lacking the staying power and commitment necessary for lasting change.
The trust required to have honest conversations about relationship dynamics and STM goals requires time to nurture, more time than many STM efforts seem willing to invest, and every single research participant spoke to the benefits of return participants and long standing partnerships.
Hearing the Call to Friendship
Mzungu clearly means more than “white person,” and it is a shame that so many of our STM efforts have given layers of negative definition to such a small and simple word. Christian STM have been handled so poorly that Mzungu is the only appropriate word to describe us much of the time. I believe we can and should redeem our mission efforts in order to meet the needs of a hurting world and offer meaningful discipleship opportunities for our students, but our approach must be vastly different moving forward. This will require far more from the Church and far more from our students, but in the end, we will not be called Mzungu—we will have earned the right to be called Rafiki, which means friend, and that has the potential to change everything.
I do not remember exactly when the people in Nakuru stopped referring to me as Mzungu, only that at some point along the way, I had put in the time and earned the trust necessary to be called their friend, Rafiki Jamie. I was invited into people’s lives and homes, included in real and honest conversations, and invested in the projects’ missions and goals at a far deeper level of influence because of these friendships. Still the uncomfortable truth is that being a good friend is hard and demanding work, as it continues to be for me in Kenya.
When we are doing it well, friendship will require our very best effort; our time, energy, trust, affection, commitment, attention, honesty, and loyalty… terms that should characterize all of our STM efforts. Yet too often, most have been content to call themselves “donor,” or “giver,” or even “missionary,” terms that by their very definition still make them an outsider, just another layer to Mzungu. I am suggesting a paradigm shift, a foundational change in how we understand our role in STM, that will require us to do the costly work of becoming a friend, Rafiki, to the people and places we aim to serve.
Jamie White is the Youth Minister at Mount Olympus Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City, Utah, and serves as Vice Chairman of Kenya Partners Nakuru. When she’s not serving her congregation, she is busy compiling her recent research in hopes of beginning her book on mission team training and best practices. Jamie and her husband, Dave, are raising 3 kids with varying degrees of success. She enjoys reading, refinishing ugly old furniture, playing in the mountains surrounding their home, and throwing dinner parties.