Mzungu Press is the name of a publishing company that I started in order to bring out the second edition of my poetry book Love is a Traveller and We are its Path (see adjacent page). The name is a play on my surname (mzungu means ‘white person’ in Swahili), a joke that has persisted in my family ever since I first went to East Africa some 15 years ago.
Of course, this is not a revindication of my ethnicity or anything of the sort; perhaps you could say it is a reflection of the contradictions I feel surrounding the places I belong, and among whom. Being raised Muslim made me instantly connected to a vast web of people from myriad cultures, very often overlapping and interweaving, and that is where I feel most comfortable.
The Swahili language evolved along the coasts of Kenya and Tanzania from a mixture of Bantu languages and Arabic, with some Persian, Hindi and English loan words. It is not specific to one ethnicity; a Swahili person is a mix by definition. Over time Swahili started to be used by people as far inland as Uganda and DRC, and is even taught in some South African universities as an African lingua franca.
It’s also a poke in the ribs to the apparent whiteness of my own family which encompasses English, American, Iranian, Spanish, German, Indian, Japanese, Barbadian, Jamaican, Polish and Armenian (and that’s just the last couple of generations). When I did a DNA test, I was rather disappointed to find that I am genetically completely Western; however, numbers 1, 5 and 11 on the list were from Portugal, 3 was from Andalusia, and others were from Bosnia and Brazil – all places I feel connected to in some way or another.
But the connection doesn’t have to be proven on a geneticist’s print-out. However far afield you look, you’ll see the family resemblance.