When You’re Strange


Alex Webb/Magnum Photo

North American real estate salesmen undergoing mock initiation ceremony, Manaus, Brazil, 1993

Until I went to live in Africa, I had not known that most people in the world believe that they are the People, and their language is the Word, and strangers are not fully human—at least not human in the way the People are—nor is a stranger’s language anything but the gabbling of incoherent and inspissated felicities. In most languages, the name of a people means “the Original People,” or simply “the People.” “Inuit” means “the People,” and most Native American names of so-called tribes mean “the People”: For example, the Ojibwe, or Chippewa, call themselves Anishinaabe, “the Original People,” and the Cherokee (the name is not theirs but a Creek word) call themselves Ani Yun Wiya, meaning “Real People,” and Hawaiians refer to themselves as Kanaka Maoli, “Original People.”

As recently as the 1930s, Australian gold prospectors and New Guinea Highlanders encountered each other for the first time. The grasping, world-weary Aussies took the Highlanders to be savages, while the Highlanders, assuming that the Aussies were the ghosts of their own dead ancestors on a visit, felt a kinship and gave them food, thinking (as they reported later), “They are like people you see in a dream.” But the Australians were looking for gold and killed the Highlanders, who were uncooperative. The Lakota, Indians of the North American plains, who called white men washichus, Nathaniel Philbrick writes in The Last Stand, “believed that the first white men had come from the sea, which they called mniwoncha, meaning ‘water all over.’” In an echo of this accurate characterization, and at about the same time, the historian Fernand Braudel tells us, “To West Africans, the white men were murdele, men from the sea.”

Otherness can be like an illness; being a stranger can be analogous to experiencing a form of madness—those same intimations of the unreal and the irrational, when everything that has been familiar is stripped away.

It is hard to be a stranger. A traveler may have no power, no influence, no known identity. That is why a traveler needs optimism and heart, because without confidence travel is misery. Generally, the traveler is anonymous, ignorant, easy to deceive, at the mercy of the people he or she travels among. The traveler might be known as “the American” or “the Foreigner,” and there is no power in that.

Among the Batelela in the Sankuru region of central Congo the word for stranger is ongendagenda. It is also one of the most common names for a male child. The reasoning is that when a child is born—and males matter most among the Batelela—he appears from nowhere and is unknown, so he is usually called Stranger, and this name stays with him throughout his life—Stranger is the “John” of the Sankuru region.

Some words for stranger have the meaning of a spirit, as in the case of the New Guinea Highlanders, who could not conceive of the white Australians as anything hut spectral ancestors. In Swahili, the word muzungu (plural, wazungu) has its root in the word for ghost or spirit, and cognates of the word—mzungu in Chichewa and murungu in Shona and other Bantu languages—have the meaning of a powerful spirit, even a god. Foreigners had once seemed godlike when they first appeared in some places.

The word for foreigner in Easter Island, in Rapa Nui speech, is popaa—so I was told there. But this is a newly invented word. In an earlier time the Rapa Nui word for foreigner (according to William Churchill’s Easter Island, 1915) was etua, which also means god or spirit. It is related to the Hawaiian word atua, though the Hawaiian word for stranger is haole, meaning “of another breath.”

Here is a list of countries and languages and their words for stranger.

Maori—pakeha, white man, foreigner.

Fiji—kai valagi (pronouneed valangi), white person, foreigner, “person from the sky,” as opposed to kai India for Indians and kai China for Chinese,

Tonga—papalangi, a cognate of Samoan palangi, meaning “sky burster,” a person who comes from the clouds, not a terrestrial creature.

Samoa—palangi, “from the sky,” related to the Fijian kai valangi.

Trobriand Islands—dim-dim, for foreigner or white-skinned person; koyakoya for dark-skinned non-Trobriander. Koya is the word for mountain. But there are no mountains in the Trobriand Islands. So a koyakoya is a mountain person—that is, from mainland New Guinea, or simply an off-islander.

Hong Kong—gweilo, “ghost man,” a prettier way of saying “foreign devil,” since a ghost is menacing, something to fear.

Japan—gaijin. The word is composed of two characters, gai, meaning outside, and jin, person. This appears to be a contraction for gaikokujin, “outside-country person,” thus an outsider in the most literal sense—racially, ethnically, geographically.


China—wei-guo ren is the neutral term, a person from a foreign country. But yanguize, “foreign devil,” is also common, and there are words for “red-haired devil,” “white devil,” and “big nose.”

Arabic—ajnabi, “people to avoid”; also ajami, meaning foreigner, barbarian, bad Arabic speaker, Persian; also gharib, stranger, “from the west.”

Kilibati—I-matang. Traveling by kayak within the huge atoll of Christmas Island (Kiritimati) south of Java in the Indian Ocean, I heard this word often. I-matang is generally used to mean foreigner (there are four such people on Christmas Island), but etymologically it is “the person from Matang,” said to be the ancestral home of the I-Kiribati, the original fatherland, a place of fair-skinned people. The word implies kinship. By the way, it is an actual place—Madang, on the northern coast of Papua New Guinea, thought by historians to be the origin of these Micronesian people.

Mexico—gringo. The word seems to have come from griego, a Spanish term for a Greek. The Diccionario Castellano (1787) defines gringo as a word used in Málaga for “anyone who spoke Spanish badly,” and in Madrid for “the Irish.” It implies gibberish. The many popular theories (among them, that it may be derived from hearing the disenchanted Irish soldiers who’d joined the Mexicans singing “Green Grow the Rushes Oh!” during the Mexican-American War in the mid-1840s) are fanciful and unconvincing. The earliest recorded use of gringo in print is in the Western Journal (1849-1850) of John Woodhouse Audubon (son of John James, and also an artist), who traveled by horseback through northern Mexico on his way from New York to witness the Gold Rush in California. In Cerro Gordo (“a miserable den of vagabonds”) Audubon and his fellow travelers were abused: “We were hooted and shouted as we passed through, and called ‘Gringoes’ etc., but that did not prevent us from enjoying their delicious spring water.”

I heard the word faranji, for foreigner, in Ethiopia and remembered farang in Thailand, jerangi in Iran, and firringhi in India and Malaysia (though orang-puteh, for white person, is more common in Malaysia). What’s the connection?

When Richard Burton took his first trip to Abyssinia—recounted in First Footsteps in East Africa—he wrote, “I heard frequently muttered by the red-headed spearmen the ominous term ‘Faranj.’” Burton went on to say that the Bedouin in Arabia “apply this term to all but themselves.” In his time, even Indian traders in Africa were called faranji if they happened to be wearing trousers (shalwar), since trouser-wearing was associated with outsiders. In his Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah (1853), he wrote, “The convert [in Arabia] is always watched with Argus eyes, and men do not willingly give information to a ‘new Moslem,’ especially a Frank.”

These words, all related to farang, are cognates of “Frank,” though the people who use the word don’t know beans about Franks. The Franks were a Germanic tribe who traveled throughout western Europe in the third and fourth centuries. But the name, of which “French” is a cognate, probably gained currency from the Crusades of the twelfth century, when Europeans plundered Islamic holy sites and massacred Muslims in the name of God. In the Levant and ultimately as far as East Africa and Southeast Asia, a Frank was any Westerner.

Even in Albania: “Immense crowds collected to witness the strange Frank and his doings,” wrote Edward Lear about himself, in his Albanian journal in 1848. A form of faranji, the word afrangi is regarded as obsolete in Egypt, though it is still occasionally used, especially in combination. In Egypt, a kabinet afrangi is a Western, sit-down toilet.

Almost the entire time I spent in Harar, Ethiopia—where the poet Rimbaud had lived—I was followed by children chanting, “Faranji! Faranji! Faranji!” Sometimes older people bellowed it at me, and now and then as I was driving slowly down the road a crazed-looking Harari would rush from his doorstep to the window of my car and stand, spitting and screaming the word into my face.

This piece is drawn from The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road by Paul Theroux, just published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright ©2011 by Paul Theroux. All rights reserved.

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