The M Word

Mzungu= white.

After Jambo (Hello) and Hakuna Matata (YOLO), it was the first real Kiswahili phrase I learned before coming to Kenya.

It’s not a derogatory term, for the most part. Just a physical characteristic. It brings images of fat tourists, dignified diplomats or do-good aid workers. Annoying in their ways, perhaps, but endearing or at the very least amusing.

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A US Navy officer interviews a Kenyan man. (Source| Wikimedia Commons)

The first time I heard it used in context, I was at a shop across the street from school. A small child, maybe four, wearing an orange GAP hoodie came running up behind me. “Mzungu! Mzungu!” he shouted, finger outstretched and eyes wide. His older sister grabbed his shoulder, embarrassment across her face. I smiled, waved and said hello. He blinked his doe eyes in astonishment as he lowered his finger and bit his lower lip.

My friend Kate giggled and looked at me sideways as she asked me if I understood him. I said of course. After I had provided dinner entertainment the night before by way of butchering every Kiswahili phrase Kate patiently taught me, I think she was surprised I knew that one. I was more surprised that it had taken five days to hear it. Kate told me, “I’ve never called you mzungu because you have a name.” I took that as a grand statement of friendship.

As Kate and I rode in a matatu toward her home town for the weekend, a tour bus passed us, the faces of its passengers hidden behind clicking camera lenses. Kate gently tapped me, pointed, and whispered, “Mzungu bus.” We giggled.

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(Source| Wikimedia Commons)

Then it became a game. Like Where’s Waldo. I coined it Spot the Mzungu (STM). 

It’s part fun, part reflex. To see a pale face is such a shock, I found myself pointing them out, in some sort of unreciprocated commiseration. I see you. Obviously. I think my friends at first did it to make me feel less isolated. But now it’s become a fun joke we share.

Village Market, a mall 20 minutes down Limuru road is filled with mzungus. It is one of the best shopping malls in Kenya and is surrounded by foreign consulates. Kate took me there to get my Kenyan phone and I’d run into a friend from the states as we were exiting. All the mzungus be at ViMa. We decided STM would be off limits there, as we’d be muttering the m word so often we wouldn’t be able to carry on conversation.

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Posh Village Market at night (http://villagemarket-kenya.com/)

Today we went into Nairobi for the afternoon. The city is chaotic, the roads and sidewalks constantly full. We’d run into a bunch of people Grace knew. One young man sat down with us for a while. I’ve gotten very used to sitting in silence as my friends jabber in Shang (Swahili slang) and Kikuyu, waiting until everyone is laughing before I ask for a translation. The young man who’d sat down muttered mzungu enough times, I finally interrupted him and said, “My name is Blair, as it sounds like you’ve forgotten,” as I outstretched my hand. Kate, Grace and Fatma burst into laughter as the young man shook my hand apologetically.

We walked back through the streets of Nairobi to the central depot of busses and matatus. I should say dodged and weaved our way back, as navigating the city is quite similar to one giant game of frogger. Crossing one street I went in front of a truck as Grace and Kate curled around behind it. As I jumped up onto the curb alone, with a sigh of relief at making it to the final lily pad, a man stopped in his tracks and exclaimed, “MZUNGU!” as if a giant polar bear had just unexpectedly emerged from the flow of traffic rather than a frazzled young woman. I’d been caught as the prize in someone else’s game of STM.

But that is one of the reasons I chose to study in Kenya over Stockholm or Scotland. I wanted that experience of being the minority. The first day I was on campus, I sat alone next to a lecture hall soaking up wifi. A security guard wandered over and asked me what I was doing. He grilled me as to my student status, my course of study, my country of origin, my language limitations and my date of departure. I answered his questions with a smile, and he finally walked away, satisfied that I did in fact belong. So that’s what it feels like to be profiled.

Except he didn’t ask to see my identification. Place his hand on his pistol. Demand to search my bag or frisk me. It was a mild encounter, but still a moment of realization.

Kenya imports from America hip hop culture along with second hand clothes. The undergrads throw around the n word in greeting, in passing, in casual conversation. Yo what’s up my n****r?!? 

In one particularly rowdy post dinner hang out, I finally admitted how uncomfortable it was making me. They didn’t seem to understand. My friend Charles, a native Kenyan, recently returned from spending most of his life in Evanston, explained that using the N\n word could land you in jail in the States.

Yes, if the wrong person heard it. Yes, even if it was just between blacks. No, we’re not joking.

I tried to paint a picture. Imagine if every time someone called me mzungu, it meant that I didn’t belong. It wasn’t just a description, black or white. It implied that I was dirty, diseased, lower, unwanted. To call me mzungu meant that there was something deeply and irreversibly wrong about me.

“That’s what the n word is like in America. And I would never call any of you that. Not even as a joke. Not even if you told me it was ok. Never.”

I’ve never called you mzungu because you have a name.

The only time I’d felt truly out of place was when we went up to Limuru Town. St. Paul’s is situated about 5km south of Limuru proper, in a neighborhood known as Kibuku. We decided to go up the hill and have a look around. As I stepped out into the main market, I could feel something different. We were far from Nairobi now, the cosmopolitan city. Away from Village Market with its Italian Bistros and international shopping. Beyond the guarded gates of the University. It felt as if everyone we passed was calling out, “MZUNGU!” But the fun pointing and giggling was absent. Only eyes tracking me. Children and beggars holding their hands out with expectancy. Shop keepers startled as I walked by.

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The shops in Limuru Town (Source|fsdkenya.org)

But I didn’t feel unsafe. Just slightly unwanted. Since Limuru was not in need of help, I might be there to harm, or at the very least disrupt, the flow of this rural town. They were fearful eyes that tracked me. A town with a famed country club. A stop on the Ugandan Railway. Colonialism had made impressions on this town in a way that my teenaged colleagues could not grasp. They had not lived in that time of oppression.

The way I could not grasp the use of the n word as anything less than hateful. Because we still live in a time of oppression.

I am thankful that I was made aware in my life of my white privilege. And now I have been made aware of the breadth of its influence. No matter how far I go, I cannot escape it.

But I can hope, by the power of God, to transform it. Beginning with the relationships I form here.

I’ve never called you mzungu because you have a name.

Peace and Blessings, 

Blair

Sawa Sawa in Limuru

I have been in Africa for seven days. If I tried to explain every emotion I’d gone through, this post would be seven days long. I am still at a level of overwhelmed that I’m not yet able to process everything I’ve seen and done. Here’s a short list:

Woke up to the cry of a rooster

Been into Nairobi on a Matatu

Ran into an old friend at a shopping mall

Broke down in tears trying to buy toilet paper

Watched monkeys steal from the lunch hall

Began to learn Kiswahili and a little Kikuyu

Picked coffee, and had people laugh at my excitement over it

Witnessed the roadside bribe of a policeman

Eaten cow intestine

Hand washed laundry in a bucket

Been to a Kenyan church service

and much, much more.

Above all, I’ve been blessed and astonished by the generosity, devotion and hope of the Kenyan people.

So rather than attempting to put all of that into a cohesive story, I’m going to give you a brief into to where I am, what I’m doing, and show you some pictures so you can get a better idea.

For the semester I’m studying at St. Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya. It’s an ecumenical Christian University about 30km outside Nairobi. I am studying primarily in the Islam, Christian-Muslim Relations Master’s program (ICMR) and will be taking one course (missiology) in the Bachelor of Divinity, which is equivalent to the MDiv I am pursuing back at Emory University. I am the only American on campus (so far). There are only five others in my course of study (all ordained ministers) from Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana and Mombasa (Kenya). I am very excited to be in course with them, but due to age differences, I’ve found myself spending most of my time with the first year undergraduates I also went through orientation with. Tomorrow the old students arrive to “disorient” us, and classes begin Wednesday.

I’m living in a single room with a shared bathroom, in a cottage on the edge of campus. It is notoriously the coldest part of campus, though Limuru is the coldest part of Kenya. Last week the average temperature was 12 degrees centigrade (53 degrees Fahrenheit). There is one ATM, which was broken last week. I eat my meals in the dining hall and buy essentials from the shops and dealers across the road. I drink tea four times a day and had to ride into the city to buy a cell phone.

Below you will find pictures of my surroundings and happenings, to get an idea of my daily life here.

ImageThe chickens outside my dorm. The rooster actually wakes me up every morning!

ImageMy cottage is the one to the left. The laundry dries outside by the garden/crops and there are laundry lines all over campus.

ImageThere are three mischievous monkeys that wait around the dining hall for someone to turn from their plate.

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The bathroom. Words can not really describe it. You have to carry your own toilet paper. They don’t keep it stocked in any of the restrooms. The toilet is called “choo” in Kiswahili. That white wire on the left leads up to a shower head that warms the water after you flip on a switch outside in the hall. Apparently no one else is worried about getting electrified besides me.

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Doing my laundry!

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My new friends Fatma, Grace and Kate. They have taken very good care of me and laugh uncontrollably every time I try to learn a new work in Kiswahilli.

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The shops across the road. The white van on the right is a matatu, but a very nice one. The ones that transport people are well used.

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Coffee beans! Picked from the tree across from Kate’s house!

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With my ICMR classmates from Nigeria and Ghana. The building on the right is the main hall where chapel is held and behind that in the distance is the library.

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A wise old tree that I sit under to get wi-fi!

 I should be posting again soon with something more cerebral, but I hope this will do to whet your appetite for more Limuru and assure you that I am safe, though stretched, and already having an incredible time.

Peace and Blessings,

Blair