I am realizing there is a problem with my Swahili: it’s too cool. Niko juu tu sana (literally: I’m just too high up). It’s probably something that most Kenyan youths experience when talking to parents, teachers, or other adults in their lives. When I was living in Tala my limited interactions with adults — like in the market — were usually conducted in English or Kikamba. Now that I’ve moved to Nairobi I am constantly around adults, and they know I understand Swahili so we use that to exchange friendly banter. Here are a list of phrases someone can inquire of you at various time of the day:
- Umeamkaje? (how did you wake up?)
- Habari yako? (how are you?)
- Mambo vipi? (how are your issues?)
- Niaje? (how is it?)
- Niambie (tell me)
- Sema (literally: “say” or “speak”)
- Sasa? (literally: “now”)
Tribalism is a touchy subject in Kenya — I don’t even think it’s politically correct to use the word “tribe” anymore. Besides the fact that it’s a bit condescending from an American English connotation, I think we’re supposed to use other words like “ethnic groups” or “communities” instead. In Kenya it ranges from petty nepotism to violent xenophobia. Before you start thinking, “Those Africans are a bit stupid/savage,” go look up the words nepotism and xenophobia and you’ll see it’s nothing unique to Africa. Maybe it’s human nature, because I am feeling a little guilty lately.
I spent nearly the last two years living in a town called Tala in the Kangundo district of Kenya. That district belongs to a region which was/is historically known as “Ukambani”—named so after the tribe who has historically lived there, the Kamba. There are forty-something tribes in Kenya, so you can imagine there are regions all over this country where tribes have lived for generations (basically small countries). There exceptions, but each tribe generally speaks their own language, listens to their own music, prays to their own god, has their own ceremonial foods, traditions, etc. Well, that was true until the white people sliced up Africa for themselves and forced their culture on the continent, but now everyone wears dresses, jeans, high heels, and listens to Lil Wayne. The only things left are names and languages, and that brings me to my point!
Being white in Nairobi is mostly harmless and can be pretty funny, but being white in Tala is annoying. There are a few things that really annoy me about being non-black in Tala. It’s not that Tala is particularly a bad place; I assume you’d have the same experience if you traveled to a rural area in any country. If you stand out like a sore thumb you’re bound to attract attention (good and bad).
First, people feel so sweet when they’re with their buddies (see: Herd Behavior). They’ll say things when they’re in a group that they’d never say if they were alone. I’m used to that by now, so my heart always starts racing when I see a group of teenagers approaching. It seems like they always have to say as they pass, and it’s usually something provocative (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this). Go live somewhere where you are different and see how it feels to walk the streets day in and day out by yourself.
Second, some people just never get used to me. For example: the girls at Tala Girls high school. The college’s compound is fenced, and I usually enter through a gate near the high school’s perimeter. The girls usually see me leaving my house through that gate and I’m used to the silly things they say (you know high school girls). I am surprised every once in a while, like last weekend some girls shouted, “Mzungu! Mzungu!” Uhh… these girls are in high school. Have they never seen a white person before? I’m not even sure that’s an excuse, because I’ve lived here for close to TWO YEARS.
Depending on my mood, these range from really pissing me off to being just slightly annoying.