It’s something I’ve been battling with since I came to Kenya in 2007. This evening I was walking through Uthiru after work and some kids saw me and shouted, “Mzungu!” You’d think I’d be used it by now but alas, even after two years of living in Tala and hearing kids shout that and more at me every day as I walked the two kilometers to the market, it still bothers me. Plenty of well-meaning Kenyans have tried to explain to me that it just means “white person,” but I’m yet to be persuaded — a “mzungu” is a person who comes from the magical country of “zungu.” Huh?
You see, the rules of the Swahili language basically say that you prefix the name of a country with an “m” to denote a person who is a native of that country. For example, an “mkenya” is a person from Kenya and an “mtanzania” is a person from Tanzania. I don’t know what a person from America is, because I’ve only heard it like once. I think it’s something like “mamericano,” but that sounds like something you’d order at Starbucks and it’s irrelevant anyways. It’s irrelevant because even if they were yelling “American,” that doesn’t make any sense either. In what universe is it acceptable to yell someone’s country at them as a greeting? Besides, you don’t hear Kenyans yelling “Ugandan!” when a Ugandan dude walks by — they say, “Niaje?!” (what’s up?).
In Kenya, as long as you’re not black or Indian, you’re a mzungu. Unless you’re Asian, in which case you are “Jackie Chan” and everyone thinks you know karate. Even if you’re Filipino or Japanese (or whatever else that ISN’T Chinese). Pole sana, guys (so sorry)!
Something is seriously wrong in Kenya. I rarely have problems with people over charging me or being abusive to me, but lately I’ve noticed that if I’m with black Kenyans those problems occur more often than when I’m by myself. A few examples…
There’s a great second-hand, open-air market just outside of Nairobi’s business district, Kikomba. You can get good shoes, shirts, bed sheets, pants, etc for really cheap in “Gikosh!” Remember the gay marriage hat I saw there one time? I spotted that when I was there with my Dutch friend Renske. I’ve been with all sorts of people, and the experience is always different:
- With white girl: People generally impressed by our Swahili — a man even told me, “Swahili yako imenibamba” (your Swahili made me happy, or “jazzed” him)
- With black girl: Someone yells, “Umeshika mzungu!” (you’ve “caught” a white guy) to my friend.
- With black guy: Someone asked him if he was my tour guide…
It’s one thing to be white living in a rural area, but it’s another thing to be white and live in a rich suburb of Nairobi. I spent the last nearly two years living in Tala, where I was one of the only white people. It wasn’t hard for me to make myself at home, my current roommate was even teasing me the other day because I behave like someone from the shamba (farm) — shopping at the budget stores, eating boiled beans and chapati on the side of the road, speaking Swahili, etc. I guess I spent a lot of time learning to be mwenyeji (a local): becoming an expert at local trivia, food, language, geography, you name it. Now that I’ve come to Nairobi I realize the black–white dynamics are different than in Tala, mainly because there are more white people here. White people — Kenyan or foreign — don’t interact with the blacks as much, and they tend to zip around in taxis or private cars, go to separate dinner parties, clubs, etc.