It’s something I’ve been battlingwith 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)!
There’s something with Mormons in Kenya that I haven’t quite figured out. I don’t know how big their following is in Kenya, but I always see them walking around Uthiru where I work. Maybe it’s an isolated thing. The funny thing isn’t the Mormons really, it’s the fact that there is always a balance between black dudes and white dudes. Yesterday, after the drunkard on the bus incident, I saw four of them walking, two black and two white.
There’s no mistaking them, they wear the suit and tie just like the ones you see in the United States. My buddies and I always laugh because we wonder why they are always together like that. Is it because the black dudes are Kenyans and they can protect the white boys? Or is it because the Mormons wanna show everyone they’re “equal opportunity” employers (so to speak)? I’ll never know because that’s not really the kind of thing you can ask someone (but you can ask them how the heck Jesus visited America… look it up, I’m not joking).
If you’re privy to that info please give me the low down!
I’ve talked about how surreal running around ILRI during my lunch break is before. Two or three days a week we go jogging around the countryside surrounding the ILRI campus. Rain or shine, we strap up and run through the little towns of Uthiru and Ndambuini, on through the quiet village of Soweto (no, not the slum in South Africa), and down into a small valley filled with streams, cows, corn fields, and local dudes. You hear people speaking Kikuyu, Kiswahili, Kikamba, and then some little kid yells, “Mzungu!” and you remember, “Oohh shit, I live in Kenya.” I have gotten so used to this life that I do it without even thinking. I know I’ve written a lot over the past two years, so you guys must have some pictures in your head of what my life is like, but I also know that a picture is worth a thousand words.