Wandering wazungu

Being white in Kenya means getting a certain number of shout-outs. “Mzungu!” (muh-ZOON-goo) someone will shout from the window of a passing car or matatu (minibus). “Mzungu,” someone at the supermarket will mutter, expressing some mix of incredulity and fatalism at whatever incomprehensible faux pas I’ve committed most recently. And if you pass a group of children, particularly outside Nairobi, forget it. Choruses of “mzungu!” accompanied by excited pointing. If you make eye contact, expect shrieking and a general dissolution into giggles. It looked at me!

Mostly, mzungu is used to mean white person, though technically it translates to something closer to “wanderer” or “one who goes far from home.” (The wa- prefix – wazungu rather than mzungu – indicates the plural.) People of Asian or Middle Eastern descent also get called mzungu, though I think less frequently than Causcasian people do.

This is an actual advertisement in Nairobi’s international airport. Barclays wants everyone to know that white people are idiots with too much money.

The mzungu shout-out is a funny thing. It’s hard to imagine this exact phenomenon happening in a different cultural setting. Even visiting other places where we’ve been the only Caucasians for miles, it would be unusual to hear someone yell “foreigner!” when I walk by.

My first inclination is usually just to be like, “Yup, well spotted! I am indeed a white person. Have a good day.” So mostly when someone calls me mzungu, I answer “ndiyo” – to mean “yes,” or “it is true what you say.” Sure, “mzungu” is not intended as a compliment. But I chose to come here, and I’m here in awareness of colonial history and of how few positive connotations accompany white people’s presence in Kenya and in Africa generally. And reacting with humor feels like a way of sort of absorbing the blow gently, in such a way that doesn’t harm me or the shouter.

Some expats we’ve met, though, reeeeeaallly hate it. Because it’s rude and exclusionary, because it reflects prejudice and a general lack of effort to relate, because it makes race the most immediate and significant part of the interaction – these are understandable frustrations. And though I don’t experience the same exasperation as a short-timer, I’m sure if I were here longer I’d grow tired of the repeated reminders of my outsider status.

Also, mzungu-identification is a small problem that has some amount of overlap with several larger problems. Like: Plenty of locals regard foreign people as potential sources of cash. (For that we may have partially to blame Barclays, for their ridonkulous ad, pictured above.) This is to some extent fair enough; anyone who has enough money for a plane ticket to east Africa probably also has some money to spare. But the tendency to see non-Africans as the dollar-dripping Other has less-than-great implications for tourism, international trade, and loan repayment – so I’m not sure that it’s great for Kenya’s business climate generally.

Maybe even more importantly, focusing first on people’s ancestry is a problem in Kenya even beyond the basic black-white divide. Kenya comprises forty-something distinct tribal groups (the exact number depends on how you count), each having its own language, customs and identities. And tribal affiliation Is not some quaint archaic thing. Kenyans size up each other’s tribal affiliations – based on clues of name, appearance, accent or whom they hang out with – very rapidly, and in some ways tribal affiliation is regarded as destiny. We hear assertions like “All Luos like fish / stick together / are aggressive” with some frequency. (Some Kenyans we’ve met make a conscious effort not to do this — intentionally speaking Swahili, the country’s lingua franca, and socializing irrespective of tribal boundaries. But this attitude is regarded as pretty progressive.)

In a country in which corruption is a major, major issue and resolving legal and bureaucratic matters often requires knowing (and, sometimes, bribing) somebody on the inside, tribal networks can be a path to getting things done. And politicians often represent, or are perceived as representing, the interests of their tribes of origin more than the interests of all Kenyans. All these factors add up to an uneasy situation, in which tribal identity is for most people more important than nationality; inter-tribal tension and mistrust remain unfortunately common, and outright violence flares up periodically, as happened after the election of 2007.

These latter issues primarily affect Kenyans, and not wazungu, but it all seems somewhat related to me – related to a focus on origins, combined with a view that origins are deterministic.

All that said, I still find it hard to mind when someone calls out mzungu at me. In a way it’s the start of a conversation – and a fairly honest one, that begins with “I see you as a foreigner.” It may not be all that gracious, but it’s not fake, either. And for all that “mzungu” calls attention to a divide, it doesn’t always feel hostile. One time I was out at a local market for lunch with some coworkers, and a grubby drunk young guy popped out from behind a van. Startled, I took half a step back; what did he want? “Mzungu!” he crowed, and held out his fist for me to pound. “Mzungu!” I said back, fist-bumping him, and we both laughed. It’s weird to be greeted with a racial ID, but at least we’re talking.