Mzungu! Mzungu!

This week I came to the revelation that a white person traveling to Kenya is essentially becoming famous. Every time I walk through the streets I hear fans’ constant shouts of “Mzungu! Mzungu!”, which means foreigner, or white person, in Swahili. Because white people are hard to come by in Kisumu we are practically celebrities, there is even a song about us. I learned it within the first day here because so many children sang it. It goes, “Mzungu, how are you? I’m fine, thank you”. All of these rambunctious children’s faces light up with excitement if I even acknowledge them. A wave from me seems to make their day, while a high five means the world. While walking down the street with my host mom this past weekend a group of kids got excited and started to say Mzungu and reach their hands out towards me. My host mom told me to go greet them. I said hi to all of them and gave them all high fives. After, my host mom said that I had made their day, and that they would be talking about that encounter for a week. I loved being able to make them that happy with so little effort.

However, there are also some fans who are a little too obsessive. This became clear when I was walking through a big park with the two other Heston interns. One young boy, around four years old, saw us and began walking next to us. He followed us through the entire park staring up at us and muttering something in Swahili. We expected that he wanted food or money but felt that the more pressing issue was that he had been wandering away from his family, following us, for quite some time.

In response to this story my host mom said that when people see me, all they see is money. Well, that did not make me feel too good because it is a base judgment which I have been taught are wrong. However, they usually occur in my life based on my gender, not my race. I am very familiar with cat calls and head nods from guys who see me on the street without actually seeing me as a whole person. I never enjoy this attention because my mindset is infused with the concept that I am admirable for so many greater reasons than a judgment based on my appearance can show.

One example of this is today while at work I was interacting with a partner of KMET who is from India. Based on his background that women should not be the ones doing activities that involve heavy lifting he implied that a man should arrive before me at the venue so that he could rearrange the tables. Because I pride myself in my strength I immediately became defensive and annoyed with this man for assuming that I was not as capable as a man simply because I am a woman. However, isn’t it the judgment that I am rich based on my white skin that makes all of the children happy to have my attention? And if so, why am I happy after the children’s judgments and not defensive? I have always loved interacting with children. While here, I have loved being able to make a child smile by just waving at them. If I love being able to make the children smile, am I letting my view on outside judgments fall?

I noticed that the attention I receive for being a Mzungu is actually completely undeserved while at a wedding this past weekend. I had showed up late to the reception but sat down with a group of colleagues from KMET. After sitting there for less than three minutes the man who was speaking in the microphone, who I didn’t know, mentioned me. While still speaking into the mic he thanked me for making the wedding international, gave me his contact information, and referred to me throughout the night as his friend from the UK, all while I stared down with bright red cheeks confused how the attention was on me even though this wasn’t my wedding. Even if I did enjoy being the center of attention, it was completely undeserved. It was based completely on the fact that I have white skin. But I don’t get angry with Kenyans for picking me out of a crowd as I do with a boy at Gettysburg who does the same because I am a girl. Maybe then this distinction comes from what we are used to. An African American might get angry for being distinguished based on their race because this is something they may encounter often and have learned is not right. I am completely new to being distinguished based on race, I don’t know how to respond. In contrast, I have learned to look with disdain on being distinguished based on my gender. This has made me begin to rethink how I respond to base judgments based on their novelty to me and their outcome. However, I find inherent value in a child’s happiness. This makes it worthwhile to make a child smile even for silly reasons. Even though it may be the same as letting people judge me for being a girl I will make as many children smile as I can by just being white and waving at them.

Ally Siegel ’16
Kisumu, Kenya