As I drive onto the school playground, eleven and twelve year olds everywhere stop playing and stare at me through the open truck windows. A few beats pass as I make shy eye contact with a few of them. They all break into smiles, begin chasing the truck as we drive further onto the field and shout “Mzungu! How are you mzungu!!”.
“Do you know what that means?” the driver asks.
“It’s like foreigner, right?” I say as the nurses laugh and banter with the kids.
“Well yes but it’s more specifically a white person, like an albino”
“Albino?! I am not THAT white!” I say stunned and a little wounded. For the record I am not super white. In fact, I am pretty damn ethnic. I perpetually look like I have a tan and in the sun I get so dark you can actually tell that I’m part filipino. Of course I live a gollum-like existence these days so I am a pasty version of myself, but pasty me is still pretty tan.
But what can I say? It’s all relative. In Kenya, I am white. I was an obvious outsider and not just when I showed up at the neighborhood middle school to collect samples. I was an outsider every day in Kenya.
Being a visitor in a lab is awkward. Being a foreigner, a mzungu, is stressful to boot. You have to balance your responsibility to your work with the fact that you are a guest on someone else’s turf. Add in a little bit of tension between westerners and Africans and that’s what I walked into this summer.
As the time went on, I built a rapport with most of the people in the lab, even going out with them on the weekends. But still, there were things that consistently reminded me that I did not belong.
- The language- While individuals would direct questions to me in English, banter and small talk amongst labmates was almost always in Swahili, which I do not speak. It is so isolating to watch the people around you having a conversation and be unable to participate. It is beyond awkward to have to sit silently while everyone else chats with each other. It would have been one thing if people in the lab couldn’t speak English (which was the case when I worked in China). I would have understood that because it would have been unavoidable. I wouldn’t have viewed it as a slight against me. But when everyone speaks lovely English (much more proper than my very colloquial California slang) and they still choose to speak in a language you don’t know, it’s hard not to take it personally. Especially when they all start laughing. Wow does the paranoia set in. “Dear god, I hope they aren’t talking about me! Don’t be so self-absorbed Taryn. It’s not always about you. But… But what if…” And because I was already so paranoid about being the obnoxious American, I didn’t feel comfortable asking them to speak in English just so I could participate. Instead I would put in headphones and focus on my work to seem like I was too preoccupied to notice. I guess it made me really productive?
- My lodging- I was staying in a hotel and no matter how nice a hotel is, it will never feel like “home.” There’s something about making instant ramen in a hotel room with no microwave because you are too tired to go to a restaurant for dinner that really makes you feel like a visitor.
- My commute- The first two weeks of my trip a KEMRI driver was picking me up and taking me to and from lab every day. That is not the norm. Only guests get chauffeured around like that. It felt so bougie and so self-important and I hated it. Especially since someone else would have to call the drivers to fetch me at the end of each day. The minute I found out that the staff bus picked up next to my hotel, I started taking that. It felt better to be using the same transportation as everyone else.
- My name- I never realized how much getting your name butchered can mess with your psyche. Apparently there is something really challenging about the name Taryn for Kenyan people. When I first arrived, a lot of people were pronouncing it Tary-in, which I actually sort of got and was okay with. I would say “close!” and correct them. They’d say it was a hard one. We’d laugh and get on with our day. But somewhere along the line people just fully gave up on using my name at all. When I’d introduce myself to people, they would straight up be like “no I will not call you that” because it was too challenging. The student I was working with started calling me by a Luo word as a pet name instead. And then at some point the director called me by my middle name- Alissa- and it all went downhill from there. No one ever called me Taryn again. From that point on, everyone called me Alissa. I still get emails addressed to Alissa. I’m not going to lie. It was pretty disheartening. This wasn’t like getting a nickname you don’t like. I had plenty of nicknames in college that I wasn’t super fond of, but they were all born from familiarity and closeness. Instead, this was like being told your name doesn’t matter. And when you grow up with an unusual name, it becomes a part of your identity so that’s a tough bullet to bite. I know that there was no malicious intent behind the name debacle but getting called by a name you don’t identify with makes you feel like you are a stranger to whoever is speaking to you.
I’m not going to sit here and pretend like I thought I’d be BFFs with the Kenyans. I didn’t. And I definitely did not want them to alter their routines to accommodate my insecurities. No one owed it to me to make me feel like a local because I wasn’t a local. I was a guest and they were treating me as such.
And that, perhaps, was the strangest part of all because Kenyan hospitality is absolutely incredible. The Swahili word karibu means welcome (both as in you’re welcome and welcome home) and it is totally the status quo out there. As a guest, everyone was so so welcoming.
Everyone wanted to make sure I was seeing the sites and getting souvenirs and trying all the local foods. Even little things in lab made this evident. People paid for my meals even though I insisted Emory was footing my bill. Grown men would squish in the backseat of the transport vehicles so I could sit in front even though I’m tiny and am the obvious choice for middle nut. One chick from lab took me shopping and helped me barter prices. The student I was working with went out of his way to show me his university and take me to the equator one weekend. He even drove me around the slums because I wanted to see them. Any thing I wanted to do, someone made sure I did it. I truly was well taken care of.
People were also so willing to share their stories and their knowledge with me. I learned about the politics, the geography, the home structure, the various religious practices. Any question I had from “Why are there cows in the middle of the road” to “Explain this whole wife inheritance thing?” people answered. As a friend of mine pointed out, it was more important to the Kenyan people that, as a guest, I come away with a strong sense of Kenyan culture than with a lot of data points. And I did. I was such a know-it-all on my safari with my mom, I’m sure I drove her nuts.
Still, I couldn’t help that outsider feeling and man was that confusing. Being lonely in a place where everyone is SO nice just feels totally unjustified. But it had nothing to do with them. And really it had nothing to do with me. It’s just the way it is when you drop into a brand new place where nothing and no one is familiar.
I kept having to remind myself that my feelings were justified. It was okay to feel lonely because I truly didn’t know anyone. It was okay to feel isolated because I did in fact spend about half my waking hours by myself. It was okay to feel like an outsider because I am a part asian, part white chick from America hanging out in Kenya for the first time ever. If that doesn’t say outsider, then I don’t know what does.
I realized (too late) that in order to stop feeling guilty, I had to allow the contradiction to exist. Feeling lonely did not detract from their warmth or hospitality. Appreciating their hospitality did not detract from my loneliness. As it turns out, mzungu and karibu are not mutually exclusive.