Category Archives: Kenya

Delicate Mzungu–revisited

**UPDATE** It has now been chopped to 1,998 words! Changes below.

Readers of my blog will be familiar with this story, however I spent a lot of time this month retooling and polishing it into a traditional short story for consideration in an upcoming anthology of “interesting stories of travel abroad” by international educators.

It is only 2,183 words long, so if you have time, I’d love to have my readers give some feedback. Even if I’ve asked you to read this in the past few days, this latest edition has gone through a lot of editing (particularly in the middle and end), so it might be worth a re-read. I think it is nearly ready for submission and I am eager to share:

Mzungu is a Kiswahili word that originally translated as “aimless wanderer.” Yet it has evolved colloquially in East Africa to refer to people of European ancestry—like an 18th century inside joke about imperialists spinning in circles, lost on the Maasai Mara. As an Irish-American with pinky-white skin, my mzungu-ness was as obvious as the strong Kenyan sun.

I felt no offense by this newly christened identity. Neighborhood children would sing, “Hey mzungu! Where are you going mzungu?”  Minibus conductors leaned out their doors to solicit us: “You there! Mzungu! Come!” Kitschy t-shirts in the Nairobi tourist markets quipped: “My name is not Mzungu!”

Instead, it was the adjective “delicate” harnessed to mzungu that stung, like a sharp accusation of weakness.

*

I was in Kenya for five months, studying abroad at one of the oldest undergraduate programs in East Africa. Students spent two weeks in Nairobi taking language and culture courses, alternating between two weeks of field experience in communities around the country. We lived with local Kenyan families and tasted many different recipes of life.

My first wrangle with the “delicate” modifier occurred in agricultural western Kenya. Fresh from orientation in the capital, my group of twelve plunged into our next sojourn, living with rural Kenyan families. I communicated with my hosts in my simple Kiswahili, insisting to work shoulder-to-shoulder with them. “Tafadhali”—please—“let me carry that bucket of water on my head, like you, back from the well…let me hoe the potatoes, let me feed the chickens…” I wanted to hunch over the large aluminum basin in the back yard and learn how to scrub the laundry by hand. I wanted to sit with my host sister and slice the leafy green sukuma wiki in preparation for dinner.

But I was told again and again, “It is okay, please rest. Wazungu# are delicate; we don’t want you to tire. Tafadhali, have some biscuits.”

I respectfully protested, “I’m not delicate. Please, let me help. I’m here to learn!”

The few times I was given a chance, I would either mess up—I stumbled while balancing a bucket of water atop my head, drenching myself—or something odd would happen, like a sudden nosebleed while I bent over the laundry basin. Each unfortunate incident reinforced their theory of the delicate mzungu.

*

Three months later, it was time for my group to travel to the savanna of southern Kenya, within sight of the Tanzanian border. It was the height of the dry season, and the landscape was barren but for occasional acacia trees. We were in Maasai-land, the ethnic group known by their iconic red clothing—women’s sarongs and men’s wraps called kanga and kikoi—and the wide, flat, beaded necklaces worn like starched Elizabethan collars around the women’s necks. Both genders kept their heads cleanly shaved and sported pierced earlobes that hung in stretched loops.

We camped along the edge of several Maasai family settlements. Called boma, they dotted the plains like sparse oases. The first week we walked through the countryside with the moran, the young male warriors of the tribe, who taught us how to identify different plants, herd goats, and survive a pastoralist lifestyle. Yet out in the relentless sun, the days were long, tolerable only by hiding under hats and loose long-sleeved clothing that kept us ventilated like desert Bedouin.

We burned through the clean bottled water brought from Nairobi, and the group had to share the ground water. We attempted to purify it by boiling it over the campfire, but bits of sediment still floated in the sulphurous liquid. Although it was another lesson in the reality of life shared by much of the world, my stubbornness resurfaced.

I was convinced that I didn’t need as much water as the rest of my classmates. I believed my body had better adapted to the dry climate, and I could, like a camel, sustain myself on just a few sips of water a day. I thought this could prove that being an mzungu didn’t automatically mean I was “delicate.”

My body dehydrated, but I was too naïve to pick up on the signs. My skin became dry and tight, and I had less use for the makeshift outhouse dug from the ground. Young people feel invincible, as though surrounded by an invisible bubble. Eventually everyone has an experience which pierces that bubble.  Mine was coming soon.

*

 During our second week in southern Kenya the group was divided into pairs and sent to different Maasai family boma. The settlements were enclosed in a circular acacia thorn fence.   This kept out roaming predators and protected the large herds of livestock which constituted the principal wealth of the family. Within this fence were several huts made of sticks, mud, and cow dung, built small so that an adult must stoop when standing inside. My hut was empty except for a piece of cowhide pulled tight across an elevated stick frame, used for sleeping.

I was paired with Nicole, a petite spiky-haired student from New York City. We spent the evening sitting outside our hut with our host mother, who was likely younger than either of us. We spoke no Kimaa, the mother tongue of the Maasai, so our communications were mimed. After sharing a dinner of boiled cornmeal and milk tea, the three of us sat under the heavy blanket of stars, which shimmered like millions of shards of glass.

*

The next morning Nicole and I arose from our shared cowhide cot and exited the hut into a cooler, overcast day. A moran named Joel Twiga—twiga being the Kiswahili word for giraffe, and a play on Joel’s lanky physique—had been summoned to help translate. He spoke of a large festival happening a few miles away at the “Big Boma”: every few years, families gathered to celebrate their men as they graduated from one phase of life to the next—childhood to warrior-hood, to junior elder, to elder. Our family wanted to take us.

They dressed Nicole and me in full Maasai regalia; a piece of fabric was tied around our hips like an underskirt, two red kangas were tied like toga across each shoulder, held tight by a belt, and we were adorned with white beaded necklaces. The clothing felt comfortable in the cool morning air—but they left large patches of neck, shoulders, and arms exposed.

Joel led us to the festival, and we joined the thronging mass as the sun broke through the clouds. Nicole and I were the only wazungu faces in the sea of red-clad ebony. Some children cried, scared of the mzungu-Maasai imposters, while other people wanted to greet us—“Soppa!” in Kimaa, answered by, “Ebba!” Two thousand people treated us like celebrities.

At first we were ushered from hut to hut, like high level ambassadors, as we greeted the elders. Then we were stationed in the sun to watch a medley of dance; the women vigorously shook their shoulders, causing their necklaces to bob as if floating on stormy ocean waves. The men responded by pogoing ever higher into the sky. The air was thick with ululations, and with the metallic smell of blood from goats butchered for meals not far outside of the boma fence.

By mid-day, Joel, Nicole and I were summoned to honor the regional chief. He welcomed us to his hut with a chummy slap on the back and handed each of us a warm bottle of Tusker, a popular Kenyan beer. I nursed mine while Joel translated the chief’s sermon. I was having trouble focusing on Joel’s words, as the beer and the heat soaked through my skull. My face had a fever-flush, but my skin remained dry of sweat.

After the chief’s hut, the sun became blinding and severe; I could feel every patch of exposed skin broiling in the afternoon heat. I grew agitated and disoriented by the constant attention of the revelers. Joel offered a placating umbrella, and I found a place to sit in the dust, hiding myself like an ant under a colorful mushroom. When evening shadows pulled long across the boma, Joel agreed to take Nicole and me back. I nearly passed out on the return walk.

*

That night my skin was on fire. My face, arms, and a patch of my neck and upper back were the color of cooked lobster shells. Lying on the cowhide cot was like rolling on a bed of freshly sharpened nails.  I could barely tolerate the weight of my loose fitting clothes.

The following day our professor, a tall sable Sudanese man, returned in the program Land Rover to take us back to our original campsite. I felt sore and periodically lightheaded, but remembered the milder sunburns of my childhood, which subsided in a day or two. I failed to realize anything was seriously wrong, and joined the other students in a night drive through the grasslands in search of zebra, antelope and lion.

We had been driving for nearly three hours, spying on a family of zebra in the Land Rover’s headlights, when my world spiraled.  I was instantly sick. A few moments earlier the bouncing car had been fun; now it was torture. My abrupt shift in demeanor alarmed our professor, who signaled our caravan to turn back. I had to sit very still, and breathe very deeply, to keep from vomiting on the return trek. By the time we reached our camp, I could barely walk under my own power. I retched up the contents of my stomach before I was dragged to my tent.

It was the start of one of the longest nights of my life. I vomited until I could not, then vomited some more. I shook and muttered, delirious. I was certain that the daytime heat would kill me. Nicole and the professor sat by my side all night, forcing me to sip water laced with rehydration salts. Finally, at dawn, I fell into a fitful sleep.

Our professor drove half an hour to find cell reception and made arrangements for my transport to Nairobi Hospital. Before his return, I had awoken, more coherent than the night before, but my back and neck had exploded in a mosaic of sunburned blisters. He loaded me into the Land Rover, and the other students waved goodbye.

*

The Nairobi Hospital, called the “European Hospital” during colonial rule, is a state-of-the-art facility and by far the fanciest in the country. Amongst locals, even the arriving patients dressed in beautiful outfits for their visit, while I arrived straight from the bush; filthy, dusty, and limping.

The intake doctor noted in my chart that the “mzungu dressed like a Maasai and was badly burned,” so each time a new nurse came on duty she had to meet that unusual mzungu. I was admitted for four days due to dehydration, sun poisoning and heatstroke. My treatment was a rehydrating intravenous drip and burn cream for the blisters on my back.

On my second day, the hospital director visited my room. He was a bulky, dark-skinned Ugandan doctor; a personal friend of our program director and one of the urban homestay fathers. He looked at my chart and examined my back.

After making his assessments, he held out his fist and asked, “See this hand?”

I nodded.

“It is a strong African hand. I can put it near fire and it will not burn. But you…you are an mzungu, and you are delicate. You must be more careful.”

*

In Kiswahili there is a saying, heri kufa macho kuliko kufa moyo—it is better to lose your eyes than to lose your heart. I may have bruised my pride on that burnt African savanna, but I found my taste for all the extraordinary experiences life has to offer. I hope never to be far from that next adventure, but I promise there will be a lot of sunscreen and water.


#Wazungu—the plural form of mzungu.


Author bio:
C is Assistant Director at the International Students Office at xxx University. In addition to traveling in various regions of Africa, she enjoys South Asia, especially Nepal. C lives in New England with her  husband and dog.

Night Runners

While we were at S-di’s place for Maghe Sankranti, in addition to M-dai’s story about the flatulent Peace Corp teacher, they told me a story about how they had recently attended a wedding party for one of the local Bhutanese refugee families, and that during the party one of the guests became possessed by a spirit or a god that wanted the party organizers to know that some ritual during the wedding had been conducted incorrectly. This went on for a while, and eventually two other people became possessed as well, and it created a bit of a ruckus at the party. That started a brief discussion about what actually transpired—was it a delusion? Or acting? Or real?

It reminded me of another story from my time in Kenya:

A week after arriving in Nairobi and going through program orientation our professors brought us to Western Kenya—Nyanza Province, the Kenyan state which borders the famous Lake Victoria—to stay with families in rural farming villages. The community gathered at a local school and each family stood up to proudly claim their American student, and one by one we were taken away to far reaching corners of the surrounding villages. For the first time, each American student felt they were finally on their own in East Africa.

My homestay sister and I road in the back of a pickup truck down the main road, and were eventually dropped off at a small cement building set up like a shop. My sister insisted on carrying my backpack, and I followed behind her on the footpath that led away from the road and into a thicket of grass and trees. I realized later that these footpaths, only wide enough for a person or an animal, were the superhighways of the villages, leading from one house to the next along the widely spaced farms.

Eventually we found our home, a mud walled building with corrugated metal roofing, blue painted wooden doors and wooden window panels that latched shut in the evening to keep out mosquitos. The family compound had three small buildings—a cooking house, the main house (which had a dining/living room, two bedrooms and a sitting room for special guests), and the eldest son’s two roomed home. There was no electricity, but there was an outhouse on the edge of the family compound, and many chickens and other small farm animals running around or tied up to stakes in the yard.

In a mix of Swahili and English I got to know the family quite well over the next week, and I was eventually told the story of the “Night Runners.” Nyanza is home to the Luo tribe, the second largest ethnic group in Kenya, the same tribe that Obama’s father came from. You can usually tell a Luo based on their last name—most start with “O.” Within the Luo tribe there is a superstition about people who were completely normal by day, but have an uncontrollable compulsion to run in the middle of the night.

Supposedly the propensity for night running runs (no pun intended) in families—so if your grandfather was a Night Runner then you might be one too—and is generally passed along the male line. A Night Runner can’t really help himself, and will get up in the middle of the night and run for hours; they say if you try to stop a Night Runner their bodies become swollen and bloated. Night Runners like to scare people on their run, and will circle around family compounds, throwing dirt and sticks up on to the metal roof to make a lot of noise, or will try to throw small stones through the gap between a roof and the top of the house wall. It isn’t a violent action, it’s more to be a nuisance.

In addition to being noisy in the night, they are rumored to have certain magical abilities—first they can possess animals and often bewitch them to come along on their run, and secondly they can possess a person, in the sense that if a Night Runner takes you by surprise from behind you become frozen to the spot, unable to move your arms or legs or any other part of your body. Once the Night Runner has passed, and is out of sight, your mobility returns.

Most of these stories were told to me around the table while the entire family sat together for dinner. The room was lit with two or three kerosene lamps, which helped to give these tales a ghost story type of mystique. I was assured that the village hadn’t had a Night Runner for many years, and that there were none around that the family knew of; however I was also assured that these Night Runners certainly existed.

Shortly after dinner the dishes would be cleared and put in buckets to soak and be washed at sunrise, and the family would retire to bed. As I was their “honored guest” for the week, I was encouraged to eat the most food, and the best pieces, and was given a hefty glass of milk especially for me as a treat for dinner each night (I’m definitely not a milk drinker, and I’d have to force myself to drink the whole glass) as well as cups of tea.

Not surprisingly at some point during the night I would have to go to the bathroom really badly. The outhouse was quite a distance in the dark at the edge of the compound, and doubly difficult to get to as the main door to the house was very securely locked. To even get to the door I would have to step over sleeping family members who were on mats in the main room. The first two or three nights I woke up well before dawn and wiggled in my bed until daybreak, afraid to make the journey to the outhouse before the rest of the family woke up. But one night I really had to go, and no amount of wiggling was going to save me until morning.

I’m the type of person who turns the lights on while on the way to the bathroom in my own apartment, on the slight chance I might bump into something unexpected. Now I was going to have to sneak out of a locked house with people sleeping in my path with only the aid of my small Petzl headlamp, then scurry across a farm compound in the dark African night, and hope that I wouldn’t a) bump into a farm animal, b) or a scarier bigger animal, c) or someone else wandering on the village paths that skirted the edge of the farm or d) a Night Runner who might freeze me to the spot while he runs around with possessed animals.

As I stepped over the sleeping people and unlatched the door as quietly as I could, I peered into the dark expanse that came between the doorstep and the corrugated tin of the outhouse and I thought to myself, “If I run into a Night Runner, I am going to have a heart attack and die right here on the spot. I will literally just die of fright, I know it.”

I took a deep breath, and I ran like a crazy Night Runner myself. Luckily the only thing I saw on my journey was a giant spider on the wall of the outhouse while I squatted over the hole.

When our homestay was over, we traveled back to Nairobi to begin our courses. I signed up for an anthropology class on health, healing and sickness in Kenya. The professor happened to be Luo, and we were eager to ask him about some of the Luo cultural intricacies we were exposed to in Nyanza. At some point the discussion turned to Night Runners.

He explained that he had heard stories about Night Runners throughout his childhood, and may have even heard some of the night rustling sounds they made, but he never really believed they had “magical powers.” Then he went to university and sat in many Anthropology classrooms where he learned more about “magic” and “superstition” from an academic stand point. He was cynical. Sure, these were “his people” and he grew up with all the stories, but he believed more than ever that these superstitions were nothing more than that—superstitions.

“I was certain Night Runners were just crazy people out for a jog, but then one year I was home from university on break. I was your age, in my twenties, and I didn’t want to sleep early. Instead I decided to walk to the nearby village for some beer and dancing.” His eyes grew wide, “I was on the same path I had walked many times before, and I had no reason to be afraid. I had been walking for some time when I tried to take a step and my right foot was rooted to the ground. No amount of force could release it. Then I noticed my other leg was also stuck, then my whole body. I panicked, but nothing would move. I stood frozen for several seconds and heard a sound behind me, and a Night Runner brushed past. I continued to be stuck for several more moments before my limbs would move again.”

A cheeky smile appeared on his face, “I didn’t believe. I was absolutely certain that Night Runners couldn’t have the powers my grandmothers insisted upon. Logically, academically, it didn’t make sense. I was the most cynical of all! But I am also telling you, as your teacher, I experienced it firsthand. I know I couldn’t move. I can’t explain it, but for me, it was real. I guess you will have to decide for yourself.”

Even Barak Obama had a short passage about Night Runners in his book, “Dreams of my Father” from when he went to visit his family in Kenya:

A moment later we heard a strange, low-pitched moan off in the distance.

“The night runners must be out tonight,” Auma said.

“What’s the night runners?”

“They’re like warlocks,” Auma said. “Spirit men. When we were children, these people here” – she pointed at Granny and Zeituni – “would tell us stories about them to make us behave. They told us that at daylight the night runners are like ordinary men. You might pass them in the market, or even have them to your house for a meal, and never know their true natures. But at night they take on the shape of leopards and speak to all the animals. The most powerful night runners can leave their bodies and fly to faraway places. Or hex you with only a glance. If you ask our neighbors, they will tell you that there are still many night runners around here.”

Fast forward a few years… I’m sitting in the dining hall of my graduate school having lunch with several student friends. We are all international education professionals, and the past few days we have been swapping stories of interesting experiences overseas. I had just finished my Night Runner story, and one woman, a Caucasian woman from New York City who had been listening intently chimed in, “This is going to sound crazy… My sister married a Kenyan man. He is the sweetest man, very kind and gentle, but for many years every time he came to my house my dog would get very nervous and pee on the floor. It happened every single time. I know my brother-in-law wasn’t beating him, or hurting him, so I couldn’t figure out why the dog always cowered and peed in his presence.

“So one day I asked my mother. I said, ‘Why does Buddy always get scared and pee when Peter comes over?’ She answered, ‘I don’t know, they seem okay together later on. Peter usually takes him out for a run in the middle of the night most nights. It’s the funniest thing; I’m not sure why he does it.’”

“Is your brother-in-law Luo?” I asked the student.

“I don’t know. I never thought to ask, I just know he is ‘Kenyan,’ I’ll have to call my mother later.”

The next day at lunch we were all eager to know… and yes, Peter was in fact Luo.

“Maybe your brother-in-law is a Night Runner! That means your sister’s kids might be Night Runners too!” I said.

So are Night Runners real? Do they really have “magical powers” to possess animals and freeze people in their paths?

What about the possessed guests at the Bhutanese wedding party? Acting or delusion? Pretending or real?

The Proposal: Preface

In honor of the good news, I wanted to share P and my engagement story (in two parts). The first part is more of a preface and will give more context to the actual story of the event.

The Post Card

Part of this story actually stretches back to the summer before eighth grade (can you believe it?). I was really bored, and spent half my time daydreaming about adventuring off to faraway places that I never thought I would ever get a chance to visit. One day I happened upon the big roadmap/atlas my family had stuffed in the family car and started looking through it and realized there was a list of addresses in the index for national parks across the United States. I decided if I couldn’t go anywhere, I’d try and get other places to come to me (in a way), plus I loved getting mail.

I devised a fake summer project for school, and crafted letters to send to national parks across the country asking park rangers to take a picture of what they thought was the most interesting or beautiful place in their park. I must have sent about 25 letters out, and in a few weeks time I started getting things back in the mail. Some parks I never heard back from, but most humored me in some way. I didn’t get any actual photos, but I got a lot of park maps, park newspaper clippings and post cards—many of the postcards I still have to this day! Rocky Mountain National Park, Hawaii Volcano National Park, Glacier National Park, Haleakala National Park, Yellowstone National Park… etc. But one park stood out, because they sent me something unique.

Arches National Park in Utah sent me two postcards… one of the beautiful Delicate Arch and one of Balanced Rock, as well as a commemorative stamp of the Delicate Arch from the park. I was really intrigued by the stamp and the postcards. I’d never seen anything like the towering orange rock… it looked like the surface of Mars to my almost-eighth-grade eyes. Utah might as well have been Mars, it seemed so far away, I never thought I’d actually go there. But I always thought it would be really neat to stand under that arch some day, and I never forgot it.

This is a scan of the *actual* postcard I received from Arches in eight grade.

The Delicate Mzungu

A different kind of “delicate”… trust me, this could be a story all on its own, so I will try to keep it short. I’ve discussed before my love of and interest in Africa, but being a mzungu (the Kiswahili word used in East Africa for “white person”), especially a mzungu of Irish ancestry (as Russell Peters joked, “Irish people are the whitest white people on the planet… so white they are practically translucent!”), doesn’t always mix well with the intense African sun.

While I was in Kenya I was frustrated by the story of the “delicate mzungu.”  Every time I wanted to do something I was told that mzungus were very delicate and I should just sit and watch. Living with rural farmers in Western Kenya I wanted to carry buckets of water on my head, and help harvest the crops, and help wash the dishes and laundry in soapy buckets of water in the backyard as chickens ran around my feet. I wanted to experience rural Kenyan life, but I was met with protests… “No, no, it’s okay. Mzungus are delicate. Please, sit, have some biscuits.” I’d protest… “I’m not delicate! Please let me help! I’m here to learn!” and inevitably I’d either mess up (spill all the water), or something odd would happen (randomly get a nose bleed while washing dishes) and this would seem to reinforce their theory of the delicate mzungu—so sit and have some biscuits.

I ran into this “delicate mzungu” theory the whole time I was there, and I kept trying to fight it. I might have been a little more successful, had I been a little smarter.

Fast forward to another point during my stay… now I’m living in hot, arid Southern Kenya… a stone’s throw distance from the Tanzanian border, living with the pastoralist Maasai community. I’d been in the field for about a week and a half, living in tents near several family settlements (“bomas”). Our group had run out of all the water we had brought from the city, and had been relying on local bore-hole water boiled over a campfire. It was cloudy with bits of stuff floating in it, and tasted weird.

I wasn’t the best at drinking water in general, and had suffered a few bouts of minor dehydration earlier in the semester from not giving myself enough bottles throughout the day. Weird tasting bore-hole water wasn’t helping me in the water drinking department. And for some reason I got it in my head that I could do just fine on far less water than any of my comrades, and over the course of about 4 days I had drank no more than about one Nalgene bottle full of water. Couple this with the dry hot heat and the fact that I hadn’t bathed or even touched water for almost two weeks, I’m sure my body was ready for something to tip it over the edge.

Enter stupid delicate mzungu syndrome: The last few days of our field experience we were going to be scattered in various bomas across a wide expanse of land. I was paired with one other student and left with a Maasai family that spoke no English and hardly any Kiswahili to live in their small mud and cow dung huts and sleep on stretched cow hide. We were going to help the family herd their goats and sheep, cook with the family, and help them with their daily routine. However there was a special “age-set graduating ceremony” happening a few miles away, so the family thought it would be fun to take us there.

After a night sitting by the fire under the stars in one of the most remote places I’d ever been, singing songs back and forth with my homestay “mother” who was probably younger than me, I awoke the next morning to a cloudy cooler day. I helped with the goats, then had some tea for breakfast, and then got dressed for the age-set graduating ceremony. I had asked if I could dress like my hosts in traditional Maasai gear… two strips of cloth tied sarong style, a belt and beads (mistake #1: I’d been wearing light-weight long-sleeved billowy cotton shirts to protect my neck, and arms from sun since I don’t like sunscreen so much and a big floppy hat for protection, now I was very exposed. In addition I still didn’t put on sunscreen—it was cloudy in the morning and I wasn’t thinking, and I had only about half a Nalgene worth of water).

Yep, that's me, dressed like a Maasai woman, standing in front of one of the mud/cow dung huts at the age-set graduating ceremony

I went to the ceremony and my friend and I were the only two mzungus in a sea of about two thousand Maasai so we were quite popular. Little kids stared or cried because they thought there was something wrong with our skin, elders came to meet us, even the chief invited us to his hut as an honor to share a beer (my first ever) with him. I sat in the sweltering mud hut drinking large warm Tuskers with him, my head swimming. Then his son came in—“You honored my father, now honor me… please, have another.” I couldn’t without getting sick, so I settled on a warm bottle of coke. These were only dehydrating me more.

After a full day in the now hot bright sun I knew I was burnt to a crisp, and I was starting to feel a bit woozy. I had been very gracious to my hosts, trying to translate for my friend in Swahili, but I wasn’t feeling good, and eventually someone gave me an umbrella and I sat on the ground hiding beneath it until someone decided to take me home (a few miles walk away). I nearly passed out on the walk, but I chalked my bad mood and queasy feeling up to a bad sunburn.

And when I say bad, I mean, the worst sunburn of my LIFE. I wouldn’t be exaggerating in the slightest if I said that I literally LITERALLY looked like a lobster. That night I was in so much pain trying to sleep on the cow hide mattress. I could barely stand to wear my clothes.

The next morning my professor picked us up and brought us back to camp. As the students slowly filtered back from lots of other settlements people kept asking me if I was okay… and other than a few little bouts of wooziness, and a sore neck and shoulders, I did feel relatively okay. That night our group went out on a night game drive looking for lions, we were all standing on the seats of the Land Rover, our heads popping out the top, excited and singing as the sunset. I felt good, honestly, sunburned but not sick.

Until it hit like a freight train all at once. By then it was dark and we were miles and miles from camp. I instantly became incredibly nauseous, incredibly motion sick, and the world was spinning out of control. After trying to deal with it unsuccessfully, and seriously afraid of getting sick all over the car, I asked the professor if we could turn back. That was the longest, hardest car ride of my life. By the time I got back to the camp site I could barely walk straight. As I was helped out of the car I promptly vomited (the first in a long long night of vomiting), each time I got sick, it made me even more dehydrated.

I was put on a cot outside in the open air, where my professor thought I’d be more comfortable, and he and a friend tried to force me to drink water laced with packets of rehydration salts. It took me four hours to actually drink one small glass. I was feverish, borderline delirious, and kept getting sick. I literally though I was going to die. I’ve never in my life before felt so utterly terrible. I was terrified of the next morning when the sun came up and it would again be so dry and hot. I was convinced that the heat would kill me. I was genuinely terrified.

There was no way for my professor to contact our program compound in Nairobi, we were far beyond cell phone reach, so he had arranged for the camp land  rover to take me half way to Nairobi the following morning, calling the other program director in route, and try to meet someone to come pick me up on the side of the road and bring me the rest of the way to the hospital.

By morning I’d gotten a few hours of fitful sleep, and had at least one glass of water in my system. My back had broken out in huge sunburn boils, and I struggled to stand up. The professor loaded me in the car, and again I had a sickening drive back to civilization.

Nairobi Hospital is the fanciest hospital in the country, once called “The European Hospital” during colonial rule, it was the hospital that our program brought students to when we ran into trouble. Most Kenyans dressed up in beautiful outfits to go to Nairobi Hospital and here I was, dragged in fresh from the bush, filthy, dusty, barely able to walk. They did a few tests, and said they had to draw some blood.

Here’s a secret… I’m afraid of needles. It is totally in my head, I understand that, but the thought of getting an injection usually makes me hyperventilate. I rationalized with myself that I didn’t want to be the delicate mzungu freaking out about a routine blood test when there were probably people dying of AIDS in the same hospital, so I took a few deep breaths, and tried to calm my racing heart. I warned the doctors I was a little afraid of needles and braced myself for the prick. It took quite a few rubs of alcohol to get my arm sterile enough. Between embarrassingly apologizing for my filthy appearance, I remember saying to them about the injection, “that wasn’t so bad, I barely felt…” and the next thing I woke up on the floor with nurses staring in my face. “I think you are more than a little afraid” the doctor said, and admitted me to the hospital.

I wound up being in the hospital for four days on a rehydrating IV drip (another needle I didn’t enjoy, but knew it was necessary). I also had to get all the blisters on my back popped with needles. Every time a new nurse came on duty and read my chart that said that a “mzungu dressed like a Maasai was badly sunburned and dehydrated with sun poisoning and heat stroke” they had to drop in and meet the mzungu who would dress up like a Maasai. One look at my burnt back and the black Kenyan nurses usually exclaimed, “The sun can do that to you?”

On the second day I was there the director of the hospital—a big dark Ugandan man, who was a personal friend of the director of our program and one of the urban homestay fathers—came to my room to check in. He looked at my chart, and looked at my back and said, very stoically as he held out his fist, “See this hand? It is a strong African hand, I can put it near fire and it will not burn. But you… you are a delicate mzungu… and you are weak.”

Crushed by the theory of the delicate mzungu! How can I argue with that?

 

Asking My Father

Last but not least…

On my mom’s side of the family, I’m the eldest cousin, but on my dad’s side I’m the third eldest… meaning my two elder female cousins set the tone a little bit on the protocol for marriage. Both of their significant others first asked the permission (privately) of their dad before they proposed. P knew about this, but found it intimidating. My dad is the big silent type. He doesn’t always say much, and can seem daunting to talk to one-on-one.

“I don’t really have to do that, do I?” P would ask.

“I think you should. It would be nice. Keeping with tradition and all.” I’d say.

“Can I send an email instead? I don’t think I could ask him to his face.”

“An email? That’s kind of impersonal, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know… I don’t like this tradition…”

So hopefully this sets the stage for the second part. Sorry for the length, but hopefully it was interesting.

African Hare Krishna

What to write today? Perhaps a fun story? Here’s an “oldie” but a “goodie…”

First, a preface:

1) My dad had a good friend in high school who was very smart, had high ambitions, and never really thought about life not going his way. After graduating from college he applied for medical school, and for whatever reason, wasn’t accepted.

The friend was devastated. As a result he went on a cross-country road trip that ultimately led to him getting involved with some sort of “religious cult” out in California. He used to send all sorts of weird brainwashed-sounding letters back to my dad, and my dad’s friend’s family was really worried. Eventually they hired a private investigator to go out and bring the friend home—eventually kidnapping him from the supposed cult. However, when the family brought him back to New York, some of the cult members actually kidnapped him back, and it was a bit messy for a while. Eventually though, the friend got away and went on to lead a perfectly normal life (although he never did make it to medical school).

Anyway, I’d heard this story growing up and for some reason—maybe because I was interested in things my dad found unusual and didn’t understand—he always worried that I might end up like his friend if I wasn’t careful. Remember this, it’s important.

2) Prior to this story I’d known P about a year and a half. I hadn’t yet visited India or Nepal, and knew very little about Hinduism.

Okay, now fast-forward a few years to when I was in college. As I’ve alluded to before, my academic major allowed me to study abroad in France, Kenya and India. While I was in Kenya, P was able to finagle a research grant to join me in East Africa over the winter break to conduct comparative research on the environmental impacts of urbanization on rivers. The year before he had received a research grant to travel home to study the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, and he planned to compare this to the Nairobi River in Kenya as a thesis project.

Our university was quite small (everyone knew everyone else’s business), and apparently the faculty panel that reviewed the research requests had a discussion on whether or not it was ethical to fund P’s research since he was asking for money to travel to where his girlfriend was studying abroad. A close professor friend on the panel, who is probably more of a romantic than her feminist heart would admit, championed in our defense, “The research proposal is very strong in its own right… and who are we to stand in the way of true love?”

Kisumu is on the shore of Lake Victoria in western Kenya

Kisumu is on the shore of Lake Victoria in western Kenya

I was elated. I couldn’t wait until P arrived. For years it had been my dream to live and work in Africa, and after spending several months there, I was dying to share this new world with him. Over the Christmas holiday, when I knew Kenya was effectively shut down (at least for anything research or administratively oriented), I planned a whole trip for P and I “up-country” to Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria.

I had a few friends who had conducted their internship in the city, and they gave me a list of recommended things to see and do, including visiting an orphanage where one of them had worked. I found a small guest house near the orphanage, off the beaten path of the city, down a red dirt road along the water.

We arrived by overnight bus (riding through the Rift Valley on the local bus was brutal, the road was completely pockmarked and rutted from the rainy season) and took a local taxi to our guest house. After settling in we decided to check out the neighborhood and find the orphanage. On our walk we ran into some local Kenyan kids with long vertical Vishnu markings on their foreheads and shortly thereafter a passenger van drove by with Hare Krishna information written on the side paneling.

“We had a Hare Krishna temple near my high school,” P said when the van passed, “they had a van like that too, and we all used to say that they used the van to kidnap you.” P said this very deadpan, as if he was very serious. I only learned later he was joking.

According to a Hare Krishna website the Kisumu orphanage, "houses children who are abandoned on the streets of Kenya. Here they are given food, shelter and education, and helped to end their glue-sniffing and drug-taking street days."

According to a Hare Krishna website the Kisumu Hare Krishna program, "houses children who are abandoned on the streets of Kenya. Here they are given food, shelter and education, and helped to end their glue-sniffing and drug-taking street days."

I knew close to nothing about the Hare Krishna movement, in fact, the only thing that I had heard was that some people believe it is a type of cult. I know people make arguments that are both pro-Hare Krishna and anti-Hare Krishna, so I won’t take an official stance, but at the time the cult association was the only exposure to the organization I had known. This knowledge, coupled with P’s sarcastic comment, and the old story of my dad’s friend, had me a bit on edge about the Hare Krishnas.

As the week wore on, P and I had a great time. We spent Christmas eve and day volunteering at the orphanage, we went out on an early morning canoe ride in the lake and saw hippos up-close. We met with a friend’s brother in a tiny local (tasty) hole-in-the-wall fish place, and had dinner at his house with his whole family. It was fun.

P on a boda boda

P on a boda boda

Then the time came to return to Nairobi. We met some of the orphanage kids on the road to say good bye before trying to hitch a ride on a boda boda (bicycle taxi) back to town to catch the bus. The kids were trying to help us haggle but the boda boda drivers wouldn’t budge even though the kids and I knew we were being “grossly overcharged.” We were haggling over about 50 cents, but it was the principal of the thing, and eventually we decided to try our luck and started walking towards town. We were really early for the bus anyway, since we planned to find something to eat before heading out on the long journey back to Nairobi.

As we walked, the notorious Hare Krishna van (which we had passed on numerous occasions during the week) started rumbling down the dirt road. The kids started jumping and waving and one kid yelled, “You are lucky! The van will take you to the city for free!”

The van responded to the kids’ arm flailing and slowly pulled to the side of the road a few feet in front of us. There were two men and a woman sitting in the front, and they rolled down the passenger window, “need a lift?”

P, knowing my habit (challenge?) of traveling cheaply, figured this fit the mold… free trip to town, you can’t get more cheap than that… so he opened the van door and climbed in with a big grin on his face. My stomach sank; didn’t these people belong to a cult? What if something happens to us? Yet by this time everyone was looking at me, so I caved and stepped into the van.

Idi Amin famously threw out all people of South Asian and European descent from Uganda during his murderous and ethnocentric regime

Idi Amin (depicted in the movie "The Last King of Scotland") famously threw out all people of South Asian and European descent from Uganda during his murderous and ethnocentric regime

The driver of the van was Colombian and the two passengers were a married couple, the man was from Bolivia and the woman was a Ugandan of Indian descent whose family was thrown out of the country during the Idi Amin era. The couple explained that they had come to visit East Africa so the woman could “retrace her roots” and show her husband her home country. They were also using the trip as an opportunity to connected with Hare Krishna communities in the area.

The Hare Krishna crew seemed very interested in P, particularly after he mentioned he was from Kathmandu. The Colombian driver said he had worked at the Hare Krishna posting near P’s old high school, and the two bonded over shared geographical knowledge. As the van neared the bus depot the driver asked, “you must be hungry, have you eaten yet today?”

I was just about to say that we were fine when P spoke up, “no, actually we haven’t eaten yet. We were planning to find something while waiting for the bus.”

“We can’t have you travel hungry! Please, join us for breakfast!” the driver said.

“Yeah! Sure!” P said, the big grin popping back on his face. I’m sure he thought, more free stuff… alright!

The driver turned the van around and started driving out of the city. That’s when my panic level began to rise. I looked at P concerned, but he seemed oblivious, no doubt already thinking about food.

On the outskirts of the city the van approached a gated compound. A security guard let the van through, and we parked in the driveway of a large secluded mansion. I heard the front gate slam shut and my heart started racing. This is it! I thought, My dad was right… I’m never going to get out of this… I’m going to be brainwashed by a cult, and lost in Africa forever! I’ll never see my family again!

The Colombian driver rang the bell and a Kenyan maid opened the door, dressed in a sari. Although no more unusual than a white American in a sari, I’d never seen an African in a sari before, and it added to the mystic of the compound, and my mounting dread. They are all dressing alike… it must be a cult! The house was decorated with lots of South Asian iconography including large statues and carvings of gods and goddesses. Everything seemed very exotic and different, particularly from the largely Christian Kenyan culture I had been living in for the past several months. In my terrified mind it all added up, this had to be a cult.

The driver encouraged us to sit in a parlor area, and the maid was sent to get us some drinks. I frantically looked around the room assessing my surroundings and trying to make sense of it, looking for an escape route, trying to figure out what would be used to brainwash me.

A few minutes later, the maid brought in a tray of glasses filled with a thick looking green liquid. When I was handed a glass I quickly took a whiff, trying to detect if it was safe to drink. I was told it was some sort of wheat germ smoothie. Was this going to drug me? I watched as the others were served and the driver took a large gulp. P had a sip and he looked fine. I decided to just hold it and pretend to drink.

The driver and couple asked us many questions. What were we doing in Kenya? How long were we staying? What brought us to Kisumu? They continued to take an interest in P, especially when he talked about his research. I started making excuses about time, and catching the bus, but they courteously brushed aside my concerns.

Blowing the conch shell...

Blowing the conch shell...

Suddenly a conch shell horn sounded in another room and the the couple quickly stood up and walked towards the sound while the driver paused to invite us to worship with them.

Aha! This is how they will do it! They’ll brainwash us while “worshiping.” Now I’m done for! I wanted to grab P and run, but he didn’t seem concerned at all.

Life sized Radha and Krishna statues

An example of life sized Krishna and Radha statues

Dumbly, I followed and we turned a corner into a large room made up like a temple with two life-sized Krishna and Radha statues. The entire wall was meticulously decorated in fabric and flowers, and the statues sat on large wall-length altars. The gods were elaborately dressed in shiny clothes and garlanded with fresh flowers. I’d never in my life (up  to that point) seen anything like it. Already scared out of my mind, I thought for sure that this legitimized my fear.

Had I been to India before  this story took place, or visited a temple with P–even an American Hindu temple–or if I knew more about Hinduism at the time, I’m sure I would not have found the room so threatening. Yet all I could think of was my dad’s cult prediction.

The driver explained that Hare Krishnas worshiped through music and handed each of us a small musical instrument. I received a pair of wood blocks and P was given finger cymbals.

At this point I was shooting death glares at P, who seemed totally unaffected by the situation. The music started and he bobbed his head back and forth to the music, ting-tinging the little cymbals to the beat, happy as a clam.

How can he be so oblivious?? My mind screamed, trying to telepathically send him messages, P we need to get out of here NOW and save ourselves!!!

Example of a man doing aarti for puja with the platter of incense and candle

Example of a man doing aarti for puja with the platter of incense and candle, a perfectly normal aspect of Hindu worship

Then the caretaker of the house, an Indian woman dressed in a starched cotton sari, entered the room with a shiny metallic platter carrying incense, a candle and other items for the aarti. During the music and chanting, she stood in front of the statues with the platter, rotating it in circles in front of the gods.

I was feeling queasy with fear and internally freaking out. I wasn’t sure what was going to brainwash me, but I was absolutely… absolutely… sure that it was going to happen. Would it be the music? The exotic smelling incense? The rhythmic chanting? Would I ever see the light of day again???

The music seemingly continued on forever. I kept making exaggerated gestures to check my watch to show how impatient I was to catch the bus while also trying to catch P’s attention, and hum something in my head to counteract the alleged brainwashing. Its hard to think of another time that I had ever been so scared.

Yet finally the music stopped, and miraculously I still had control over my own mind. I can’t help but admit that I was both very surprised, and extremely relieved. The driver asked if we enjoyed the worship and I began reiterating the fact that we had tickets for the bus and had to get going.

The Ugandan woman asked, “are the buses really on time here?” to which the driver answered, “never…” but I insisted, “the one time you count on their tardiness is the one time the bus is ready to go at the correct time… we really really need to get there.”

“But we can’t let you leave without breakfast!!” the driver insisted.

“No, trust me, we are fine. We really need to go. I’m not even hungry… P, are you hungry?” I said, hoping he would get the hint.

“Actually, I am still kind of hungry.” P said.

ARE YOU KIDDING ME??!!

The Indian caretaker led us to her dining room, which had been laid out with a full Gujarati meal for breakfast. The driver insisted we sit. I sat down and started shoveling food into my mouth at a tremendous speed, insisting over and over, in-between bites and gulps for air, that we had to go, we had to make the bus, we were already late. I was hoping the more I insisted, and the faster I ate, the quicker we could get out of there.

Meanwhile, P was savoring the food. He looked utterly satisfied, “I haven’t eaten some of this stuff in years! Delicious!” he kept repeating, taking a second helping, and cleaning his plate.

“Please, we have to go!” I continued to beg.

“You can’t go without snacks for your journey” the Indian caretaker said, and asked the maid to go in the kitchen and pack some food.

“No really, its fine.” I pleaded.

“Its no trouble” the woman insisted.

Finally, FINALLY, the maid entered with our packed food, and the Colombian driver stood up to take us out the door. P thanked everyone and happily followed the driver, while I grumbled a quick thanks and scurried after them.

It’s hard to describe the relief I felt to walk through the front door, and feel the warm African sun on my face. To breathe in the earthy air of the garden, and to hear the birds chirping in the trees. When I went in that house, I never expected to exit, not like this.

We climbed into the van, and the driver turned the key. We started back towards the city while he continued to chat with P, “when you get back to Nairobi you should check out our temple there, it’s quite impressive!”

The van made it to the bus depot moments before our bus was ready to depart the station, and  P and I were the last two to scramble on-board. P waved goodbye, and we took our seats at the front. I watched the Colombian drive away, and when he was out of sight I turned to P and wacked him repeatedly on the shoulder…

“What… were… you… THINKING??!!??” I exploded, “You could have gotten us KILLED!!”

“What??” he looked at me completely bewildered, “what the heck are you talking about??”

Me: “Aren’t they a cult?”

P: “I don’t think so.”

Me: “Seriously?? What about all that, ‘oh there goes the kidnapping van’ stuff?”

P: “That was just a joke. Why are you freaking out?”

Me: “Because I have been scared out of my mind for the last hour and a half!” and I explained my dad’s cult story.

P looked at me for a moment and couldn’t help but let out a sympathetic laugh, “ohhhh… you must have been so scared in there… I had no idea!” Born and raised a Hindu, everything in the house seemed quite normal, or at least not scary. Then he opened up the snack bag, and pulled out the crunchy fried munchies they gave us, “alright! I haven’t had these since the last time I was home!”

So, the moral of the story is: my first interaction with a form of Hinduism thoroughly freaked me out. However, I’ve learned so much since then, and I think I would have handled the situation a lot better if it had happened today. Looking back, everyone was actually very nice, and I now find the story amusing and the situation comical since I know it has a happy ending.

Meanwhile… try to communicate with your partner better than just shooting him “death glares” from across the room… because maybe they can help explain the situation if they actually know what you are thinking.

And lastly, never listen to cult stories from your dad as a kid. It will scar you for life.