Tag 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.

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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?

International Education Week… Back Again!

As my regular readers know, in my non-blogging life I am an international student advisor at a school in New England. So I can’t let International Education Week slip by without giving it a shout out, like last year.

It’s also why I took a blogging hiatus last week– between IEW prep, an international educators conference, the end of Tihar and the unbelievably quick (soon-to-be) arrival of Thanksgiving, stuff just got piled up!

Anyway, back to IEW– As I put in all my program emails this week:

International Education Week was initiated in 2000, and has been held annually each November. Now in its eleventh year, it is celebrated in more than 100 countries worldwide. It is a week which allows communities, such as colleges and universities, to celebrate and highlight international and intercultural diversity, and to appreciate the importance of a multicultural environment, particularly for a learning community.

Even though the US State Department picked a horrible week to highlight international education (the week before Thanksgiving– seriously? When students are thinking more about turkey and vacation than school?) I still like getting into it. I decorate the campus with flags, send “international fast fact” emails to the whole school, and set up guest speakers and programs. I’m excited to be showing a film on Friday called “Crossing Borders”

…a feature documentary that follows four Moroccan and four American university students as they travel together through Morocco and, in the process of discovering “The Other,” discover themselves.

I met the director at the international educators conference last week, and was able to secure a copy of the award-winning film. Woo-hoo! To watch the trailer click HERE.

So take a moment to appreciate an (educational) international/intercultural moment in your life. Did you have a life changing study abroad experience? Did you meet your significant other when he/she was an international student at your school (or vice-versa)? What is your favorite “international” memory/story? (please share!)

My semester in Kenya as an undergraduate was one of my favorite times abroad... that's me standing on top of the landrover with some of my classmates and one of my favorite professors of all time (in red) while on safari in Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya.

and who could forget the picture of me dressed like a Maasai woman? Taken right before I became horribly sick from sun poisoning, heat stroke, and dehydration (“delicate mzungu”)…