Sarah Younan shares her own experiences of growing up as a mzungu and explores themes of white privilege and saviourism in Kenya.
Over the next few weeks Wales Arts Review is proud to share a selection of excerpts from a new anthology of marginalised voice, Just So you Know: Essays of Experience, published by Parthian Books on August 1st. This collection aims to bring to light stories, issues and lives that have too often been overlooked, and challenges us to think anew. The anthology includes essays on topics such as self-identity, language and culture, the immigrant experience as well as BAME, LGBTQ+ and disabled writers confronting heteronormative ideals rarely addressed through a Welsh lens.
(in East Africa) a white person
I was born in Germany. I am of mixed European and Middle Eastern heritage. We moved to Kenya when I was nine. We moved to Nakuru, a small town next to a lake full of flamingos. I didn’t speak a word of English or Swahili. My first foray into the neighbourhood wasn’t much of a success. When you’re little, you head out and look for friends. Children can be awful when you look different though. The neighbourhood kids pointed and laughed. They shouted ‘Mzungu! Mzungu! Mzungu!’ I remember a parent storming into the small yard, grabbing a kid and whipping him. There was much running around and screaming. I’d learned a new word; ‘mzungu’ had permanently entered into my vocabulary via children’s voices, laughter and the sound of whipping and screams.
We enrolled in a local school in Nakuru. Apart from my two sisters and myself, there were only two more mzungus in the school; kids of British missionaries. Even though Kenyans tend to be quite religious, you still find a lot of missionaries there. I guess it’s easier to save souls in a warm country where people have a lot of faith and respect for the church, rather than being showered with rain and rejection while dragging yourself from door to door in the UK. It’s a funny thing though, these Bible people running around, preaching the gospel of white Jesus. See colonialism is over, but some things linger. A religion imposed during colonial suppression, an outdated school system that teaches more about European history than the Mau Mau uprising, a corrupt political structure built on the remnants of an apparatus put in place to strengthen British control, courtrooms still filled with judges sweating under powdered wigs; stale aftertaste of empire. Our first Christmas in Nakuru, I was Mary in the school’s nativity play, the missionary boy was Joseph and our siblings were the three wise men. It was our teachers, who were all Kenyan, who put together this strange nativity line up. See colonialism is over, but white Jesus chased out the ancestors and the missionaries keep coming in droves to make sure they don’t return. Spreading the word, teaching the heathens, engrained colourism, erasure of heritage, Hallelujah!
My best friend at school was called Angela. She took me home to meet her family. For religious reasons, they weren’t eating any animal products. They made a fuss about their mzungu guest and insisted that instead of sharing their beans, I ate a huge big omelette and white bread. The family sat silently and watched me eat. Then they filled another plate. It was a really hot day. Stuffed, sweating and uncomfortable, I sat at the table in front of Angela’s family and forced down this second mountain of fried egg. See, I was raised to be polite. ‘Ngai’, they must have thought; ‘these mzungus really eat a lot. They must be very hungry.’ I remember afterwards, we went for a walk through the market place. Angela noticed that I had my T-shirt on backwards. I wanted to turn it around but she stopped me, horrified; ‘Everyone is looking!’
It was okay though. You’d get laughed at, pointed out and stared at, constantly living on an exposed platform. But kids are kids and eventually we’d end up chasing each other, playing football, gossiping about boys by the trees in the schoolyard. Nakuru was sleepy and safe. The locusts came one day and ate all the grass on the football pitch, then they left again. Angela grew breasts and the boys would giggle and stare at her too. Then Baba got a new job in Nairobi with a German NGO, and they offered to cover our school fees at the German School Nairobi, so we moved again.
Nairobi is big; sprawling leafy compounds, even more sprawling slums, and everything in between. Supermarkets, shopping malls, UN headquarters, embassies, hotels, courts, butcheries, markets, street vendors, bus stations, pastoralists herding their livestock on by the roadside during dry season, street kids sniffing glue, hustlers. You never used to see them walking around, but there were plenty of mzungus too in Nairobi. Enough mzungus to create their own expat circles. See if you come to the West from elsewhere, you’re a migrant. As a migrant, you better stop dressing funny, eating funny, looking and smelling funny. Don’t hang with those other migrants in that way, with your funny ways, smells, foods and clothes. Integrate! Learn how to ‘act normal’!
That doesn’t apply to mzungus though. They are ‘expats’ when they move to foreign countries, not migrants. They are called NGO workers, consultants, reporters, diplomats, hoteliers, safari tour operators and development workers; noble and adventurous folk who consider themselves citizens of the world. See if you’re a ‘citizen of the world’, there’s no need to integrate; you can sip your imported chilled beverage in an expat hangout, where everyone is tanned, worldly-wise and weary. There, you can bond over stories about your adventures in these foreign parts, of how nothing works and the people are corrupt, untrustworthy, underqualified and childish. In expat circles, no one will mention your embarrassing lack of melanin, comment on your accent or question your right to be here. The word mzungu will not be shouted at you. As an expat, you live in a country, but you’re not in it.
My new German School was full of little expat kids. Kids with German accents, many with well-off parents. They lived in big houses with big gardens and pools behind big fences and spent their afternoons in shopping malls. Suddenly surrounded by other mzungus, new tribal lines and distinctions came into play. Suddenly, I wasn’t quite German enough. No one shouted ‘mzungu’ at school anymore, but I gained new names; ‘Pube-head! Potato-nose!’ It wasn’t until years later that I realised those were my ethnic features; big nose, curly dark hair. I wasn’t quite mzungu enough after all, at least not to those kids. This came as a relief.
Puberty hit, and new social opportunities opened up outside of school. By social opportunities, I mean older guys who’d buy me drinks and take me out. By the time I was 16, my parents were busy skipping town to avoid having to deal with their bombed-out marriage and each other. No one kept check on how I came and went at home. Every night, the city would roll over and expose its underbelly. Suddenly, the social bubbles that kept people apart during the day would pop and we would morph into a hungry night crowd, looking for music, alcohol and sex. Yani, if you throw yourself into Nairobi at night, someone will catch you.
I started looking down on my classmates and their tame teenage adventures fondling each other at private parties in big houses behind big fences. I’d be in town. I’d be out-out. The bullies no longer scared me, I knew what their parents got up to. ‘Hey, I saw your dad in the club feeling up on the malayas’. The world was broken, intimacy and morals were a lie and you couldn’t tell me fairy tales.
If they stayed in Nairobi and didn’t head straight to the coast or another national park, tourists would go to feed the giraffes at Nairobi National Park. They would go to Maasai Market to buy curious, to Carnivore Restaurant to eat grilled crocodile and ostrich and gazelle, and to Karen Blixen Museum, named after that colonial baroness with the gaunt face who had a ‘love for Africa’. Mind you, it wouldn’t have been too much love. The baroness was colonial thoroughbred and did things the proper White African way: ‘don’t go native darling, they all have AIDS’. She only loved mzungu men who all went on to die tragically in the bush some way or another. And then she did the right thing again and wrote a book about it, all longing and African sunsets and lions and decorative backdrop savages who chase cows and make a mess of scrambled eggs or whatever.
Anyway, Karen is also the part of Nairobi where many of Kenya’s post-colonial white farmer types keep a second city-home. Nice houses, walled compounds with large gardens and bored mzungu housewives with too much bohemian silver jewellery on their fingers and wrists, all married to the kind of husbands who worship Hemmingway, speak in grunts and have big, sunburned, freckled arms. The wives have that leathery look too, wear flowing clothes and tussled hair, they drive four-by-fours. They have farms, they run safaris, and there is that cousin in Zambia who is a big game hunter. Born and bred, living and breathing Africa, ‘but just the landscape and animals dear, don’t mix with the watu’; that’s something the tourists do, not the born and bred.
I was out on a weeknight in a bar in Karen when I met a tourist lady. Let’s call her Sabina. Karen wasn’t a typical spot, but the guys had wanted to go mzungu chasing. Bonyface, who we called ‘Pickup’ was our designated driver, which never stopped him drinking. He thought the nickname was because he was good at picking up chicks but really, he had no grace and we were using him for his battered Toyota pickup – no one else had a ride. Everything was a hustle, including our friendship; it was easier to score a mzungu chick if you already had one on your team. It made the tourists feel at ease.
Sabina was in her late twenties. She told us how she’d spent three months in a village to finish her SOAS anthropology course with fieldwork. She said she’d truly immersed herself in the culture of the Maasai people. Really loved it. So much so she now sported a head full of dreadlocks, Maasai bead necklaces, a peeling nose, a head wrap and a waist wrap, copper bangles on her arms, and a husband-to-be. A real Maasai, it was authentic, it was African, it was love! His family had sung and danced and cooked a goat and now she too was a Maasai woman, a real Mama Africa. Things a degree in anthropology can get you. The guys at the table humoured her, scoping out if there were any more ladies with yellow hair that were interested in an ethnography degree.
Sabina and her authentic Maasai husband were only in Nairobi for the weekend, and she asked if we could show them around. They also hadn’t booked a hotel yet, and asked if we could recommend somewhere that wasn’t as expensive as Karen. Sabina asked for somewhere ‘more authentic’. We decided to head to this joint in Kileleshwa, where you could get good nyama choma and cheap drinks and the owner even had rooms for rent (usually at an hourly rate).
The place in Kileleshwa was a converted villa, former bedrooms filled with plastic chairs and tables, corrugated iron huts that spill into the garden. There was a big barbecue pit in the courtyard and pots of hot oil. Goat, cow and pig carcasses hung in the garage. Boniface went to choose the meat and we sat in a hut close to the bar while the chef roasted our goat. Sabina got one of the hourly-rate rooms upstairs and dropped off her bags. Ndombolo, Lingalla and Dancehall was crackling from the speakers. The sun had set but it was still warm. The joint filled up and became lively with smoke, warm beer, armpits, roasted meat, sticky skin on plastic furniture. Sabina looked washed out in the blue fairy lights strung up under the corrugated-iron roof of the hut. Those Maasai beads were not a good contrast with her skin. She talked a lot in a funny British accent we all had trouble understanding, mostly about her time in the village and how it had all just been so real. ‘Authentic’ seemed to be her favourite word.
I couldn’t stand her. The vanity of small differences; I was a mzungu, sawa, but I never wanted to be THAT kind of mzungu. Not like those born-and-bred white Africans; not the pretentious expat types, not the clueless tourists, and certainly not a ‘white Maasai’. Sabina had so much assurance, not a hint of doubt; she knew she belonged there. It’s harder to fool yourself in Nairobi. Nairobi is many things, but it is not a city for romance or dreams of an unspoilt Africa.
People started dancing by the bar and between the tables. Sabina stayed firmly planted as the women twerked, men watching them, couples grinding together. Mama Africa shrunk back into a plastic seat, side eyeing her husband as bodies around her moved. Authentic Maasai husband was feeling the beer and the music and trying to coax her ‘come dance mpenzi life is short’ but Mama Africa reported a headache and went to lie down in her hourly-rate room with the aircon on. We continued to dance and drink. Authentic Maasai husband bought a bottle of Kibao. I danced with him that night.
Maybe in her room upstairs, with the AC on and finally sleeping despite the heat, the stale sheets and the noise downstairs, Sabina dreamt of a journey to the most remote and mysterious corners of the world, a place with unspoilt wilderness. Maybe she dreamt she met a real warrior and joined his tribe. Perhaps she saw the Great Rift Valley in her dream. Maasai herding cattle through the bush, and she marvelled at their traditional way of life. Maybe she dreamt she was one of them.
There’s no moral here. By all means, go on a safari and feed some giraffes. Go visit the Karen Blixen Museum, or go to the coast where beach boys will offer you coconuts and anything your heart desires. Go have an ‘adventure’. Go chase whatever dream of Africa you have – Kenya is a hospitable nation and mzungus are much loved. Al Shabab’s attacks have destroyed the tourism industry, so go see dancing Maasai warriors, photograph wild animals and eat some crocodile. And if you’re more into the Bono brand of Africa then there are wells to be dug, souls to be saved, orphans to be hugged. So go and save a child or two and take a Facebook profile picture while you’re at it. Go donate your second-hand clothes to some slum dwellers in Kibera and then go back home and tell people about your deeds.
What you say goes. You’re the colour of Jesus, you’re the three wise men; you come bearing gifts. You have money to spend and it’s your particular African Dream that you will find. Want to save some souls? Go for it. Dig some wells? Go for it. Find a warrior husband? Go for it. Bring your learned SOAS theories, your Hemingway adventures, your tacky romance novel cravings, your conservationist/aid worker/gap year white saviourism. You will find your dream; people will accommodate you, and if the sun burns too hard or if people laugh at you and you can’t join in the dance, there will be malls and tour buses and expat hang-outs, smiling attentive waiters and aircons.
Mzungu privilege; the world is shaped around you.
Mzungu underpriviledge; the world is not yours to experience.
Jambo! Jambo bwana
Habari gani? Mzuri sana
Kenya yetu – Hakuna matata
Kenya nchi nzuri – Hakuna matata
Nchi ya maajabu – Hakuna matata
Just So You Know: Essays of Experience is available to pre-order at Parthian Books.
Sarah Younan is Lebanese-German. She was born in Germany, raised in Kenya and has been living in Wales for 10 years now. As a mixed-race woman who grew up in Kenya, she draws on her experiences and writes to challenge how non-Western experiences are still romanticised and reduced to easily graspable stereotypes and to question tropes in writing about the ‘other’. A formerly starving artist, she has a PhD in ceramics, and does film programming and production with Watch Africa Cymru. She is an Arts Council Trustee and holding down a day job at Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales.