Tuesday, December 27, 2011

It's Not Easy Being A Mzungu

(sung to this tune: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpiIWMWWVco)

I came to Kenya fully expecting to be stared at. It happened to me the last time I came here. It was a regular occurence in India (where I was a firengi). I am used to being the only white girl on the bus or train or matatu.

Why am I stared at? It's not simply because I'm white (as would happen in rural parts of India). Nairobi is an incredibly cosmopolitan city, and its residents are used to European, American, Asian faces. But then why am I stared at? Because most Kenyans see a white person and they expect me to either be a tourist, or an ex-pat who works for an NGO, UN agency etc (I guess they have it half right). In both scenarios they expect me to be well-off. They expect me to have enough money to travel by taxi or hired driver instead of by matatu. They don't expect to see my shopping in Kangemi market for my fruit and vegetables every weekend. They don't expect me to be buying my office clothes at a mitumba market. But mostly, they embrace me for it. I get little hassle in these places and usually when I have the time to talk to people - in my broken but improving Swahili - they are impressed that I live here and are doing the same things as them.

What I was not expecting was how much white people were going to stare at me. They stare at me for the exact same reasons that Kenyans stare at me. They also expect me to take taxis, or to do all of my shopping in Westgate mall. I get full-on gawked at when I stand at the matatu stage at the end of United Nations Avenue (the actual name of the road the UN complex is on) by wazungu driving out of the UN or the US Embassy. When I have had lunch or coffee with people in Gigiri they are always surprised when I explain by commute (2 matatus in the morning, 3 in the afternoon). I am now fairly confident that I am the only international staffer or volunteer that gets to the UN by matatu every day. I might be wrong, but so far I have little evidence to the contrary.

It's difficult sometimes working in a place where the staff are living a vastly different lifestyle to me. It's difficult that I have all these expectations placed upon me.

Now, this post isn't meant to be facetious. I *know* that I am incredibly lucky and have been blessed with a comfortable situation here, more comfortable than that of most of Nairobi's residents. I have a great house, I have my medical expenses and all that sort of stuff covered. I'm also lucky that I don't just live in ex-pat land - a land devoid of matatus and sukumi wiki and many other Kenyan charms. I'm lucky that I have been able to experience community life in Nairobi to an extent, thanks to Barbara my housemate, and her colleagues in the organisation she works with who live and work in Kamgemi. I'm lucky that I am being invited to a real Kenyan wedding in February by Barbara's boss, Josephine.

It's just that sometimes it's odd living between the two worlds.

This post was inspired by another VSO volunteer's musings on the subject: http://jonchardsinkenya.blogspot.com/2011/11/cocktails-and-volunteering.html

1 comment:

  1. Great to know i'm not the only person who feels so in-between! Thanks for linking to our blog, Andrea, aw. Helen x