By my normal patterns, I would be writing from Ohio right now, but all patterns have been broken. I am writing instead from Eldoret, a city of 200,000 in western Kenya. When my friends heard that I was planning a trip to Africa, the words "safari" and "lions" were a part of the conversation. The fact is that we will be doing some of the typical tourist stuff, but Eldoret is definitely not a center for world travellers. In fact, non-Africans are so rare that during a walk or ride into the center city, I have come to expect shouts of "Mzungu, hello!" (translations vary, but the politically correct version is "foreigner, hello!")
If the speaker is a child, the outburst is usually followed by giggles. If the one calling is on the crusty side, the motives may be different. The tone of voice is the indicator. On the other hand, most passersby are silent with a sort of staring that manages to exclude eye contact. Yesterday, I was in a shopping arcade waiting for my daughter who was getting a few pages printed in a cyber cafe. Let's just say that I turned a lot of heads! (I'd like to say that it was my mature, yet stunning, good looks, but other realities come into play.) In fact, I know that at least one picture of me was taken from a cleverly deployed cell phone.
I suppose this could be unnerving, but I've discovered a coping mechanism. It is simply to speak first in Swahili. "Habari yako" (how are you?) is the easiest phrase. In return it's usually followed by a smile and a quick "nzuri" (pronounced like "Missouri").
The writer in me wants to interpret this game as an illustration of our need to make sense of the world. I am the mzungu, and like any alien from outer space, my presence makes the world unfamiliar. That unfamiliarity is chronicled by the more assertive as a serendipitous joke or a taunt. By speaking first, I am simply making the obligatory "I come in peace" speech. That interaction makes things relatively normal again. In this case "normal" is "human".
We are creatures that both fear and desire contact. (I suppose that's the driver of most stories, and the difference between tragedy and comedy turns on the nature of the first contact.)
Yesterday I encountered a very brave soul. I was walking on the dirt path that parallels the road on the outskirts of the city. A schoolboy in a green uniform was approaching from the other way. I'd judge him to be six or seven, and he stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the mzungu. I felt sorry for him because he really looked as if he was fending off his flight instinct. Mentally, I was rehearsing my line, "habari yako" in the hopes of relieving his fears, but he spoke first. "How are you?" he said in a slow and overly pronounced perfect English. It was too late for me to abandon my script so my pidgin Swahili came out. By then, we had passed each other so I turned to see him still facing me. His broad smile made mine broader. It was a story of human contact that I will not forget.
Causes Robert Smith Supports
Doctors Without Borders, Habitat for Humanity, Presbyterian Disaster Relief