What does a Mzungu eat?


The first day I arrived at my homestay I was getting acquainted with Israel, the family’s eldest and spunkiest child (age 5). I chatted with him in the living room, asking him to teach me a few words and phrases in Swahili. (In Nairobi, most everyone speaks both English and Swahili as well as the mother tongue of their tribe).  At one point he uttered a sentence in Swahili about me, a Mzungu, and giant cockroaches. Mzungu is the word for a white person, and is a word I hear at least once per day, usually from intrigued children on the street who point or stare or touch my hand or poke fun at me. (Let’s just say I stand out from the crowd, especially in my neighborhood where you rarely see a Mzungu). I was confused, thinking that Israel was insulting me by calling me a giant cockroach! But when I asked him what he said, he became shy and turned away. Shortly after, the family sat down in the living room for dinner and Israel asked his mother in Swahili what I was going to eat for dinner. She responded by explaining that I eat many of the same things that Kenyans eat – rice, meat, vegetables, fruit – and that I would be eating along with the family. Israel looked confused. He turned to his mother and said, “I thought Mzungus ate cockroaches and bugs! Remember on the TV?” It was then that Israel’s mother realized he had seen an episode of Fear Factor where the contestants were forced to eat heaping plates of critters. As a result, Israel thought that all Mzungus ate them as their primary source of food. :)

This may be a funny story, but it has an important cultural lesson: When we are faced with a new and unfamiliar culture, we often make assumptions about what we see at first glance, when in fact the truth is far from what we perceive. It is an important lesson for all of us to remember, and especially for me as I learn a new way of life.

(p.s. In a future post I’ll tell you all about Kenyan cuisine!)


Karibu: A new family and a new home

There are so many things that I could write about, as the last several days have been filled with new sights, sounds, smells, tastes, friends and experiences. However, I will start by sharing about my host family and my new home. I live in Nairobi, Kenya (a large city of 3 million people) in the area of Kibera, which is Africa’s second largest urban slum. Kibera is a huge place, divided into several “estates,” and I live in an estate just outside the Kibera slum.

In my neighborhood there are several types of homes. Some are made of metal sheets that you might typically picture in a slum area, and some are small apartment buildings. There are also many concrete houses, which is the type of home I live in. It has two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, as well as a small room with a toilet (though there is no running water in the house, but rather large jugs of water filled regularly and used for cooking, bathing, washing clothes, etc) and a small room to take baths from a basin. There is electricity in the home, although blackouts are common. (We didn’t have electricity the first two days I was here, and another blackout occurred last night for a few hours).

My host family is a delight. There are eight of us living in the two-bedroom home. My host mother is in her late 50’s and has four grown children. Her only son lives in our house with his wife and their three children, Israel (5), Abna (2) and Ezra (6 months). All six of them share the larger bedroom.  I share the second bedroom with Esther. Esther is not a member of the family but lives in the home and is responsible for much of the cooking, cleaning and tending to the children when their parents are at work. While this would be considered a significant luxury in the United States, it is common here.

I came to Kenya with another student, Abby. She lives just a five minute walk down the road from me. When I walk to meet her at her home I follow dirt roads and pathways bustling with people and store fronts made of metal sheets or wood. Shopkeepers sell everything from fruits and vegetables to shoes, clothes, medicine, chickens and mobile phone accessories. Some of the shops have Kenyan music playing loudly, which I love. Waste disposal is a significant problem in this area, so piles of garbage cover parts of the street, and the smell of burning garbage wafts through the air. Matatus (15-passenger vans which are the most common mode of transportation) packed with passengers drive by at highs speeds along the main road. The neighborhood is especially busy around 5pm, when children are released from school and the adults return from work. I enjoy walking the streets because all of my senses become engaged.

Above all, Kenyans are welcoming and hospitable. Karibu, the title of this entry, means “welcome” in Swahili – a word I have heard several hundred times already.

The Journey Begins…

Hello friends, family and strangers. As many of you know, I am moving to Nairobi, Kenya to pursue a master’s degree (take a look at the “About” section of this blog for more info). The journey begins with an 8 1/2 hour flight from the U.S. to Amsterdam, and another 8 hour flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi. There I will meet my fellow student, Abby, and we’ll get settled into our new homes.

I look forward to keeping you up-to-date on all of my adventures, and perhaps some of the things I learn along the way. In the meantime, feel free to browse these photos from our program director’s last visit to Nairobi. Many of these were taken in Kibera near where I’ll be living: http://www.flickr.com/photos/matul/sets/72157623437471393/. I also found this website that has some beautiful photos of Nairobi: http://www.nairobikenya.com/whats-going-on/photos/.

Thank you to my Kenyan and “Kenyan-at-heart” friends who have already taught me so much about the place I’ll soon call home. I am so grateful for each of you.