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!)