Memoirs of a mzungu.
Two acronyms have dominated our first week here in Nakuru. TIA and OIK.
“This Is Africa” and “Only In Kenya” have worked well for us to laugh off awkward situations, explain the seemingly unexplainable and to help us accept things far from our norm. This is all very well as we revel in our mzungu-ness, however I have also taken this week to fully immerse myself in the Nakuru community to become a rather off-colour Kenyan.
The mzungu effect has been used by Josh and Doug to explain that when it come as to business, being foreign allows us to make connections, set up meetings and be fast tracked before locals (this is both a good and bad thing). However I have used the mzungu effect to just be damn nosy as I am welcomed everywhere with open arms. I have been spending my lunch breaks and free time shopping in the market, having lunch in people’s stalls and making new connections (some of which to facilitate an enormous buy up of African goods at the end of the trip).
A number of exchanges have really struck me; from conversations with drunk homeless men, to young school girls to a stall owner who has accommodated my embodiment of Kenyan style through the extremely lucrative thrift shop industry in Kenya. However two exchanges have been particularly poignant for me.
Felicity works behind the counter at a local chemist which specializes in herbal remedies and juices that claim to cure everything from “women problems” to “cancer”. As I am doing my dissertation on the power of the placebo effect I found this particularly interesting. After quizzing her on the placebo nature of her products she was adamant that there were a number of active ingredients. When probed further these active ingredients largely constituted of the holy trinity. I said no more.
Brother Dominic is the caretaker of the Menengai crater caves. He is also an albino. One hears so many tales of the hardships albinos encounter in parts of Africa, namely at the feet of local witchdoctors. Brother Dominic very freely offered to tell me his sad history. This starts with an account of how his mother cried when he was born. He spoke about how his father beat his mother as he accused her of being unfaithful with a white man and then how he was banished to live with his grandmother and never saw his mother again. To add to his toil, he was poisoned by some local school boys when he was 14 which left him with a number of muscle spasticities and partial blindness. Now, as an outcast of society, he lives a secluded life in the caves. God is his employer, whatever the future holds is God’s will. Hakuna Matata.
Though on the surface, these are just snippets of religiously enlightened folk, they highlight so many interesting and important aspects of some Kenyan communities. The fact that a culture exists where access to mainstream healthcare is based on fake remedies and citrus pills administered by pharmacists with no medical training. The exclusion of “abnormal” people from society yet also the lack of infrastructure to support these outcasts. Other conversations have highlighted how many men have limited access to condoms and have resulted in larger families than expected (one stall holder said his surprise came in the form of triplets!). Another has argued that businesses in Nakuru largely fail because of widespread distrust and dishonesty amongst store holders, meaning in order to survive you have to be a businessman with little, if no, integrity.
Healthcare, extremes of society, contraception and honest work are all things we take for granted, and it has been fascinating to hear from the locals how they manage these shortcomings.
I have built up many new friendships in Nakuru largely thanks to being a mzungu. This has allowed me to understand opposed to simply manage local exchanges. I have gained real incites into the trials and tribulations of the local community.
However nothing compares to the chorus of “mzungu how are you?” from the children of the smaller town of Molo which I have now moved to. We are gawked at, followed by the children as if we had a trail of sweets behind us and laughed at for our Western fashion. I now need to start from scratch again. You don’t get garish and dated jackets in the market for a non-mzungu price just by smiling sweetly you know? And Molo-ians seem a tough crowd.
Written by Maxine Mackintosh, 2013 Fellow