On Being Exotic

MZUNGU has followed me for my time here in Kenya and every other time I’ve lived in East Africa. It comes in the form of high-pitched screams trailing their Doppler effect through my car window as I drive past a group of schoolchildren, in the form of a deep and demanding voice accompanied by an expectant stare from a man walking by on the street, in the form of idle chat from older women twittering amongst themselves “that MZUNGU should…”, “ask the MZUNGU for…” while I’m standing right next to them understanding every word of Swahili they’re speaking (and they know it). Though it is a noun, meaning “foreigner”, or more frequently, “white person”, the word MZUNGU is so often spoken as a command. MZUNGU as a command means I never have to guess what’s coming next- “Give me a sweet.” “Give me your money.” “Give me your car.” “Give me some food.” From poor to upper middle class, young and old, almost everyone I’ve met here in East Africa has mastered the MZUNGU command and all of the stereotypes living within it.

As a POC student from a lower socioeconomic background branded MZUNGU, I face a number of unique challenges and experiences which resound with me and, frankly, exhaust me each day. Some of these are minor things: being charged double, triple, or 8x the price when buying vegetables or trying to catch a quick lift around town; having crowds of “MZUNGU”-screaming people shove their heads into the doorway to try and catch a glance of the MZUNGU while I’m getting a routine haircut; innocently complimenting someone on their bracelet and that person offering to sell it to me for an exorbitant price (happens every time!); using some Swahili in casual conversation and hearing a nearby stranger exclaim in complete shock that the MZUNGU isn’t speaking “Kizungu”, a colloquial term for English. Other things are more complicated or frustrating: having village chiefs I’ve just met refer to me as “madame” which is a sign of money, status, and higher hierarchy; as a result having my community member research participants look to me for monetary and other gifts (an expectation which not only can I not provide but also may affect my research results) unless explicitly warned ahead of time that I am just a student without extra money; having people I work with talk behind my back about how “that MZUNGU should give us her money”; having people I meet seem completely taken aback when I won’t just give them various things of mine for free (anything from writing pens to my car); strangers insisting on taking photographs with me the moment they meet me, even as I’m insisting “no”; people of all ages and backgrounds following me for blocks on the street and grabbing at my clothes and hands, either to ask me for things or simply to touch me because my skin is a lighter shade of brown; having an acquaintance insist publicly that I take everyone out and treat them to food and drinks at an expensive hotel that even I cannot in my wildest dreams afford, “because you have money of course”. Just recently I was asking a Chief if she knew of a hotel room I could stay in within the village and much to my initial confusion she burst out laughing and said “not for someone of your class” which, since we had just met 5 minutes before, was a reference simply to my skin color. Meanwhile I am in severe debt and many of these people have steady jobs and some semblance of wealth, my knowledge of which makes such interactions with these particular people seem to be a little twist of the knife.

When I ask my Kenyan friends why these things happen, the closest I’ve gotten to an explanation is that in the past, when white missionaries first flooded East Africa, they would hand out gifts and money to convince mass amounts of people to convert to Christianity and attend churches, and that largely because of this and the mainstream media, all foreigners are lumped in with white people and their history here as money-givers. Even today in Kenya, while a regular foreign work permit costs a person thousands of dollars per year, a missionary permit is a mere $50 per year. The MZUNGU is seen and taught to children not only as a source of ever-flowing money, but also a status symbol- hence the insistence on photos. In the words of so many people I’ve met, “The way people see it, the MZUNGU has lots of extra money, so let me help him by taking some off his hands.” Many of my Kenyan friends have been incredulous or utterly shocked to learn about class divides and homelessness in the USA. It is just not what most people learn about us.

My being a POC makes these MZUNGU interactions hold more weight over me than I presume they would otherwise. In the USA, my birthplace and home, I also stand out. Being called “exotic” by white people, having them touch my curly hair without asking, and having people cock their heads and gaze curiously while asking that awful question – “What are you?” – have always been frequent occurrences in my life at home. Growing up as Halfrican, I was never Black enough and never white enough to those around me, and thus found myself in the minority of people who frequently feel unwed to any culture or group- a philosophy which can be both eye-opening… and lonely. Being called a white person (implicitly, via “MZUNGU“, and explicitly, via “you and those other whites…” or “you whites really like…”) while possessing an ethnic history and emotional self-perception of non-whiteness, and having gone through (and still going through) a journey of otherness as a mixed person, instills in me a defiance and an exhaustion with yet again being labeled “other”. It robs me, just a little, of the utter joy I feel whenever I first re-arrive in East Africa and am refreshingly in a country dominated by Blackness. For many people that I meet, I cannot first be seen as a person. I am first seen as an other, and simultaneously as a basket of money, walking on two legs. Rather than having a simple and natural first interaction, I must steel myself, stay calm, and immediately begin the subtle work of undoing the person’s perceptions of me. I do this work- deftly countering the MZUNGUs and the “madame”s with my name (I have a name!) and my story- because only then can I be seen without the MZUNGU filter, and begin a meaningful relationship with that person. When I’m not completely exhausted, I maintain my humor about these situations by making MZUNGU into little jokes with myself- such as saying in Swahili to MZUNGU-screaming kids: “Where is he? I don’t see him!?”, or in response to “Give me sweets!”: “Oh, you’re going to give me sweets? That’s so nice, thank you!” – then there is laughter and for a moment MZUNGU doesn’t seem like such a heavy weight.

By this time you’ve probably noticed my textual portrayal of the word MZUNGU in this post. The way I’ve written it here is the way it feels to me each day, whether it is shouted, snickered, whispered, or implied. It is almost always present, knocking on the back of my eyes like a bright light shined directly in.

I sometimes wonder what a country of fellow Halfricans would be like- would I finally lose my feeling of otherness? Would this just be because we’ve all shared these same experiences at home and when traveling to places we initially and mistakenly think we might feel more belonging? I don’t know. What I do know is that my East African friends and I are doing the quiet work of breaking down these walls, and for that I am grateful. My blessings while living here far exceed the emotional weight and exhaustion I sometimes carry from interactions with people who hold preconceptions. Though I will never know where my enslaved ancestors arrived from so long ago, for so many reasons Kenya will always feel like a home to me.

a baby Halfrican and her grandmother

2 thoughts on “On Being Exotic”

  1. I’m so sorry my friend, this sounds so painful to go through on a regular basis. I faced only a small amount of this when visiting my family in the Philippines. To be constantly “othered”, assumed to be wealthy, asked for constant gifts was something I was completely unprepared for as a poor college student there. I’m more steeled to it now, but I’m also actually more in a position of privilege where I can actually help.

    There are no easy answers. But I feel for you and admire your work, your passion, and your willingness to be vulnerable.


  2. Keep on with your quiet work of breaking down the walls. Your passion and dedication is wonderful. I’m sure that you are making a difference and that is priceless. Hang in there! And when you are in town, come by so we can give you a big hug! Love you!


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