Silly Mzungus

Kenya, Volunteering & Giving Back — By on October 22, 2006 at 5:29 am

When you’re an obvious stranger in a strange land, or in our case, a bustling pastoral community in Western Kenya, it’s bound to attract some attention – particularly if you’re of the paler skinned variety as we are. Every time we venture outside the borders of our volunteer farm compound to head into the ‘booming metropolis’ of Kiminini, we’re innocently reminded what very different and genuinely intriguing creatures we are.

Before barely stepping a baby toe onto the mud caked roads, we’re barraged with shouts of “Mzungu, mzungu!” (which means white person in a non-derogatory way)” and “How are you?” (the onlookers whose English is limited to this one phrase are especially enthusiastic to repeat it over and over again), to which we gladly respond with a confident “Mzuri sana” (very well) in our best Swahili accents. As if we weren’t funny enough already, speaking a few native phrases can erupt groups of local kids into fits of giggles and high pitched squeals. Who knew our pastiness could bring such pleasure to the masses? I think Amanda summed it up best when she stated “Well, I guess if I saw a purple person walking down the street, I’d laugh too.” True dat, Pressner!

So we’ve happily embraced our role as the resident entertainers, stopping often to play with our favorite neighborhood cherubs as they follow us down the bumpy dirt streets towards town. Amanda, Holly and I are so amusing that we’re even able to evoke an occasional fit of laughter or raise an inquisitive eyebrow among the 14 female boarders, staff and host family at the farm/school where we’re staying – and they’ve spent plenty of time with overseas visitors like us. Go figure! While we may not be saving the world, we do feel good about supporting this local Kenyan community through our volunteer efforts and, of course, keeping everyone smiling while we’re at it.

Here are just a few of the ‘zany’ habits, ‘crazy’ rituals and ‘wacky’ behavior that often label us as totally hilarious and very silly muzungus:

1. We Run Nowhere: During our down time from volunteering, the girls and I prefer to explore our picturesque surroundings by taking a jog around town (yes, parental units, it is safe). It’s hard not to be inspired when you’re running under a vast aquamarine sky and past sunflower-sprinkled fields, but what really keeps us motivated are the adorable little munchkins who always stop what they’re doing to race along beside us.

And while sometimes they don’t seem to really get what we’re doing or where we’re going, they’re always enthusiast to join, albeit chuckling the entire time. Not only are we helping the neighborhood kids get some exercise, we’re also dispelling some pretty comical myths. Case in point, one girl said that until she saw us, she didn’t think white people could run. When we asked her why, she stated rather matter-of-factly that it just made sense that Americans couldn’t run or otherwise they wouldn’t be so fat. Hmm, she had a point. We’re just so thrilled that our exercise regime not only keeps our love handles at bay but also helps contribute to our nation’s fight against the flab.

2. Our Laundry Skills Are Laughable: As girls who rarely even throw our own clothes into the machine at home (NYC has uber cheap wash and fold service), hand washing our entire wardrobe in front of women who have made scrubbing an art form, tends to stir up a whole lotta laughs. Our volunteer coordinator’s wife, Mama Sandra (women here are often referred to by their first born’s name preceded by Mama), doubled over in hysterics as I gently swished my t-shirts and shorts through one bucket of soapy water then tried to rinse them in a second bucket. “Jennifer, let me do that for you,” she exclaimed, grabbing the remaining dirty garments from my hands.

Thoroughly amused by my wimpy scrubbing technique and pitiful number of buckets (apparently anything less than four is unacceptable), she insisted on taking over. Try as I may to convince her that I really could clean my own clothes, she wouldn’t take no for an answer. After making the argument that my experience in Kenya would be better if I learned to do laundry like a local, she finally gave in and allowed me do half the load myself. Maybe I was just delirious after squatting in the hot sun for so long, but after washing side by side with Mama Sandra for the next hour, I swore I saw nods of approval from passersby. Whoo hoo! If my skills were up to par by Kenyan standards, any other housework I tried from here on out would be a drop in the bucket (oops, I mean many buckets).

3. Bugs Scare Us: While the girls and I have each contended with our fair share of creepy crawlers on the road, our initial reaction tends to stay the same: Step 1: Scream; Step 2: Run in the opposite direction; Step 3: Argue about whose turn it to Doom the creature to death (Doom is a popular brand of hard core bug spray used here). However, after noting the reactions of our Kenyan friends (or rather lack thereof) to our little bug-induced breakdowns, we’ve begun to feel slightly foolish. Every time we bolt for the door in a horrified panic over an approaching roach or spider, our hosts remain calmly rooted in place, their mouths agape and brows furrowed in confusion.
So one day we flat out asked a few of the young boarders what they do if they see an insect in their room. “We do not fear them,” they replied as if quoting a bible passage about battling Satan’s evil spawns. Maybe it was their serene demeanor or the fact that we’ve just gotten used to co-mingling with nature, but over time we’ve successfully revised our initial 3 step program to the following: Step 1: Loudly announce the presence of a scary creature; Step 2: Walk briskly out of the room; Step 3: Use 2x the amount of Doom and pat ourselves on the back for being so brave.

4. We Mash Our Avocados: After spending a few days at Pathfinder (the name of the school/farm where we’re volunteering), we started to notice that the staff would often go M.I.A. for hours on end and seen only entering and exiting small, dimly lit huts at the end of the property. We soon realized that the dark, smoky rooms were actually the food prep area and kitchen where they worked. With only a wood burning fire and huge steel cauldrons of well water to work with, they practically had to spend the entire day cooking in order to get lunch and dinner on the table for everyone.

Back in Manhattan, we considered it a crisis if our Chinese delivery order took more than ½ hour, but living here quickly jolted our perspective back to reality. We couldn’t in good conscience continue to have our meals served to us on a silver (tin) platter without pitching in to help. So in addition to rolling chapatti dough or offering to assist any way we could, we insisted that the entire staff take a night off and so that us volunteers could prepare a meal for them. Delighted at the prospect of sampling an authentic western meal, the director (Joshua) agreed to let me, Amanda, Holly and Irene (our fellow volunteer and honorary Lost Girl) plan the complete dinner menu for the upcoming Saturday. With an ocean between us and Taco Bell coupled with our ability to score bundles of avocados at the local market for mere pennies (one in NYC costs $2), our mission was clear – introduce the good people of Pathfinder to the beauty of guacamole!

Working with the limited food offered at the grocery store, the girls and I devised our plan: thinner chapattis would double as tortillas, kidney beans and rice would serve as burrito filling, sweet plantains, cinnamon and sugar would make a yummy dessert and tomatoes, onions, avocados, chili sauce and limes could easily be combined to create both salsa and guac. We might as well have been speaking pig Latin by the looks on everyone’s faces as we tried to explain why we were mashing up the avocadoes. Mama Sandra and the cooks giggled nervously as we chopped and blended everything together in the bowl. “Just wait and see,” we said. “You all are going to love guacamole.” The fact that their four guests were cooking in the first place seemed to be funny enough to them, but the introduction of all these strange new dishes was just too hilarious for them to handle.

After demonstrating our burrito rolling techniques and explaining that the salsa and guacamole was there for dipping and topping purposes, we had satisfactorily prepared them for their first Tex Mex experience. Luckily, their apprehension turned to exhilaration after just one bite. Mama Sandra practically fell off her chair she was so excited and the cooks’ mouths widened in delight as they helped themselves to a second and third burrito. The girls and I breathed a sigh of relief – – mission accomplished. Not only had we given the hard working staff a much needed break, we forever changed the way they’d look at avocados. What more could a mzungu ask for?

5. We Braid Our Own Hair: The 14 young boarders at the school are not only some of the most amazing girls we’ve ever met (most have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDs and they still maintain a positive outlook on life), they never cease to put a smile on our faces or remind us how absolutely hilarious they think we are. Whether it’s the way we run awkwardly in long skirts during a ball game, (we’ve always competed in shorts or pants), our uncanny ability to shake our booties like Shakira during daily dance classes or our fabulously stylish headlamps, we never cease to amuse our star pupils. And usually they’re content to simply observe our strange customs and silly behavior without running interference. That is, except when it comes to one very important daily grooming ritual – our hair care. Since it is a cultural norm for them to have their do’s styled by someone else, they refuse to let us fix our own coifs when in their presence. Particularly when we try to braid our own hair, which is just plain ridiculous! They know they can do a much better job and they absolutely do.

Quite often one of the girls hanging out in our hut will grab a handful of strands and go to town, pulling and twisting pieces into small, tight braids. Before we know it, there are three or four different girls working on our heads. And while they sometimes get perplexed over the fact that our hair won’t stay put on its own, they’re more than happy to just put braids in, take them out and put them back in again. Of course, like most women, we love to have our hair played with, so we gladly soak up the attention and kindly offer to lie down on the bed while they work on beautifying us. In return, we let them hide out in our room to watch movies, listen to music on our iPods or play with our computers, all of which are huge treats for them. These small acts of friendship might not sound very earth shattering to an outsider, but the bonds we’ve built over our time here with these amazing girls have meant the world to us. And so it seems from their constant giggles and laughter, it has to them too.

6. We Can Carry Things Are Our Heads Too: After a full day of visiting neighbors, running errands in the closest ‘big’ city, getting drenched by the daily rain storm and squishing onto a rusty matatu with 25 other passengers (the max capacity is 14) to head back to Kiminini, the last thing we wanted to do was cart the hundred pounds of groceries we had just purchased all the way down the muddy roads back to our farm. But with a lack of transportation options and a stubborn impatience to just keep going so we could get home already, we slung the wet plastic shopping bags over our shoulders and trudged ahead down the slippery streets. Maybe it was the sympathetic looks we were getting from the villagers or the realization that we all just needed to laugh or else we’d cry, but all of a sudden Holly, Amanda, Irene and I were hit with a wave of giddiness.

And what started as a silly challenge to see if we could balance our heavy loads on our heads like the locals, soon turned into a hilarious spectacle. After a few shaky starts, we managed to successfully walk with everything from jugs of water to sacks of flour resting gently on the tops of our heads. As if we weren’t laughing hard enough at ourselves already, everyone who passed us either chuckled to themselves or shook their heads in disbelief. One small boy innocently inquired “what is wrong with you?” after running over with his group of friends to walk with us. Good question. Well, despite being covered from head to toe with orange sludge, dripping wet and shaking under the weight of our bags, nothing was wrong with us. In fact, we were having the time of our lives just hanging out in the middle of Africa with only ourselves to entertain us.

So despite our inability to blend, our new Kenyan friends continually dole out praise for our enthusiastic efforts to fit in with their culture (one gentlemen told our volunteer coordinator that we are very good mzungus because we wear long skirts). Honestly, it’s the least we can do as we know we’ll never really understand what it’s like to walk a mile in a Kenyan’s shoes. But in the meantime, we can travel down the road beside them-even with extra weight on our heads.

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  • yulia says:

    Oh these girls, what an experience..

    Btw, thx for let my blo rent your space here and wait for yur back link 🙂

    Keep blogging girls…

  • Airhead says:

    What an amazing experience!

  • Dellie says:

    This was an amazing blog entry that really put a smile on my face. You girls are funny and sweet. Your travels to different countries,how you react to the people and how they react to you should be a TV series….Three hip NY gals scrubbing their REI duds in outdoor scrub buckets in Africa….picture Carrie Bradshaw…reality touched with humor

  • Mick Gordon says:

    So interesting to hear how other people see us and our strange habits. I am sure with a little reflection it can reveal some really important things about how we live- what matters and what does not. Love the observation about why Americans were not believed capable of running.

  • D,M,O says:

    What happened to the wash-day picture? Can you put it back on?

  • Anonymous says:

    loved the burrito story, that was awesome…

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