I have a walk-on role in a sitcom every morning just outside my apartment as I stroll past an upscale hotel with a taxi stand.
“Yesss! Taxi,” yell the drivers, who nearly jump out of their shoes when I come into sight, even though I reliably shake my head and say “Si taki,” my best pigeon Swahili for “No, I don’t want.”
My Kenyan neighbours walk through un-heckled, but five months hasn’t changed my role. I’m still the prized white fish they’re trolling for, and not merely Tim, the guy from Canada who lives down the street.
A new security guard started at my apartment this week: “Karibu (Welcome),” he said when we first met, though I’ve lived there since July.
At the curio shop I pass heading home, I’m greeted by “Yesss, karibu!” by the owner, who points inside, as if the dozens of “si takis” I’ve given haven’t established a precedent.
In fact, despite the constant barrage of “karibus” I’ve received over nearly half a year here, I still feel like I’m standing on a well-advertised welcome mat rather than being allowed into the house.
This would be understandable if I were in a closed culture like Japan, or a religious one like Iran. But this is Kenya. The people speak English, swill beer, tell dirty jokes and are even more polite than anally courteous Canadians.
What should be a natural fit somehow isn’t. Unfortunately, it’s my skin and the cultural baggage that comes along with it that are to blame.
People I interact with on appearances, such as taxi drivers, grocery clerks and strangers, can’t help assume I’m just another rich tourist. “We Kenyans have the mentality that all of you white people have a lot of money,” says Protus, a security guard at my apartment who lives, like so many here, in a slum.
As he says this, a young Kenyan drives past in a luxury SUV. I tell him I couldn’t afford the truck but that some Kenyans apparently can. “I think maybe you just don’t like this car,” he responds brusquely, as if I’ve lied.
There’s a word for a white person here — “mzungu” — that’s used more regularly than a Canadian raised believing referring to people by race isn’t right finds comfortable.
Kids point and call you “mzungu.” Your boss calls you “mzungu.” You find yourself using “mzungu” to refer to other white people.
What “mzungu” means has never been translated for me, though the consensus is that I shouldn’t be offended. Still, the way it’s constantly thrown out — “Hey, MZUNGU!” — powerfully reaffirms I’m a white outsider, not a resident.
To most, mzungu means money.
At work this doesn’t apply. There, the daily Swahili routine of “karibus,” is preceded by questions of how you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve been up to. People even call you by name.
Step back amongst the masses, though, and your identity disappears and your whiteness shines. The irony is underlined as you walk down the street hearing “karibu” and “mzungu” in the same breath.
We whiteys bring it upon ourselves, to be fair. My biggest contribution to cross-cultural relations here would be installing fashion police at the Nairobi airport. “No Tilley hats allowed, sir. You’re here to look at lions, not shoot them. Do the rest of us a favour.”
Still, what surprises me most is that this subtle feeling of being apart from people you fit with is harder to take than truly feeling different.
Travelling through Asia, I struggled to hear a simple hello in tonal languages or order a bowl of noodles. There, I knew I was different.
Here, I can make small talk in Swahili and even crack jokes, but through my skin, I’m branded a “mzungu.” People approach me with a set of preconceptions, usually that I’m rich and a bit dainty, even though we can still be friends.
It’s hard to feel put out by this when you consider how Africans treat one another. A friend from Nairobi was in Tanzania for work last week and had his passport was seized for four days: Kenyans are seen as thieves.
Me? I get a “Karibu” in both countries.
This all makes me ponder just how truly welcoming Canada’s multicultural society is to its many foreign immigrants.
Are we, the majority, opening our doors and genuinely including new people in Canada? Or are we telling them they’re “welcome” as we huddle with those of our own kind, be it race or class?
Sure, we don’t call people by race, like Kenyans, but our inner thoughts aren’t broadcast, either.
Some outsiders are fully satisfied with Kenya’s superficial karibu culture because, in the end, it’s warmer than where they’re from.
Kevin, a 33-year-old Christian I met recently told me his two-month stay has swayed him to uproot his life as a Wal-Mart employee in Texas. He’s going to buy land, marry a Kenyan woman and become a preacher, he says.
With his pudgy build, baseball cap and glasses, he looks like a mini Michael Moore as he tells me he’s willing to give up his United States citizenship to live here. “If I can never go back to the States, oh well,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.
Tim Querengesser is a former Yukon News reporter now writing in Kenya.