Being a white person here in Kenya has its ups and downs. On the up side, everyone seems to want to be your friend. On the down side, many people try to rip you off, you can never truly blend in and people stare at you everywhere you go…

But if you can get past the few less-than-awesome parts about it, being a minority for a change is a truly enriching experience!

So, to help you get the most out of your cross-cultural immersion, I have created a few simple tips and tricks for thriving as an mzungu (white person) in Kenya. They’ve worked for me, now they can work for you!

Tip #1: Get used to the staring

The first few times I was stared at in Kenya, it was a truly unsettling experience. I could feel the eyes of people following my every move. Kids would watch me eat. I couldn’t trip or stumble without a chorus of laughter erupting behind me.

It doesn't seem to matter where you go.  There's always someone staring at you...

It doesn't seem to matter where you go. There's always someone staring at you...

For a while, it was all I could do not to yell out, “What are you staring at???” to the people I passed by each day. Thankfully, my overwhelming fear of ending sentences with prepositions kept me from such an outburst (“At what are you staring?” just doesn’t have the same bite).

Over time, however, I began to realize that the stares were simply a part of life here. Staring is considered an appropriate means of gathering information. And with strange mzungus, there’s plenty of information to gather!

Your best bet is to simply get used to it. And to reflect again and again on why your mother taught you never to stare…

Tip #2: Surprise them with Swahili

As we’ve mentioned several times before, being white in Kibera means that kids come running from all around to ask how you’re doing. “How are you? How are you? How are you?” Even the toddlers who can barely speak will give it their best shot. “Har-ar oo?”

Kids come running when they see an mzungu...

Kids come running when they see an mzungu...

As cute as it is, the chanting does tend to get a bit old after 4 weeks in the slum. But bottling your annoyance and finally erupting into a tirade of “HOW ARE YOU??? Huh? You like it when I ask YOU that question? Yeah! HOW ARE YOU!?!?” isn’t really an option. : )

The best solution that I’ve found is to throw them off with the deft application of Swahili. One little word is enough to send many kids into a tizzy. The word? “Poa.”

“Poa” is Swahili slang for “cool.” Instead of answering “fine” when they ask “How are you?”, I simply say “poa,” and they look at each other with complete bewilderment.

Once, my use of the word “poa” actually prompted a debate between two school girls as to whether I was really an mzungu!

“Eh! Si mzungu.” He’s not an mzungu.

Ni mzungu! Angalia ngozi yake.” He is an mzungu! Look at his skin.

“Lakini, wazungu hawezi sema poa!” But Mzungus don’t say poa!

Works every time…

Tip #3: Don’t jump to conclusions

Looking (and acting) like such an outsider, it’s easy to misunderstand what’s going on. The key thing to remember is not to jump to conclusions!

For example, during my year in Kenya in ’05, I spent a few months living in an apartment near a small slum. Every day I would walk past the entrance to the slum and kids would come running.

One of many children baffled by this strange white man with the hairy arms...

One of many children baffled by this strange white man with the hairy arms...

Some days the kids would want me to chase them, other times we kicked a soccer ball, but more often than not, they would simply run up and rub my arm hair.

Not going to lie. It was a little strange. Especially because as they did this, they would look into my eyes with a reverent gaze and chant “Malaika… malaika… malaika…” in hushed tones.

After this had happened a few times, I began to wonder what mystical significance lay in this word. I asked one of my fellow interns what “malaika” meant in Swahili.

“It means angel.” he said.

“Woah.” I thought. “They think I’m an angel? Just because my skin is white? What does that say about their exposure to Western culture? What does that say about my presence in their lives? How should I respond to such a…”

“It also means arm hair.” he continued.

“Oh.” I replied. “Right. Thanks. Good to know… Good to know.”

As you can see, it’s better to find out what’s really going on before you jump to conclusions.

Tip #4: Use what you have

Being white can definitely be a distraction when you are in a place like Kibera slum, but there are a few places in Nairobi where it can actually come in handy.

If I just pretend to be <i>these</i> guys, I can sneak into any nice hotel.  Now, if only I had one of those hats...

If I just pretend to be one of these guys, I can sneak into any nice hotel. Now, if only I had one of those hats...

For example, when I’m downtown and need to use the restroom, I like to sneak into five star hotels.

The trick? Act like an American tourist.

First of all, I drop the pseudo-Kenyan accent that I’ve picked up in favor of a loud, midwestern lilt. I mispronounce Swahili words like “Jambo!” (which Kenyans don’t even use, by the way) and ask for things like the “bathroom” (toilet) and the “second floor” (first floor).

Next, I walk and carry myself like a tourist. I take big bouncy steps, I stare at all the tall buildings and act completely oblivious to everything around me…

If I pull it off correctly, the hotel’s security guards always assume that I am simply a guest and don’t blink an eye when I head into their exquisite marble-lined bathrooms.

Overkill? Yes. But it definitely beats paying 10 shillings to use a smelly public hole in the ground!

Tip #5: Learn something

Of course, as I mentioned at the beginning of the article, being a minority for a change is honestly a valuable experience. And even though it really can be frustrating, it can also teach you a lot.

I may not fit in, but at least I can pretend!

I may not fit in, but at least I can pretend!

Instead of getting annoyed when people ask me for money, I now try to reflect on why they think I’m rich. Well, let’s see… I carry around a big, expensive camera, I have thousand shilling bills in my pocket and I somehow got myself on a plane that flew me half-way around the world for $1500. Even though I’m a poor, 20 something bachelor in the States, when I come to Kenya I really am wealthy!

Also, instead of rolling my eyes at all the stares, I now try to empathize with minority groups back home. How many times have I stared at someone who looked out of place in my community? Even though the situation is not exactly the same, I now feel much more aware of my own prejudices and stereotypes.

With the right attitude, I believe that any mzungu can survive the stares in Kenya and walk away a changed person.

Tip #6: Laugh!

Just don’t forget the most important tip of all: laugh at yourself a lot! Because, believe me… being an mzungu in Kenya can be pretty hilarious.

That is, if you’re able to survive all the stares…

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About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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Comments

  1. Aaron Elliott said... 

    Reply

    July 31st, 2009 at 10:28 am  

    Love the post Barry. Hope you can survive another week of stared before heading home!

  2. Aaron Elliott said... 

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    July 31st, 2009 at 10:29 am  

    Stares. I mean stares. “AT WHAT ARE YOU STARING?”
    Classic.

  3. Dave Rod said... 

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    July 31st, 2009 at 11:30 am  

    So you and the little dudes in the picture above…

    Is that the new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? The new Fantastic 5?

    It’s good to get even more perspective on where you are at.

  4. Sharon said... 

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    July 31st, 2009 at 12:44 pm  

    I see your dad doesn’t have the same fear of dangling prepositions! :-)

    Great article, Barry. Growing up as a tall, white girl among tiny, brown Filipinos, I remember well the staring and the touching–for me it was my blond hair.

    I love the “mzungu or not” argument. I think all your travels have made you a kind of cultural chameleon–with hairy arms.

  5. Zeta said... 

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    July 31st, 2009 at 4:33 pm  

    Ah, the stares. When I went to meet my husband’s family the first time – I am white, he is from Chad – I certainly attracted a lot of attention. But do you know who got the most attention. Our bi-racial 11 month old son. (Several times I was referred to as the nun with a baby as they had never seen a white woman who was not a nun before).

    No one had ever seen a mixed race child. Some of the children called him a black-white baby. Children on the streets would pick up smaller children to look in the car at him, etc. He was too young to realize what was going on, but we are hoping to go back again, and he is now 4 1/2 and has 2 younger brothers. I wonder what the reaction will be this time?

  6. Beth said... 

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    August 1st, 2009 at 10:51 am  

    I spent a year in Japan and while the economic gap was not as much of an issue as it is in Kenya, I can totally relate to all of the stares, the touching and other general awkwardness that comes with being one of the few Westerners with white skin in a foreign country. I think I would rather be associated with the rich stereotype than the one that all Americans own a gun, the most common stereotype held by the Japanese. Either way, I love the arm hair story. I am a friend of Jessica Shewan’s so send her my love if you can!

  7. Cassie said... 

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    August 1st, 2009 at 11:17 am  

    Love it…I don’t have any cool stories to share but I still liked the article :)

  8. Amy Sorrells said... 

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    August 2nd, 2009 at 8:47 pm  

    I’m with your Dad. Love you and the little dudes. I’m thinking Fantastic 5 . . . or some kind of secret Jedi order. My boys would fit right in. Love the hairy arm thing too. Definitely a more humbling (and hilarious) interpretation! I’m also left wondering if I look like a tourist in my hometown, since I’ve often been accused of being “completely oblivious to everything around me.” It’s a gift, I tell you. A gift.

  9. Rob Yonan said... 

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    August 3rd, 2009 at 9:52 pm  

    okay, so if i rub your arm hair will it be weird? i too wonder how often i stare subconsciously. on the other hand, i wonder how often i over do it when trying to help the minority in the crowd feel comfortable (of course that could be my wife at my family Christmas, but that’s another story).

  10. Pat Pfeifer said... 

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    August 4th, 2009 at 11:44 am  

    I’m loving all the stories you guys are sharing! They are well written and thought provoking. I’m gaining insights and learning lessons. Thanks!

  11. rose obunaga said... 

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    September 23rd, 2009 at 12:53 pm  

    I love those stories from Kenya. Its my home country and the stories make me remember home.

  12. Breanna Sipple said... 

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    February 17th, 2011 at 12:01 pm  

    This great, I like your perspective and thanks for the tips. Thanks for further encouraging my dorkiness by providing me with new vocabulary; next time one of my friends ask me “How are you?” I’m going to answer “Poa!” (Haha, yeah, I know they won’t get it…but then maybe I can share a little of this story).

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