Thursday, March 4

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: White

I took the Pathways class my freshman year. I realized it was a mistake maybe the second week in. It was like extending orientation weekend through an entire semester. An hour a week we would devote to learning the history of the university, the details of class registration, Spokane's public bus system. Anyone who had been led on a tour by an ambassador or bothered to read the student handbook or had the minimal spirit of adventure necessary to go beyond the campus confines and into downtown didn't need the class.

And somehow it ended up being one of the most important classes I took at Gonzaga. Funny how that works. It's where I met Sima Thorpe, my thesis adviser and source of more than a few articles for The Bulletin, and Bob Bartlett, then director of Unity House. It was home to the Black Student Union, Filipino American Student Union, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Club, La Raza, Helping Educate Regarding Orientation and all the other groups that brought together those who didn't totally match with the typical Gonzaga student profile of white, straight, Christian, upper-middle class.

Once a month or so I would visit Mr. Bartlett, and we'd talk. He was absolutely fascinated that I came from the Midwest. He told me about his one visit to Green Bay and how his car doors froze shut during the night and how everyone else plugged their cars in to keep them warm. Mostly, though, we talked about race. It sounds crass. He was black, and we spent most our time talking about the difference between white and black and yellow and brown and red and every other color people come in. I have no excuse. Baudette was really white. When I left there were one and a half Filipino families, maybe one black family and some people with American Indian blood. It was so white that the people with Italian blood stuck out. He was the first person I can recall meeting who thought race mattered. It interested me.

Now I live those conversations, have some greater understanding of what he was talking about. You could say I already had a taste in Jakarta, but I don't. I was there for a month. I was a tourist as much as anything else. Racial differences felt more quaint to me because I only knew them for such a short time. I've been in Kenya nearly eight months now. It's different.

So far as I can tell, whites fall into two categories for the vast majority of Kenyans: curiosities and marks. This country is replete with curio shops. They stock the sorts of things like carved soapstone hippos and checkered Maasai blankets that visitors find charmingly exotic. For a fair portion of the population and most all of the children, it's the white visitors that are the charmingly exotic. Kids will jump up and down and spin around and shout "Mzungu! Mzungu!" I've never understood why they think we understand and will look. Honestly it was a good month before I began to notice people shouted after me when I past. For those with a year or two of school, they'll practice their English and shout "How are you?" Those whose teachers have not been as dedicated pronounce it "Ow r ooh?" Those who are excited and whose teachers have not been as dedicated run it all into one word. "Owrooh?" I sometimes wonder how the Germans and French and Italians feel about that. Calling back and waving does nothing. They don't know enough English to reply and are too wound up to stop.

The really intrepid will run forward to try to shake my hand or even touch my arm. My arms are especially fascinating to them. Turns out that East Africans have a terrible time growing hair anywhere that is not on the top of their head. Even the kids at the center who have known and lived with whites for years can spend a good ten minutes just stroking my arms. Some of the staff even asked permission once. A minute later, they said I was like a pig with hair all over my body but softer.

This all mostly happens in the streets of Githima, the poorer neighborhood on Nakuru's western outskirts. It's quieter, at least, in the city proper. Then the kids only stare. A fellow director tried to tell us that the same thing would happen if he were to visit America. I laughed in his face. I told him any white mother who caught her white child staring at a black man would slap her kid around straight away and tell them to stop being racist. Doesn't happen in Kenya. Here the mothers tell their kids to ask the wazungu "How are you?"

After Kenyans have seen their fair share of wazungu, visitors almost invariably become marks. To be white here is the equivalent of walking the streets of an American city in an Armani suit, an Omega watch and gold-rimmed glasses. You are someone with a lot of money who should be encouraged in every manner possible to part with it. There are the more malignant forms of this where street children will follow me, asking for five shillings, asking for bread, for well over a block, or where parents and guardians look to unload their children on me. Then there are the softer versions. At the courthouse last month, a woman pulled me into a backroom to tell me someone had a message for me. He wanted my support for his NGO assisting disabled children. At a school meeting last fall the teacher told all the students that they should work hard and be good students so they would find a white sponsor like our child had. I'm not counting the more general cheating of kicking up the prices for whites on everything from leather shoes to roof renovations. They're businessmen. I figure they do the same to their fellow Kenyans as often as possible.

So many of them assume that we have money and power and are overflowing with the urge to help. The thing is, they're right. We do have them, at least the first two. My monthly stipend here is 160 American dollars, hardly enough to even eat in the States, much less rent a room or pay for utilities. In Githima it's more than enough to keep a place and eat well and still have a little extra. Could probably keep a whole family happy on that money. The exchange rate is strong. A dollar is enough for a complete meal. Twenty dollars is enough to keep the landlord happy. Our money goes a long way, but it's more than that. On no less than three occasions Kenyans whom I had never before met walked up to me on the street and asked me to sponsor their visa to America. Even where we come from has power if we don't think we have the money to spare.

Individually, we can do a lot to help. If we choose to. And I choose not to. I'm here to manage an orphanage for over one hundred children. I'm already doing my part and more. I won't say it's thankless. People from the States often tell that they're impressed by what I'm doing, how meaningful it is and how good. Here, people just keep asking for more. Give me money. Buy me food. Give me a job. Take my kid. It's exhausting. Walking through Githima, I just want to keep my middle fingers up and yell "Hey, darky!" when they shout "Mzungu!" It's not even a slur. Kenyans I'm friends with call me mzungu. It just means white, but it's certainly annoying when I hear it shouted every two minutes. I'm not asking them to be nice. They just need to stop paying attention to me and treat me like anyone else.

Not that there aren't advantages to being white. We're treated better generally. Our former security company very nearly cursed out a black director when the twenty-four thousand shillings for their services wasn't immediately ready. When Demetra and I spoke with them, they had no problem with our monthly payment being a little late. We can go everywhere, too. Security doesn't stop me when I walk into Nakuru's nicest hotels in flip-flops, shorts and dirty T-shirt. I'm white. I dress like most every other tourist. They assume I belong.

Mr. Bartlett once told me, probably in response to some stupid question along the lines of "Why do blacks stay in their own groups and not integrate?" that I would do the same thing if I were the minority. He told me about a friend who did service alone in Mexico for a month or so. A week or two in, he was playing pick-up basketball and felt relieved to find another white and immediately struck up a conversation. Mr. Bartlett explained that it was natural to gravitate toward your own kind. It meant you had something in common. It's not natural for me. As a major stop on most safaris, it's common enough to see whites in town. I don't even make eye contact with them, let alone say "Hello." It's a very conscious decision. I'm not that friendly of a person in the first place, but I actively remind myself not to look when passing whites in Kenya. I'm already enough of an outsider. I don't need to be associating myself with visitors to mark myself out any further.

After all this, my thoughts on race remain mostly the same. It shouldn't matter. Skin color only suggests things about our backgrounds and cultures and is leagues away from definitive. An American Indian kid can be raised by Mormon parents and not know whether he's Apache or Algonquin but know Smith's book back and forth. Some Latino kid could just as easily be from a suburb as the inner city. I may very well have more in common with a middle-class Hmong than a white with a trust fund. In entire populations, intelligence and physical abilities and the like differ, but they're only averages and disappear in the individuals. Race only means as much as we allow it to. It can mean everything. It doesn't have to mean anything. It's just a color. The United States is a special case. Those blacks who come from the history of slavery don't know their tribe or nation. Their heritage is largely based on the color of their skin.

In the meantime, race still does matter, and all we can do is our best to muddle through and not be jerks to each other.

1 comment:

peterchristensen said...

Brilliant post Chris. I very much enjoyed it, and I think you have the right attitude. Obviously you and I had nearly identical upbringings in dealing with race since we came from the same town. I never quite realized how so many people from small towns like Baudette are ignorant about race until my brother was being called "a thug" by a few different people that had similar backgrounds to you and I. Luke and I both have always loved basketball, and have related to the hip-hop, basketball culture, despite being from such a white town. Luke has embraced this even more than me, and since he played some college basketball, he was even more into it, and now has many black friends. But I can't tell you how offended I was when they called Luke a thug. My brother isn't a crook. He's not a member of a gang. He doesn't even fit the 2Pac definition of a thug, which is basically someone who grew up in the inner city with disadvantaged circumstances. But they took the way he dressed (like a basketball player) and thought that meant he was a thug. So what were they suggesting? I hate to play the race card, but I think they thought he was acting "black", and thus he must be a "thug". So what does that say about what they think about blacks? Now maybe I'm way off here, but that's what I saw. So, why does someone dressing like a basketball player and taking an interest in hip-hop mean that you're being black? Can't we, as white kids, like those things too? That's my take on it.