Mary Walker: Anything but black and white

In East Africa, ‘mzungu’ is not a straightforward concept

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Mary Walker

If you go

What: Screening of the documentary “Escape: Female Genital Mutilation and Child Marriage in Kenya”

When: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Library Hall at Bud Werner Memorial Library

Cost: Suggested donation is $10 and a piece of used jewelry as a Christmas gift for a girl at Tasaru

Details: The documentary was filmed at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya. The screening will be followed by a Q-and-A session with Mary Walker. Call Mary at 970-879-3810.

Editor’s note: Clark resident Mary Walker volunteers at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya. The center was built in 2002 and provides a safehouse for Maasai girls who have escaped or been rescued from female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage. Walker’s updates from Kenya appear periodically in the Steamboat Today.

Swahili, the “trade” language throughout much of East Africa, is not a uniform language. Under what circumstances it is used and how it is spoken varies widely throughout Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Most East Africans think that the Swahili spoken by Tanzanians is the “proper” form, and it is this form that is presented on the nightly Swahili newscast on Kenyan television. In Kenya, Swahili is the language shared by most of the population, though English is the official language here — a direct consequence of Kenya’s English colonial history. English and Swahili are taught as compulsory subjects in each year of primary and secondary school in Kenya.

Everyone in Kenya also speaks their “mother tongue,” the tribal language of their mothers and/or fathers. So it is not uncommon for an educated Kenyan to speak four languages fluently if their mother and father come from different tribes (say, Kikuyu and Maasai). There is even one girl at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre who is studying French, though it is unusual for Kenyan secondary schools to offer additional language training beyond English and Swahili.

So, communication in Kenya is a very interesting interaction. Depending on the topic, the social/political setting, the ethnicity of the participants, and even the level of emotion of the interaction, people speaking to one another can move between several languages all within one interaction.

The Swahili word “mzungu” is an interesting one. In Kenya, it usually translates roughly as “white person.” When I hear someone say “mzungu,” I always know that I am being referenced, whether in a restaurant in Nairobi, on the street in Narok, or by children in rural Kenya. Pretty straightforward, right?

But the word mzungu is anything but straightforward in actual usage in Kenya. It gets really fascinating when a black Kenyan wants to reference someone of Indian descent (of which there are many in Kenya; they built the railroads in East Africa at the turn of the century), Muslims, white Kenyans (born and raised), or Japanese tourists. Then, the word mzungu takes on a more nuanced meaning — sometimes it can mean a “non-black” or sometimes it means “non-African.” But as anyone who has visited East Africa knows, Muslims there are not “non-black.” Hmm …

While I was at the rescue center in August, a Peace Corps volunteer working near Narok tracked me down and came to Tasaru for lunch. Leading up to her visit, I purposefully did not tell the girls that Meghan was a black American because I wanted to see how/whether they considered her to be a mzungu. The girls at the rescue center have asked me before whether Beyonce is an African or a mzungu. Technically, Beyonce is both an African and a mzungu (i.e., she’s not from Africa), but according to actual usage in Kenya, one can’t be both. I knew the girls were in for a nice dose of cognitive dissonance.

The girls agreed that Meghan was a mzungu. But I haven’t met a Kenyan who didn’t claim Barack Obama as a fellow African. Telling the girls that Meghan’s ancestors were undoubtedly slaves from Africa, and that her skin color matched theirs, didn’t change their minds. I’ve decided that the best definition for mzungu is “not like me/us.”

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