“Is that your real hair?”

Wow, I have never felt more like some sort of exotic circus animal than in the last few hours. It was one of the funniest things that have ever happened to me.

I spent an afternoon in a small village not far from Lake Nakuru (I’ll tell you about the national park next time… with pictures, promise!) at an aunt’s place (my hostdad’s eldest sister, if you really care) while the hostdad went to do some politics in the area. I hadn’t been there ten minutes when two girls came in, saw me, started giggling incessantly and sat down on the couch opposite me, whispering to each other in rapid Kikuyu. For a while, we sat in amused and somewhat awkward silence… I was reading something and everytime I looked up at them, they turned their heads away really fast and started laughing again. I smiled encouragingly each time and eventually the younger one dared to smile back at me. With the ice broken, I started asking their names and how old they were – Faith is twelve and the younger one, who I understood was called Meri, is eight. I’m phrasing it this way because her name could have just as well been either Miri or Mary, with their English it was hard to tell. I told them my name and we lapsed back into silence, until after a lot more giggling  and staring, eventually the older one asked: “Is that your hair?”I blinked, not sure what she was asking. “I mean, your real hair?” When I told her it was, more giggling and whispering ensued, and eventually they ventured off their couch over to where I was sitting, so that they could touch my hair.

I’m not sure if they’ve met a “mzungu”, a white person, before, but it seems they definitely haven’t had a chance to touch one, and my hair and skin were utterly fascinating to them. They examined my hands in great detail (I assured them the green nails weren’t natural but a nailpolish, which seemed to reassure them a little bit), all the while chattering in Kikuyu and sometimes Swahili. I understood a word here and there, usually “mzungu”, but I have no idea what exactly their conclusions on my skin and hair were. I’d never before thought of my birthmarks as something extraordinary, but when they found the first one, they were almost unstoppable in looking for as many as they could find. Besides that, the fact that you can see the veins of a white person through their skin seemed to be exciting and scary at the same time.

At some point, I made the “mistake” of getting my camera out to show them the pictures of the park I had just been in, and the few pictures of my family that I had on it. The moment they saw the camera, everything else was forgotten. I spent most of the afternoon taking their pictures, posing so they could take pictures of me, explaining how the camera worked, showing every single picture I took to both of them, giving them the camera so they could take pictures of every poor unsuspecting visitor that walked into the room (and there was quite a steady flow of them!), and, although I tried not to panic, running after them to make sure they didn’t break my beloved camera. I’m not sure whether my mzungu-ness or my camera was the bigger sensation, but I have a feeling that my sudden appearance made their day. I’m also not sure whether I enjoy being the object of constant attention (and a lot of touching!), but those two were so adorable, I couldn’t help but be glad that I entertained them for an afternoon.

Here’s one of the many, many pictures we took:

Meri and Faith

For those of you that are on Facebook, there will be an album soon with a lot more pictures, but I just wanted to give you a little impression of my first real “mzungu” experience… eye-opening, thought-provoking, and definitely funny… I like those kids. I hope they grow up to decent jobs and their own place to live… the younger one doesn’t know how to read yet, and the older one doesn’t read very quickly, but at least it seems that they do go to school, and that’s really the most important thing. I wonder if I’ll see them again…


The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

[Special warning: Long post ahead. Feel free to read part and come back later to finish, but do come back and finish reading cause I’d hate for you to read the Bad and the Ugly and miss the Good! That being said, enjoy.]

I’ve been in Nairobi for ten days now, and while that is obviously not enough time to form a coherent picture of the place or to make any kind of judgment, it might be a good time to sum up some of my first impressions. A good friend told me before I left that I’d experience the good, the bad, and the ugly, and as usual (don’t tell him I said that), he was right. I am in no way saying that the points below are an accurate description of Nairobi, or that a local would agree with me, or even that I am not going to change my mind about things as I get used to the place – but that’s why it’s called first impressions, right?

So, saving the good for last (bring your most weighty arguments towards the end to create the best impact, as every middle and high school teacher I ever had never tired of reminding me)… let’s start with

The Bad.

  • Public transport is confusing as heck, and also somewhat dangerous – both because of high risk of pickpockets and of the way these guys drive. I have yet to experience a matatu (minibuses that are chronically overloaded, sometimes blasting loud music, but are also cheaper and run with a higher frequency than buses) from the inside, but I’ve been almost run over by them several times, because they often, and without warning, drive onto the sidewalk to let someone alight or board the “mat”. A somewhat more adventurous part of me has to admit they do look like they might be fun, so I’ll give them a try sometime soon.
  • While the harassment is nowhere near as bad as it was in South America, a white girl does stand out and receive a certain amount of (mostly) unwanted attention and “tourist treatment”. The best so far was a guy at the market who asked for 4000 Ksh (that’s about 40 Euros!) for  a pair of (admittedly very pretty) earrings that should have cost about a tenth of that price.
  • The air… big city, as far as I’m aware no “clean air” regulations, a lot of cars (and trucks and buses) with rather old engines, and a LOT of traffic means it is hard to breathe any air that doesn’t smell like gasoline and dust. My eyes are often red and itchy just from being outside in the city center.
  • The university is… well… somewhat less efficient and supportive than my university back home. I’ve heard this from every exchange student I spoke to before leaving… once you go abroad, you’ll appreciate how this university works, and it’s true. I have been going back and forth from the university to my house to a copy-shop to a place that takes passport pictures, back to the university, back home, to the bank, back to the university, etc., even though at the time I asked via email, I had been told they had all the documents they needed. There’s no orientation for new students and as of now, no timetables, even though classes are supposed to start on Monday. I asked a student about it and she said my best source of information would be other students, since most of the time, the university won’t really be helpful. So… we’ll see how that goes.

The Ugly.

  • There’s really only one item on this part of the list, but it is ugly. Very ugly. It’s poverty. I’ve travelled before I came here. In South America, I stayed in houses that had walls made of clay and sugarcane trunks with a tin roof that only covered half the kitchen. I stayed in villages that didn’t have electricity or running water, and where the toilet for all villagers consisted of three holes in the ground, a ten-minute walk from the village. So I’m aware that the standard of living I’ve grown up with can’t be taken for granted. I’m aware of how very, very lucky I am to have spent my childhood in a house with a garden, with a road that was safe to play and walk on even after dark, in a place where you can leave the front door unlocked because the chances of burglary are virtually nonexistent. I had running, hot water whenever I wanted and electricity that only ever went out if there was a big storm, maybe. I know how lucky I am to have grown up like this and I’ve seen how different it can be.
    But here, poverty has touched me in a new way. Maybe it’s because the poor and the rich are so very close together. You drive to certain parts of Nairobi, like Karen, and you see huge mansions with elaborate security and armed guards, but on the way, you pass little kiosks on the road side, buildings made of some wood and some tin, that never look quite finished, or like they would really offer any kind of protection. My hostdad says that an estimated one million people in Nairobi live in a slum called Kibera (not far from where my house is but I’ve never been there), and it’s not a very long drive from the mansions of Karen, or the skyscrapers of the central business district. The poor and the wealthy live so close to each other that it’s impossible to ignore the poverty, and it’s also impossible to get used to it because it is so close to so much wealth that you cannot help but compare and wonder how it must feel. When I walk to the mall, little kids run after me begging for coins, often all the way from the intersection right to the entrance of the mall – they wouldn’t get past the guards at the entrance, and they know, but they are persistent. I know that if I start giving them money, I’ll probably have dozens of kids following me, and I’ll never be able to help them all. I also know a few coins won’t make a big difference and certainly do nothing to touch on the root of the problem, but when you have a maybe eight-year-old child telling you “Miss, I’m so hungry”, it’s really hard not to let it break your heart. I act like I’ve seen the people with me, I shake my head, I tell them “kesho”, “tomorrow”, and that I don’t have anything for them right now, and I feel like a really heartless and cruel human being, because I do have money, and maybe more in my bank account right now than these kids will see in their entire life, and it makes me want to cry to shake them off every time. How do you live amongst this kind of poverty, and not feel guilty for being so blessed yourself? It’s something I will have to arrange with myself in the months to come.

The Good.

  • I am so happy we have arrived at this part of the list. The last part of this entry has left me feeling quite glum, to be honest. It’s time to turn my focus (and that of my readers… please bear with me, the depressing part is over now, I promise) to the good things about Nairobi. Let’s start with the weather. It’s very nice. Sometimes (like today) it’s rather chilly, but in true Nairobi fashion I wrap a shawl around my shoulders and ignore the cold. Mostly it’s beautiful and sunny and quite warm, sometimes even hot. It rains occasionally, but not the annoying drizzling kind of rain that drags on for days without stopping. More the sudden downpour kind, Wolkenbruch, aguacero, I haven’t found out if there is a Swahili word as well, but pick your language. It’s the cool kind of rain that starts as suddenly as it stops, is deafeningly loud while it lasts, and leaves the air smelling fresh and drenches you within a fraction of a second, if it happens to catch you while you’re outside (luckily, it hasn’t yet). It’s awesome. I am also told that the weather at the coast is even nicer and I should go there sometime. I’m hoping to make it in December after my exams, hopefully with my Kenyan friend and partner in crime, Van Hoodie, who will be home for the winter break. (For the sake of privacy, I won’t be using any real names except mine and Ari’s, but it should be obvious that her name is not actually Van Hoodie).
  • The food. I haven’t tried nearly enough new things, of course, but I got a first taste, literally, of the food culture. I have fallen in love with samosas (sort of like a minced meat triangular pastry) and also chapos (chapatti). Our house help makes them with a bit of carrot in the dough, which is an awesome idea in my opinion. The most common meal for both lunch and dinner would be rice and stew, usually consisting of vegetables and some sort of meat. Ours almost always has carrots and peas in it, and the one with minced meat is my favorite kind so far. Then there is tea, served before and/or after a meal, or just in between, or when you have guests, or while you’re watching TV, or pretty much any time of the day. Kenyan tea is made in a big pot with a lot of milk, and most people add a lot of sugar to it – they find it funny that I reject the idea of sugar in both coffee and tea, but well, “if you prefer it that way…”
    Of course, as anywhere in the world, the German in me misses her dark bread and cheese, but cheap avocados and delicious fruit almost completely make up for it. (Side note: I am constantly entreated to eat more, have seconds, have a fruit, have more tea, etc. – I am convinced my host mother is determined to make me go home nice and round so that nobody will be able to say she didn’t feed me enough.) Oh, and I almost forgot… THERE IS CADBURY’S. In every supermarket. I am in paradise. Oh, and my favorite instant coffee in the world, Africafé. So the foodie in me is happy – if slightly concerned that she won’t fit into the plane seat on the way back!
  • Wildlife. I haven’t seen much of it yet, of course, lions, giraffes and elephants don’t exactly live in the CBD (although close by, more on that some other time)… but I have seen some really pretty birds that don’t look anything like any bird I’ve ever seen – and, what’s way cooler, there are monkeys. I saw two of them just chilling in a tree the other day and another one on the street really close to where I live. They’re grey, medium size (more on the small side of medium), and apparently they like to steal bananas, which is why the kitchen window should be closed if there is nobody in the kitchen. To the people here, there more a nuisance than anything else, but hey, I’ve grown up in Germany… monkeys stealing bananas through the kitchen window are like the coolest thing EVER.
  • The schedule. I don’t have it in full yet, but it looks like  I will mostly have class from 2-5 or maybe 11-5 some days. Meaning I get to actually sleep in the mornings, and those who know me know how important that is to me! Also, it will give me plenty of time in the evenings to do homework and readings – compared to days at university back home that sometimes went from 5:30 am (rowing practice) to 10 pm (elective), this is awesome.
  • The language. Have you ever heard someone speaking Swahili? It’s freaking CUTE. I can’t wait until I understand enough to haggle at the market in Swa. That should also make prices drop quite a bit… 🙂
  • The people. I left this point for last because it is really the best one (argument with most substance at the very end for greatest impact, remember?). Van Hoodie’s family, who I am living with, is amazing. I wrote about this already in my last post, but I must repeat it here because the list of good things would not be complete without them on it. Yesterday I found a bag in my room with a brand new towel and some hangers for my clothes, and when I wanted to thank “Mum”, she only apologized that she hadn’t gotten them earlier and she was going to buy more hangers, etc. She blows me away time and again by saying or doing something that I would have never expected or asked her to do, and then acting like it was the most normal thing in the world and she only wishes she’d been able to do it sooner, or help out more, etc. She has started introducing me as her daughter wherever we go, which draws confused looks from people but makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. My favorite cousin is the six-year-old with the adorable traces of a British accent in her English. Yesterday she questioned me at length about why I was here and what I was doing… “Are you learning Kiswahili? And Kikuyu? Do you go to the university so you can make new friends? Do you have Sprite in Germany?”… and sometimes she mixes a bit of Kiswahili into her English without realizing, and then she gets very impatient with me when I don’t understand. She likes questions, that one. Of course I still haven’t met even half the family, and I still mix up uncles, aunts and cousins, forget whose kids the ones currently visiting are, and the other day I accidentally introduced myself to somebody I had already met twice. (I hold that it wasn’t my fault because he was wearing a suit on both occasions and looked very different in casual clothes, but I was embarrassed nonetheless.) However, everyone I met and remember has been really nice to me and done everything possible to make me feel at home. My host mum and sister have welcomed me home like I’d always lived here, and my host dad made sure I got some cheese and semi-dark bread in the supermarket so I wouldn’t miss those things too much. The list could go on for ages, and I’ve only been here ten days. I’m sure of one thing already… whatever else happens, however things work out with the university, with the city itself, with my fellow students… I’ll always have this house as a refuge and a place where I feel at home and welcome. And trust me, if you’re in the middle of a strange country, you’ve crossed half a continent to come here and won’t see your family and friends for months, it is really a blessing if in the midst of all your confusion and insecurity, you have a place to come home to.

Kiswahili changu si kizuri sana. … What?

“My Swahili is not very good.”

About time that changes, seeing as I will be boarding a plane in two weeks’ time. Kenya believe it? Okay, silly word play. But just to tell you again for those who haven’t read all the posts, I’ll be studying at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, for a semester from September onwards.
Obviously once I’m there I’ll be flooding this blog with pictures and stories and hopefully you’ll all be jealous of all the fun I’m having in Africa. I’m hoping to see elephants, giraffes, lions, rhinos, hippos, to go shopping, try awesome foods, go to a “real gospel church” even though religion and I have our differences, hopefully sing my heart out in a choir somewhere, go clubbing in what is supposed to an amazing nightlife scene, dance, celebrate, learn, make friends… just get the most out of this time. And you can tell I am excited.

However, at the moment, it’s like… do you know Goethe’s “Faust”? Two souls alas! are dwelling in my breast.
I am excited. I really can’t wait. At the same time, I don’t want to leave.

I don’t want to stand out, I don’t want to be stared at,  judged or put in a box because of the color of my skin, I don’t want to be scared to carry anything valuable or walk alone at night. I don’t want to be in a place where I don’t know anyone and nobody knows me, where I can’t go to see my best friends, where my roommate is still a continent away, where people will always recognize me as a stranger.

I don’t want to leave behind what I have here. There’s my family who I’m currently spending some valuable time with. My friends, my university, someone I just met but have grown extremely close with. All of this will be thousands of miles away two weeks from now.

And yet… everything I said in the first paragraph still stands… I can’t wait to go and throw myself into yet another adventure. I’ve seen Europe, Australia, North America, South America… I’ve never been to Africa. I’m excited. As for the two souls dilemma, time will just have to sort this out. At least I can’t complain that my life is boring at the moment.

And while I prepare for Nairobi, let’s all be giant pains in Ari’s butt so she finally tells us about her adventures in D.C., Upstate New York, Indiana and whereever else she’s been since her last entry. Arianeeeeeeee!!