Hey Mzungu!

April 26, 2012

Having spent a day in a stuffy classroom with the blue skies framed by the windows I’m delighted to get out at 4.30pm. My head is crammed with new and interesting perspectives on a country I have never visited and I’m feeling privileged to be part of this initiative.

Outside on the street is like no other scene I can compare. Bicycle taxis (Bodaboda) collect and deliver their passengers to the college for a fare that appears to be just one coin. It’s still hot and I wonder how these guys operate under the noon sun. The students are incredibly neatly dressed, many with ties and not a pair of jeans in sight.

As I stroll up the main street, Jomo Kenyatta Highway, both sides are lined with traders selling everything from fruit and veg to shoes (stacked high) and clothes. The radio stall plunges me back to Ireland in the 70’s when the travelling community used to arrive in a town, set up shop on a country road and start selling TV’s, radios, carpets and much more. As I point my camera I am so conscious that I am intruding. I’m the only white guy in town it seems and I regularly hear the calls of ‘Hey Mzungu’ (Whiteman or some translations say, ‘someone who roams around aimlessly’) I’m trying to be inconspicuous, now there’s a challenge, but I still want to immerse myself in this tremendous experience and at least capture the mental images if I can’t summon the nerve to point and click.

A guy suddenly steps onto the pavement in front of me, hand outstretched he cries, ‘Hey Mzungu’. Camera in one hand and phone in the other I struggle to shake hands. He’s insulted it appears and starts to call his friends as he walks away hurling abuse at me. I’m half way up town so I decide it’s time for the tourist to about turn and I lengthen my stride back to the sanctuary of the hotel. As I reach the balcony of hotel Kisumu I turn around for one last glimpse of the chaotic rush hour traffic that’s belching fumes into the air. How have I ended up here I wonder?

That night is spent chatting with Professors Eric Odado and Shem Wandinga. Seated next to Shem I’m curious as to how a local lad has ended up as professor of chemistry at the University of Nairobi and also Director of the Centre for Science and Technology Innovations in Nairobi. He explains with a smile that he was not the most academically focused in his early years. At 22 he was given a Kenyan government scholarship to study in the US for four years and the rest, as they say, is history.

The barman insists on keeping the TV at high volume for his own viewing, so I’m not disappointed when we decide to call it a night as my ear is still getting used to the African accent and I’ve been struggling to understand my company at times. It has been riveting conversation though and I’m tired after a long day. I climb into my Mosquito netted bed happy that the little critters won’t be able to feast on me tonight – my Irish blood has been on the menu since I arrived and I’m bearing the bumps of the onslaught.