As a white woman living in the U.S. I had never had a problem with discrimination, nor had I had the experience of being a minority. I had been to college where the campus was fairly diverse and I had friends with different backgrounds and cultures. However, as I headed off to Kenya with the U.S. Peace Corps I had no idea how I would be accepted or how I would deal with suddenly becoming a minority.
There are many types of discrimination in this world. In Kenya, just like everywhere else, there is discrimination. I wouldn’t say I was constantly facing discrimination problems in Kenya. Quite the opposite, I found I was very well received and a welcome guest. There were times, however, I wasn’t made to feel very welcome.
One of those times was when I was going somewhere on a matatu. Because I was white, the touts tried to get as much money out of me as possible. If a particular trip was 50 shillings sometimes they would try to charge me 90 shillings. I would generally refuse to pay and tell them what the price I would pay. One time the tout for a particular matatu in Kakamega wouldn’t give me the fair price. He took my backpack, put it in a seat and demanded I pay his inflated price. I had to reach past him and grab my backpack. I was pretty angry at that point. I walked off his matatu and refused to ride. I told the tout I would find another matatu at a fair price. He realized then I wasn’t a tourist he could rip off and said he would give me the price I wanted. I told him no, I would take another matatu.
Another time I was taking a matatu from Bungoma, a town where I normally did my shopping, to the village where I was living. The tout asked me for 70 shillings which I gave him – the correct price for the trip. I watched him get 80 shillings from another woman, but she was Kenyan! I was shocked she just paid him what he asked for. I figured she must not have been familiar with the area she was in. The touts in that area knew me and were generally fair to me.
People were always curious about me because I was white. They wanted to know how I became so white. A lot of these people had never seen a white person before – at least not in real life. The would ask my neighbors about me. My neighbors were sometimes pretty silly. They told people that the reason I was so white is because I only ate white food! I thought it was kind of funny.
Most children I would come across where happy to see me. A lot of the time they would ask “How are you?” – the only English they knew. Other times, the kids would jump up and down shouting “Mzungu!” I always thought they were really cute. Sometimes, I would go over to them, try to talk with them and let them touch my hands and hair.
One day when I was outside working on my bicycle with my neighbor. We were trying to get the chain off to clean it. A girl about 12 years old was walking by my house. She stopped and started saying things to me in Swahili. I was able to pick out a few words but my Swahili wasn’t good enough for me to figure out what she was saying to me. My neighbor said a few things back to her. I could tell by the sound of his voice and the expressions on both of their faces that what was being said was not friendly. My neighbor tried get the girl to move along. I asked him what she said. He told me she wanted to know what I ate to become so white. What did I drink to become so white and he indicated that it got worse from there.
I only had a couple of negative experiences during the year I spent in Kenya. I found I was generally treated well even if they tried to give me a higher price for things. Usually, once I tried to speak in Swahili – I was able to barter in Swahili quite well – people realized I wasn’t a tourist and would treat me even better.