Mzungu. Someone hollers, and it floats through the air, always my label. It means white person, but it actually means “one who walks in circles.” I am told it is not derogatory. In the U.S. it seems that any label that points out your different heritage is derogatory. This word would surely be blacklisted back there. But this is not back there.
The legacy of my skin color is that of the colonialists, the people who came and then walked in circles, for all the Africans could tell. I have such a strong aversion to being associated with that era, its people, and their intents. Yet, walking in circles could sum up my experience in Tanzania quite accurately. No one ever sees me work, and I often head out the door with the sole intent of going for a long walk, in a big circle.
The ability to spend time in this culture walking in circles is a huge privilege. The name, much to my chagrin, is fitting. It singles me out, but is only fair. I am not living like they are. And even if my skin were dark, I wouldn’t blend in.
Tanzanians belong here. They move like their ancestors rose up out of this very ground. Those of us with a motley heritage find ways to compensate for this glint of confidence not naturally inherited. And yet, for those that come from a place for as far back as their people can remember, there seems to be a rightful spot in the scheme of things that is buried in their bones. I can see it when they step off a bus, look over their shoulder, or in the way they walk. It is sturdy and deliberate, as if the original design of the foot belonged to them. They linger on a corner without thinking there is somewhere else to be.
We hybrids will never have the same posture, I think, of a Tanzanian or Ojobwa or an Aborigine on Walkabout. I wonder if they are aware of this birthright, and if they know how many of us are missing it. There is a strange magic and sense of place, I imagine, in becoming yourself while wedged into a system that holds you. Harder, perhaps, to find and express your own individuality, and yet easier to not be forced to singlehandedly invent your whole own identity, in the course of one short lifetime.
Standing on a crowded bus today, stuck in traffic, the driver made an unexpected turn onto a bumpy dirt road. We weaved down small streets, past a handful of people sitting outside their small concrete home/business, selling a handful of vegetables or braiding hair. The bus barely fit in the alleys. I bent over to see out the window.
A man in a long white robe and a round hat was standing in front of me. He turned and said in English, “This is a shortcut.”
We started casual conversation. I rarely met another English speaker on the dala dala. He found out I was from the US. He asked what I thought of Barak Obama. I told him I think he is a good man, with a very hard job.
“You have been to Kogelo?” he wanted to know.
“No. Where is Kogelo?” I asked.
He looked taken aback. “In Kenya. You are from America and you do not know of Kogelo?”
I admitted that I did not.
“It is Obama’s tribe. It is where your President comes from. Some of his family is still there. Surely Americans must know this.” He seemed surprised, sad, insistent, confused.
“I am sorry,” I said. “I don’t think most Americans know much about Kogelo.”
He grew silent for a few minutes. He took a seat when someone got off, and looked out the window, maybe lost in thought. We merged back with the main road, and I moved infinitesimally toward the front as we approached my street. He turned to me, having reached some sort of conclusion. “You must go there,” he said. “Go to Kogelo. Then you must go back to your country and tell your people. Tell them about Africa, so they all know where their President is from. Americans must know that a tribe is something that matters.”
I told him okay, then got off the bus.