Mzungu (m'zungu)- n. (E African, Kiswahili)- White person

Initiation: 26 May 2011

I watch the first of many needles glide into my pale freckled skin. Plunge. Burn. Withdrawal. The most delicate crimson droplet seeps out of the puncture. I watch as two more needles penetrate my tense deltoids. The subtle sting of alcohol, a trio of miniature circular Band-Aids applied to my miniature stab wounds.

"You'll be sore tomorrow," Dr. Scheib says as he fiddles habitually with his stethoscope and crisp white coat pocket.

"What are you doing over there anyways?"

"Working with people with disabilities and teachers to co-create sustainable inclusive practices in schools," I state distracted by my blood-speckled bandages.

"Interesting. I was in Kenya once. A long time ago, in the 70s. Did a little surfing near Mombasa. You'll love it."

Lindi 4 July 2011

I wake to the sounds of roosters crowing, dogs fighting in the distance, and Latifu fanning the homemade charcoal as she warms the water for my morning shower. Out of paranoia, I check to make sure my extremities are within the protective sheath of my permethrin-laden mosquito net.

"Brent, your water is ready."

I thank Latifu as I walk outside with sleepy steps, clad in nothing but a towel and my California chic flip-flops. I dodge a goat and some hens drinking out of an oversized bowl of soiled dishwater, and make my way to the three-walled corrugated tin, cement slab floor that serves as my bathing facility. I carry the bowl of perfectly warmed water from atop the improvised charcoal barbeque to the shower, and close the shower door by pulling a tattered sheet across the opening to a rusty nail on the opposite side. The sheet is barely high enough to cover my unmentionables.

Rinse, lather, repeat. Rinse, lather…

"Mzungu. Mzuuuuuuungu."
"Mzungu, how are you?"

I hear an unexpected bevy of young nasally voices sprinkled with laughter only a group of children can create. I look behind me with all of my tattooed oversized whiteness and see a throng of about fifteen primary school-aged children curiously gawking at the gigantic nude mzungu, protected only by a threadbare drape. The mzungu grins awkwardly out of embarrassment and waves at the children walking through the Kenyan bush en route to school. A school I would soon be working in. The children scatter with an eruption of amusement, as I finish scrubbing, cleaning, and drying my pale flesh.


My commute begins at 8:30am. Our freeway is void of tarmac. Dirt, rocks, and an absence of cars. Ahhhh. Our destination- a community-based wellness clinic.

The equatorial African sun makes my brow glisten with sweat as I walk with two British medical students who had become my unexpected roommates during my foray into education in the "developing world." Donkeys bray under the weight of containers filled with unfiltered water drawn from the shores of Lake Victoria. Women with objects precariously placed on their heads go about their morning routines in brightly hued Kenyan garb.

I marvel at the fauna that seem perfectly designed to inflict pain on the unfortunate fool who brushes against their brambles and spikes. Children cautiously approach the three mzungus dressed in clothes different from their own requesting that their picture be taken. A parade of soon-to-be-familiar locals embrace this odd threesome with an ever-lengthening handshake that denotes the welcoming of our company. The smell of burning plastic hangs thick in the air. Children's voices sing in unison as teachers in a school near the clinic initiate their morning routines.

The Clinic

White stucco walls with the faces and names of mourning orphans all around me.

"This will be your office for the next few weeks. You will be sharing a desk with Damisi," Benson said with a casual tone, as if it were everyday I were assigned to an office filled with images of children with dead parents.

Mse. Lillyann. Stephen. Rowlex. Doctor. Beatrice. Peter. Newton. The names hold painful secrets that can never be told. They are exoticized at times, on stage at the freak show, on the pages of Time or Newsweek, but does anyone truly care? Who worries about AIDS when all you need is Nile perch to feed your family?

As I type pages on my mzungu machine, surrounded by children of the dead, endless waves of "patients," "victims" of poverty, disability, and disease filter through the halls of the clinic. People tend to label what they don't understand, what they fear. I understand one truth- poverty begets disability. Disability equals erasure. I recall the image of a man on the road unseen, in an improvised corroded wheelchair begging with an outstretched puckered hand on the streets of Lindi. Who says polio has been eradicated?


Feet up on the rusting wrought iron enclosure that is my porch, writing longhand the stories of my travels. I don't use my laptop because electricity does not exist at this house. Somehow it is perfect. Acrid fumes of smoldering refuse reach my nostrils. I inhale deeply, a satiated grin appears on my face. My hand pauses midsentence on the steno pad, my eyes on the shimmer of Lake Victoria. Waves of satisfaction seismically ripple through my body. Chills. I am caught in the midst of a life dream. Lucky. Rare.

A movement catches my eye. I notice a child, around 11 years old. A child that would become my steady Kenyan companion.

"Hi." The word is muted by something powerful emanating from this young boy's core.

Smile. "Hi, how are you?" I chuckle remembering the voices playfully taunting my whiteness and nasally mzungu voice.

"Can I come in?" Radhi says approaching the eroded concrete steps of the porch.

"Of course."

"I heard you were here. I brought you some maize. Ever had it?" His voice delicate and slightly raspy. Innocent and sweet.

"Nope. Thanks. I could use a snack." I initiate curious nibbles on my piece of African corn. Tonguing at the slightly charred taste of Kenya between my teeth.

"Can I borrow your book?" Pointing proudly at the dusty concrete floor where the book lies near my dirt-caked feet.

"Oh, yeah. It's a travel guide to Kenya. Here."

Huge eyes. Smiling from the depths of his soul.

Weeks later, the book was returned to me on the eve of my departure from Lindi. A hand-decorated brown bag now thoughtfully protecting the dog-eared paperback pages.

"I enjoyed reading about my country."

"Where would you go first?"

"Wherever you go."

Okoth Special School

"This is Okoth School for the Mentally Retarded," Benson's outstretched arm pointing to a weatherworn sign on the side of the earthen road.

Glancing down at my watch, "Is it lunch time?" Students with physical disabilities mill about. Ill-fitting uniforms are ripped, misbuttoned, and tattered. A student with spittle dripping elastically from his lips fondles a yellow plastic bowl in the dirt.

"We are working on improving the program."

Okoth Primary School is quarantined from Okoth School for the Mentally Retarded by a rusted chain length fence and rickety gate. The two schools may as well exist on separate planets.

At the primary school, throngs of students crowd around the adobe-like open spaces where windows should be. My fashionable black and yellow Pumas kick up dust onto my Eddie Bauer khakis. Sweat patches form on my Ben Harper concert tee.

With nubby white chalk, I spell out D-I-S-A-B-I-L-I-T-Y on the scuffed up blackboard.

"Today, we will be talking about disability as diversity," I say unsure if using English is the appropriate choice to be discussing such topics.

Mirror Mirror

"Mzuuuuuuuungu. How are you?" The last part spoken quickly with fingers pinching off the nostrils to capture my nasally essence.

Students clothed in a colorful spectrum of uniforms converge on the sweat-stained, lanky mzungu as we share the same earthen path home.

Students scramble to arrange themselves in the most impressive poses they can muster in front of the point-and-shoot Nikon Coolpix P5000. When the digital readout of their image is passed around the eager group, the rambunctious crowd turns bashful in unison.

When I probe Benson about this collective coy response to seeing their photos, he states, "Mirrors are a luxury."

Jaramogi Special School

Hand crank. Rusted. Spokes on the verge of collapse. Constant disrepair. Akili leaning in his wheelchair.

"Which one is the primary school?" I ask as I gaze across a rock-strewn lunar surface that separates the "boarders" from the "typicals."

"This one," Benson says with an obvious tone set inside of his gesture aimed at a cluster of one-story white concrete buildings.

"Who are the 'boarders'?" I ask.

"The physically challenged kids who have to live there." Benson gazes through the rocky dirt field at distant squat buildings.

Benson guides me over the inaccessible rocky terrain toward cinder block buildings with crumbling walls unfinished. We meet an oft-used classroom with a dirt floor, and students with physical disabilities lifting each other in and out of shared wheelchairs. Benson urges me on. My eyes fall on the dorms. More students in dilapidated chairs navigating the rampless doorways like cirque du soleil contortionists. I catch the end of what Benson says, "…two, three to a bed."

"Does anyone sleep there?" I say pointing to a mosquito net without a bed underneath it.

"The boy who has seizures. We can't afford to clean the mattress everyday."

Benson introduces me to Gacoki, the head teacher of Jaramogi Special School. My jaw drops as Gacoki shuts the door to his office and reveals the foodstuffs meant to sustain 25 students through the remaining term.

"We have a little bit of beans, some oil, and some sugar. We have not had fruits, vegetables, or meat for a very long time. Just the basics."

"What happens to the students when the food runs out?" I ask, fearing the response.

"The school shuts down, their parents pick them up."

"Can their families afford to feed them?"

"Not really."

"What about funding from the government?"

"The government is yet to recognize us as a school. We receive only community handouts."

Brand New Bag

The main road of downtown Lindi runs parallel to the meandering shores of Lake Victoria. Stories of swashbuckling, brandy-swilling fisherman, and perilous storms hang thick in the atmosphere that permeates cinderblock convenience stores and cell phone charging kiosks that dot the main drag. Makena Pub offers respite from the equatorial African sun with the promise of warm Tusker lager and Coca-Cola. I relish the last drops of my pint, and place my Kenyan shillings atop my hand-written bar tab. I head to a splintered wooden produce stand and purchase ingredients for guacamole. I promised Latifu I would teach her how to make California-style guac. I thank the vendor and wave at her two young children staring up at me from underneath the stand. I take a second to breathe in my surrounds, and make my way toward my temporary Kenyan home.

"Sir…," stated with a drawn out accent that is distinctly Kenyan English.

"I have problems. I don't have a bag for my books." Looking directly at the plastic bag in my hand carrying enormously ripe avocados, and oversized tomatoes.

"Oh, sure, just one second," as I fumble awkwardly with the chest strap and zipper of my North Face pack. I transfer the yield of my plastic bag into my weatherproof, lifetime guaranteed rucksack, and pass the delicate bag along. As we completed the transaction, I worry that more than a plastic bag has been exchanged. Thoughts of colonialism continue to permeate my consciousness.

Hasanati School

Young girl. Tattered uniform. Malaria. AIDS. Disability. Red from crying eyes as big as moons. Dirt mixed with an everlasting stream of tears and mucus. Alone.

"Who takes care of her during spells like this?" I notice impossibly thin older barefooted schoolgirls hovering near her, concerned looks upon their brows.

"The teachers do what they can. The students support each other." When I spoke to Ms. Ramla later in the week, she informed me that her school does not have the medical facilities to support children with HIV and malaria. They also need school supplies, beds, mosquito nets, parental support, food, and clean drinking water. Who has time for disease?

"Isn't today the last day before the break?" I ask.

"Yep." Ms. Ramla's doubtful eyes scan the students looking out at the dusty road, longing for the break to come their way.

Departure: 23 July 2011

Riding on a semi-paved and dusty road at daybreak, I depart from Lindi and head to the airport. The previous night held with it the memories of speeches filled with mutual affection, wild dancing, endless amounts of warm Tusker lager, and a barrage of flashing cameras. A memorable thirty-first birthday, complete with a slaughtered goat roasted to juicy perfection. With the familiar taste of sour beer in my mouth, I attempt to process all that had transpired during my month in the Kenyan bush.

Sunlight smiles.
Warm embraces.
A hole for a latrine.
Orphans without parents.
Respect for life.
Elderly couples slowly dying together.
Scarcity of food.
Exclusion. Segregation. Disability. Labels.
Personal connectivity.
The West.
A man on his deathbed- tuberculosis.
Children singing in unison.
Life changing.
Critical perspectives.

With the subtle signs of the night before beating on my temples like drums, and my body shaking violently over the jarring semi-paved road, we navigate the fragmented path ahead.

I struggle to take in every last detail of the scene as we wind our way to Kisumu, the third largest city in Kenya. Perfectly round watermelons stacked like pyramids on carts pulled by children riding donkeys. Diesel fumes sputtering out of motorbikes diffuse into my lungs. Road worn diesel trucks pounding my heart with every near-collision.

I can tell Kisumu is near as the road becomes paved, and buildings morph from mud brick to concrete. Kinky reggae beats fill the air as a nightclub releases its patrons into the morning freshness. Traffic signs funnel us to the Kisumu airport. Benson pulls his 1980 eroded, ramshackle Subaru to the airport curb. The hatch pops open with the push of a rusted button. No words are exchanged, only a long, familiar handshake and a brief man hug. My bags rest on the hot pavement. I gather my wears, and strap on my pack. I turn to lay a sappy appreciative line on Benson, but the Subaru is already shrinking in the distance. It is over.

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