A mzungu in Mombasa

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It is almost Christmas and new years eve in a few weeks and that reminds me of my stay in Kenya. It is the end of the summer of 2008 and I decide to move to Nairobi, to a middle class residential area called Buru Buru where I can work for a local touroperator. I share the house with a local family and I get really close with them as if I were their daughter and sister.

Share bus seats

When the Christmas days start to show up on the calender I start to plan a holiday with my Kenyan family. Since one of the family members works in Mombasa and has an apartment over there, we thought about visiting his place and celebrating new years eve on the beach. My Kenyan mom goes to the central bus station in Nairobi to buy two bus-tickets for a trip from Nairobi to Mombasa. I did not know she was only going to buy three tickets, since we were four persons (two adults and two kids). I guess we will have to share the seats. “At least now it is much more economic” mom says.

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Upon arrival we take a matatu – which is a Kenyan taxi, a shared minibus – and head for the apartment. Luckily we have got the apartment for ourselves this week. Nobody else wanted to spend new years eve here this year, so we have enough space and I even have a bedroom for myself. Right next to our doorstep stands a local market, where we decide to buy some bananas and such. We leave our things at the apartment with the groceries we had just done and start walking toward the beach. For some reason many local people are looking at me, as if they had never seen a white person before. I guess it is different here in Mombasa, because I am walking between the local people, my Kenyan family, and I am not staying at one of the luxurious resorts where everybody else from another country is staying. In Nairobi I get a bit noticed too, but there they are more used to foreigners walking kind of everywhere.

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beach boys

Mom starts to discuss a price with one of the local beach boys. I ask her what she is trying to buy.

I need him to guard our bags while we stay on the beach”

she replies. As soon as she said that, I start looking around and notice many big white bags where people are leaving their belongings in. I am sure mom knows what she is doing, so I will have to leave my things with this stranger too. Mom tells me to leave everything, including my beach towel. There is actually nobody hanging on the beach. People just walk around and swim.

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do not swim by yourself

I love to swim! So I dive into the ocean and exercise a bit by swimming. Unfortunately, as soon as I leave the big crowd of local people staying in the shallow parts of the sea, some local guys start following me and ask me if they can swim along. I reply with a decent no thank you, but the guys do not go away. I start to think that it might be better to return and decide to swim my way back towards my Kenyan family who are still relaxing in the shallow part of the sea. As soon as I find them many kids and young adults start grabbing my legs and my arms. They are all amazed of my white skin tone and want to touch my skin and even my hair, because I am different. This is unpleasant, so I start pushing them away. My Kenyan mom splashes water to the people who approach me and we decide that we cannot stay here any longer. We leave the water and go for a walk. It seems that at the beach parts where only the local people come I am too much of an attraction. I know now that next time I want to go for a longer swim I need to take a local friend with me.

Sea creatures at Fort Jesus

In the afternoon we go to Fort Jesus, which was built by the Portuguese in 1593-1596 and is now part of the UNESCO World Heritage. The fort is surrounded by rocks and water. Due to my previous swimming experience today I thought I should give it one more try and swim in the ocean next to the fort. I walk into the water and my feet can touch the rocks until it gets deeper and deeper and I have to start swimming. It all seems fine, but then I see a local boy walking out of the water with pain in his foot. It catches my attention and I swim back to the rocks to check it out. Mom had already gone to the boy to check on him and as soon as I reach land she asks me if I am okay. Everything is fine I guess, but what is the matter here? An old man who was watching everything looks at me and points to the rocks. He wants to show me something. In Swahili he tries to explain me that the young boy stepped into a sea urchin. Two local kids approach me as well and tell me in English that here sea urchins can be found everywhere. Luckily my feet did not encounter any sea urchins today, but I will not go for a swim here again without my shoes on.

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I dyed my hair from blond to brown (which became kinda red…) just to be a little bit less notable.

Now I know this might sound like I was pushing the limits as a foreigner in Mombasa, but I really enjoy myself when I go with the local flow. It is adventurous and I get to see places no other traveler might ever see of experience. I have never felt out of control of the situation and I could always count on the people I came with. I would love to spend new years eve one more time in Mombasa and meet my Kenyan family again. This year will be my first Christmas and new years eve in the Netherlands after 6 years celebrating Christmas and new years eve abroad with locals in many different countries.

The definition of Mzungu

In Swahili (the lingua franca of East Africa): someone who wanders without purpose / someone constantly on the move. It came to be applied to all white people in East Africa, as most were encountered as traders, visiting colonial officials or tourists. Today, white tourists are often greeted (especially by children) with the cry: “Bye bye mzungu!” For some reason, they rarely say “Hello mzungu!” when they see one coming…

Source: Urban Dictionary

For travel accommodation in Kenya: AccommoDirect.com.

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My Kenyan sister dancing on the balcony when the firework started for new years eve.

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Ever since I left my home country I felt at home at any other place I went to. I enjoy getting to know more cultures by talking to strangers and hearing their philosophy about life. Speaking with gestures when you can not find a shared language, finding places only the locals go to and learn about their customs and values. Hanging out with local people makes me happy. The experience of every new place is a step out of your comfort zone where I like to wander around until it feels like a second home.
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