The sun was setting over the harbor in Stone Town. Three Canadian expatriates and I were sitting around a table at Mercury bar, watching a group of Zanzibaris play soccer on the beach. Duncan grabbed one of the two digital cameras from the clutter of empty glasses and half-finished piña coladas.
The setting was perfect: pink sky, silhouettes of boats, dark-skinned soccer players creating a tropical tableau. He took a couple of beautiful photographs. I grabbed my camera as well.
I took a couple of shots, but something about the set-up felt wrong. Surely the guys on the beach knew we were taking pictures of them. They were absorbed in their pick-up football game, but couldn’t miss the two people full of over-priced drinks, snapping pictures as they played.
I rarely take pictures of people. Portraits are often forced or awkward. I feel uncomfortable taking pictures of people without their permission. In East Africa, taking pictures of strangers seems even worse. The complexities of this continent are already a blur to most North Americans. I worry that the people in the photos may easily become exotic symbols of other-ness, divorced from their individual identities: names, histories, challenges and dreams. Without their voice, I don’t feel particularly comfortable presenting their faces.
But last week in Zanzibar, I decided to temporarily drop my attempts at cultural sensitivity and just be a western tourist in East Africa. I took pictures of the football players. I ate with my left hand and shook hands with Muslim men. I wore tank tops and a low cut dress in a town where the vast majority of local women wear hijab.
Traveling with my three Canadian friends, all of whom live in England, I vacationed like so many tourists in this region. We hired cars instead of using mass transit. We paid tour guides instead of wandering around asking questions.
It was the most relaxing vacation I've had in a decade. I enjoyed the beaches and the ocean, the drinks and the seafood. But I didn’t visit Zanzibar.
At some point during our time on the island, I remembered something that my colleague Juliana had said about expatriates.
"They don’t live in Africa," she said. "They are right next to the pulse, but they can’t feel it."
There are a huge number of expatriate North Americans and Europeans living in Nairobi. The city is the urban hub of East Africa. Countless international aid agencies and NGOs have regional headquarters here. Juliana says the expats generally keep to themselves.
"We work together but we don’t socialize," she said. "After work, they go home and we go home. That’s it."
To be honest, in my time here, I haven’t met many western expatriates whom I particularly like. At first, I was surprised by the prickly personalities of most of the Canadians I met. But three months into my stay, I am wondering if the prickliness is a psychological defense mechanism. Maybe it's a shield in the daily battles to pay a fair price, be understood and get work done within a Western time frame.
Many expats use another mechanism for both psychological survival and personal safety. They live in traditionally white enclaves. Although there are now Kenyan residents in those areas as well, if the complexion of a neighborhood can be equated with baked goods, theirs are more chocolate chip cookie than brownie.
My neighborhood is a marble cake. It’s not Westlands or Karen, which verge on shortbread. But it is within walking distance of four high-end malls that serve mainly white and Asian visitors, and upper class Kenyans.
Junction, Adams Arcade and the YaYa Center could be any upscale mall in North America. There are cafes for overpriced cafe au lait, gyms for maintaining western physical ideals, and antique stores full of colonial-era flotsam.
A Canadian acquaintance who works for the UN in Nairobi was laughing recently about the lifestyle of some of the mall expatriates.
"You know, we go to the Masai market to buy a handmade bowl to decorate the coffee table. We bargain and refuse to pay more than four dollars. But we pay 1500 dollars for an imported couch, because we need to have a nice couch.
"We want a flavor of Africa," she said. "But we don’t want to have to live here all the time."
But there are some expatriates who live at the other end of the spectrum. They are sporting dreadlocks, wearing antique Masai jewelry and they speak impeccable Kiswahili.
They are on a great safari, hunting rare prey: the Authentic African Experience.
I tend to dance this side of the tricky two-step that is life as a foreigner in Kenya. I was happy when my colleagues decreed that I wasn't really a mzungu and it was time for me to have a Kenyan name.
Call me Waithera.
On my way home from Zanzibar, I got to hear one Kenyan’s perspective on that particular type of expatriate life.
I caught a lift into town with a Kikuyu man who came in on the same Mombasa flight. On the way into Nairobi, he stopped off near Bomas of Kenya, to attend to some business.
Among a half-dozen other enterprises, he is developing a small farm on the edge of Nairobi National Park into a retreat center. He wants to rent it out to the innumerable NGOs in the city. His white neighbors don’t like his plans.
"I was trying to get electrical lines down this road," he said as we drove past new power poles. "My mzungu neighbor blocked the road for the power company. Can you believe that? This is a public road!
"And then, when we started building a small set of rooms, they came over at night and started knocking over the stones. When our watchmen found them doing it, they said monkeys had knocked down the wall."
The area was once a strictly European enclave. It is coveted for its views of the park. As Nairobi sprawls out in every direction, the old game reserves, ranches and farms are being subdivided into house lots.
"Do you think your neighbors are just worried about having more people around?" I asked.
"Yes. Maybe. They say they don’t want to wake up one morning and see a fence."
"Do you think it’s something about wanting to keep living a scene from Out of Africa?"
"You know, I wasn’t going to say anything... they want to live in the Kenya of 40 years ago. They don’t want to be in modern Kenya."
After checking on the farm, my friend treated me to dinner at a nearby nyama choma joint. Three wazees, old men, came over and had a long conversation in Kikuyu. I didn't understand a word but sat quietly, sipping tea and thinking back to Mercury in Zanzibar.
No matter how much of the country I see or how well I can speak the language, I will always be a foreigner here. I don’t fool myself that it might be possible to leap the great chasm of cultural difference. And so, for now, I am standing with the other wazungu, on the foreigners’ side of the gulf. But I am also happily waiving to the locals on the other side, trying to shout a few words of Kiswahili across the way.