Something has changed in the way people are treating me now. It has probably got to do with the fact that I have broken many of their expectations of an ‘mgeni’, a foreigner. For one thing, I haven’t gone running back home on the next flight (This obviously has nothing to do with the fact that the airport is 800kms away, okay?)
It began when I started following people around to learn Kiswahili. They were pleased that I would go to the kitchen, bathroom or farm and watch them work. No guest of theirs had ever done that. But of course, every mgeni had to pass a series of tests. Test one was when they handed me a huge bucket of filthy water with dead insects and mostly live ones. The insects were from the cabbage they were cleaning in that water and my job was to pick out the good leaves from the not so good ones. Everyone was watching me from the corner of their eyes as I didn’t hesitate to put my hands in. What they don’t know is that I love my creepy crawlies. Anju: 1 Africa: 0
Test two was carrying water which, by the way, I managed every day since then. My reward is the lack of body pain AND I sleep like a baby now. Test three – actually this was not a test but an insistence on my part to do my work myself – which means cleaning my own room, washing & ironing my own clothes (which is quite an adventure considering the coal iron box), fetching my own bathwater, cleaning my own bathroom, taking a crap in a hole in the ground etc. You get the picture. My dad would call this character building stuff. Here, it’s a day in the life …
Sometimes I forget that the definition of hard work here is totally different. They do not expect an Mgeni to do their own things and help out with others. I think the real clincher was when Sr. Gloria broke my door handle so that the only way to open the door was from inside. And Rajnikanth bless you if you got stuck outside. The simplest solution, of course, was to remove the locking mechanism – I’ve seen many carpenters do this at home. So I asked for a screwdriver. They went and fetched me the driver! I spent a good part of an hour trying to find the Kiswahili word through gestures and then I gave up. I just took a butter knife, folded my sleeves and went to work.
The people were amused to see what this ‘white’ (still can’t get used to the fact that they think I’m white) girl was up to. But when the screws started coming off, they were awestruck. Using a butter knife to open a door handle – unbelievable. And when I was done, they clapped and whistled and beamed and me. I didn’t know what to do so I went red in the face because it really did seem like a stupid thing to be praised about.
Anyway, that seemed to have broken all the walls and I seem to have broken through the trust barrier. This is a great thing. Now they crack their Mgeni jokes in front of me (‘Why do Europeans hate when their glasses are full to the brim? Because their noses drown in the glass when they start to drink’ I laughed for half an hour after that because when I imagined my European buddies, I could see their long, sharp noses!