I was walking to class the other day when a man on a pikipiki (inexpensive, mass-produced Chinese motorcycle that’s as common as rain here) slowed down near me. “SISTER OBAMA! SISTER OBAMA! WANT A RIDE TO TOWN?!” he called to me in enthusiastic Kiswahili. I politely declined and as he zoomed off, I was left to puzzle about the variety of names to which I answer nowadays (or, in some cases, pointedly refuse to acknowledge.) “Sister Obama” is a new one, and not one I’ve heard since; I guess it’s because I’m American? Land of Obama? Not that I’m complaining. As an aside – in case you hadn’t realized: Obama is big in Kenya. No, really. His approval rating here is 95%. I doubt 95% of the people polled could name one act of his presidency, but by God, 95% of the people polled strongly approve of how he’s going about it.

But I digress.

Anyway, being referred to by your name is one of the many things you take for granted in the United States, but isn’t necessarily applicable here. To people with whom I’ve been introduced, I’m either “Megan,” my middle name, or “Meg,” the easier-to-pronounce-and-less-confusing-anyway-because-there’s-another-Megan-in-our-training-group nickname I answer to more and more often. By English speakers unfamiliar to me, I’m usually “Madam” or “sister,” which is fine.

In Kiswahili, I’m “Dada” – which is sister, “Bibi” – which is kind of like miss or ma’am, or “Mama.” Yep … “mama.” Which was shocking the first time one of the men I see on my walk every morning greeted me with it, but I can understand. I’m an early-to-mid-20s woman. By rural Kenyan assumptions, I’m most likely married, and probably have a couple of watoto scurrying around underfoot. Which could scarcely be farther from the truth, but it’s a term of some cultural respect and significance, so I take it as pleasantly as it is offered. (What gets awkward is when a nyanya, a grandmother, starts making polite conversation with me on the road by asking me detailed questions about my kids. Uh-oh.)

Then of course, there is the perpetual and inescapable mzungu. Mzungu is a Kiswahili word that has roughly come to mean any foreign person in Africa, be they tourist, aid worker, diplomat, or general expat. It also gets thrown sometimes at the native white Kenyan population, who are every bit as legally African as Raila Odinga, but descended from settlers/colonialists/etc.

I have been told on more than one occasion that the word “mzungu” comes from the bastardization of an indigenous word for “ghost” or “spirit,” owing to our skin tone. One person told me it was from the Luo, another from “Bantu” as a generic language family, but no one has been able to give me the original word, nor direct me to a source to back it up. I’m thereby significantly more inclined to believe that its etymology lies in the Kiswahili word “kuzunguka,” which means “to go around.” Verbs are often morphed into nouns in Kiswahili, and many verbs can be transformed into titles of individuals by the addition of m- in the singular and w- in the plural. Hence, “kuzunguka,” “to go around,” becomes “mzunguko,” “one who goes around,” or in fupi (short form), “mzungu.” As in, people who refuse to stay in one place, preferring to travel around regions or continents – e.g. missionaries and early explorers.

I’m sorry, are you bored? My bad. I ramble sometimes. I find this shit interesting.

Anyway, being called mzungu gets really old, really fast. With kids, I tend to dismiss it, or cluck my tongue and tell them “bad manners!” if they’re being particularly persistent. With adults, I often ignore them (usually they’re trying to get my attention to sell me mangoes or something). It sounds like a small thing, but really? It’s not polite. Perhaps not as bad as yelling “YO! WHITEY!” in the States, but at least as bad as “HEY! YOU! CHICK! COME HERE!” Sometimes, when it’s been a long day and my fuse is getting short, I’ll wearily explain – in Kiswahili – that my name is NOT mzungu, it’s Meg, and I would REALLY like it if people stopped calling me mzungu and called me Meg or Dada or Bibi or SOMETHING ELSE FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THINGS HOLY. And it’s working. Sort of. Sometimes. Just today, I had someone yell “Haya! Mzuuu … MEG! DADA MEG!” when I walked by. Bittersweet moment.

Of course, part of the excitement of making it to our job sites in less than a month is that we’ll have ALL NEW THINGS to learn and experience. This means new nicknames, new confusion, and new hordes of screaming children chasing me down the street yelling “MZUNGU! MZUNGU! GIVE ME SWEETS! NIPE PESA! MZUUUUUUUNNNGGGGGGGGUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!!!!!”

Ni maisha, as they say.