Am I remembering an advertisement or imagining one? It’s a scene on the African plains: rhinos in the background, mountains in the distance, and an evenly tanned, blonde and wavy-haired supermodel reclining on a small mountain of Louis Vuitton suitcases. She’s wearing metallic wedge heels, leopard-print shorts, and a fitted green safari shirt. Her skin glistens with delicate perspiration.
I imagine what I must look like now in comparison, along the equator of rural western Kenya: greasy, yet frizzy and tangled hair pulled back and up. My knee-length skirt and tank top reveal a mosaic of tan lines: my pale legs; my bright, burned shoulders, nose, and forehead; and each underarm is wet with sweat, as well as behind my thighs. A line of cattle saunters behind me leaving a trail of manure pies.
Spilled out in front of me is my own pile of luggage: a Swiss Army soft carry-on and daypack, REI inflatable camp bed, and a horde of 5-liter-sized bottles of water purchased from a supermarket the day before.
It dawns on me that I don’t belong here. Not that I’m unwelcome, but that genetically, I am not built to survive this place.
Here are five reasons why Caucasians aren’t built for Africa:
Caucasians have less natural melanin in our skin that provides Africans with a defense against UV rays. As a result, Caucasians are dependent on high SPF sunblock, especially near the earth’s equator.
While watching a documentary in an undergraduate anthropology class, I was astounded when the video observed how skin tones are darkest along the earth’s equator and become lighter as you look farther from the equator.
Look. I’m not a big fan of biological anthropology. The area of study has had a bad reputation from its birth. However, it’s easy to see the plausibility of this argument.
On a similar note, I seem to be the only one wearing sunglasses here in Kenya. I’m thinking it must have something to do with how black absorbs light rather than my pale skin reflecting light off my cheekbones up into my eyes. Similar to why American Football players put black paint under their eyes.
Young children who have never seen a mzungu before are not only startled with seeing a white person for the first time, but seem transfixed with what to make of the large, dark alien eyes protruding from the mzungu’s face!
“You are scraping at your legs?” This is what my Kenyan hostess asked me when she witnessed me shaving my legs. I explained that the extra layer of warmth is supposed to help keep us warmer in the sub-zero winters of Minnesota.
“Oh, we don’t have that,” she said. And it was true.
Clean water is important for everyone. Period. However, clean water is both scarce and expensive here and I find myself conflicted about how to prioritize my water usage. The water I drink directly must be bottled. Enough mzungus have visited here where locals seem to understand this, but I have no idea what they think about it: do they think it’s an odd requirement, or would they like their small corner stores to provide them with the same standard of clean bottled water?
When it comes to bathing, I don’t hold my standards as high as bottled water. However, I’d prefer not to bathe at all if only river water is available since I know animal as well as human waste and other unclean materials have runoff into the water. But I’ll be honest: the longer I am here in Kenya’s dry, dusty conditions, the more my definition of “clean” changes.
How is it that I am exponentially more sensitive to food-borne illness than these rural Kenyans? There is no refrigeration but they don’t think twice about eating goat meat from two nights ago. I wish there was a pill I could take to allow me to eat the way they do!
5. First-Aid Kit
How many of us carry a first-aid kit on our person wherever we go in the United States? I sure don’t. Not even in my car. But in rural Kenya, I like the surety that if I need an OSHA-approved surgical-grade gauze bandage, it is immediately available. Other mzungus must do the same because locals often approach me, correctly assuming I have the materials to clean and dress their infected wounds. The nearest clinic is at least half a day’s walk away.
Despite genetics and extravagant comfort requirements, it would take a great deal more to prevent me from returning to this place. Sweat, sunburns, nausea and all. I believe the more we collide with other people and cultures, the more we learn about ourselves.