Three days as an Mzungu

Three days as an Mzungu - student project

I find myself standing in the Toi market in Nairobi, Kenya, camera in hand and my standard travel cloths on me. Looking as western as you possibly can. The weather is hot but not as hot as the previously months before I arrived, but still my clothes is not precisely dry after some time. It`s the rain season in Kenya so the ground is muddy. Making my new boots I bought before coming to Africa not looking as new as when I bought them. But hey that's how boots are supposed to look, I tell myself but at the same time I want to clean them as fast as possible. Eventually I start my exploration of the Toi market and taking pictures and my hope is to be able to visit the Kibera slum in the coming day.


The Toi market is the biggest market in Kenya and probably one of the biggest markets in Africa if not in the world. The most of what you can buy in the market is clothes and there is a lot of clothes! A friend of mine which has been living in Kenya in her past life told me that most of the clothes if not all is coming from donations from the western world and then sold in the market to create jobs and money. The Toi market is located right next to the Kibera slum.


The Kibera slum is also the biggest slum in Kenya and Africa, according to the almighty internet 500 000 to 1000 000 live in the Kibera slum but according to the Kenya population and housing the numbers are around 170 000 people. So the numbers differs depending on the source and how much you include in the Kibera slum but there is a lot of people all in all. The slum consists of illegal housing and therefore not recognized by the government and therefore also do not supply water or electricity to the area.


I start my exploration of the market. Camera ready for that award winning shot I always believe I will take but still for some reason have not been able to make yet. Maybe I am not as good photographer as I think or maybe it's just bad luck, hopefully it's the second reason and not the first.

It's still quite early in the morning and the market has not yet drawn it´s full amount of people and the shopkeepers is still in the process of setting up their business for the day to come. I am exploring and taking pictures, of people making deals, browsing the wares and street kids all around. As the hours pass and my memory card in my camera is filling up, more and more people are coming to the market and the true scale of this market is starting to show. More people are congesting up the muddy pathways of the market and deals are being made right and left. Everywhere you look there's products to be bought. Everything from clothes, shoes and hats to kitchen utilities, all sorts of matts and of course food. You could probably find everything you need to start a home in Nairobi here.


The day progresses and pictures are being taken by me of the people in the market and all that is happening in the market. Something I find very interesting and maybe even exotic but for the people around me it's just any other day. I have always pictured myself as someone who is a man of the world, someone who is not just another tourist and being able to integrate the culture and being a part of that culture. Something I also believed during these days but in retrospect is not as true as I want it to be.


Eventually I get approached by a man that name´s himself as Douglas that offers to take me to the Kibera slum as an guide to show me around. How he new I wanted to go to Kibera I do not now but my best venture is that my aura unmask me as an tourist wanting to explore, with my hiking boots, outdoor clothes of top brand and of course my camera. Looking as I´m exploring new found land as the first westerner ever and kinda feeling like one to. We make a deal to meet the next day at the same place in the morning to start the tour of the Kibera slums. Feeling hopeful but at the same time nervous of being robbed as you often do being away from your ordinary environment and finding yourself in a new setting. With the ever pressing feeling that only the western world is safe and the rest of the world and especially Africa is a very dangerous world and with dangers lurking around every corner. Of course that is not true and you are probably more safe in other countries than in the western world but it is a hard feeling to lose, at least for me.


I head back to my hotel room to get ready for the next day and to have a good night sleep. I make sure to be back in the hotel room before the dark is setting in. Something almost everyone have told me that have been to Africa are that you don't venture out onto the streets during the night because of the dangers and primarily the danger of being robbed. Something I have not seen any sort of proof of but with the ever pressing feeling that the world outside of the western world is dangerous I take their word for it and don´t venture outside when the dark of the night arrives. Before I head to bed I  make an futile effort to clean my new boots in the shower with unsuccessful result, the boots will probably be as dirty if not more after the next day so the effort of sort of wasted but I still feel the need to do it. Sleep come easily for me.


The next day I have my breakfast early in the morning and then set of with an Uber to go to the Toi market to meet my guide for the day. When I arrive I realize that I will have trouble to find my guide´s shop even though the market looks exactly the same as the day before, I should probably have taken a bigger note of where the shop was located and I regret not using the full power of Google maps as I should have and marked out the location on my phone. Eventually I find the shop with some detective work and probably a lot of luck. After some time waiting for Douglas, he arrives. I am the one that was early because of my pessimistic way of calculating how long time it takes to travel and my fear of having to stress. Douglas has a friend with him that will be joining our expedition or what you want to call it, the name of the friend has sadly been lost in my memory, something I truly regret. After making our acquaintance and settling the prize for the day and of course double checking the prize of fear of being huzzled from my part. A feeling not so different from the one I have mentioned and it probably has the same origin, the world outside the western world is more dangerous and of course everyone is trying to huzzle you. Something that is not true but it is a feeling ever present. We set out start our journey.


We leave the market and we start our walk towards the Kibera slum, small talking about place we are going. My guide and his friend have both grown up in the slum but after they managed to get jobs at the Toi market and later their own shops they could move out from the slum to the northern part of Nairobi. That area has better housing but many of their friends and family still lives in the Kibera slum and they are looking forward seeing the area and their old friends and family.


We start to come to what you might want to refer to as a slum area and my fellow guides tell me that now we are in fact in the slum area of Kibera. The day is starting to get hot, at least for me, Douglas and his friend seem unaffected by the wheater and the sun. People are noticing us as I am trying to get that picture that will win some sort of award that I do not know what it will be for. I take pictures of the people living here, both children and grown ups. Douglas and his friend acts as mediator to explain in Swahili that I am taking pictures and want to take a photo of the people we meet because as you might have guessed I do not speak Swahili, except for the few phrases that probably most tourists learn. The day progresses and I am getting more pictures then I was expecting. I am feeling happy about myself, both for all the pictures I am taking but also the fact that I had the guts to embark on this short journey. At the same time I have a sinking feeling that walking around with my camera taking pictures of the people living here in Kibera slum is an exploitation of the people here and their situation. Is the pictures I am taking and believing that they are good pictures just because they depicting something different from the western world? People who look different from me and have a different way of living?  Lower standard of living? These sort of thoughts start to creep up with the idea that I might just be another westerner that is taking advantage of Kenya and Africa. I stop thinking about it when I engage with the people, talking with them and they seem very interested in me, especially the children who call out Mzungu and Mr. Mzungu.


Mzungu is an word in Swahili that is used to describe someone who has white skin and sometimes someone who speak english. At first the word was used to describe the european explorers that first arrived to Africa. The literally meaning of the word when translated means “someone who roams around” or “wanderer”. The possessive word of Mzungu translates to “behaving rich” but the possessive word is not limited to the color of one skin but traditionally meant for the europeans. Europeans were seen as people being rich and having bigger means. But in the modern age it can and it's not uncommon to be applied to anyone regardless of race. Personally for me the children probably used the word to describe me as someone having white skin and behaving rich rather then someone who is a explorer and roams the world, but I would rather it be for the later.


The day progresses with pictures being taken, my guides engaging with the people, people engaging with me and children roaming around me calling out Mr. Mzungu. We walk among small alleyways with mud on the ground. Small houses and shacks crammed together wherever there is room. Stones that acts as stares that goes up and down, made slippery by the rain and mud. Many times I almost slip and fall, ready to shield my camera from the fall with my body. The camera seems more precious than my body. No house looks the same as the last one, all misshapen towards the other with different color and different material. Some made of wood, some made of concrete or stone but most made of wood. The water from the houses run strait to a small flux that is the only water that passes through the whole slum area. Same as the small flux being the only water passing through the slum, there are only one main road that is asphalted that goes straight through the area. On this road as we walk on it we pass small shops both left and right, here there are  alot more people that you have to dodge left and right showing the true scale of the Kibera slum. Here is also the first time I see traffic in the Kibera, cars and motorcycles coming both ways and sometimes small minivans called Matatu that people use as transport passes us. Eventually we start our journey back to the market. We walk along the old railway that in the past had train going to and from Nairobi but now the trains goes by another railway and instead the railway has shops and other shack`s by it sides and people use it as a walkway. The sun cast long shadows and it has been a long day. I am very tired and the sun has burnt me on the parts that was not covered by clothes. Douglas and his friend still seem unaffected, I probably look as tired as I feel. From the railway I can see the cityscape of the center of Nairobi with it`s tall business buildings giving a strong contrast to the Kibera slum. It almost looks like two different ages. I can also see the new housing being built that will give people in the slum new housing with electricity and water and will make the people leave their old illegal housing, at least that's the government's plan.


Eventually we arrive back to the market. I say my thanks and make the payment and we also agree on what time we will meet for the next day and the tour for the rest of Kibera, we only managed half of the area this day. I head back to the hotel after getting some food to eat, with the ever pressing feeling of exploiting the people we have meet this day. It's a feeling I can't shake and that is probably a good thing. Perhaps I was just another Mzungu that visited a area that`s have a lower standard and for some reason that makes it a adventure or at least that is what I might have thought. My boots can`t hardly be recognised as boots anymore, more like two big piles of mud and dirt, another futile attempt to clean them in the room is made. I pass out quite early on the bed.


The next day progresses in the same way as the day before. With the exception that I can find the shop this time much faster and my boots are already dirty. We meet up, we walk and talk and I am taking pictures just as the day before. But the feeling of exploitation is still with me during the day and will not leave my side. Eventually this day also comes to its end. At the end of the day I say my goodbyes to Douglas and his friend and thank them for this two days. I wish them well and they invite me to come again and visit them, I hope I will visit them again but something tells me that won`t happen.


My small so called adventure has come to an end, what started as a long photograph session ended with a new way of looking at myself. At the start I felt as one who was different from other tourist but now I more feel like someone who has exploited a community for my personal gain of acquiring photos for me to use for my future career as an photographer. Maybe I should rethink my way or maybe I can use the way of art as an excuse, I do not now but I do know that this Muzungu is now going home. Back to the comfortable living in the western world. The last thing I do is to get my boots cleaned by a shoe shiner.

Max Linderborg
Freelance photographer looking to learn