It passes from person to person like an echo.
If it’s not our bags clutched tlightly at our sides, or our backpacks perched in front like bellies pregnant with gadgets, valuables, and stacks of shillings, its our hair, natural, worn down, uncoverd. If its not our hair it’s our clothing, girls in pants or skirts that hit mid-shin instead of ankle. If it’s not our clothing it’s our skin. Or our eyes. Or our accents.
Children scream it like laughter, women whisper it like gossip, men gnash it with teeth like sharks. It’s a brand. Wazungu.
Like hawks, we are descended upon. Newspaper men flock to the windows of our taxis, quickly flipping to the English section and pressing it onto the glass. Street vendors call out to us as we walk along the street. Karibuni! Looking is free! Young men and boys, permanently stationed on various street corners call out Mambo! and Vipi! like a test. We murmur our Poas and Safis in response as necessary. We simply ignore those who call out China to our Vietnamese and Filipino teammates and the various Kiswahili names for Indians to our Sri Lankan ones.
Here, it is as if the observation of our foreignness is as necessary to point out as it is to breathe or eat. Heads turn as we walk down the street. Children poke, men eye. And always the whispers. Wazungu.
While on safari, we would constantly call out to one another as we spotted animals. Zebra! Hippos over there! Baby elephant! It never got old. In many places, we feel as if we are the safari animals, moving through the savannah of the streets, providing them with spectacle.
It’s not so much irritating as it is intriguing. In America—in Harvard Yard even, we receive thousands of tourists everyday. I have yet to go out of my way to even glance over at one as I walk to my classes or back to my room. I do not poke them. I do not grab at them as they walk down the cobblestone sidewalks. I do not try to guess their nationality and then yell it at them, or attempt to speak to them in a language I think might be theirs, yet here, these things happen to us and our fellow tourists everyday.
In America we love privacy and personal space, and we would never dream of breaching another’s. Here, no such boundaries are upheld and while it used to disturb us, it gets less and less startling everyday.