Mzungu

Here, I am no longer “Gemina.” I am “mzungu.” It is a word I hear every day, sometimes more than others, and that has occupied a great deal of space in my mind.

Mzungu. White person.

What intrigues me the most is both how it is used in Swahili and its origins. The word translates not to a color of skin or to any particular ethnic or geographicgroup, but to “one who wanders without purpose.” When I consider what early European exploration and expansion must have looked like to people living in this region, I can understand the roots of this word. What particularly gets me is that this description resonates with me very personally. Ever since I first knew of Everett Ruess and his desert wanderings, “a vagabond for beauty” has been my namesake. From the outside, I feel like I am the embodiment of “one who wanders without purpose,” not only here, but to all those who either have not lived the life or a traveller or who don’t desire to.

There are many practical reasons, “purposes”, if you will, for some of my global vagabonding: research, work, school, etc. Sometimes the purpose is simply the journey, however, which is difficult to explain to people and cultures that do not share this wanderlust gene. I often think about this in terms my personal styling as well. I sport Maasai earrings, Navajo and Zuni rings, a Tibetan Buddhist mala, a Ghanaian bag, pants from Norway, a traditional Portuguese scarf, a sweater from Argentina, a khanga from Mozambique, bracelets I’ve collected from across the world, and then some. These are my stories. These are my journeys. My friends. My memories. My homes. I know that to people who are rooted in one culture, however, I must look incredibly lost and confused. This is where I start to think that I truly am an mzungu to those here, even though the modern context doesn’t necessary refer back to its origins.

On that note, I find it fascinating that the word as it is used today does not really contain anything specifically derogatory in its usage, it’s just that yes, I am a white person and am thus denoted as such. No matter where I have lived or traveled in Africa, I have found that race is talked about much more openly than we have allowed ourselves to feel comfortable with in America. The same openness applies to my African friends who now live in America. It is not racist, derogatory, or negative to include in a statement the color of that person’s skin (depending of course on the context and content of the rest of the sentence). While I have become accustomed to this, and in fact have come to appreciate it, I have a harder time getting used to being defined, in passing, entirely by the color of my skin.

Daily, “mzungu” leaves someone’s mouth and is directed at me. In the village, it was children who saw you walking down the road. “Mzungu! Mzungu! Mzungu!” Here in Dar, where people are more accustomed to seeing white people, it’s generally just in reference to me – “Did the mzungu tell you what she wants for lunch?” Today in the ladies’ bathroom at work, three women who were chatting when I walked in started throwing around “mzungu” when I was in the stall. (*As an aside: using a squat toilet when I have my traveling clothes on vs. when I have fancy work clothes/shoes on is a whole different experience).

My on-site internship mentor is a wonderfully happy man that goes by Dr. Msami. He is the director of surveillance and diagnostics at the Tanzanian Veterinary Laboratory Agency, where I’m interning. On the way home from work today, we discussed how the Western media portrays Africa and, vice versa, perceptions of wazungu (plural for “mzungu”) and Americans based off movies and other media they see. I told him that my students were continually amazed by the fact that people were actually HAPPY in Africa – that they weren’t all starving, engaged in genocide, or otherwise completely in a state of abject horror. When I think about the movies that have been popular in America that are based in Africa, the ones that come to mind are “Blood Diamond,” “Hotel Rwanda,” “The Last King of Scotland.” And yes, recently, “Invictus”, just to throw a little rugby in the mix. (For more on this topic, google Radi-Aid – it’s pretty amazing).

Conversely, however, what people here see of America is that we are all rich. Last night I again got the question: “There is poverty in America???” I think this is also what makes me uncomfortable at times with being “mzungu” and not “Gemina.” I am aware of the associations made here with a person being white, and, I do not necessarily fulfill some of those standards (and do not necessarily encounter people who care to discern the differences among wazungu). While discussing this, Dr. Msami told me that being mzungu means that yes you are stared at, yes you are a novelty, yes you are judged, but that’s it’s always in a positive way. “You are god-like,” he says. That’s a lot to live up to. It also makes it hard to go walk around outside if you’re not in the mood to have your every movement observed, or, as a blonde, your hair touched from time to time (this, and the horrible water pressure, are why I chopped off a good six inches of my locks before coming here). He then explains that anything big or fancy has the Swahili word for “European” added, even if it’s just a nice big herd of local cattle. Amusingly, the word for a big airplane translates to “European bird.”

No matter what, I will always be an mzungu. In both senses of the word, I imagine. I’m also sure it is something that I will continue to ponder as I become more involved in day-to-day life here.

But for the grand finale, a little irony from Dominique, one of our askaris (guards) in Maji ya Chai, our homestay village for the National Geographic Student Expeditions trip: 

Image

The Long and Bumpy Road

Aside

Well that month flew by.

I’m sitting on my bed at my new home in Dar es Salaam, the Kiota Lodge. Not only do I have amazing zebra print bedding (clashing with the Maasai blanket I added for warmth), but my bed frame extends about four feet up at both the foot and the head and has beautiful wood carvings that frame paintings of peacocks. I’ve been waking up in a tent recently, so this is quite a difference.

Obviously too much has happened in the last month for me to update on everything right now, but I’d like to be able to tell stories here and there from this time. For now, I think I’ll start with the 24-hour journey that got me here from Tarangire National Park.

After finishing my trip with National Geographic Student Expeditions, I joined a Putney Student Travel community service trip as a contract photographer/filmmaker to capture footage of their program. I had a total of eight days with them, half in their village and half on safari. Today is Thursday. Tuesday morning I woke up under the warmth of my sleeping bag and three extra blankets. The sunrise poured in through my window as I packed up, and I made sure to take a few minutes before breakfast to go soak up the view from the “kopje” (the Dutch translates to “little head”, but it means a small rock outcrop in the savannah) at our camping site. We are alone out here, save the Maasai guides who are ever present with their spears. I tell myself to remember this moment, burn it into my mind, so when I’m sitting in endless traffic in Dar I can call upon in.

Tuesday afternoon. We’re on our way to the public campsite in Tarangire National Park. We came in at the other end of the park so getting to our destination is a game drive in itself. I’m in a bit of a predicament, because a resupply vehicle is waiting for me at camp to take me back to Arusha with them, yet the closer it gets to dusk the more animals come out and the more we stop to look at them. We arrive at camp around 5:45pm, and I scramble in a state of hurriedness that I haven’t felt since arriving back in Africa. I need to get out my computer, transfer over the files for what I shot today to the external hard drives I’m leaving with the group leaders to send back. Need to give them all my sound gear. Need to give them my tripod. Need to grab all my things. Need to be out of the park before they lock us in at 6:30pm. I give the group goodbye hugs and hop into an old beat-up Land Rover (the best kind, I might add) and hit the dusty trail.

We zoom along at a speed I don’t think I’ve felt since arriving one month ago. We dodge warthogs, impala, wildebeest, and zebras, but we make it out on time. We hit the highway and encounter a police checkpoint. I know they’re asking about the mzungu in the car (me). Afterwards James, the driver, mentions something about needing to chat with them not to be bribed. I can’t tell if he means in general or if they were asking for a bribe just then. I look out the window at the setting sun. We drive past Lake Manyara and the mountains designating the Great Rift Valley. As we drive, our angle to the mountains keeps changing so the horizon keeps getting lower. Sunset lasts so much longer this way. At times, I even get the sensation of the sun rising again.

IMG_9569

We hit construction and a long bumpy ride begins. A giant moon peeks out over the horizon, caramel-colored and in a halo of clouds. Here and there the moon is framed by the silhouettes of acacia trees, and I realize the only thing more beautiful than an African sunset might be an African moonrise.

We arrive in Arusha at 9pm. I check in to my hotel and find two novelties: wireless and a hot shower. Not only is the water hot, but the pressure is strong enough to allow me to condition my hair for the first time in a month. The simple joys are really all that matter here.

My alarm goes off at 4:33am. I grimace. At 4:50am, my friend’s brother, a taxi driver here in Arusha, calls to tell me he’s outside. He’s 20 minutes early. I finish getting ready and head out into the darkness. At the bus station, three buses are loaded and drive off before mine, the 6:30am departure, arrives. While waiting I sit on a bench with my bags and watch three very newborn kittens, two black and one tabby, play with each other. It’s too much cuteness for so early in the morning.

The bus ride is long and cramped. A large woman with an extreme case of halitosis sits next to me. I turn towards the window. Soon after, the bus attendant comes by and informs me that I am in the wrong seat. She points to seat 22, where I was supposed to be. I see numbers written nowhere, but at this point it’s too much of a hassle for me and the man who ended up in 22 to switch. We wait until the bus stops in Moshi, then the large woman with halitosis tells me to move to 22, so I do.

The in-drive entertainment is spectacularly dreadful. The movie “Python” plays two times in a row. You can still hear the original English but someone has attempted to dub by speaking over it in Swahili. They’ve also provided entirely nonsensical English subtitles such as “hot water rice has been died!” (which, from everything I could gather at this point, was meant to say something along the lines of “Tommy was killed!”). The next movie is “Yankee Zulu.” I pull out my iPod.

I nod in and out of sleep. We have one toilet break at lunch and that is all, so I’m keeping myself pretty dehydrated. I text the colleagues picking me up in Dar at certain points to let them know my whereabouts, as we pass by shops with names like “Nice Pub” and “Friday Pub Everyday is Weekend”. I take a particular liking to the gasoline tankers with “DANGER – INFLAMMABLE” painted on them and a hand-painted sign on a truck that read “VERY LONG ABNORMAL VEHICLE.”

Ten hours after leaving Arusha, we arrive in Dar. My colleagues have been trailing the bus since we got to the city, waiting for it to stop so they can pick me up. I get put into a very nice, very new, Land Rover (issued by the Tanzanian government, I’m guessing) and start the trip to Kiota Lodge. As we get closer to the airport I notice signs with Barack Obama’s face welcoming him to Tanzania, where he just visited earlier this month. Karibu, Obama. Two hours later we’ve driven the short distance between where my bus stopped and the lodge. If traffic is this bad all the time I’m going to need a commuter hobby.

Upon arriving I meet Iku, the woman I’ve been in contact with here at Kiota, and Gabriel, a vet at the agency I’m interning at who specializes in zoonoses, particularly brucellosis and tuberculosis. I haven’t talked about things like this since leaving Boston and my brain perks up. I eat my dinner while we talk, trying to retain some manners while stuffing my face with my first meal since lunch the previous day. Soon after, Gabriel goes home to his family and I allow myself the longest night of sleep I’ve had in… well… that’s a good question. Too long.

And so here I am.

Shifting gears…

Habari rafiki! (Hello friends!)

Although I started this blog as a venue through which to keep people updated on my National Geographic Young Explorer’s Grant project on Azorean whalers, I’m embarking on a new journey this summer and decided I should continue using this site as a means for travel stories and updates. 

I’m leaving for Tanzania in just four days, now (hence the opening with Swahili), and that wonderful mix of excitement and fear that I’m going to forget something important is rife. It’s been two years since I was last in Africa and just under two since I was last in the southern hemisphere. Basically, I’M READY.  I have a lot ahead of me this summer – first up is leading a trip with National Geographic Student Expeditions (you can follow along on our trip blog as well, which will have posts from both students and leaders). Joining us for a week on this expedition is someone from the NG team who I’m a big fan of – Andrew Evans, National Geographic’s Digital Nomad. No doubt he’ll be posting updates on his site as well! After that I’m doing some photo and video work for another student trip, then it’s off to the big city for an internship for my graduate degree. I’ll be living in Tanzania’s capital, Dar es Salaam, for six weeks while interning with the Tanzanian Veterinary Agency working on the beginning stages of a project looking at strengthening food and nutrition security through family poultry and crop integration. During the first three weeks of this I’ll also be finishing the final draft of my thesis, so I have no shortage of things to keep me occupied this summer! I’m thinking I’ll give myself a much-needed weekend escape to Zanzibar after turning in my thesis… 

I’ll leave you with that brief update for now, as for some reason I still haven’t figured out a way to get my thesis to write itself or my bags to pack themselves… strange. Ongoing projects with National Geographic on the Azores will still be posted here, for those of you following along for that aspect. I have a couple more things in the works with them that I’m waiting for to go live. 

I know these next four days will be stressful and contain some not-so-pleasant goodbyes, but I’m just keeping in mind that, come Friday, I’ll be looking up at Kilimanjaro for the first time… So here’s to that!

Baadaye (see you later)!

 

National Geographic News Article

When I visited National Geographic’s headquarters in March to present my work with the Azorean whalers, several conversations were started with various realms of the organization to get the stories and images of these men out. Today one of those conversations finally went live as an NG News piece! Hope you enjoy! 

National Geographic Radio Interview

Greetings!

My most recent radio interview for National Geographic’s radio show “National Geographic Weekend” aired on March 31st. Listen along to some of my stories from the Azores and read the summary of my interview and the other NG radio interviewees from this past weekend!

My Instagram feed has also been picked up by National Geographic’s 125th Anniversary website – scroll down to the bottom of the homepage to see my images and other Explorers’ as well! I’ll be featured on the site for the next few weeks and will be posting new images from my work in the Azores last summer.

Image

One of the sailing crew walks among the whaleboats before the start of the regatta during Semana do Mar in Horta, Faial. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Project Update

Hello all!

I’ve just returned to Boston after spending the week in Washington DC to present my project on Azorean whalers at National Geographic headquarters. The presentation went over very well and it was a busy, inspiring, and productive week. I’m happy to share that several new things are in the works to get the word out about my work and the stories of the whalers. Upcoming media will include another radio interview with NG radio host Boyd Matson, a film interview for the web with Nat Geo Live, and an article and photo gallery on Nat Geo News. There’s potentially a few other things brewing, and I’ll be sure to update as it all moves along. I was also asked to continue my blogging for Nat Geo Explorer’s Journal, where I was writing from the field this summer, so I’ll continue to link to any new posts there on this site. 

Thanks for all your continued support – I’ll leave you with a shot from the office of my grant coordinator at NG headquarters (too bad the flag never blew the right way for this vantage point!). 

Image

Social Networks Promotion of Recent Nat Geo Article

Hello all!

Again I apologize for the long absence. This month’s edition of National Geographic Portugal features a short piece on me and my grant work in the Azores this summer. If you’re in Portugal you should buy one and check it out! NG Portugal also did some promotion on social networks – you can get a preview of the article on their Facebook page

Happy New Year to all!

Article in “Fazendo” – local Azorean newspaper

Hello again all!

As always, my apologies for the few posts up these days. I’ve been meaning to put this up for about a month now… An interview with me was recently published in a Faial-based periodical called “Fazendo.” The article is in Portuguese and the full edition can be found here. The page on the left is my interview. I’ve also posted it at the end of this update. Enjoy!

Also, I’ve received some very exciting contact from the editor at National Geographic Portugal regarding publishing an article on my grant in the coming months. I’ll be sure to update everyone as I get more solid information on this!

Até logo! 

Image

Portraits up of Azorean whalers

Hello all!

I have been working hard on getting my images sorted through and writing up my final report for National Geographic. I recently turned in my top 30 edits to NG and am a few days away from sending in my final report. In terms of further work (article, book, etc), that will probably have to wait until my five-week break from school in December/January. Today I finished editing my favorite portraits of each of the thirty men who I interviewed – the two whose wives I spoke to as well are pictured as a couple. These are now up on my website here. Please visit and enjoy!

Many thanks,

Gemina