Friday, April 19, 2019

My Biggest Kenya-Specific Pet Peeve

As long-time blog readers will note, I've been very vocal about my biggest general pet peeve: mixing up "lectern" and "podium" (which I still experience at least once a week, in case anyone was wondering). After two years in Kenya, though, I can say that I have developed a certain, Kenya-specific pet peeve. I've tried ignoring it time and time again, but it still grates on me.

Moreover, to my knowledge I am the only person I know with this particular pet peeve. (If any others are out there, please back me up in the comments!) I've heard many complaints from American friends about matatus' reckless driving, the lack of orderly queues at customer service desks, and the wildly different approach to punctuality here. Although I've experienced all of those things, I do feel I've culturally adapted more and more to them over time. My pet peeve on the other hand, never seems to get less annoying - it may even be more irritating as the days go by, for reasons I can't explain.

So what is this thing that's driving me nuts? To explain what it is, we'll have to embark on a mini-Swahili language journey. It starts with the word "mzungu", the most common way I've been addressed throughout my two years in Kenya. People I'm meeting with will describe me as "mzungu", street kids will yell out "mzungu" when I walk by, people will cry "mzungu" at our car windows while begging for money, and so on. Most polite Kenyans will say "mzungu" means foreigner or expat. In usage, though, it pretty much means "white person" - most of the African Americans and dark-skinned foreigners I've met in Kenya are never called mzungu, and especially not by strangers.

I'll be honest - it's not enjoyable heading somewhere, simply minding my own business, as people yell out "mzungu". I stand out enough already without a bunch of strangers highlighting how out of place I look despite my best efforts to avoid drawing attention to myself by dressing modestly, not pulling out my phone, or wearing flashy accessories. The exclamations of "mzungu" are also often accompanied by requests for money, which I'm usually not comfortable giving as a result of previous bad experiences.

So imagine how I feel when someone is urging someone else to speak to me in "Kizungu", where "Ki-" is the prefix in Kiswahili that means "language of" a certain people. "Kiswahili" is the language of the Swahili people, "Kiarabu" is Arabic, and "Kizungu" is... the language of mzungus, or as I understand it, white people language. I don't think this is necessarily an ignorance thing. (I have met some Kenyans in mostly rural areas who really did think all white people spoke English as a native language, but there are probably similar proportions of Americans who think all Africans speak the same language.)

Where I have been surprised is among members of the educated and well-traveled (most of whom I've met through work) also only referring to English as "Kizungu". There's a proper word in Kiswahili I find immensely preferable for "English": "Kingereza", the language of "Uingereza", or England. For some reason, however, nobody seems interested in using "Kingereza" over "Kizungu". This is true even though everyone agrees "Kiafrika" or "Ki-" + any other race or geographic region that is not linguistically united would be silly.

Thankfully for me, "Kizungu" can remain a minor annoyance. For those labelled "mzungus" who don't actually speak English, I could see it being a major barrier to getting around. It also reinforces stereotypes that all light-skinned people are native English speakers. Even Latinx folks, some mixed race groups, some Asian-Americans, and light-skinned African-Americans who would not clearly be labelled as "white" in the United States (people like me and Meghan Markle included) are usually considered "mzungu" in Kenya by virtue of their skin color and facial features alone. I've reached the point where sometimes I'll say something and sometimes I won't when I hear "Kizungu", yet I'm fully aware that my reaction is a minor drop in the cultural bucket of mutual understanding. At the very least, I hope this blog post was at least a little thought-provoking for someone! Let me know whether you can relate or even whether you completely disagree.

(On a lighter note, while writing this blog post I stumbled across this very catchy and upbeat song, "Kizunguzungu" by SaRaha! I learned "Kizunguzungu" means dizziness, which makes sense since "mzungu" was originally derived from a Bantu term for "wanderer" referring to European settlers generally. You can read more about this etymology here.)

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Makeup in the Foreign Service

Makeup and fashion are real elements of workplace culture. I remember having friends and roommates working in certain parts of Congress on Capitol Hill where most of the women had medium- to heavy-makeup every day, styled hair, and glamorous outfits. This is not a frivolous matter: there is a slew of scientific studies showing that makeup and appearance can affect how others perceive you professionally and therefore your career. Some researchers have found that a made-up face can even make you more likely to get hired than a bare one. (You can read a summary of just one of the many studies' findings here.) Even those who say they prefer a "natural" look at the office often subconsciously don't really want purely natural - dark circles, blemishes, and all. (This hilarious Amy Schumer One Direction-style parody video describes the phenomenon perfectly.)

So how's the makeup culture of the Foreign Service? To be honest, I would actually say the makeup expectations are less than average for what I've seen elsewhere in the government world. There are many offices in think tanks or other kinds of public service where seeing a women without makeup would be perceived as unprofessional or at least very rare. In the Foreign Service, a number of diplomat women at all levels don't spend too much time on their hair, makeup, wardrobe, and jewelry on a daily basis.

Among those who do wear makeup, the basics are common at work - maybe even as little as a touch of mascara. That being said, there are exceptions for formal events like balls and special receptions. For those types of working events, both men and women do typically put in some extra effort. Manicures and pedicures, hair styling, makeup, gowns, and high heels are commonplace at those sorts of galas. (For those like me who go bare-faced most days, it can be a fun change from the daily look, too.)

So what kind of makeup should you wear once you're in the Foreign Service? As long as you're not sporting a YouTube makeup artist-level dramatic look to the point it's distracting, you should be able to wear whatever makes you feel happy and confident. If you're still trying to establish a professional makeup look for yourself, I can highly recommend Sephora as a place to start (and no, I'm not getting paid to say that)! If you walk into a Sephora store in person, their amazing staff can help you find what you need and recommend things they think will look great on you. If you use the Sephora app on your smartphone, you can even use your phone's camera to see an approximation of what specific products will look like on your face.