The Mzungus and me

On a chilly morning in 1998, my mom and I flew out of Nairobi to begin our new lives in Europe. My mom laughs when she remembers how excited and delightfully oblivious I was to the momentous journey we were to embark on. She describes the day (and the preceding night) as one of the most stressful in her life. But luck was on our side. I was a six-year-old asylum seeker who would end up resettling in London.

It feels poignant and fitting then that the first time I return to Africa in almost twenty years, I return to Nairobi—to the same airport I had flown out off so many years ago. The IWMF fellowship is an incredible opportunity to do some foreign reporting and change the narrative. But it also forced me to confront and come to terms with a number of questions around community, identity, and where exactly “home” is to me.

I don’t remember much of my life before I had moved to Europe, but that didn’t stop me from hungrily consuming my surroundings the moment I landed in Nairobi. I had hoped a certain smell, a specific taste, or even a road would spark something within me and make my identity clink into place. I went to Nairobi hoping I would find a piece of myself, but no such revelation ever really took place.

Yes, the language, and place were all alien to me, but I didn’t feel alien or a foreigner while there. And that was really down to the people I met. Whenever I had told someone I had grown up in Kenya, a warm hug or smile was often the response (as well as a gentle reproach for ever leaving). I felt warm and welcomed.

Strangely enough, this feeling didn’t end when I arrived in Rwanda; where, within the first five minutes, someone insisted I had to be Rwandan. This continued throughout the trip, as people were keen to distinguish me from the Mzungus (foreigners). This seeped into my reporting, where I found people quickly warmed up to me. Though I should have felt like a Mzungu while in Rwanda, the people around me ensured I never really did.

My biggest takeaway from the trip is that home shouldn’t be defined by borders, nor should our understanding of who we are. I flew back to London feeling British, Arab, African, and finally content with those contradictions.

– Aamna Mohdin