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Gaining Perspective

Mzungu Dancing

By Joel Torgeson

A month under the equatorial sun of Kenya is enough to give you a couple of things: a nice tan, some great fossils, and an incredible dance performance. I’m enjoying the first two a lot, but the third deserves sharing here.

I had the privilege of attending the launch party of a local non-profit organization called CAITHS (Center for Advocacy and Intervention on Talent, Healthcare, and Sanitation) on Rusinga Island. We planted trees, cleaned up a beach, and helped community elders with their yard work. The culmination of the day of celebration was an event put on at the new Kathy and Mike McNulty Academy (KMMA) on the island, a newly founded school for children who cannot afford the transportation and meal fees for other primary schools, often due to AIDS or other diseases taking one or both of their parents.

Adorably small children in bright green KMMA polos and black shorts recited several quotations for the assembled crowd, and poems and songs came from several other area schools. Their efforts were appreciated by the audience, as was a performance by ‘Doctor 007,’ a man who, to the best of my understanding, worked on several movie sets in the 70’s and 80’s and who performed several songs for the crowd. It was a fun event.

Then came the young men from Kamasengre. It was an incredible performance. Young men dressed in purple feathers on their heads and shoulders shook and danced, mesmerizing the crowd while others played the beat on drums, tambourines, and a whistle like those your gym teacher used in elementary school. Their dance was explained as a war dance, with a menacing bird figure dancing over the purple-clad men. A man on stilts also walked around the perimeter of the dance. It’s difficult to find words to describe dancing that I’m so unfamiliar with. There were no heel leads or crossover breaks but I found them transfixing none the less. They sat on tiny wooden stools and danced, leapt in the air, and stamped their feet rhythmically.

It’s tempting to use words like ‘raw’ and ‘tribal’ to describe their dancing, but that kind of language takes away the amazingness of the physical feats they are performing and places it nebulously on their ethnicity. The way they move would be remarkable in any group of people, period. It was simply amazing!

The whole audience was sad to see it end.

After the last speech was delivered and the schoolchildren released, I began walking towards the front of the compound to head for camp. It’d been a long day and we’d be back out in the field tomorrow. On my way out one of the instructors of the program was talking to some local leaders. As I waited for him to finish up, I struck up a conversation with one of the dancers. Before I knew it I had purple feathers on my head and shoulders! I was being taught how to dance.

It was an absolute blast. ‘Mzungu!’ the small children shouted, the Swahili euphemism for white foreigner. Literally translated it means ‘one who wanders around.’ Their childish grins were echoed by the older people looking on as well. Could this mzungu really dance? Well, kinda. I gave it my best try and had a lot of fun. Though I couldn’t move with the grace and precision of my Kenyan teacher, I got a passing grade and a laugh from the enthusiastic onlookers.

I’m proud of myself for giving it a try. As an experienced dancer and a prideful person, it can be hard to put myself in a vulnerable position like that sometimes. Inevitably, it pays off. I may be thousands of miles away from Rusinga Island now, but I’ll try to keep the lesson close at hand. I look forward to pushing myself to try new things in the coming months.

Happy dancing!