I have come to notice a strange pseudo-personality that I project every time I go for a walk around Kakamega town. I think that I first started to do this in India, when my friend and I were trying to survive our two month backpacking adventure through the country. What I find strange about it is that I am aware that I am acting, that it is most definitely NOT my natural disposition, but, believable or not, I do it anyways.
I became acutely aware of this the other day when I needed to go to the bank. Rent was due, it was a beautiful Kenyan afternoon, and the bank was only a short walk away. I exchanged pleasantries with Mama and John, my new Kenyan family, and let myself out of the front gate of our compound. It was at that moment that the cheery, talkative, trusting Tom disappeared and the ‘street tough’, jaded, untrusting Tom appeared. Untrusting Tom’s mantra goes like this: everyone is out to get me, they can smell weakness; don’t ever look at a person unless you mean business. So that’s exactly what I did. From my first step en route it was all about swagger and projecting pure masculine intimidation. I think I once read an article on how to do that or something, so no problem.
There are two important aspects to this aura of intimidation. The first is that it’s all about the swagger. I’m not talking about some posture-correcting pushing out of the chest. No, I’m talking about some real hard core, shoulder dropping, testosterone filled get-the-hell-out-of-my-way swagger. Unfortunately, when I attempt this it looks more like a cross between the fight scene in the movie Grease and the something you might see on the Disney channel. Whatever, maybe they don’t notice that.
The second important rule of intimidation, according to Untrusting Tom, is that under no circumstances do you look at someone. Period. I don’t mean don’t look them in the eyes. No, I mean don’t even turn you head in their general direction. Eyes forward towards the prize, the prize being that as soon as I get home I can move my head again. Now, I don’t know if you have ever tried to NOT look at anyone or anything while you walk around, but I can tell you that it is a lot harder then it sounds. Go ahead, try it, you’ll see what I mean.
It wasn’t until I was on my way back home that I knew that I was starting to crumble. The first warning sign was when I made the mistake of letting my deadly gaze fall upon an elderly man that was walking by me. My look of death was met by the biggest smile I have ever seen, crowned by two warm, inviting eyes, and topped off with a joyous “Hello!” I immediately responded in kind, of course. Damn, First layer of intimidation gone.
The second incident occurred not long after. I was leaning against a wall, acting indifferent to the world, when all of a sudden two young, adorable children came running up to me. Before I even had a chance to acknowledge them they had chirped their token English phrase “hello, how are you?” and had ran off back to their parents. Instinctively, and in my classic over-dramatic teacher’s voice, I greeted them kindly. Double damn. Stay strong, Tom. I mean, stay intimidating!
The last incident occurred almost on my own doorstep. I was one road away from home and the only thing between me and my pseudo- street cred was a primary school that is along the way. Of course it had to be recess time, and the entire school of laughing, cheering, playing children, all wearing their beautiful school uniforms, were literally having the time of their lives. I had almost swaggered past them without peering into their youthful happiness when I head a chorus of “Muzungu!” Oh no. I had an idea of what was behind me. I turned around and saw what must have been the entire primary school pressed against the school fence, all calling out to yours truly. I did the only reasonable thing to do and gave them an enthusiastic “Hello!” as I waved back to them. I did this until they were out of sight.
So there I was, standing stripped of my toughness and reduced back to my normal self. Frankly, it felt good. However, I do somewhat understand why it is I tend to act like this every time. Walking around a city like Kakamega, or Delhi, is very different than say walking around a city like Patong or Tokyo. These are cities where you do not leave your house/compound after dark. These are cities where multiple people have warned me about catching a ride on one of the bicycle taxis, as you never know what they might try to do to you. While I know that 99% of the people I refused to look at were most likely wonderful people, one has to put on this visage of toughness, no matter how unnatural it might feel. As my taxi driver said to me on my first night in Kenya, “only the strong survive”. And as long as you are able to once in a while put that visage away and acknowledge those beautiful moments, you’ll do just fine.



  1. Tom, I must respectfully disagree. Last summer, I was the one who was intimidated. I was walking around Kakamega town with my wife when I realized that everyone was watching me. They were all so inquisitive of who this mzungu was and why was he here? And why was he not walking in front of his woman, to ensure that she went the right way? It took me about a week to hike up to the Nakumatt to get my Tuskers, without worry of having to try to communicate in a strange language with people of all ages and stages of life. Then, after a few days of this, it came to me. They didn’t need a full conversation; they only wanted to acknowledge and be acknowledged. I began to relax. My defensive walk became more natural (as much as it can on roads of mud and rock, bumps and contusions). I began to enjoy being out there with them, and even recognizing some of the same people day in and day out. Being recognized by them was kind of fun, too!

  2. John, I couldn’t agree more. I’ll admit that my writing was a bit exaggerated and dramatic, simply for the reason that I enjoy writing that way (tho undoubtedly misleading). In reality, the people have been awesome and inviting. Hell, ive only been here for a week and I’m already starting to be recognized by some people! If anything I should change the last sentence to read more along the lines of how one should once in a while put ON the visage, and for the rest of the time just enjoy the ride.

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