The first few times I heard ‘Mrembo! Mrembo!’ directed at me on the busy streets of Nairobi, I held back the smile building on my face, depositing the compliment into a deep pocket to be admired later. If there’s one thing many women learn quickly, it is not to engage strange men, even when they call you beautiful in a language your ears love. Even when mrembo is a welcomed upgrade from the Minneapolis catcalls of “What’s up shorty?” or “You got a man?”
That, was nearly a year ago.
These days, mrembo has lost its charm. No longer a phrase that alludes to my supposed beauty, but instead a term that denotes my age and gender to most of its users. As I would quickly find out in my first few months back in the country of my birth, mrembo was less a one-of-a-kind compliment and more a general term (used by both men and women) to attract the attention of young women. Women like me. A term that years from now, would evolve into Mum or Auntie, whether or not I am someone’s mother or aunt.
For now, mrembo is what they call me at the shopping center as my eyes make contact with the flowy tan coverall hanging off the metal door of a shopkeeper’s stall.
“Mrembo, kuja uangalie.”
“Come take a look,” the storekeeper begs, already making promises as to the suitability of the garment to my body. Mrembo is how the bus conductor beckons me as the speeding matatu screeches to a halt a few feet away. For only twenty shillings, he’s certain he can get me where I need to be.
“Twenty bob mrembo! Twenty bob!”
Mrembo is what the many security guards at the mall entrances greet me with as they ask me to open my bag for them. And much like I have learned to let “hey beautiful,” roll over me without much effect, I have also learned to call these guards by names that are not theirs. “Boss,” for the men, occasionally Mkubwa (Senior) and “Madam,” always, for the women.
It’s a game of chivalry when it comes to how Kenyans relate to individuals in service to them; from the residential gate watchmen, to the waiters and waitresses at your favorite bar, to the bank teller and even the very same conductor who calls you mrembo. It is almost as if there is a need for reverence before them because customer service in Kenya is not the guaranteed thing of the West. You must learn to charm your waitress into wanting to return to your table. You must acknowledge that the guard whose job is to open and close the gate of the walled-in estate you live in is clearly the boss as the first line of defence for your home security. You must acquiesce that the conductor is the man in charge of making sure the matatu stops where you need to alight.
In this way, there have been other discrete and not so discrete changes to how I communicate with my world. Much like I had learned to mitigate the the newness of America by learning its language quirks (lifts becoming elevators, car boots becoming trunks, colour dropping its ‘u’ so it was simply color, and so on), I am unlearning these seasoned American habits in an effort to fit back home.
So when one of my friends tells me, “I was so high yesterday,” I do not gleefully confuse them for a stoner and ask them where I can get some good weed. To be high in a Kenyan context, is to be drunk.
Likewise, I am learning how to give directions in the Kenyan way, with our knack for egocentric versus fixed directions. Right and left are rarely used, instead “juu ama chini?” (“up or down?”) is what the Uber driver asks when we arrive at the intersection. It is a city that seldom uses street names and intersections and the use of landmarks more common. I remember once asking for directions from a street vendor; he started by pointing at a tree in the distance.
“You see that tree over there?” He asked sincerely.
A tree amidst a street full of buildings and signs. And other trees. I stared hopelessly at him. Needless to say, I asked about four more people for directions before finding the building I was looking for.
That moment reminded me life is cyclical—that what has been will come to be. The American accent I worked so hard to acquire, now tries to couch itself in the rolled r’s of my tongue meeting the roof of my mouth. My underused Kiswahili sputters and stutters as I try to find the words needed to bargain the price on the tan coverall that I have decided must live in my closet; agreeing with the storekeeper that it does suit my body. Through these changes in language and speech, I am finding myself reinvented. That American Kari cannot be Kenyan Kari, or any other version of Kari that has existed or may come to exist. Much like my world has drastically changed, this new language required to communicate with my world creates a different version of me. This forces me to think and interact differently. In a 2010, New York Times article the author, Guy Deutscher, explores how language shapes thinking and poses the following:
“Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.”
A year down the line, having laid claim to the language of Nairobi, the questions I am now left with are these: What does this new language oblige me to think about? What are the implications of the language of spaces that we each have learned to speak in? As that old Kenyan proverb says, “Travelling is learning.”