Life Lessons, as a Mzungu in Kenya, Africa


“Mzungu” is the word for “American”, or in the more colloquial version, “wealthy foreigner person”, in the Swahili language. During four trips to Kenya, Africa, from 2014-2016 with 9 months spent working and living in the country, I experienced adopting a new cultural and identity, while learning to relate to the 40+ tribes in Kenya (Luo, Luhya, Kikuyu, and many more!) from the perspective of “my tribe”, as Kenyans see it, as indicated by the Swahili word, mzungu.

Being a mzungu in an African country put me in a situation where, as a Caucasian in North America, I had never truly been: a racial minority. Living in Kenya for 6 months continuously last year, got me beyond the “tourist” or “humanitarian worker” visitor status, to take a deeper look at the subconscious ways I thought about my own race and other races within the North American context, but, it also gave me enough space to question how Africans view “mzungus”, how mzungus view Africans, and provided me with wonderful opportunities to dive into living African culture on a day-to-day basis, as a friend, volunteer, church member, and as an accepted member of various communities.

Some of those experiences were amazing, and so much fun. Others were painful, embarrassing, bizarre, or totally unwelcome – I’ll share some fun / funny / insane examples with photos, of my life being a mzungu in Kenya!

Returning to the US last December and re-acclimating to American culture for the first time, while in some ways was a relief from the frustrations of third world, under-developed infrastructure and security concerns, but it actually felt more foreign to me, than living in Africa. This phenomenon is known as “reverse culture shock”, when one’s own culture feels unfamiliar and one wishes to return to the unique and now-comfortable foreign way of life. Though I really appreciated being able to drink clean water, no longer worry about mosquito bites turning into malaria, local coffeeshop food causing salmonella, potentially being taken hostage by al-Shabaab terrorists, avoiding crazy matatu drivers, or just fielding the dozens of begging, favor requests, philanthropic, and “business opportunities” that came at me every day in Kenya, the reality is that I had just seen a lot of very difficult things – hundreds of orphanage children in less than favorable living conditions, many families unable to provide basic necessities, filth and unhygienic sanitation conditions in slum areas, an economic depression that sees more than 70% of the population unemployed and unengaged in productive life pursuits, people getting sick from preventable diseases, and just a tough, tough environment for so many people in their daily lives – and so to be surrounded by Americans in comfortable homes, with expensive vehicles, wearing beautiful clothing, fretting about the gluten level of regular foods, the temperature of their yoga class, or waiting more than 5 minutes to catch an Uber car, was horrific. To say the least.

Being a mzungu in Kenya is difficult in annoying an unfamiliar ways, but being an African in Kenya, is to have survival as a pressing concern regardless of how secure your situation may seem at the moment, as things can change often, with the rug of stability being pulled out from underneath at any moment, due to economic distress, political instability, financial hardship, a life cut short through AIDS, violence, terrorism, or sickness. But Kenyans don’t know anything different, so, they have many things in their lives that they celebrate, cherish, and value, from deep cultural traditions, to family bonds, to small and simple pleasures like lime-spiced roasted corn or sugar cane sold on the side of the road for 10-20 cents.

I’d love to share with my fellow mzungus in Portland, what I’ve learned about our “tribe” from the perspective of an Africanized mzungu, and how we can cultivate an awareness of our blessings, and a healthy, empowering, non-pity-based, compassion for our friends in lesser privileged areas of the world.


africa, culture, race, humanitarian work, expatlife

Carolynn Duncan

Affiliation Northwest Social Venture Fund

Carolynn Duncan is the Founding Partner of the Northwest Social Venture Fund and TenX, an impact venture fund and startup accelerator with the mission to reduce suffering in the world, through impact investing and scalable social entrepreneurship. Carolynn has assisted businesses in raising capital from $10K to $8MM, and mentored TenX teams in generating more than $30MM in revenues and funding. Carolynn spends much of the year in Nairobi, Kenya, managing impact investing and humanitarian initiatives throughout the East Africa region.

A popular speaker and thought leader, Carolynn has been featured in Forbes, Wall Street Journal, New York Times,, Read Write Web, GeekWire, Sustainable Business Oregon, Oregon Business Magazine, Portland Business Journal, and has spoken, mentored, or judged at events for Pivot East Mobile Startups Competition, Keiretsu Forum Impact, TEDx, Elevating Impact, Mercy Corps, Tech4Change, Startup Weekend, The Indus Entrepreneurs, White House Business Council, Startup America, WebVisions, IMN Impact Investing Summit, and Capital Investment Network. She is passionate about humanitarian work and the intersection of impact capital + scalable social entrepreneurship.

Prior to TenX, Carolynn sourced deals for EPIC Ventures, a Salt Lake City-based venture capital firm, developed an entrepreneurial finance program and ran LivePitch events for FundingUniverse (Lendio), assisted in launching the Eastern Idaho Entrepreneurial Center in partnership with BYU-Idaho & EPIC Ventures, founded the Hundred Dollar Business, was a founding employee of TagJungle, and worked at $3MM seed fund Provo Labs. She has worked with at-risk youth through Utah Youth Village and Casey Life Skills Program, volunteers as a “Big Sister” with Big Brothers, Big Sisters, is an advocate of Pathway, a distance learning program developed by BYU-Idaho, and has taught financial & employment literacy for young adults in the LDS Church. She is currently working on an MBA at Brigham Young University, and has a Bachelor’s in Modern Dance, Music (Violin) & English (Literature/Creative Writing) from Brigham Young University-Idaho.