Over the past 6 years, Kenya has become part of my life - especially Nairobi where my boyfriend is from. Being a Dane, I - probably like many other Europeans - grew up with images of starving children, proverty, war and, on occasion, elephants as the image of what "Africa" was like.
For me, though, Africa as a continent has always fascinated me greatly. BUT - Africa is a continent - a HUGE continent. So for me, talking about "African people" makes very little sense. Sure, I am a European, but I am also Danish - different from an Italian, a Brit or a German. So, when talking about "Africa", I try to look at the specific countries. Each country is unique and so are the people. I was so lucky to experience Kenya.
I went there for the first time in 2013. Destination Nairobi. I'd be lying if I say I wasn't nervous. Reading the travel guidelines online made me feel like I would be the main target of any bad thing that could potentially occur. And the information was extremely ambiguous. On the one hand, every incident that had ever occured in Kenya was listed as a warning. On the other hand, the whole guide ended with a "most travellers have a wonderful stay". Confused much? Yes I was! BUT - going there with a local made me feel safe, and so I jumped on the plane on a cold, Danish October afternoon.
I still recall landing in Nairobi for the first time. I remember the sun, the red ground, the colors and the smells. From the plane into a taxi, and we were on the way into town. As we drove, I remember this:
1. Feeling insignificant
Oh yes - I was one tiny, little, Danish person - among millions of people in the city. Why was I even interesting? Everyone was going about their business. What did I have to offer? In Europe, we were brought up with the concept of "poor Africa" and how we should "help those people". Remember those lyrics from Brand Aid? "There's a world outside your window, And it's a world of dread and fear, Where the only water flowing, is the bitter sting of tears". Somehow that image has stuck in many people's heads. And I hate how this song continues to stigmatize Africa as a continent. I actually found out that prominent African artists refused to sing on the new Band Aid version because they found it stigmatizing. I will take it as far as saying that we are ignorant in the West. We feed into our own desire to make a difference. We don't see that many countries in Africa are developing. In Kenya, I felt so insignificant. There was a whole culture I knew nothing about. And it was a rich, proud culture passed on through generations. Who was I to claim I knew anything about how to do things there?? I was the one needing help.
Another thought I had, that has continued to stick with me, was this:
2. Feeling "outnumbered"
Walking in the streets of Nairobi, I was the only white person the majority of the time. It was a weird feeling. It was a healthy experience. There was just NO way I could ever fit in. There was NO way I could look like everyone else. It made me think of how it must be to come to Denmark and feel different. To feel like no matter what you do, you may never fit in fully. It humbled me. It added perspective.
After some days in Nairobi, I felt more in tune with my new surroundings. And I started feeling more like this:
3. This feels oddly familiar
Nairobi is far from Copenhagen. Everything looks different. The culture is different. And yet, along the way, different things started to feel familiar: The humor. How people seemed curious but a bit reserved. The weather - which is like a nice, Danish summer day. I guess I was also actively looking for things and experiences to relate to. For me, it was important to do so to feel comfortable in a different culture and country.
After getting over my initial "culture shock", if you will, I started noticing new things:
4. Oh my God, the scenery!
Yes, I can't emphasize enough how beautiful Kenya is!!! Colors, mountains, wild animals (Check out my photos in the Travel section). I may as well spoil it for you now: Once you have been to Kenya, going to the zoo will never be the same. There is nothing like seeing a giraffe or a zebra in nature. Also, stop thinking only of the savanna when thinking of Africa. In Kenya, I went to a bamboo forrest. I went up into the mountains where it was actually quite cold. I saw canyons and rivers and lakes - and a lot of green. No - Africa is not necessarily a dry place, not in every country :-)
Going back to Denmark, I thought a lot about what I had seen and experienced - and I have done so every time I have been back. Experiencing Kenya with a local profoundly changed my views (as you can probably conclude from this post). Every time, I am back in Denmark, I think of this:
5. If everyone had experienced this...
... then how would our view of Africa as a continent and the different countries be? I think way more multi-faceted. Sure, there is still poverty in different countries in Africa, but there is also poverty in Europe, South America, Asia and the US. There is corruption yes. And some countries face grim wars. But we don't relate to the people - the ordinary people who just live their lives being content. We don't honor the people who make a difference to their own local communities. How can the West point out that development is lacking when we don't even want to trade with African countries at fair prices? In some ways - in my view - we still continue to carry a rather colonial mind-set. We have opinions about things we have never witnessed. And we desire to influence the lives of people we have never faced. I can only speak about Kenya, as it is the only place I have been, but my experience was crystal clear: Kenyans look to the future - their future - through their eyes. Not ours. How we believe things should be done is actually completely irrelevant. There are many ways to live "right" and to be "happy". I wonder what else I don't know about all the other countries in Africa.