Africa makes us* look better

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Africa makes us look better. Just by stepping off a plane we get richer, more interesting and prettier. In most cases our lighter skin and straighter hair earns us a special place in society. We receive a lot of attention, wanted or not, and feel like minor celebrities. When we are invited to sit at the high table, between a priest and the headmaster of a school, or when a police officer stops traffic for us so we can cross the highway safely we become special. It doesn´t matter if we feel uncomfortable or if we think, like our ancestors, that we deserve to be treated differently, the outcome is the same. By accepting this position of privilege we somehow validate it. We contribute to the perpetuation of a centuries-old system of superiority and subordination.

However, maybe exactly this feeling of being special and superior is one of the reasons why so many of us “fall in love with Africa.” Maybe we are craving a level of attention Europe cannot give us. And Africa can and does. Here we belong to the cosmopolitan circle; we go to cocktail parties at embassies and discuss world politics and the problems of African countries as if we are experts. We surround ourselves with allegedly sophisticated people, who have Master´s degrees in politics, law, or international relations.We complain about our housekeeper or watchman; about how we need to explain some things ten times and they still don´t do it in the way they are “supposed” to. We seem to know why African countries are still not at the same level as others and what the solutions for the problems of African people are. And, as part of the elite we feel very important.

In Kenya, sometimes you can also find a few Kenyans at those fancy dinner parties, but in general they are quite rare in the world of expats. However, even if Kenyans are present, we tend to think of them as the exception rather than the rule. The existence of a Kenyan middle class is still quite hard for us to accept as part of the reality. This growing group of Kenyans with university degrees, good jobs and an interest in enjoying the sweet urban life as we do confuses our polarized image of African societies – where people are either ultra-rich politicians and businessmen or living in slums. Having two or three Kenyans as friends is something desirable, no matter how close you actually are to them. We mention these marafiki wa Kenya (Kenyan friends) in conversation to show our opposite that we are integrated in Kenyan society. We think this makes us “one of the good ones.”  We say sawa sawa (It’s ok.), habari (How are you?) or asante rafiki (Thank you, my friend.) to feel like a local, neglecting the fact that these are the only words we know in Swahili.

We feel good belonging to a secret club, with its own language and codes. The entrance fee is being an expat, not to be confused with being an ordinary immigrant, like, for instance, people from Uganda or South Sudan. We feel comfortable surrounded by people with similar backgrounds but we don’t have to deal with the thoughts, dreams and challenges of ordinary Kenyans.

If we engaged in more genuine conversations with Kenyans, we would have to recognize the hypocrisy of our existence as expats. We would be thrown out of our convenient little bubble full of Java House coffees, safaris to the Masai Mara and weekends at Diani Beach. Once the bubble popped, we would have to ask ourselves how we can justify our continued existence here? And this we try to prevent, by all means.

*By us and we I refer to the thousands of expats in Kenya, predominantly from the US or a European country (including me), who come to Kenya in search of a reputable job position, a high salary, meaningful work or simply a bit of adventure.

Katharina Eichinger

Katharina Eichinger lived in Nairobi for seven months as part of her Master´s thesis in Social and Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies.

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©Africa is a Country, 2016