Disclaimer: This post is not as light-hearted as some of my usual posts and deals with some of my struggles living in Kibera.
So many people back home have been asking me how I’m doing in Africa and I thought I should finally address this question honestly rather than give my customary “everything is fine” reply. As the title says, these few months have been the hardest of my life.
I’ll start by admitting that I’ve been called a princess a handful of times in the past but I’ve actually adjusted fairly well to living in one of the largest urban slums in Africa. In some respect, it has made me really appreciate what I do have compared to more economically-challenged families in Kibera, like having a shower and a flushing toilet. While the societal ills are definitely present – stray animals that roam the streets and keep me awake at night, burning garbage and exhaust fumes assaulting my sense of smell, the abject poverty all around me (the debate about poverty is actually an interesting one, which I’ll talk about in another post), I’m still able to live a fairly normal life. I’m also extremely lucky in that I can access and afford to go to a decent gym 30 minutes away from my house. I’m willing to bet that my fitness is the single factor that has prevented me from becoming sick so far. Protip: exercise keeps your immune system in top shape by increasing the circulation of antibodies throughout your body.
There’s a lot of things that people don’t tell you about living in a slum and it’s easy to understand why. First of all, very few foreigners actually do it. Even NGO workers will tend to live in a more upscale place near their work and commute in. Secondly, everyone’s experiences are different and it’s very hard to predict what will happen to us once we’re there.
In short, my struggles have made me hyper-aware of my identity not only as a foreigner but especially as a non-Caucasian. I get all the assumptions of a foreigner (has money) but without any of the “admiration” or “affection”. Regarding the first half of the statement, many of my conversations in the street that start out harmless will inevitably result in the other party trying to acquire some assistance from me, especially when they learn I work for an NGO. I get so many requests for my number and email that I’ve started to dread it, because I know that I cannot possibly help them in the way they hope.
Let me now explain the second part of the statement and my main source of frustration, which somewhat illustrates the extent of European hegemony on not only her colonies, but on the rest of the world as well. I apologize in advance for generalizing, but in many places of the world, there is a sort of admiration and amazement given to people of European descent, which I’ve noticed after spending time in Asia and now in Africa. Non-Europeans look at Europeans (including Americans) with wonder because hundreds of years of dominance and power have instilled this notion of superiority. It’s not a coincidence that European beauty standards have become the norm in cultures around the world – skin bleaching, hair straightening, double-eyelid surgery, etc. Yes, I’m aware that there is a historical connotation of violence as well, but that’s not what my post is about. I’ve seen this happen many times – whenever a Caucasian person walks by a place that has not been exposed to a huge expat presence (e.g. China in the early 2000s, Kibera slum presently), people will get very excited as if seeing a rare mythical creature. But for me, there is hardly any excitement. All of this is replaced by blatant racism on a daily basis. When I walk through Kibera, I hear everything from “Chinese!” to “Japanese!” to any random combination of the sounds “Ching”, “Chang” and “Chong”. There is no positive undertone to this, no affection; it’s pure mockery. I cannot get out of my head that incident involving groups of women who yelled out racial slurs at me while laughing with their friends. I cannot get out of my head the insults one man yelled out to me from the back of a matatu while my American co-worker sat right next to me. So for the first time since my childhood, I started to feel something I’m not particularly proud to admit. I started to feel ashamed of my identity.
I’ve tried very hard to justify people’s behaviour as ignorance or just tell myself “they don’t know any better”, but that has failed to alleviate my anxiety. Other non-Asians have told me to ignore these people but I feel the constant urge to stand up for myself. It’s as if I’m treated as an inferior, for no reason other than the race I was born with. This is purely surface level as well, as even my North American upbringing will not shed away the assumptions attached to my skin colour. I’ve been told several times that I cannot be a Canadian because I “look Chinese”. Just last Saturday while riding a matatu to Hell’s Gate National Park, the conductor ask my American co-worker and I where we were from. I told him we were both from the United States, to make it simpler, but to my surprise, he replied “She’s American, you’re not. You are Chinese.”
As if being Asian in Kenya is hard enough, I’m also a woman, which effectively counts as two strikes against me. Racism is not the only thing I have to deal with, but the occasional sexual harassment as well. Just on Saturday, a drunk Kenyan man joked about raping me while the same co-worker and I were waiting for our cab driver in a sketchy part of town. I’ll never forget his words. He said “I’m your friend, I can’t rape you.” As if only strangers can commit rape. He also grabbed my arm several times and proceeded to ask very loudly across the street if I had a man. See my earlier post about door-to-door HIV testing for another incident. I’m fortunate that this hasn’t happened as often because I try and avoid interactions with questionable men, even if it means giving up potential friendships with people from the community that some of my other co-workers have seemed to accept.
As a result of both these things, I have lost my sense of security, which I had no idea I could even take for granted in Canada. By the way, walking outside after dark is out of the question, but when I must walk to/from the gym or work, I tend to walk at a faster pace than usual, with my hood up and avoiding all possible eye contact, but this still doesn’t deter people from verbally harassing me. I laugh to myself when I recall that UBC chose to have us stay with a family in Kibera to avoid the closed-off feeling of gated communities. But I feel as though it has done more harm to me than good. I know I shouldn’t let the bigotry of a few people affect my entire perception of Kibera, but it’s easier said than done. I feel extremely guilty when locals ask me if I wish to return (permanently) to Kenya because the truth is that I wouldn’t. When I hear my American co-workers constantly gush about what a great time they’ve had and how they would definitely return to Kenya, I can’t help but to wonder why my experience hasn’t lived up to the same level as theirs. I think if my circumstances were different, I would have a different outlook for sure. Nevertheless, I think Nairobi is a great city but the biggest flaw of my trip is that I have almost no experiences with Nairobi. I’m sad to say that my perception of Nairobi has been inaccurately influenced by Kibera.
Side note: As I was walking home from the coffee house chain (located 30 min from my flat by foot) just after I had spent a good amount of time reflecting on racism, I was victimized five times in the span of only these 30 minutes, which is a normal number. I decided to respond to three of these to see what would happen. The first instance, I turned around to my provoker, a young man, and said firmly, “What did you say to me?” while maintaining direct eye contact. He stared at me for a few seconds and walked away. The second instance was a couple talking about me in Swahili to one another. A young ambulance driver named Moses heard the exchange and told me what they were saying. Apparently, the man was telling the woman, “There is China in Kibera.” He was telling me how he would smash those people if he could because we are supposed to love one another. A little bit ironic but the thought was appreciated. But to my dismay, as he was telling me about his work as a “ghetto ambulance” driver, he was more interested in knowing if I knew any NGOs that could connect him with ambulances. I told him that I didn’t think I could help him and bid him a good evening. The last instance, I confronted a couple of young men sitting on couches in a furniture store. I told them it was very rude and asked them why they think it’s okay to say this to people. I finally got an apology but the way I received it was not how I imagined. How did it happen? One of them said to me, “So you are not a China?” and I decided to say no. By denying my identity, that was how I earned their apology. I was completely speechless.
Sometimes I wonder if the large amount of Chinese foreign investment in Kenya contributes to negative local stereotypes of my race. FYI, China is helping Kenya with developing infrastructure in exchange for debt. In some respect, thay could be considered a form of neo-colonialism and I suppose Kenyans (I should specify more so the less educated) come to regard us as predators.
But regardless of the reasons, I know that I will come out of this experience a stronger and better person. That’s my biggest motivator right now.