What is it like to be a Kenyan abroad? Expat Caroline Adhiambo Jakob has found friendship, rejection and her own preconceptions challenged.
I am a Kenyan who lives in Germany. I’ve lived here for the past ten years, and one of the questions that people often ask me is whether I have experienced racism. I find it extremely difficult to respond.
Part of the reason for this is that my husband, with whom I have two children, is German; this means I have a rare insight into how Germans see and interpret such issues. The other reason is that racism, like other forms of discrimination, is a difficult topic to tackle.
My first encounter with racism in Germany occurred early in my stay, when my husband and I were hunting for an apartment to rent in the city of Mannheim. Prior to this, the people I had met were all friendly, and seemed glad to have me in their midst.
After submitting our requests for apartments and always being turned down, I started wondering what we were doing wrong. My husband, in his typically pragmatic way, assured me that it was normal since there were many other applicants. Feeling optimistic we would soon find the right place, I was unprepared when an estate agent called to tell us that the owner of one apartment had said he did not want to lease to a foreigner, especially not one who was black.
To say that I was hurt and humiliated would be a gross understatement. I was being told to my face that being black was a bad thing – and there was nothing that I could do about it.
A few days later, feeling dejected, we resumed our search, this time in an upmarket part of the city. My husband, who knew this particular neighbourhood well, was apprehensive. If we had failed to get an apartment in more average areas, what would be our chances in one of the city’s best locations?
We drove to that apartment and, on arrival, realised that the appointment was not just for us but also for 30 other potential tenants. We looked through the apartment and quickly filled out the application form, as we had done many times before. On our way out, the owner, an old lady, followed us and enquired whether we had liked her place. Feeling vulnerable, I almost said no. But, we had a short conversation with her – and were astonished when she offered the apartment to us there and then.
We lived there for the next five years, during which time she treated us as part of her family. Even now we have moved on, she is still a part of our lives.
What I learned from this is that no one can ever be fair when making generalisations or assumptions. It’s so important to look past prejudices – and that goes for all of us.
About the author
Caroline Adhiambo Jakob is a Kenyan who lives in Germany. She holds degrees in Education from the University of Nairobi and the University of Karlsruhe, and is currently pursuing a postgraduate degree at the University of Heidelberg. She recently published the book, The Outsider(S), a story about prejudice and
the challenges of living in a different culture.