A Nigerian-American journalist in Kenya

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The “foreigner” feeling July 22, 2010

I’ve always assumed blending in in a foreign country, especially in an African country, would be easy. But, I’ve learned, that’s not always the case.

In Guatemala, I was assumed to be a Garifuna. Also known as ‘Black Caribs,” or “Garinagu,” the Garifuna are the descendants of unions between Arawak and Carib Amerindians and enslaved Africans. You’ll find them along the Caribbean Coast, mostly in Belize, St. Vincent, Nicaragua and Honduras and to a lesser extent in Guatemala, Barbados and Roatan. They look like…African Americans and Africans and unfortunately, they don’t have it easy in Guatemala. They truly live on the fringes of society.

While in Guatemala, I got to hang out with some Garifunas and they told me about their plight. Injustice. Racism. They are fighting to keep their indigenous lands from being taken by powerful stakeholders in the expanding tourism industry. I told them about my experience in Guatemala: being closely followed by two guards in the mall (every time I looked back at the guards following me, they’d act like they were doing something else), taxi drivers speeding past me as I waited for a ride and people on the street sometimes quite hesitant to speak with me.

Some of the Garifunas told me that they go through the same thing and the reason why the taxis were speeding past me is because Garifuna girls are assumed to be prostitutes.

Sadly, it seems people of African-descent have similar stories around the world and to be honest, some of what I experienced in Guatemala, could have happened to me in certain places in the U.S.

Once, I went to a dance club with several of my Garifuna friends in Guatemala City, and as soon as we entered the discoteca, the manager came over with a worried expression. Maybe the site of a group of black people was disconcerting? He asked what we were doing and then led us to a table- in the back. But we didn’t let him damper our spirits; we danced the night away.

So, I was well aware of the foreigner feeling in Guatemala. In Nigeria, I tried to blend with my clothes and it worked for the most part. But, I was still spotted out on occassion.

“It’s your skin,” a friend told me. He said the lotions and soaps in America are of better quality so he can always tell which Nigerians are visiting from abroad because they have “glowing” skin. Wow! Um…really? Sounds like a bit of a stretch. But at least it’s good to know that all the cocoa creams, shea butters, pomegranate shower gels, rose water mixtures, almond oils, lemon and ginger extracts, aloe vera gels, black soap and Vitamin E supplements that I use are not in vain!

Now, in Kenya, a handful of people have told me that I look Kikuyu, a Bantu people who originally settled around Mount Kenya and throughout Kenya’s central highlands. The Kikuyu are Kenya’s largest ethnic group. Mr. Obaga, the music director at Nairobi School, said anyone would assume I come from just “around the corner.” One lady, swore I was a Kikuyu. But, the name Chika is not at all Kenyan and people here are having THE hardest time with what I’ve always been told was a simple name. I get a good laugh, watching Kenyans trying to pronounce it and even remember it. They want to say, “Shika,” (which means take or hold in Kiswahili) or “Chuka” or “Shaka.” One guy smiled and told me, “what a strange name! I will never remember that.” I told him to remember that my name means “girl,” in Spanish, and I am a girl. He said, “oh! In Kenya, chic means girl!” and we laughed.

So, that’s another lesson learned. I assumed Kenyans, being Africans, wouldn’t have a problem with my name. Stereotyped debunked! That’s the beauty of traveling- your mind opens and you confront your preconceived notions and stereotypes. Not all Africans can easily say, “Chika.”

Oh…and my accent! It seems to be somewhat of a problem here when it comes to reporting, and when I want to order food over the phone and when I generally want to greet someone.

Yesterday, I called an educational center to ask about their training on dyslexia for a story I’m working on. I introduced myself as a reporter with K24 and the woman on the phone simply could not understand. I re-introduced myself, oh… only about four times and each intro was slower than the last one. Finally, she transferred me. I was re-transferred about…um…let’s just say more than six times. They just did not know what I was trying to say. I was even pronouncing the word the way it is said here: DIE-SLEKS-SEE-YUH as opposed to how it’s pronounced in the states: DIH-SLEKS-SEE-YUH, with the “I” in the first syllable like “I” in the word “dim.”

But, nothing worked! I decided to just ask my story source for a contact at that center, as opposed to calling cold turkey.

You live to learn.

At a recent morning news meeting, I explained a story idea and was met with blank stares. Then someone said, “translate!” And everyone laughed. Apparently, the person could not understand me even though I was speaking as slowly as possible.

Speaking with a slightly British accent seems to help a bit. The first time I ordered a pizza, it took about 8 minutes to communicate my order. The second time I ordered, I sounded more like a Brit and it took about 3 minutes to order my food. Many Kenyans are more used to the British accent and many of them had British teachers in school.

Even humor can be culturally specific. I remember sharing a hilarious youtube video that my sister had sent me with a friend here and the person didn’t really get it. He tried to, he even chuckled. But, he didn’t get it. He said, “You Americans are crazy!” with a big smile.

I can say, I know the “foreigner feeling,” and the feeling may be positive, negative or neutral. It’s not just about your accent and your name, apparently, even your skin can make a difference in the way it “shines” and in its general complexion.

Now, I know what my parents go through. Though they’ve lived in the U.S. more than 20 years, they are still often treated like foreigners by some people. I grew up listening to my dad raising his voice to impatient customer service representatives on the phone.

“O-D-U-A-H! O-D-U-A-H!”

But the way he says “h” is different from how most Americans say it. I learned that very well when I spelled    my last name for my teacher in the fourth grade. I said “h,” they way I heard it said at home: with a deep exhalation, like “h” in “hate,” when most Americans say “h” without that extra breath, so it sounds like “eigh” in “eight.”

But for now, it’s still: “O-D-U-A-HETCH!”


Cultural observations: hospitality July 3, 2010

Filed under: cultural observations — Admin @ 6:54 pm
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Kenyans are famous for their hospitality. It seems Africans are generally considered to be hospitable, but some Africans go above and beyond to smile at strangers and offer assistance when they can.

The Kenya Airways flight attendants were welcoming and one man in particular caught my eye. His head was small and slender. His arms, also slender. His skin shined a bronze hue.  A legion of small red bumps lined his forehead. His movements were delicate. His fingers moved in small, deliberate flutters. When he talked, his lips curved out. Like butterfly wings.

Bright-eyed and soft-spoken, he approached me. “Excuse me, I am serving breakfast now. Would you like fried chicken or eggs?” I chose the eggs, but then changed my mind-hey, “pescatarianism” should be observed in moderation.  “What type of juice would you like? Pineapple? Apple? Fruit juice?” Mmmmmm…..there’s nothing like real fruit juice, from real fruits! No high fructose corn syrups. No artificial sweeteners with names akin to plant parts. No added sugars. No dyes like red 5 and blue 9. “I’ll take pineapple.”

He grinned. “Enjoy.”

I went to a grocery store today. Nakumatt lifestyle.

It’s like Wal-mart, minus the yellow happy face and spy cameras in the store. There I picked up some essentials: antibacterial cleaning spray, paper towels, salt, nuts, juice, water, buckets, dish soap, pasta. Now, I didn’t experience much of this “Kenyan friendliness” while at the store. Here’s my theory: It seems many Africans reserve their cheery charisma to visitors and strangers. Towards their own, they are much more sedated, maybe even rude, and sometimes, suspicious. Well, I can speak for many Nigerians and other west Africans who would agree whole-heartedly.

When I prepared to go to the store, I made sure to dress to blend in. None of my gold-colored (yes, gold-colored), dangling, bejeweled earrings. I covered my locks in a yellow wrap, tied tall, the way I see Jamaican women tie theirs. I covered my hair because locks attracts attention for Africans. Sometimes it’s a curious attention,  and other times it’s disgust and suspicion. Locks are associated with uncleanness, Rastas and spirituality. Many African peoples share tales of evil children or lucky children who were born with locks. Traditions dictate that shrine priests and cultists must lock their hair. So, yeah, I made sure to cover my  interwoven tresses!


Basically, I tried to look African, or at least, not so American. My long paisley-print dress hardly got a glance. In the store, people spoke Swahili to me and when I said I don’t speak Swahili as sweetly as I could, they would look confused and shuffle past me. Several times, I asked for help. Where is the sea salt? Do you have almond milk? Is it only whole milk you have? What about soy?  Where can I buy a land phone? Do you really not have shower caps? Upon hearing my accent, the store associates would strain to listen to me. But what I remember most was the perplexed expression on their faces. It was like: why is this African-looking woman pretending to have a Western accent?

I saw several white Americans ask for help and associates would dash here and there to serve them. At the cashier, a white woman asked if I spoke English. She asked me about a sign near the cashier. We chatted. She’s from Florida and is also a journalist. A freelancer. She said she has loved her Kenya trip and doesn’t even want to go back home, but she has kids. Her 10 day trip was with a church group. She said the best thing was experiencing the “friendliness of the Kenyan people.”

It was nice to meet an American. But, hey, what she said is nothing new. It seems many people, especially Africans, dear God, especially Africans, enjoy meeting white people.  I will never forget how I was bribed at the Nigerian airport. The same airport security person who had relentlessly bribed me, my mom and my sister, had nearly bowed to the white man behind me. “Hello, sah! Welcome sah!” I see this all the time. Is the same happening in Kenya? I can’t answer that just yet.

Because the answer is not a simple yes or no.  I found a taxi driver to take me back to my apartment at the YWCA. Actually, I didn’t find the driver, but Pastor Frida did. She was able to take me to the store, but wasn’t able to stay.  I was so glad when she got out the car to help me find a taxi. I told her I prefer older drivers. I’m being judgmental, but they seem less harmless. I know I’m silly to think this way. But I do. So Pastor Frida looked for an older driver for me. Yes, Godfrey should be in his late 50’s or early 60’s. Frida did the introductions in Kiswahili. He agreed to take me. His was the broadest, most genuine smile I’d seen so far in Kenya. 300 shillings.  I asked if he spoke English. (Most Kenyans speak English, but sometimes older Africans don’t. I thought it may be the same with him.)

“Yes, very well.” And he did speak it well. He waited while I shopped. We chatted along the ride. I gave him 400 shillings and asked if I can give him a call when I need a ride. He was so pleased. Next time I’ll take his picture.


A journey of 8 thousand miles July 2, 2010

Filed under: the journey — Admin @ 10:04 pm
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I left Atlanta June 28. My youngest sister, Amanda and I, had fun at the airport.


I had a 6 hour layover at the Dubai airport. But, those 6 hours grew to more than 9 hours as I waited for someone to tell me when my flight would arrive. Nonetheless, the Dubai airport was really interesting. It was easy to pick out those going to Kenya. Gate 101, please open up!


At the airport, I met Archana Dodhia, a Kenyan student at Auburn University in Alabama. Go figure-not to far from Atlanta. Archana lives in the suburbs around Nairobi.