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!”