And she has all the reasons for that. Nobody in her family has ever before stepped on the African continent. Her father, who was a soldier during World War II, sent some photos of himself and some black men in France. He helped them when they were wounded, and my grandmother said they admired him and wanted to do everything for him down there in the trench.
What my grandparents know about “Africa”
Once I asked my grandfather about how the independence of African states that were former German colonies was presented in the German news at the time. He reacted like a child who was deprived of a toy. He said that since the end of the war “they” (the Germans) had always been seen as “the bad guys”, and “America” was ruling over them, and in general up to today it was “America” who got all the money and wealth that actually belonged to “Germany”. And he went on saying some actually racist things that shocked me and that I don’t want to repeat here.
When my grandmother saw photos, video clips and read my descriptions of farm life in Kenya, she was reminded of her own childhood. They didn’t have tractors and all labour was done manually with a hoe. Therefore she assumed that “Africa is still back in time”, a very common misconception.
How I became a heroine
Calling me in Kenya is expensive and connections are troublesome sometimes. My letters take long and have stamps with a foreign currency, depicting exotic birds or plants and an airmail stamp. All these things make my grandmother feel I am probably on another planet, and if not that, then merely surviving in the wildest bush.
From her childhood to her current days she could have never thought of even dreaming to go to Africa. So to her, I certainly must be a heroine to undertake this great adventure and actually live in Nairobi (!!).
The problem with being a heroine
I am admired for something that is rather normal or at least not to be admired nowadays. Talking about my daily experiences here is hard, because they will look for the exotic features in my descriptions, they will ask for differences rather than similarities, and they will assume that it takes me a lot of courage to live in Kenya.
It’s a weird feeling, because I know that it’s due to my privilege of being from the global North that I can stay in Kenya. Since it is so hard to put things into perspective for my grandparents, sometimes I just keep silent and don’t share my experiences at all. And I share this strategy with many people who are living in the global South or coming back to their home country. They feel misunderstood and exoticised themselves.
But it is important that we share our experiences, so that others get to know another part of the world, and in order to process our experiences ourselves.
What you can do
Therefore, if you are talking to your grandparents or other admirers, make sure that you are not seen as a hero. You simply enjoy the privileges of a global Northerner.
Find people who lived, travelled or volunteered in the same place like you and share your experiences. They will understand the context and situations as well as your feelings much better.
If you feel like giving a bigger talk or presentation, do it in the most responsible way, including your own insecurities and general global relations.
Have you experienced the same? How did you feel? Let us know in the comments below!
With this free worksheet you can dismantle all the expected “extremes” in the country you are going to. This helps to not present you as a hero.
It is part of our free email course that will help you travel responsibly to the global South.