I recently had a vivid encounter with neocolonialism when I visited my parents’ homeland Kenya. A friend who’d recently returned to the country from the diaspora had organized a group of fellow young physician colleagues for anice lunch. We were all separately eager to meet up, and I looked up a trusty international travel site that rates lodging and restaurants, which I have used time and again for innumerable international trips. Atop the list on this site was a restaurant, located in a reclusive, well-to-do neighborhood in Nairobi, a place of quiet, away from the hustle and bustle of the 3 million residents of the capital city and downtown area. But what we got served was more than salad and crépes that sunny afternoon.
From the moment I walked in with my friend, I could tell that something was off. It was a feeling I recognized, but something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on at first. It was the same feeling I had had returning as a 15-year-old high school graduate from Kenya to begin college in my birth state, Nebraska. Out of place. Foreign in my and my family’s home country. While I might have expected that to be the case returning to the United States for college, the first time being there since childhood (with more than a decade away I was, in fact, a foreigner!), I certainly did not expect it in Kenya. And certainly not in any restaurant there, either.
I took a large gulp as I walked over with my friend to the table where his friends and colleagues sat, sheepish that we could find our group so easily, as they were the only people of color at the restaurant — a restaurant deep in the heart of Kenya.
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We sat down and said our introductions. The rest of the meal went on with riveting conversation on returning to the country from the diaspora, difficulties with the job hunt, the country’s amazing progress and some of its challenges with corruption, issues of global health and maternal health programming in rural Kenya. All unanimously as if in unspoken agreement steered clear of any discussion on the 600-pound gorilla in the room. I couldn’t help but notice our European counterpart patrons, formerly sitting across the far end of the restaurant secluded from us, get up and leave one by one. And eventually, the two Kenyan waitresses speaking to us in forced English accents finally left us in silence too, the only diners at the café.
Someone broke the silence at the last echo of footsteps down the creaky wooden stairs that led away from the café. “Who picked this place anyway?” my friend’s girlfriend, a ministry of health official and former practicing clinician asked. We all burst into laughter, un-tensed, and then began to dissect this truly unbelievable dinosaur of an establishment that somehow had managed to survive and thrive in Nairobi for so long and so well, even garnering some of the highest ratings amongst a slew of restaurant review sites.
The beaten-up grounds with untamed grass, untrimmed trees, a rusted garage and cars haphazardly parked were an eyesore compared to the plethora of fabulous restaurants in Nairobi that have fostered the country’s booming tourist industry. The city even hosted President Obama and several thousand entrepreneurs and investment partners from 200 different countries at the sixth Global Entrepreneurship Summit in the country in 2015.
The waitresses refused to engage in a Kiswahili conversation, as some do at Kenyan restaurants (the national languages are both English and Kiswahili) when they meet Kenyan patrons, and their seeming impatience with us for being there was sensed uniformly by our group. This is a commonly appreciated tell-tale story: Kenyan workers that are employed by European transplants in the country are made to feel inferior to their white counterparts — trademarks from the colonial era. The other restaurant patrons sat yards away from us, which felt like being in one of those pictures I’ve seen from the days of US segregation. Add to that the utmost lack of willingness to engage with the other patrons, which is atypical for the European visitor in Kenya, that are typically warm, respectful and engaging.
To cap it off, after my friend and I allowed one of the other patrons to walk down the stairs first with her child as we wanted to walk up, given the narrow space only able to accommodate a single body at a time, she didn’t as much as raise an eyebrow in acknowledgement, or appreciation for a considerate gesture. She didn’t even look at us. I guess we were just supposed to do that, I thought fuming. It took everything within me not to respond with a huge “You’re excused!” or “You’re welcome!” as a nod to the obvious disregard, but I caught myself.
The same lady who had spoken up at our table produced a book she had pulled from a mini-library while waiting for the rest of the group to arrive. It was a tattered piece that described colonial Kenya of the 1960s in a light and airy fashion.
“See, this is the problem with us, and why this continues to be propagated,” she said, referring to a collective Kenyanproblem. “The continued romanticization of colonialism with books like this; this is why places like this still exist.” This referred to second-class citizen treatment that is seen (and sometimes even tolerated) in Africa from the West. Where I’ve seen people in Kenya (and other African countries I’ve visited) wait on Westerners hand and foot, like the well-meaning but misdirected waitresses at the restaurant, but then turn around and complain that Westerners are taking advantage of us. Where Africans and African countries open up their borders for tourism, with little to no pride or esteem or legalization or enforcement of such, and then complain that tourists are stealing our resources and poaching our animals. Or worse yet, sometimes don’t and shut a mindless eye to it because, well, “It’s somebody else’s problem.” And where foreigners come and uproot ideas or initiatives — as has been some of the backlash towards China investments in the country and other African nations alike — take them for their own and take credit, with little advantage or remuneration back to the country.
I’m tired of taking for granted what our forefathers sweat, bled and died for. If what they saw was not so invaluable, then they would not have fought for it so hard to make it reality for generations to come. The discourse can happen on the terms of these seemingly disadvantaged nations because they have the goods to afford this discussion. There is brain power, raw resources and political savvy to act in the global village. When do Africans reach out and grab hold of our countries’ fates by the proverbial horns? How does the world play a role in responsible and democratic partnerships with these countries? When do we, as Africans, start to set expectations and enforce standards for such relationships? And when do we all start treating one another with the respect that our ancestors wrestled to achieve compromise on? I believe that I will see that reality for my own country and its neighbors on the bright continent. Or, to borrow from the great Nelson Mandela: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.” I can’t wait to see you there.