A story by Ronke Luke
Africa taught you something
You’re jolted awake. Groping to your right you hit the alarm’s off button. Silence. The red lights of the cheap digital clock pierce the darkness. 5.45 am. You have to get up. But you don’t.
Details of today seep into your thoughts. It’s Wednesday. First lecture is early. 7:30 am. Organic chemistry. Thank goodness! Though the lecture is in a foreign language, you can follow because your African education prepared you well for first year university physics, chemistry and mathematics. It’s everything else that Africa didn’t prepare you for. All the things you must sort out alone now that you’ve taken your first steps into the world.
First the weather. It’s December. Cold. Dark. Your first Christmas away from home. The thing you miss most is caroling. You think of the groups of singers going door-to-door singing carols in the warmth of the African night. This year, 1986, you’re experiencing your first winter. It’s a shock to your African blood. You don’t yet know how to be warm in winter. You wrote your family about the bone chilling cold. They write you asking whether it’s colder than harmattan? Really! A bad harmattan morning is a brisk autumn day. Your family means well. But they’ve only seen winter in movies so have no clue.
You don’t have the right clothing. But you don’t yet know how to shop for winter coats and boots. Plus your stipend doesn’t go very far after rent, food and transportation, so you can’t afford good winter clothes even if you knew what to buy. But you’ve figured out layers. That helps. But how do you get your toes and hands to stay warm? Doubling up on socks doesn’t work. You’re saving for better boots next year but that doesn’t help you this year. Your toes and fingers are warm in bed right now. How to keep them like this all day?
I've never heard this. Or seen it on TV!
You can’t solve the clothing conundrum so your mind drifts to class. So big! There must be 200 students in the lecture hall. Maybe more? So many people. You weren’t a shy person in Africa. But here in Germany you’ve drawn inwards. You observe. There’s the language. But you learned to speak German well enough to follow chemistry lectures and make small talk with strangers. But for the first time you’re experiencing race and gender questions. It’s a complicated brew. Being an African in Germany has its problems; but Germans and African men have figured out how to negotiate these. But being a African woman studying engineering seems to flummox most. So everyday you steel yourself for some version of the conversation.
German Person: “Where you from? What are you doing here?”
These are questions Germans ask every foreigner. So equal treatment here.
You: “Sierra Leone. It’s in West Africa. Studying engineering.”
You’ve learned to add West Africa as hardly anyone has heard of the place. With the continental locator, some know enough to ask if it's close to Cameroon. Seems every German has met a Cameroonian. Location established, the conversation continues.
“Engineering! Really! That’s so hard."
You don't know yet whether engineering is hard or not, because your African schooling makes first year science and mathematics reasonable. The laws of physics are the same in any language. So you reply, "It's alright."
So far so good. African men deal with these questions too. But now you tense. Waiting for it. The observation lands with the same incredulity.
"I’ve never heard of African women studying engineering.”
“Well you’ve met me.”
“I’ve never seen that on TV or read about that.”
“Your father is in the government? A minister?”
This is common assumption if responses don’t fit knowledge accrued from German TV or reading materials
“Uhm. No. I got a scholarship.”
“Really! You must be clever then.”
“When you finish your studies will you leave Germany?”
This is a common question Germans ask all foreigners.
“That is good. You must go and help your country. It will be better for you there than here.”
No ambiguity here about Germans’ views of Africans emigrating.
It’s a tedious conversation. You’re an anthropological discovery. But there’s nothing you can do. At the start of each conversation you hope that it will be different. Most are not. So you try to disengage as quickly and politely as possible. Today, you really don’t want to deal with it.
You’ve been in Germany seven months. It will be a long five years if the conversation doesn’t change. You shudder at that thought and pull your blanket up over your chin. You’re nice and warm.
Eureka! Cakes and carols
Your mind drifts to tonight. The girls on your dormitory floor have invited you to join them at the Christkindlemarkt. You perk up at that thought. You’ve seen the the Christmas market lights from the distance on your way home from university. It looks like a sparkling wonderland. The strains of familiar carols drift from the market. You sing along quietly in English. The smells of baked goods delight your nostrils. Your mouth waters. You would give anything to have a taste. German cakes and confectionary are wonderful. But you don't yet have the courage to go alone. You don’t want to deal with the cold and the tedious conversation. But tonight you’ll go. The girls tell you that gluehwein is the best thing about the Christmas market. Mulled wine on a cold winter night will warm your bones they say. Cakes, wine and carols. Sounds delightful. You smile.
You toss off your covers and spring out of bed. 6:02 am. Today will be a good day. Thanks to Christmas, it'll be alright.
© 2017 – 2019, Ronke Luke
We’re Africans. Grew up in West Africa. We like telling stories. It's just part of life. Anywhere West Africans gather they spin yarns that keep the audience riveted.