A Positively Forceful Female: Annah from Kenya

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Strangers Next Door Interview Series

Interview by Eugenie Manisalidi

Originally published in the Ecosprinter’s Migration Working Group blog.

 

Unbreakable. A modern heroine. A role model. A devoted nurse. That’s what Annah, 27, really is. Born and raised in Masoka, a small village in Kitui district in southern Kenya, she is a young woman with a tremendous personality and possibilities. Her story is a huge inspiration and an answer to anyone who thinks that giving-up in life is an option.

 

So tell us about your family and early years in Kitui!

I was born in a two-parent-family (not a polygamous one) of the Kamba tribe. At the age of 8 our father abandoned me and his other 4 kids of which I happen to be the first born. We have lost contact with him since he left. One day a neighbor told us that he had made a new family. He most likely abandoned our mother and us in search for a better and easier life and job opportunity. I’ve never tried to trace him back up to this day.

Chapter Education – what is it like in the Kenyan context?

Primary school in Kenya has 8 grades and high school has 4. The tuition fees for primary school are about €10 per year in villages, whereas for high school about €1000. In the villages there are no secondary schools because people are poor; only the rich people in cities can afford them. I finished primary school in Kitui and came first among all my classmates, but my mother had no money to send me to the secondary school, so I couldn’t continue my studies.

What happened next? Did you find a way to enter high school?

I actually did – not in Kenya though – thanks to my aunt, my mother’s sister. She was already living in Greece and felt sorry for my mom that had so many kids to take care of and was not making enough money by working as a tailor to support them. So she thought of helping at least one of them, which was me. This is the true African solidarity mindset. I owe her a lot; hadn’t it been for her, I would most likely have stayed forever in my village, got married to an alcoholic, and ended up poor with several kids to look after.

So you came to Greece.

Totally legally, by plane and Visa! It was the year 2001 and I was 14. My auntie sent me to school in Athens, but at some point she had to go abroad and leave me behind. By the time I was 15 I had to get my first job, something that inevitably made me more mature and independent. In winter I was studying and going to school and in summer I was working double shifts as a babysitter, hairdresser or factory cleaner. I was always anxious about making enough money for the upcoming winter.

That’s impressive. Have you always wanted to be a nurse growing up?

Well, when I was younger I wanted to be a doctor and my grades were good enough to study medicine at the University of Crete or nursery at the University of Patras, but I decided not to. And the reason for this is that by then I was feeling secure in Athens. I had met people who could help me find a job or introduce me to other people, whereas in any other city I neither had a job nor friends and would have to start from scratch; too scary for me. My personal survival has always been the priority for me. Studies come second. Because you know, nobody has ever died because they didn’t study.

So basically what I did was to attend a public college providing professional training in nursing for 2 years, where the tuition fees for foreigners were €735 per semester. After I graduated I was granted a scholarship by the Foreign Ministry to study nursing at the University of Athens. I really had an amazing time during those years; although in the meantime I had to work hard. After graduating in 2012 I decided to expand my education by doing an MSc in the medical field this time. My course is called “International Medicine and Health Crises Management” and I’m about to graduate very soon.

You must be kidding, right? Are you about to finish your third degree? I thought education for you came second as you earlier mentioned!

You know what? Coming from a country where education is not affordable for everyone, I really appreciated the fact that education in Greece is for free and tried to make the most out of it. Free education is certainly one of the best things that could ever happen to me and therefore I consider Greece to be my “lucky star”!

So what’s next?

Giving back to my community in Kitui and financially supporting my grandmother, mother, and younger siblings. I’m certainly not thinking about turning my back on Kenya just because I had the chance to study and live in a European country! During my postgraduate studies I had the opportunity to get involved with and study about tropical diseases, which made me more knowledgeable and confident about what kind of help I should offer.

Giving back to your community is definitely an ethical and brave decision. When was the last time you were there?

I was in Kitui last summer. I went there to do some research for my thesis: “The effectiveness of community-based primary health care in Kitui district, Kenya”. During my stay there, I worked in a dispensary on a voluntary basis and trained the local women on basic nursing skills. The empowerment of my community’s women is of great importance to me. I remember my most shocking experience there, when I weighed a pregnant woman and she was only 35kg. She was completely illiterate and had another 3 kids. When I asked her about her age she said she was born during a period with heavy rainfalls in Kitui, according to her mother’s words. At the moment I’m in the phase of analyzing the results of my research and after comparing two different population groups (one receiving international health aid and education and another not receiving any) I’ve come to the conclusion that health workers have probably done a good job and they can be very helpful in eliminating several diseases in Africa.

What you’re saying now is interesting and quite debatable. Some people would argue that Africa should stop accepting or asking for foreign aid, because time has shown that Africa can’t be saved by aid only.

That’s correct. However, things are a bit more complicated. For example, it wouldn’t be so smart to abstain from any kind of international progression in medicine just because it’s foreign. And we can’t do this, mainly because we don’t have a back-up plan. Going back to our “roots” and traditional herbology or healing methods is no longer an option as our ancestors’ wisdom has been erased by colonialism. Having said that, adopting the medical practices of the western world is just so much easier for us than having to go back and dig for our roots.

Although the easiest solution is often not the right one.

But at the same time I want to stress the fact that African people shouldn’t be counting on NGOs. I strongly believe that change can come from them, from below to above. They have to realize that nobody outside Africa really cares and even if they do, they can’t fully grasp the situation and the problems of the continent. And apart from this, they have their own lives to take care of.

I like to say that nobody can feel what you feel. African people have to rise up and fight for their future with any means they have because unless they do it, nobody will/can do it for them. They are the ones who live in daily misery and the only ones who know in practice what hopelessness is like. Just like I don’t believe that any person who has never experienced hunger before is able to understand what hunger is. I’ve managed to survive without food for a whole week so I know pretty well what I’m talking about.

For the poor people of Africa everyday life is a struggle and no matter how compassionate foreign people might be towards them, they can’t understand because they have never experienced that and most likely they never will!

But hey, Europe has to deal with a crisis on several levels. More and more Europeans nowadays are having difficulty in making ends meet. Isn’t their life a struggle as well?

Sure, but their struggle is different than ours. Even the poorest of the poorest Europeans will always have clean water to drink and something to eat no matter what, whereas basic commodities such as food and water are not taken for granted in Africa; it is something you have to fight for every single day you wake up if you are poor and this is why you sometimes wish you never woke up again. Because you know that life can be worse than nightmares.

I owe Greece my happiness. The first time I went to bed and I felt excited about waking up was in 2001; the time I had just arrived in Athens. I think that the more poor and hopeless you are, the less lust for life you have. And even though you may not always have food or water, you can always have sex. This is actually why many unprivileged Africans live just for today without really caring about whether they’ll contact HIV.

You just abolished the stereotype of the ever-happy, carefree African! Now let’s go back to the giving-back-to-the-community-topic: Do you have any concrete plans or abstract wishes for the future of your home village?

Absolutely! First of all I want to convert our small dispensary into a spacious, well-equipped health center. Then I’ll have to push the Kenyan government to provide us with a stable supply of electricity, which is necessary for the proper functioning of incubators. And what is more, I want to create a department in that health center, where local women can be trained on how to properly take care of their children’s health and on effective disease prevention. It is my strong belief that Africans, who are in a privileged position, ought to give back to the community. Therefore while I was in Kenya last year I decided I want to adopt an orphan child. To me that’s a way of giving back and helping someone else as my aunt helped me in the past. It’s important for people to know that one does not have to be filthy rich or famous in order to help someone, because generosity comes from the heart, not from the pockets.

In addition, one should never get discouraged by thinking that helping only 1 person is like a drop in the ocean and it’s not worth a try. If you can succeed in changing even one human life only, just like my aunt did to me, then you can also have a great impact on several other lives; because the people who’ve been helped tend to reach out to people who need their help. Put a smile on one face and you never know how far it’s gonna get!

Would you like to share your thoughts and emotions about Al-Shabaab’s attack on Garissa University with us?

As far as I know, this how the Al-Shabaab story actually started (in fact anyone can google the story and make their own assumptions): Back in 2013 a group of French tourists were kidnapped by Somali pirates and the French government had to pay ransoms to set them free. Later the French government asked the Kenyan government to take a stand for the protection of French citizens that visit Kenya and to make sure no French tourist’s life would be at risk in the future. So Kenya got scared at the very idea of a decline in tourism due to terrorism and reacted by sending Kenyan troops in Somalia. Since then the Somalis have been attacking the Kenyans and they won’t stop unless the Kenyan troops are removed from their land.

Very unfortunately, the Garissa attack and the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi are not the only incidents. There have been several other incidents of terrorist attacks but mass media are not concerned to cover them. The funny thing about Al-Shabaab is that they always inform people when and where they are about to attack, but it looks like the Kenyan government doesn’t take it so seriously and does not take precautions for its people. Because powerful people in high positions are hard to reach in Kenya.

Al-Shabaam aims at harming the common people and thus strike tourism in Kenya. I feel really sad about the 148 students getting shot, for I know how hard it is for a child to survive in Africa, let alone study. I deeply sympathize with all those families that managed to raise all these bright students only and only to find them dead one day and for no good reason.

What’s your opinion on Kenyan leaders? To which extent are they corrupt?

In Kenya, just like in every other African country more or less, there are 20% who do not know what they have. Our prime minister’s salary is extraordinarily high when most people work for $1 a day or even less. And I’m sure he earns more under the table. Statistics recently claim Kenya to be the 3rd country in corruption in high-level positions worldwide and therefore, there is no space left for a middle class. Africa, it is said, devours its own children.

You’ve already mentioned the pros of living in Greece. What are the cons?

Although I’m grateful to Greece, there is a restriction on movements. When I turned 18, I had to pay €1200 to acquire the Greek residence permit. Since then I have to be renewing it every year, which costs me €150 and by the time I receive it it’s often already expired. And therefore I’ve been deprived of many educational opportunities abroad. For instance, I once had the chance to go to Holland for a seminar on documentary production for migrant women and missed it because my residence permit had expired and I had to wait for a long time until the new one was ready. Another very important drawback is the fact that I can’t work as a nurse in the Greek public sector, because I don’t have the Greek citizenship, which so far has been super difficult to get. But hopefully, this is something that is about to change very soon.

Does the new bill on Greek citizenship concern you?

Yes it does, because I’ve been living and studying in Greece for 13 years. If the bill is passed, my movement limitations will be over and I’ll not only be free to travel unrestricted to any EU country, but also to countries where Greek citizens don’t need a Visa. Having easier access to traveling would give a boost to my personal development and professional progress. Unless the situation in Greece gets better within the next couple of years, I might have to start looking for employment abroad.

But in this case, I want to have the right to come back whenever I choose it. I’ve spent the first half of my life in Kenya and the second half of it in Greece, so I recognize Greece as my homeland too, and I love it as much as I love Kenya. It would be really sad for me to leave Greece and not being able to come back; I don’t want to have to cope with a Visa denial. What is more, Greek citizenship would save me some money as I wouldn’t have to spend €150 every year to renew my residence permit. And supposing the crisis was over and job creation was enabled again, I could eventually work as a nurse in a Greek public hospital! All in all though, I haven’t yet realized the full extent to which I would be benefited. It’s going to be survival with new data for me; it’s hard to form an image myself before I experience it.

 

Pictures courtesy of Annah herself: fetching water in Kitui and a look on the huts there. Featured image above shows Annah with a friend volunteering in Kitui.

 

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