The grass is not all that green out there in Europe
The cliché that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence remains quite relevant when talking about thousands of migrants – forced or voluntary – who dare cross the oceans, hide in the landing gears of planes or simply travel to Europe, Asia or America in search of a better life.
Sometimes the migrant doesn’t really originally plan to settle in foreign lands; they could just have travelled on tour or to study. But opportunity presents itself and the individual makes a choice to stay instead of returning home.
This is the situation that Grace Ndiritu found herself in after travelling to France in August 2006. She tells her story in From Kenya to Europe: My Story (Writers Guild, 2021).
Ndiritu tells the story of her life as a young Nairobi woman in the early 2000s who dreams to succeed, like many of her age would have done at the time. After school she secures a job in Nairobi as a copy typist. She tries to travel to the USA but fails at the first attempt.
She then strikes it lucky when she gets the opportunity to work as a model. But this isn’t work that lasts long. Ndiritu joins college to study for a diploma in business management and registers for class in French. That’s when she gets the French connection to go to Paris as an au pair – a program that allows young foreign visitors to France to work in childcare. It is hoped that the visitors would be able to polish their French and learn the local language.
But the young foreigner’s travel to France turns into a nightmare right at the Charles de Gaulle. There is nobody to meet her. She eventually meets her host and settles down with the family. Yet, life did not turn out to be what she had planned. The hosts were not so hospitable. The children were troublesome. She had to leave the family and move out.
Hardship in foreign lands
Ndiritu would use her wits and connections with friends to survive in France. She would end up in Finland where she had to ‘ask’ a man to marry her.
She writes, “I never thought that I would ask a man to marry me, but I had learned the hard way that to succeed in Europe, I had to try all the available options.”
She justifies her actions further when she writes, “I had become liberal. I still had my traditional values at the back of my mind, but my status pushed me beyond these values. I felt like a bird released from a cage.”
This is what hardship does to travellers in foreign lands. It makes them weigh their options, revisit their learned behavior. One is sometimes forced to unlearn some of the cultures and beliefs she was raised with. This is what happens to Ndiritu.
Well, Ndiritu gets married to her Finnish friend but it doesn’t last long. She is soon divorced and settles into a life of her own as a student. She soon meets another man with whom she settles down. But life isn’t easy. Even with a degree she can’t get a job. It is a foreign place. Jobs are difficult to find. There is racism hovering over one. Even when she gets a job at a hotel, she is sometimes treated differently because she is foreign. But Ndiritu bears it all because she wants to succeed.
Does she succeed? How do we measure human success? Is it by the happiness experienced? Is it by material comfort? Is it in having friends, immediate family, a community that one can rely on? Is it in feeling secure socially and culturally? Is it in knowing that the immediate family and those left at home (in Kenya) are happy with one?
Stories such as From Kenya to Europe can be deceptive. They read like confessions, which is what memoirs are supposed to be. But the reader cannot really get close enough to the narrator to hear the ‘truth’ in the voice or ‘see’ the honesty in the eyes or ‘feel’ the assurance of the body.
Resilience and determination
For instance, would one say that Ndiritu was/is happy in Finland instead of in Kenya? Definitely she found comfort and joy in the former. She found a loving partner but the relationship ended after 5 years. Yet, she soldiers on. She has other friends. She earns a living. She is in charge of her life.
What about back home in Kenya? Naturally, the parents expected her to support them financially once she reached Europe. Would they have understood that she was struggling economically? Would they have accepted her proposal to a man for marriage? Would they have supported her decision to stay in Europe and even become a citizen there? What was she to make of failed investments back at home – a stolen agribusiness project and a property without a title deed?
This short memoir is a powerful reminder of how dreams of success in Europe or Asia or America can easily turn sour. However, it is a story of resilience and determination. What Ndiritu illustrates in her journey to and life in Europe is the fact that life is often what one makes of it.
She shows that hardships are natural elements of human life but they can be overcome. When her host family becomes inhospitable she relies on friends to find her footing in France. When she realizes that Finland, despite her having to learn a new language, could offer a better chance at staying in Europe, she moves there.
When her marriage doesn’t work, she ends it. When her next relationship ends, she soldiers on. When faced with racism at work, she finds a reason to continue working. When Covid-19 throws her out of work, she takes a break to come to Nairobi. In Nairobi she writes and publishes this memoir, as if saying, life gave me some oranges but also lemons; I enjoyed the former and made lemonade from the latter.
From Kenya to Europe is available at Writers Guild Bookshop.
The writer teaches literature and performing arts at the University of Nairobi.