It is still very bright and the sun is shining, I look at my watch, its 8 P.M in the night! Something must be wrong, I have just arrived in Helsinki, Finland and maybe I need to reset my clock to the local time.
Half an hour later, I check the time. It’s still bright but I now curiously inquire from my Finnish host, only to be told that it is summer and the sun does not set until 10pm. Well, initially I am surprised and cannot sleep after being used to the Kenyan time pattern, where the sun sets at six in the evening and rises at six in the morning, almost always.
Well, this is Finland, home of the midnight sun, the breath-taking Aurora borealis- Northern Lights, Nokia and the famous filmmaker of ‘Man without a face’, Mika Kaurismaki.
I had received a scholarship from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs-Finland, to work and visit the country as a Foreign correspondent. I was representing Kenya and Africa as the only female journalist while the rest of the participants had been selected from around the world, with the only other African being a male journalist from South Africa.
Living for four weeks in this homogeneous society helped me to understand how race is socially constructed in very specific ways across cultural lines. In the outskirts of Helsinki, where I was staying, most people had very limited or no interaction with black people. Thus, during my first week when I went to introduce myself to my Finnish neighbour, I was rudely shocked when he just stared at me while saying nothing much except for a hushed ‘nice to meet you’ response, and then went on to quickly close the door in my face. Thus, when I went to the stores or took the bus, I was met by really curious stares from onlookers. They were trying to understand where I fit into their context, more so because I didn’t even understand or speak their language. Although, there were times that I felt like an outsider, there was nothing malicious in their stares. The really bold ones often inquired from what country I had come from, while others just smiled or mumbled a shy hello to me.
Another memorable occasion for me while I was in Finland was going to the sauna ― a daily and almost sacred ritual for most Finns. Saunas are built in almost every home, like the standard bathroom, whether it’s in a one bedroom apartment or in a mansion, in fact most offices have a sauna adjacent to the boardroom, where business men/women can cool off, and also interestingly, the parliament too houses a sauna, where Members of Parliament can ‘cool off’ after a heated debate on the floor. Our Finnish host explained to us that the Sauna is a respected place that offers peace and relaxation, it is a place where serious matters should not be discussed, which explains why they can have it in their Parliament or boardrooms. Our host also explained to us that the sauna is one place where your body is respected and everyone in a sauna is equal, regardless of their age or size, and that is why almost all Finns are comfortable going to the sauna nude. Somehow, by acknowledging the sacredness of this place I was eventually comfortable to move my black body, and sweat under the safe, cooling and therapeutic heat of the sauna while listening to the accounts of my fellow female journalists.
I also greatly admired the Finnish education system where I learnt that it’s free for all, both residents and immigrants, in all public institutions, vocational and educational. In addition, it is compulsory for every Finn to attend the school up to the age of 17; or alternatively the completion of comprehensive school which lasts for nine years. Further, comprehensive school education is provided in every municipality, and therefore each child can go to school within their own neighbourhood. The school system also provides free education materials, free meals, school health care and free transport for children living far from school. This kind of initiatives have gone a long way in ensuring that all Finns get at least the basic education, and thus has put the country’s literacy rates as among the highest in the world.
During the final weeks of my stay there, I stayed with my Finnish host family, who were delighted and curious to host an African in their home for the first time. They lived in-an-all Finnish neighbourhood; my host Father took every picture he possibly could of me, even as we sat down for dinner, and at that moment I realized that he was trying to preserve a part of me to keep there with them in their Finnish home. It is interesting when people want to preserve difference. My black hair, my dark skin, my personality and my smile, were the identiies I had of my African roots, and it was that identity that they wanted to preserve and remember.
It was an interesting phenomenon because this ordinary Finnish family and most of the Finns that I met and worked with, were somehow different from the encounters that I had had with Kenyans back at home, where the intersection of tribe, class and gender often determined ones future, and that being a woman comes with a set of predetermined rules, and that income determines one’s social status.
Frustrating as it may have been, I met and interacted with many people listened to every word I had to utter about Kenya, and curiously asked me if all Kenyans were long-distance athletes and if wild animals roamed in the streets! Well, I was amused and definitely tempted to say ‘yes’. But I understood that athletics and wildlife are probably the most visible ‘things’ about Kenya in the west.
In Finland, I was transported outside of that context and history into a space where I was considered an exotic other, but I was approached in a welcoming manner and my talents were greatly appreciated and recognized. I truly felt proud to have been honoured in representing Kenya and making it a little bit known beyond the borders of animals and athletes.
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