Courtney in Kenya with her host dad and one of her host moms.

The Africa in the news is often portrayed as dangerous, impoverished, and war-torn. But this depiction is only one facet of the continent. My friend Courtney, a senior Global studies major and English minor, had an entirely different experience when she studied abroad in Kenya for a year. Over email, she shared some of the most eye-opening and enjoyable experiences she had while abroad.

Courtney came to Nairobi, Kenya, somewhat unexpectedly. A German-speaker since fourth grade, she had been planning to study in Germany, but everything changed when she began taking Swahili classes on a whim: “I fell in love with the language and my Kenyan professor, and knew I wanted to go to Kenya.”

Despite her love for the country, she was unprepared for at least one thing: her polygamous host family. “I didn’t really get the whole situation straight until after a while,” she explained. “My program didn’t tell me what my situation would be like, nor did my family announce to me when I met them, ‘Hi, we are polygamous.’”

“At first it was sort of hard to figure out who was who,” she said, because people from the nearby village were always visiting and sleeping over.

“Our home was a courtyard with 8 small houses, which were allotted to different wives and extended family,” she said. “In total, I think there were about 40 permanent people in our compound. But everyone does everything outside, so you can’t really tell who belongs to which house.”

It took about two weeks into her stay before she met all the members of her immediate host family. “My [host] dad introduced me without flourish to a woman at the breakfast table. ‘This is my third wife. You know we Africans are like that right?’”

While her host family was rather larger than she had expected, Courtney felt a comfortable and familiar family atmosphere. “Life passed as normal,” she said. “The kids (and there were lots of them) played with each other, the women sat around chatting after the day’s chores were done, and my dad drank tea and chatted with his friends. It’s kind of weird how not weird it was.”

The ease with which Kenya accepts diversity continued to surprise her. While there are extreme differences between rural and city life, it was the groups that lived side-by-side that impressed her.

“In Nairobi, for example, you can walk down the street and pass a man in jeans and a Michael Jordan jersey, a woman in a bai-bui and hijaab, a Maasai warrior carrying a spear, and a man in a business suit carrying a briefcase,” she said. “People just coexist with an unspoken respect for one another’s lifestyles.”

Courtney learned more about the culture at a Swahili wedding reception in Mombasa, a city on the coast. She described a room full of dancing, bare-footed women covered in colorful robes: “The thing that most surprised me was how beautifully the women were dressed. When they entered the hall, most wore bui-buis (black dresses), hijabs (head coverings), and ninjas (masks) covering all but their hands and feet.”

But once inside, the women revealed the colorful silk dresses and luxurious jewels waiting underneath. “Their hair was gorgeous, many had painted their arms and feet with henna, and all of them, even the young girls, wore makeup,” Courtney said. The sensory overload continued with a night of singing, dancing, and eating, which Courtney described as “nothing short of memorable.”

I asked Courtney what she thought that the biggest and most problematic misconceptions about Africa are. She gave me three:

1. Africa is one homogenous place.

Africa is often referred to as one place, as though the massive continent is so similar that a distinction between countries and cultures is not required. There are 54 countries in Africa and over 2,000 languages spoken. The culture, tradition, architecture, and history vary considerably from independent country to independent country.

2. Africa, in its entirety, is poor, disease-ridden and war-torn.

Of the 54 countries, only six countries are actually in the midst of conflict. There are numerous beautiful, conflict-free countries, including Kenya. There are thriving cities, economic and political stability, and improving health conditions in many regions.

3. The problems of Africa are a result of Africans fighting Africans.

This misconception fails to recognize the severe current and historical impacts of colonization, racism, and international political and economic conditions. The selective representation of issues in specific regions of Africa by the media is one of the reasons for the disproportionate focus on negative images of Africa as a whole.

Her advice for someone going to Kenya for the first time: “Have an open mind and try everything at least once.”

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