AFRICANS ARE slow. Europeans are rich. These are the most common stereotypes Europeans and Africans hold about one another.
As a German Umuzungu living in Rwanda, I’m confronted with such stereotypes locals have about me on a daily basis, yet I also grapple with my own false childhood images I have had about Africa.
As soon as I arrived in Kigali, the image that I had at the back of my mind about the country that will be my home for a year, turned upside down.
As I rode in a taxi from the airport to the hotel, I quickly noticed a smooth-paved road — better than some streets I am used to in Europe. I must admit that I did not expect to see any paved road, after all the story in Europe is of a poor country destroyed during the Genocide.
Besides my experiences, I am also amused by what some local people, especially children on the streets, think about me whenever I pass their neighbourhoods for the first time. Money, is often their first impression.
Some that I meet for the first time think I like sausages and I drink a lot of beer. Reason? Because I am white.
Yet in reality, as a volunteer, I am not rich. I am also one of the growing number of vegetarians in Europe and I do not drink beer.
I like going to Rwandan restaurants to enjoy local food. Buying my fruits fresh from the farms is a new experience for me, because in Germany I get these fruits such as pineapples or mangoes only imported from Africa.
My initial fear of suffering from hunger and losing weight while in Rwanda for a year was after all unfounded. It was again just another stereotype of ‘Africa the land of famine’ as told by European media.
My daily meals vary between Rwandan buffet, different combinations of potatoes, beans – you eat a lot of beans here, and that was not even a stereotype I had in mind! — and chapatti or amandazi.
During my first time, locals stared confused at me as I helped myself to local food on the buffet.
My imagination that Africans do not even use forks, but still eat with their fingers, was disproved — expect when eating Ubugali, a meal what I really want to get to know how to prepare.
A lot of people in German and Europe told me that I should expect compliments from Rwandan men because of my slim body then. Most Europeans think that being fat is still a symbol of beauty in Africa and African men like their women really big.
Perhaps this is still right in some areas, but I realised quite quickly that it is not only Europe which suffers from the slimness delusion but that this beauty ideal has also arrived in Rwanda’s capital Kigali.
I have also experienced that one’s physical appearance reveals another image Africans have about Europeans: When walking along the street, I am stopped by strangers who just tell me two words: “Well dressed.”
I am wearing a long skirt, a shoulder covering blouse and a grey blazer instead of a bright miniskirt or skin-tight trousers with a tight top as Africans normally expect from Europeans.
In fact, in these expectations, there is a lot of truth. My clothes just do not confirm it because I changed my style before coming to Rwanda – thanks again to the stereotypes about the African dress code in Europe.
I was told that I have to always dress in this kind of clothes – long skirts and formal blouses – because that is the way all women and girls dress here. But the three girls standing in front of me and telling me that I am well dressed, are themselves wearing what I left in Germany: miniskirts and open tops.
Although I get many compliments for my style, sometimes I regret having left all my short skirts in Germany. The weather is simply sometimes too hot for my all-covering outfits.
But in general, the weather falls short of my expectations – thankfully! I am glad that I do not have to suffer from merciless burning sun during the whole day which would turn my skin from white to red. Now I know that the weather in Africa can also change between hot and cold, sunny and cloudy, dry and wet.
As I packed my bags to come, I was expecting not to be able to contact my family regularly because of poor connection but fortunately, almost everybody was using a mobile phone.
In reality, with more than 650 million users in Africa, mobile phones are more spread here than in Europe.
Infrastructure is not reserved to Europe and poverty not to Africa. Europeans should learn that there are other reasons to come to Africa other than for helping or doing safaris. And Africans should learn that in Europe, not everything is fine.
But first of all, Europeans should know that there is no such a country called Africa, it is a continent.
The author is an intern with The New Times