Jonas Lähnemann
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Out of Africa - Back in Germany
Reflections on studying a year in Nairobi

Berlin, March 2006


Several months have passed since I returned to Berlin from Nairobi, having spent there one year studying physics.

By now I can say I've arrived back in Germany, but I will not forget the time spent in Kenya and it will surely have its profound effects also for the future of my life. And it's not only the cold winter and bad weather in Berlin this year that make me long for Nairobi's moderate climate.
The first joy of seeing friends and family has passed and it's everyday life again here in Germany. I first was happy to drive in well suspended trains and on decent roads, eat German bread, etc. Things I somehow thought I missed.
Now I miss certain aspects of life in Kenya. Life here lacks some qualities of Africa, it definitely is less vibrant. In the tram everyone just cares for himself, often tries to avoid establishing eye contact with others or sitting too close to someone else.
A very interesting observation is that while abroad, especially when annoyed by something, I thought it to be better in Germany, but when returning here I noticed that I had projected what I remembered about my friends onto the general public and in a way had lost touch with many of the negative aspects of our society. I guess it's true that the grass is always greener somewhere else.

After I summarized my first impressions in February 2005 many more things happened and it would be unrealistic to try and describe everything. Therefore what I'll describe in the following paragraphs is just an arbitrary selection of experiences and thoughts (one might for example read more about some of my travels on my website www.laehnemann.de/kenya - in German however).

First of all there was the life at university, as my studies were after all the framework for me to go to Nairobi. The lecture about theoretical elementary particle physics continued and I still hold very much of the way Prof. Barve was able to explain during his lectures which was very understandable and motivating. Even most lecturers in Germany could use some of his dedication in their teaching. From the side of the lectures, this, however, was the only real highlight. Other classes I had started, I did not carry through to the end. On the one hand, because I was not satisfied by their quality, but I have to admit that it was also not easy for me to sit down and focus on physics books all the time to make up for not so good lectures, while I had the one time chance to "experience Africa". On the other hand I used the second semester to focus on my project on "Validation of Satellite Ozone Measurements Over Nairobi Using MAX-DOAS 2003-2004". For the Kenyan students these projects were their bachelor thesis, while I took it as an research internship which I documented in a report (www.laehnemann.de/doas). In cooperation with the Institute of Environmental Physics at the University of Bremen - who run a DOAS (Differential Optical Absorption Spectrsocopy) station in Nairobi - I worked myself into the theoretical background of Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry and of Remote Sensing and then used the Bremian tools to evaluate spectra from this instrument and obtain total ozone columns, which I compared to similar data from satellites. It was an interesting and motivating practical application of my studies and I think that I already learned quite a bit for the time when I will be writing my thesis. At the end of my time I organised for two of the new students to do DOAS projects during their time in Kenya.

As indicated it was also important to me not only to be at the university, but also to learn about the country and its culture. While I used the break between the semesters and the time after the end of the academic year for travels, I also did a lot in Nairobi. Till the end of my time I continued my efforts to learn Swahili with private lessons about once a week and trying to use it whenever possible - I never got really fluent but towards the end of my time it sufficed for many situations in my daily life. Together with a Kenyan friend at the student hostels I developed a liking for African literature and first read books by Kenyan writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Meja Mwangi. Later I added other African "classics" to my library. I also visited concerts by different Kenyan artists, developing a liking for what might be classified as "fusion" music with influences from traditional African music and Western styles like Rock and Jazz (I can definitely recommend Eric Wainaina and Abbi with his band Kikwetu among others).
Definite highlights were also the trips with other students to the neighborhoods in town where they grew up. Places where I might not have ventured on my own.

During the break between the two semesters I went to Uganda and on to Rwanda. I got an impression of the differences between African countries, but also how close they are in many things. In the summer several friends came to visit me and I became a tour guide showing them some of the places I had visited before and going to places I myself had not been to. This ranged from places in Nairobi (by then very familiar to me), over the ultimate tourist experience in the game parks, relaxing time at the coast and the nature of Mount Kenya, to the completely different world in the northwestern Turkana district - dry outback, far from the capital, with a scattered population of herdsmen and a few small towns, which is however how the whole northern half of the country looks.

The foremost effect of this year was that I now see Africa and news from this continent in a different light and with a new background of understanding. While I did not know much about Africa before I started to prepare for my time in Kenya, I now have many associations which I make when reading news from there. Kenya is only one of many African countries with its individual history and culture and on the one hand faces a whole range of problems which are special to this country, but I think I also learned something about the whole continent.
Still I think I came back with more unanswered questions on my mind, then I had when going there. I read a lot and I discussed with Kenyan and German friends and still some of the questions are unanswered and I don't know if I'll find satisfactory answers - to discuss these questions at this point would be overloading this report. There's the role of Europe in the historical dimension as colonial powers responsible for many of the things that still go wrong. There's Europe's current role as donor countries for development aid and cooperation, which is necessary, but very ambivalent as it often pays back for the donors economically (creating a market for technological products from "developed countries") and sometimes seems to trigger the attitude that the mzungus (white people) will provide the solution (and therefore one does not need to show initiative). But then there are also very promising projects initiated by Kenyans or foreigners and many of them could not work without financial backing from abroad. There's also the ambiguous role of Christianity, today the major religion in many countries on the continent.

Part of this experience was staying at the student hostels, where standards were far from those in Germany. There and everywhere else my financial backing from home made me the rich German who could travel farther than most of the people I met had ever gone. To be in this situation was not always easy for me. Nevertheless the contacts I had through the university and the hostels were the most valuable part of the whole experience and I cannot imagine any other way where I as a foreigner would have gotten the same insights. Just the evenings in the hostels, sitting together with friends, cooking together and talking and joking for hours are what I will remember the most.

I would again like to appreciate the help of all the people involved in the Berlin-Nairobi Exchange and everyone else who made this experience possible for me and hope that many more will be able to have this experience - I can only endorse anyone who thinks about going to Africa for some time in doing so.

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