Somebody will point at us with a gun and force us to leave the car. If we are lucky, we will end up wandering around the dusty, crowded townships of Nairobi. If we are less lucky, we will end up duct-taped in the trunk of the car, hopelessly waiting to be freed.
This is what I imagined before we arrived in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. "Nairobbery," as the residents call it — the reputation of the city has always been bad. When we arrived in a city with nice, well-organized streets lined with trees, and met friendly, warm, and unbelievably helpful people, I looked around laughing at myself.
My husband and I lived for two years in Zambia, in southern Africa. He worked for the United Nations, and I was writing my second novel and working for the emerging Zambian film industry. When time came to leave Zambia and go back to Finland, we decided to take some time to explore the Eastern and Northern parts of the continent. Instead of flying, we would drive back home overlands with our old Land Rover.
After almost two weeks of driving in Zambia, Tanzania, and Kenya, everything feels like a dream. We have been camping in a rooftent on the top of our car, stargazing the amazing African sky, and while having breakfast at the campsite, watching buffalos eating grass just a few meters away from us. In Tanzania, we have seen young Muslim girls going to school wearing their religious headscarves, giggling with their Christian friends, who were wearing necklaces with golden crosses. In Nairobi, a city known for abundant crime and the post-election violence in 2008, we have enjoyed walking in the Hyde Park-like parks in the city centre, sipped perhaps the best coffee in the world, and talked with well-informed people about the nation's hopes for the future.
Wars, famine, diseases, corruption. Those are the main headlines Africa as a continent continues to make in the international media. And of course, many of them are true. Most countries in the continent are still waiting to step on the first ladder of development, and for the majority of Africans, life is incredibly difficult. But, in the middle of all this, the biggest news should perhaps be something else: the countless different ways the African people see their countries, continent, and its relations to the outside world. And the countless tones of political and economical realities that shape the countries so different from each other, and so far from the stereotypes we easily have about the whole continent. And the beauty and power of normal life, that people are still proudly struggling to live in places like Zimbabwe, so deeply shattered by the parasite-like government.
My travel read is Half of a Yellow Sun, an addictive novel by an excellent writer, Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She has written a lot about the way western people easily see Africa, as a monolithic country instead of extremely varied continent, and as a place full of voiceless, suffering people who need to be helped, instead of thinking individuals who are the agents of their own life.
After living in Zambia for two years, and working and traveling in 17 African countries, I still catch myself falling for the stereotypes, and being happily but genuinely surprised when they turn out to be false.
On this trip, I was expecting terrible border crossings, corrupted, money-hungry policemen, arrogant embassy staff endlessly delaying our visas, mad traffic, and criminals lurking behind every corner. So far, the border crossings have been smooth and the policemen and -women willing to crack a joke while checking our papers, and everything we have seen, and everybody we have met, has made us humble and moved, and reminded us about the endless, varying beauty of the countries we have been fortunate to travel in, and the endless ways our stereotypes of this continent can, and should, be shattered.