Alice Mapenzi Kubo was born in Kenya’s Kilifi District.
She’s been a resident of the Netherlands since 2001, having studied business administration in tourism at Breda University of Applied Sciences, followed by a Master’s in international development at the University of Amsterdam.
She is the author of The Abolition of School Fees in Africa and currently works as the Programme Manager for Africa at Child Helpline International.
When I meet up with relatives, I find that we hold hands easily. We pat each other on the shoulder, maintain eye contact and rarely bother about the physical space between us. I come from a culture where if someone speaks with you and you do not maintain eye contact, you are either not interested or are being bluntly rude.
By Alice Mapenzi Kubo
As a student, I was advised by classmates to reduce my tendency to touch and make eye contact when speaking with Dutch people. If your Dutch interlocutor feels uncomfortable because you are getting too close, he will move a step back. You are not to move forward but, instead, stand still, continuing with the conversation as though nothing happened. It remains difficult to gauge how large that distance is. I have asked my Dutch friends: is it a metre, or more? Nobody seems to know the exact answer, but everybody insists a distance must be kept.
As a girl in my village in Kenya, I was expected not to get too close to boys and men, particularly if they were strangers. But it was disrespectful if I did not greet them – be they young or old, seated, standing or merely passing by. A special handshake was expected when I encountered my seniors. In some African cultures, one greets seniors kneeling down.
Life is full of mysteries. You never know what might befall you. What if there were an emergency situation, you collapsed and the only person present to rescue you was the one you had failed to greet? You would be left to die! If one was impolite, eyes were watching and a report was sent home: ‘This daughter of yours has no proper manners, teach her some!’ I grew up in a society where everybody watched over everybody.
The Dutch, however, live in a very individualistic society. Rarely do they bother about other people’s businesses, particularly if it does not affect them directly. It is not surprising to meet people here who do not know their neighbours’ names. I was perplexed by the majority that never bothered to return my greetings.
In shops, I greeted salesclerks; they mostly ignored me. I thought ‘What bad service!’ Is it because I am African? Is it my foreign accent? It took several years to find out it had little to do with any such thing. Salesclerks here are basically just not customer-friendly. Youth also rarely have time for greetings. The older generation is more inclined to say hello and will occasionally make small talk. I’ve found that in this country, the unpredictable weather is one topic that everyone is ready to talk about.