Kenyan Caroline Muiruri shares how moving to Germany taught her the importance of community, proved that friends can become family, and helped her realise that she doesn’t need to change who she is to make others more comfortable.
In Maasai, the language of one of the tribes in Kenya, we say that "the child does not belong to the parents, the child belongs to the community”. This has proven true throughout my life, both during my childhood–when everybody was like my mum or dad or auntie–and into my adult years as my family has grown to span the globe. I love to travel, and as I’ve become part of communities around the world, my passport has become very dear to me. My current passport is light blue with the words “East African Community: Republic of Kenya” stamped on it. It says a lot about me, which is why I chose it as the object of my affection. It shows that I like being an individual–that I like the freedom to travel– but that I also value belonging and community life.
My name is Caroline Muiruri, I am from Mombasa, Kenya and I live in Germany.
Every time I think of my passport, I am reminded that it is a ticket home, since I currently live in Germany even though I'm a Kenyan. However, my passport also takes me to the countries that I've travelled to. Wherever I travel, I try to see the culture and meet new people. I like to try to talk to them in their languages and eat their food and just get to know them. My passport reminds me of the people I meet through these travels–people that love and care for me, people who are thinking of and maybe praying for me. It is a connection I have to the people I love that are not always physically with me.
The place I am from is called Mombasa. I grew up in a positive environment there. I was raised by a single mum, who is the biggest role model in my life. She had only two kids: me and my younger brother, who is seven years younger than me. This is not so typical for an African family, but my mother also took care of the rest of her siblings. My mum was a single mother by choice, and even at a young age, I realised that she was a very strong woman. She did everything. She was taking care of a lot of people in our house, and she was the only one who was working back then. She's the kind of woman that woke up early in the morning to get everything done. We didn’t have a washing machine, consistent running water or electricity that was always on. This meant that she would wake up, wash or clean the house, cook food, then she'd take my younger brother with her to work and put me on a bus to school. When we came home, she had already cooked and then she herself went to work.
I don't remember my mum ever complaining about anything, she just kept going and did it. She is my biggest role model. I grew up with this mentality that if she did it, I could do it too. In Africa, in general, girls are raised up to be good wives. This means that, from a young age, we spend a lot of time in the kitchen cooking and cleaning. The boys– they get to go out and play. However, because I was growing up with only boys, I was just like one of them and I didn’t have to do that.
In my early adulthood, I wanted to learn a new language and decided to use my passport for the first time to go to Germany and become an au pair. Once there, I was able to learn the language, but after moving away from home for the first time, I realised how different it was and that I didn't know anybody. My family wasn’t there. The three things that really, really hit me hard were the food, the weather and especially the people.
In Kenya we have, like, three meals a day, and if your mother has the time, you'll get three different types of food every day. But when I got to Germany, in the morning we had bread, for lunch we mostly had soup and bread and then in the evening we had more bread. So, the first thing that happened was I lost weight.
The second thing I noticed was that it was very, very cold. Imagine coming from Mombasa, a place where it’s like over 30 degrees every day, and then you land in a town like Hamburg, where it was still snowing in April. Can you imagine that? I had never seen or experienced snow in my whole life. I went to bed the first few weeks in my winter jacket–that's how bad it was for me.
Finally, in Germany, people were not as friendly as in Kenya. In Kenya, everybody in your neighbourhood was your neighbour. Even if they lived 20 kilometres away, you would just say hello and they would give you a hello back. But in Germany, I would see my neighbour collecting the post and say "Hey, good morning" and my neighbour would look at me as if to say, "What do you want from me? Why are you telling me good morning?" So people in Germany didn’t have that kind of relationship that we had there in Kenya. That was also hard for me.
After six months, I called my mum and told her, “I cannot do this. I cannot do this. There’s no food in Germany, it’s cold and I cannot do this”. Then I thought to myself: “But what about the other opportunities that I'm seeing? I'm not going to get that at home”. So, I decided to stay and started to adapt very quickly. I can now say that I have a German family, one of many that I’ve been adopted into. When you go to work, you become part of a work family. When you go to church, you have a church family. So I kind of ended up having more than one family, which is a good thing because I'm never alone anymore, even though I'm away from home. And when I use my passport to go back home, I still have a family there, too.
I found my work family through the nursing home I now work at here in Germany. There are people of many different nationalities there, and there is one particular lady–she's Muslim and from Turkey–who wears a hijab. On one occasion, we were working together, and another patient saw her with her hijab and said something negative. I told him not to do that again because, in the back of my mind, I thought: “Today she was attacked because of a hijab, and then, because I'm black, maybe another day it will be me because I'm different too. I'm different because of my skin and she's different because of her hijab.” I helped her on many occasions after that as well, and we’ve become good friends. Now, I often walk her home after work and then take the bus to my home. Her husband knows: “Okay, if my wife is working with Caroline, Caroline is going to make sure she is OK.” So, he grew to love me too and I would go over there for dinners and barbecues often.
One day he said, “You know what, we're going to take you home with us.” They go to Turkey every year for six weeks or so. I said, “OK, why not!” and I added another stamp to my passport when I flew to Turkey. When they picked me up, the wife, who I work with, told me that since it's a small village their parents are very traditional and very conservative. She told me that I cannot touch her father-in-law in any kind of way–I cannot give him a handshake or anything. So, when I got there, I greeted her mother-in-law the way she had told me, and then I just nodded at the father. The father just nodded back and then he went away.
On my second day, I was in the garden looking at their tomatoes–I love eating tomatoes–and the father came over. Of course, there was this language barrier, so we could not understand each other. We just pointed at tomatoes, plucked a few tomatoes and would eat them. Over the next few days, the seed of our friendship grew. We developed something, just the two of us. We understood each other, even though we could not communicate. They also could not say my name because Caroline is an English name, and they cannot speak English. So, on the second day, they decided to give me a Turkish name. They said they would call me Sema. Sema means sky, and when I remembered that my passport–which emphasises community–is sky blue in colour, I knew it was not a coincidence. By the way, blue happens to be my favourite colour.
When it came time for me to leave, I said goodbye to the mother-in-law. I even said thank you in Turkish. I was very, very sad that I was leaving them because there was a bond that had developed. My workmate and her husband had told me that the father was a very sensitive man, that he might not even come out to say goodbye. So I got my stuff into the car, but just before I left he came out and he was saying “Sema wait! Sema wait!” He came to me and said: “I wanted to say goodbye,” in Turkish. He then took my hands, both of my hands, and we both cried as he took me into his arms. He told me that I had to come back every year because I am his last, adopted, daughter. So I have to use my passport to travel home to Turkey every year so I can visit my family there.
I found my church family back in Germany. I wanted to be surrounded by good examples in my life there like I was growing up, so I started looking for a church. I was very unsuccessful. I remember I went on my knees, and I said: "Dear Father God, I need a church. I need to grow up spiritually”, and then one week later I met a pair of missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I agreed to give them my phone number, but the plan was to give them some of the digits and then just leave the last digit out, you know? But in the end, I didn't do it–I gave them the whole number–and I’ve been part of that church community ever since. And I don’t regret it.
Having been in the Church for many years now, I have gained a large family there as well. One of the most important relationships I gained was with an American woman. She helped teach me piano but threw me completely out of my comfort zone. Not only did she help improve my piano skills, but she also taught me to be more courageous. I play the piano for others now, I ask for additional responsibilities and learning opportunities at work and I’m always looking to try new things. She and her husband have become my American family–another community that my passport has helped me find.
If I had stayed in Kenya and never used my passports, I would never have found my German, Turkish or American families. I would probably have been, I dunno, married with maybe three to five kids. But I'm not married. I do not have children. I don't even have a boyfriend and I can’t remember when I last had a date. But it doesn't bother me. I am at peace with myself and enjoy being able to take part in activities as a single young woman. I see things differently. I want to be happy and one day be an equal partner in a relationship or marriage. I will expect us to work together in that relationship.
In the eyes of the Church, and from an African perspective, I’m supposed to be married. But it's not happening yet, and my mother is really frustrated. I tell her, "Right now you need to be happy with who I am.” I am living my life. God has a plan for me, and I should be happy now–and I am. The blessings that will come, will come when the time is ripe. Right now, I am where I am supposed to be. I have my career, I have my friends, and I have all the different families that I've gotten myself adopted into.
When it comes to my national communities, in the past, I’ve kind of gotten caught up in who I identified with. I would wonder: “What am I right now? Am I the German me–the European me? Or am I the African me?” I may live in Germany and have connections to America and Turkey, but when asked: “Who am I?” I would still say that I am African. I am an African woman. I am Kenyan. This is me. That’s why my passport describes me perfectly. It takes me around the world to my multiple families and communities, but at the end of the day my roots are African–Kenyan.
Pre-production: Clare Hamn
Interview: Krischelle Joseph
Assistant interviewer: Louise Paulsen
Transcription: Ryan Cook & Clare Hamn
Writing: Krischelle Joseph & Clare Hamn
Editing: Clare Hamn, Martsie Webb & Amy Epps
Audio: Emma Reyelts
Photography: Caroline Muiruri