While trying to get accustomed to life in Germany, 10 years ago, Joy Wanjiru Zenz realised the gap in the support systems for people living abroad. Her search for tips on how to navigate life led her to form a network, African Women in Europe that’s helping Africans in Europe, find their footing in a foreign land
Evelyn Makena @evemake_ g
Where did your journey to Europe begin?
I have always enjoyed travelling, but I never knew I would end up in Europe someday. Growing up as the daughter of a reverend, our lives involved moving to a new town every five years. I was born in Kiambu county but had the chance to study and live in Nairobi, Eldoret and Nyeri.
After completing secondary school in Nyeri, I joined the Technical University of Kenya in 1998 to pursue a Diploma in Hotel Management. Towards the end of 2000, I tied the knot with my husband, a German citizen and off I left for Germany.
How did you like your new life in Germany?
Well, unlike my experiences of moving to a new town every now and then, Germany was a whole different ballgame. I had a major culture shock. For starters, speaking the language was utterly difficult for me, so interacting was not easy.
Before leaving Kenya, I had learnt the German language to an intermediate level, but it turned out that was not enough. Luckily for me, we moved to UK after seven months of being in Germany and life was easier.
How was life easier in the UK?
For one, I understood the language. That meant I could look for a job and so I worked for some time as an administrative assistant at a residential home. Within the seven years we lived in the UK, my sons, now 16 and 12 years old were born. As a way of chasing boredom while raising my children, I bought a computer and started learning different things.
What prompted you to start the network?
We returned to Germany eventually and this time the experience was different. My elder son was joining the school, that meant that I had to be in more social spaces. At some point, we had to move from a town where we had bought a house due to racism that my son faced in school.
Troubled, I started looking for solutions in a place I had become familiar with; the Internet. What began as just a website in 2008, to hear from other women in the diaspora, quickly spanned into a network of people living in Europe.
Did you anticipate the turn that the website took?
Quite frankly, no. The first members to contribute in the website were few contacts I had made in the UK. But more people kept joining and I remember wondering what I would do with all these people. It was meant to be short term, but a need to offer a platform to speak, vent and share ideas presented itself.
One of the challenges of Africans coming to the diaspora is that people come with a lot of expectations. There is a lot of pressure back home to succeed.
In Europe just like in any other place in the world, you have to work extremely hard to survive. So there are people here, who were dying due to all the mental distress and that was mainly because they had no channel to share their problems.
What are you most proud of achieving, 10 years down the line?
A lot. Most recently, we launched a book titled African Women in Europe, written and compiled by members of the network. The book entails accounts of 11 women from across Africa, how they ended up in Europe and their experiences.
It’s meant to be an eye-opener for anybody planning to go abroad and is available in local bookshops. We have also started an award, to recognise various people doing commendable things in the diaspora. The nominations for the awards are ongoing.
What’s next for the network?
So far, we have more than 3,000 members in different parts of Europe. We are in the process of writing the second volume of the book, to be out in 2020.