Mandatory sex education curriculum in the philippines to launch
Interracial relationships are becoming more and more common in Kenya, but what’s changed to make them more accepted? Caitlin Nordahl looks at life for people in mixed couples – the hard, the impossible and the love that makes it all worth it.
interracial dating

Interracial relationships never work. Black women are gold-diggers, fawning over white men for their money. White men just want black women for the novelty of it and to fulfil sexual fantasies.

It’s every black man’s dream to [have sex with] a white gal

It’s the dreadlocks. Ask any [guy] with dreadlocks the kind of attention

they got from [white] mamaz. Also, some mamas just LOVE the African/Jamaican accents

1. To the average white boy, a black woman is just an “experiment”..

2. They can do all kinds of crap to a black woman that they can’t with white...

Ultimately, the relationship is one of EXPLOITER and EXPLOITED

Personality, beliefs, interests, all these factors are just as important in an IR relationship as any other

What about love? Maybe some mixed race couples just love each other?

Make it work if your heart is up to it. Most of all...BE HAPPY!!!

Taken from Mashada, a popular Kenyan online forum, these quotes offer a glimpse into the collective views on interracial relationships. Whether decrying the motives of those involved, fully supporting it, wondering why it’s an issue anymore or hundreds of variations falling somewhere in between, everyone has an opinion.

Stereotypes

Interracial relationships never work. Black women are gold-diggers, fawning over white men for their money. White men just want black women for the novelty of it and to fulfil sexual fantasies. Similarly, black men like white women because they’re more adventurous in bed, and will do things black women won’t. White women are just looking to experience the endowments all black men are rumoured to have. But black men are all dogs, who treat their women horribly. White men, on the other hand, are sweet and affectionate lovers.

mixed race couple

Surprisingly, however, when asked how Kenyan culture saw the relationships, respondents were much more reserved.

The stereotypes Kenyans hold about what happens when races mix are never-ending and often contradictory. But it basically boils down to sex and money. That’s what these relationships are all about, or that’s what you’d think looking in on Mashada or listening in on conversations. But things change when you ask Kenyans as individuals.

Destination put out a survey asking Kenyans about interracial relationships and the results were surprising. When asked to complete the sentence “Interracial Relationships are…” only two respondents had something negative to say – one said they were complicated, and the other that they were weird. Other than that, the responses were overwhelmingly positive with a sprinkling of ambivalence.

Surprisingly, however, when asked how Kenyan culture saw the relationships, respondents were much more reserved. While answers weren’t always negative they were almost all wary. When asked what problems interracial couples would have to deal with, ‘Approval of Society’ ranked second, only under ‘Approval of Families.’ While quite a few people said interracial couples were normal, when ranking problems ‘Standard Relationship Issues’ came in a distant last.

Clearly there is some contradiction here. When talking from a personal level, about people they know and possibly themselves (97.8 percent of respondents knew at least one mixed couple, and 65 percent had been or were in an interracial relationship), Kenyans don’t give stereotype a second thought. Of course those things happen, and the fact is those assumptions started somewhere. But people know enough to realise it’s not always, or even usually, about sex and money. However, as things get more generalised, stereotypes gain more credence. It’s as if the social assumptions surrounding interracial relationships are so strongly ingrained in Kenyan culture that everyone looks at their personal experience as an exception rather than the rule.

Race or Culture?

Most of the interracial couples in Kenya involve an expatriate. That means that not only are the individuals involved not sharing their citizenship, they also aren’t sharing a similar culture. So how does that affect the evolution of a relationship and the issues they have to deal with? How do they even meet?

For newlyweds Chaka, 30, and Dani, 23, it all started in Devon, England, where Chaka was studying agriculture and Dani was working. While they knew of each other, they didn’t become close until Chaka had actually left to go back to Kenya. “We always used to talk online, didn’t we,” Dani confirms with Chaka, before confidentially adding, “And I always fancied him,” with a giggle.

"Marriage isn’t about those things, it’s about living together and about creating a life together"

In 2011, Dani decided to go for a February holiday in Kenya, “and that was it really, no looking back,” as she puts it. Chaka surprised her with a six-week visit to the UK that June, and Dani decided to take the plunge and move to Kenya in September.

The issue then became explaining the decision to their parents. For Dani, it wasn’t so hard. Her parents had met Chaka and knew him fairly well. The fact that he had recently come to visit her also made it easier for them. “They thought, ‘This guy obviously cares, he’s not, like, trying to bait my daughter for a green card or that kind of thing,’” she explains.

However, Chaka had a harder time getting his parents to wrap their heads’ around the idea. Dani had actually met his mum when she was on her February holiday (“I could actually hear the tea and the banana bread go down my throat – that’s how nervous I was”), but it was only a short visit and the couple’s intentions weren’t clear then, even to themselves. When Chaka told his parents she was coming to Kenya to live with him, their first concern was not knowing her, and their second was whether he even really did.

“I said, ‘No, that’s something we can work on,’” Chaka recounts, “So to them, that’s a bit like you’re just testing it, you’re not serious.” Dani fires back with, “But in my mind, I was like, ‘Well how am I supposed to get to know Chaka if I don’t move over?’”

But given time, his parents accepted the situation, which they saw as a trial marriage. Chaka explains the novelty of his decision, saying, “You look through the whole family, I’m probably the first one who’s actually [done] what I’ve done – where Dani’s come, I’ve moved in with her and, well, we’ve made a life of it, really, gotten married and all that.”

The biggest challenges for them, and for many interracial couples, come from cultural differences. Chaka’s parents did have worries related to Dani’s race, but it was more assumptions about her culture based on her skin colour than her ethnicity by itself.

“I suppose as well, the stories of it never working. At the end of the day they’re seeing their son or their daughter who’s heart may be broken…”

Chaka explains, citing a commonly held notion about white and black couples. But he justifies it saying, “So I think the worry was not the fact that, ‘Oh yeah, she’s white, and she’s coming in,’ but ‘Will the cultures marry?’”

“Even if I was black British, it’d be the same…It wasn’t because I was white, it’s just a completely different culture and upbringing to what

[Chaka’s] used to,” Dani adds.

For many of the older generation in Kenya, culture and tradition still come first. An acquaintance shared a story of a Kikuyu schoolmate of his who went to Canada for further studies. His father, a very traditional individual, made it very clear that he was unconcerned with his son’s relationships while abroad but sternly warned, ‘Do not come home with a mzungu. You will be expected to marry a Kikuyu.’

The fact is that there are struggles in all relationships, it’s just that mixed couples hold the issue of cultural differences in common. But it’s not typically cultural differences between themselves – these are people who hold similar values, have similar levels of education and have similar interests. They’re meeting at work, at church, at bars, through friends – it’s no longer a simple case of shady people benefitting from someone else’s lack of money or worldliness.

“My parents…they do things traditionally, but at the same time they realise that there’s a different way of doing things out there,” Chaka says. And their attitude is reflective of Kenya’s as a whole. While interracial relationships might still seem strange and foreign, they are certainly becoming a more accepted part of life. The more the world becomes a ‘global village’ the more interaction there is with other cultures. In Kenya, there’s a new generation that realises that they no longer have to marry within their tribe or even their race. Everything is becoming more open.

And yet, Chaka is lucky. While cultural differences rarely become a massive issue within couples, they can with families. His parents’ understanding was important, as his family was important to him. In other cases, couples can decide they’re more important to each other than either person’s family. And other times the family issue breaks them up.

Meet the Parents

“When it was just me and her, the relationship was really good,” explains William, 30, “but with the external forces, her family, her friends, it became a bit awkward.”

William works in procurement for a major Kenyan company, and met the woman he ended up loving when she was giving a presentation at his office. With immediate attraction on both sides, they started seeing each other and became something mostly alien to the Kenyan population, an African and Indian couple.

“Her folks never knew we dated, the whole year.” While they did meet him, he was always introduced as just a friend. While William didn’t want to pressure his girlfriend, he took her home to meet his family. This wasn’t the first interracial relationship he’d been in, and they didn’t have any issues with it. In fact, his sister got along with her really well, and when William was ready to “settle down” she helped him pick out the engagement ring.

But things didn’t work out as planned. A week before he was planning to propose, they went for a romantic weekend in Naivasha. On the way home, she surprisingly advised him, “I don’t think this is working.”

“I was like, ‘What’s wrong with the car?’” William says, explaining how unexpected the breakup was. While they spoke on the phone a few days later, those abrupt words were basically the end of the relationship.

“It sucks, it really sucks,” he says. “I know we are coming from different cultures. The whole point of me taking her home and introducing her to my friends was, you know, I’m with you not because you’re Indian, I’m with you because you’re an individual by yourself. There were things about her I liked and there were things about her I grew to love. So I was like, I hope you see me for more

than the black that I am.”

The Ex-Pat Factor

However, it’s not just Kenya’s Asian culture that’s seen to stick together. White Kenyans are also a social enclave – making a white and black Kenyan couple as rare as black and Asian ones.

Iain* 38 and Ruth* 37, are one such couple. They were both students at a leading Kenyan university when they bumped into each other in the school’s library, just before Christmas break. They realised that they both came from the Coast and ended up meeting again in Mombasa over the holidays. They quickly became an inseparable couple and were engaged seven months later. A year after that, just after they graduated, they tied the knot and have been happily together for the past 15 years.

But they firmly insist that the rising level of interracial relationships is made up almost entirely of ex-pats. “White Kenyans are still a very insular community,” explains Ruth. Iain adds, “It just doesn’t happen very often. White Kenyans and black Kenyans, in many ways, do not relate on a romantic level. It is not a racism issue per se. For some reason white Kenyans simply do not see Africans as a romantic option.”

While mixed couples are on the rise, and while our survey would indicate that Kenyans don’t have an issue with interracial relationships, why is it that Kenyans of different races aren’t mixing? Put directly by Iain, “I think we still have a long way to go for mixed race Kenyans to get together.”

Perhaps the stereotypes and preconceived notions manifest themselves in Kenyan society in such a way that Kenyans, growing up knowing them, avoid getting involved with other races. If that’s the case, how do interracial couples cope?

Out in the World

Mary*, 36, left Kenya to go to university in London and study law when she was 18. Soon after she met Michael*, 41, an Austrian also living in London, and it wasn’t long before they were living together.

“When I told my mom, she almost had a heart attack. She went, ‘Come back home immediately!’” Mary remembers, “So we got married, went to the registry…And I told my mom five years later.”

Her family’s strong rejection of the man she loved, before they’d even met him, drove Mary to become more independent. While it wasn’t intentional, they’ve coped with any disapproval by refusing to care what people think. “Everything that we do within our marriage only concerns us…not private, not withholding, but it’s just nobody’s business,” Michael says. They returned to Kenya two years ago, but they’ve been insulated from societal pressures by their attitude.

That doesn’t mean they don’t see those pressures though, and occasionally it will get to them. Once, while they were still living in London but were visiting Kenya, they had a nasty experience in a Nairobi hotel.

“We were stopped at the barrier because he was white and I was black and the guy wanted to know what room we were going to,” Mary gets out, before Michael cuts in, “So she must be a hooker.”

“It can’t bother me,” Mary says, “I think I have so many other things to worry about than what people think. But the hotel one, that one rubbed me the wrong way. I was just really, really annoyed.”

But this is precisely the kind of thing that makes individual Kenyans say Kenyan society has issues with interracial relationships. And it’s not a rare occurrence. Every couple I talked to had similar stories to share.

“It’s annoying, that’s what it is,” Ruth says of her own prostitution accusations, but she’s quick to add that she doesn’t get upset or angry, “because I know it’s ignorance on their part. Total ignorance. Probably the only people they’ve interacted with are those types of people. Not legit couples or just normal interracial couples.”

Iain, on the other hand, doesn’t see things that way: “[Ruth’s] much more forgiving than I am, I want the guy fired. Anyone who behaves that way should not be working in our hospitality industry.”

However, when they first started seeing each other, in the 90s, things were much worse.

“We were waiting for a bus one day and someone actually shouted out the window of a passing car, you know, some nasty things,” Ruth recounts, while Iain remembers, “People would say to her, now that you’re with a white man you need to help us.” If she was not apt to doling out money individuals would become upset and abuse her, accusing Ruth of feeling ‘hot’ now that she landed herself a Caucasian. In an effort to avoid such behaviour the couple made an active decision to avoid certain types of places and restaurants and took public transportation as seldom as possible.

Jonathan*, 35, reflects on a bad occurrence that he and his wife Naisenya *, 32 experienced at a large beach resort in Diani: “We literally sat at the bar waiting to be served a drink for perhaps 20 minutes while foreign tourists and bar staff stared at us like we were animals in a zoo, whispering amongst each other.” The couple were staying at a private home up the beach but were visiting the resort for a drink before going out to dinner. After some time a guard approached Naisenya and asked in Kiswahili what the couple wanted. “I ignored him and looked toward my husband.” Shaking his head Jonathan expresses his disappointment, “We said that we would like to order a beverage but instead were escorted out

of the resort.” The couple spoke to the manager who disregarded the issue. The same resort has been in the media several times in the last year, charged with a number of similar instances.

For Chaka, the worst of it came in the UK. “Literally, I’ve had someone spit on the floor…right in front of me and just walk away saying, ‘Disgusting.’” But in Kenya, for the two of them it all comes down to money. Dani says that she’s typically given the bill or asked for money when they’re out, even though she’s completely dependent on him. All of the couples interviewed have had the same experience. It is always assumed that the mzungu or Asian is financing the relationship.

“I actually don’t like holding the money,” Dani says, “Because if we go somewhere, like even to Nakumatt, and I get the money out…I feel that they’re looking at me like,

‘Mmhmm, she’s the one with the money, paying for him.’ And I don’t like them thinking that of Chaka.”

Ups & Downs

While Dani openly admits that she thinks, “It’s not easy for mixed race couples. It’s getting easier but I don’t think it’s easy,” she insists, “Marriage isn’t about those things, it’s about living together and about creating a life together.”

“I think I’m very lucky,” she says, smiling at Chaka. Ruth explains what’s between her and Iain, saying, “We have a great many things in common, we enjoy each other’s company, we see each other as two people, not races, and that’s it,” which Iain emphasises with, “There’s so much mystique about black and white couples but black and white couples are just a man and a woman, same as any other couple. It is a mystery to me why colour is expected to create such a difference. More so it all boils down to having similar culture and interests.”

For Michael, it’s easy to analyse his 16-year relationship. “What has been the best part?” he asks, echoing my question. Immediately, he comes back with, “Every single day.”