Equality for Change: discovering womanhood and the meaning of "Mal d'Afrique"Before moving to Kenya I was very skeptical about the existence of what they call “Mal d’Afrique” (a term that doesn’t even exist in English!), and I was a 100% sure that something like that could never happen to me: I was totally wrong.

But what does “Mal d’Afrique” mean? I read once that “Mal d’Afrique” is a mix of nostalgia, attraction and blurry emotions that forces you to search for other people who experienced Africa as well to talk about it, as you won’t need to explain to them a feeling that, otherwise, would be impossible to describe precisely. Well, now that I’m home, I can firmly state that I couldn’t agree more on that.

Prior to my departure I had mixed feelings about Africa, as I was scared and excited at the same time. Indeed, Africa is a lot of things all together: it’s stunning sunsets and dawns; vibrant, colorful and lively nature; infinite spaces; breathtaking night skies; warm smiles, sunny days, lazy chats and contemplative life. But Africa is also unimaginable poverty and misery; it’s inequality and resignation, diseases, illiteracy and isolation.

It is exactly because of this complexity that, to experience for the first time “real” Africa has been challenging, surprising, often frustrating but also incredibly rewarding: Kenya is for sure a place that does not leave you feeling indifferent, and living there was a life-changing experience.

My EVS, in the framework of the wider “Equality for Change” project on gender equality and women empowerment, was directed to girls and women living in rural areas still affected by the issue of female genital mutilations (FGM). Our daily activities mainly consisted in planning and carrying out meetings and training for selected groups of girls and women, with the aim to empower them through non-formal activities such as theater and free discussions. The decision to adopt this peculiar approach to deal with very sensitive topics was due to the fact that, for years, the problem in the area was addressed just prohibiting FGM and imposing concepts and ideas (typically western) that were never discussed or explained to those targeted, and thus, never truly understood and accepted.

Decades of colonization and a dominant attitude from the Western Countries heavily influenced Kenyan way of life and people’s mindset, often producing hybrid outputs in relation to which locals struggle in the effort to adjust traditions to modernity. This fact, adding up to the existing complexity on the political and economic level, is detectable only from an internal point of view, making thus essential – to truly understand its society – to live in, and with, the community itself.

I guess that to carry out an EVS in Africa is totally different than to do the same in Europe. Probably, it is more challenging because it brings you face to face with the most annoying and problematic aspects of very different cultures, testing in the real world our highest and most beautiful ideals. Furthermore, it represents also an occasion to understand what it’s like to be “different”, because being a mzungu (the word used to call whoever is not a black African), you can never run away from the color of your skin, and from all the ideas and misconceptions that (for what concerns us) years of colonial domination have linked to it: to see mistrust in the eyes and words of locals approaching you might make you suffer, but it’s a necessary eye-opener on the importance of building positive relations, especially through volunteering.

EVS can be a very enriching experience, both from a professional and personal point of view, and to me undoubtedly it was. Once again I had the confirmation that every single individual and every single place in the world is worth it. And there is no better way to know it than to get yourself out there, sharing, discussing, listening with an open mind. Only in this way you can find out that the world is, indeed, one creature.

Giulia Guietti

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