Science - May 12, 2005

The Dutch experience / Robert Chakanda

‘A friend in Sierra Leone showed me a brochure from Wageningen University. I had never heard of Holland before, but the University was exactly in tune with my field of study, so I didn’t find the decision very hard to make.’ Wb interviewed Robert Chakanda (40) from Sierra Leone, a PhD researcher working at the Centre for Genetic Resources Netherlands.

When Robert came to Wageningen in 1994, he experienced a kind of culture shock. ‘I think what shocked me the most is the relaxed manner in which people show their bodies in western countries. For example, there are always women on the television showing their bodies to the world. But also in the whole community, especially when it’s summer in Holland – and the summers aren’t as hot as they are in Sierra Leone – women are barely dressed. I was really shocked at that, but I’ve got used to it now.’

Robert returned to the Netherlands to pursue an MSc degree in 1998, and a year later in 1999, his wife and two children came to join him because of the war in Sierra Leone. Now there are four children in the Chakanda family. ‘My wife and children can speak Dutch very well, but I can’t. They always say to me that I should learn it, but I haven’t done so because Dutch is such a difficult language and you need a lot of time to learn it.’

Not only is the language different, but also the way that people communicate. ‘In Holland the people are very direct. Some Hollanders say to me: come on we are direct people, we say what we mean. But when I started practising that, I noticed that most of them didn’t like it if I was very direct in what I said about them. I have studied this all the time I’ve been here, and it appears to me that while most Dutch people are happy to give their opinion, they are not so keen to be on the receiving end. In Africa the people aren’t that direct. Mostly we talk around a subject to be polite, especially with older people.’

Robert found the cost of living in the Netherlands a rude awakening. ‘A little while ago I bought a car, the type I used to drive in Sierra Leone. But after one month I had to give it up. The car was too heavy and expensive to keep, because of all the extra costs you have when you own a car in the Netherlands. In Sierra Leone, I don’t pay road taxes and insurance is much cheaper. Another expensive thing is the rent for housing. The monthly rent I pay for here would pay my quarterly rent in Freetown for similar quality housing.’

The bureaucratic atmosphere of Holland has a huge impact on the everyday life of people, Robert finds. ‘In my opinion Dutch culture is very organised. For example even at informal meetings people speak in orderly manner. You never speak at the same time, but you wait politely till it’s your turn. I’m still trying to adapt to the Dutch system.’

Robert still isn’t used to the Dutch weather. ‘I find the weather here very strange. In Sierra Leone, when it’s a dry season it is dry – you can plan a camping trip without hesitation. When it’s rainy, it is rainy. Here in Holland the weather is so unpredictable, you never know when it’s going to rain. And the winters, they are so cold. The first winter here I started to drink a lot of coffee to get warm. There was even a time when I drank seven cups of coffee a day, but at the end of the day I usually regretted it. In Africa I used to drink only one cup of coffee a day, but here people get coffee every hour.’

Robert has been living in Holland for seven years now. He finds the Dutch very friendly and he has never experienced racial confrontation. He admits that Holland is very rich and beautiful, but he still feels like an African. ‘Africa to me is a continent that sticks under your skin. Some day I hope to go back to Africa. Maybe when I’ve finished my PhD, which I hope will be in 2007. With the knowledge I have gathered here, I think I can make a difference in helping my continent.’
/ RK

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