|If only she could be equally feted back home; if only Kenya would realise just how much she has done to keep the national flag flying high!
|German President Horst Kohler (centre) presents the country’s national award to Wangare as his wife looks on. Photo/REUTERS
Virginia Wangare Greiner is such a recognised personality in Germany that, as a Kenyan, I felt embarrassed not having known her before I was introduced to her the other day. German President Horst Kohler recently hosted an exclusive dinner for distinguished African representatives at an old treasured castle in Frankfurt, and she was one of them.
Wangare had also spent the previous week with a handful of Africans who engaged Mr Kohler and five African presidents on issues to do with development cooperation. Her presence was an honour to the German President because, a few months earlier, she had become the first African woman to receive the prestigious German national award.
Her profile is huge, achievements many and varied and contributions phenomenal. But when you meet the tall, gracious, warm and outgoing woman, none of the honours seem to have got into her head. On the contrary, she is down to earth, welcoming and affable. She even slides quickly into Kiswahili when I tell her that I am from Kenya.
“We do our best together with all the people from Africa who work in our organisation,” she says when I commend her work. “It is the only way we can assist our brothers coming from home who get stuck here in Europe for one reason or another.”
Laps of honour
But defining Wangare by going straight into her work is almost impossible without divulging into the many laps of honour she has taken in this Western country. For instance, in June when she was presented with the award at an impressive ceremony in Frankfurt, she was described by the local media as “an epitome of the power woman”.
The award was presented by President Kohler who paid a glowing tribute to the 45-year-old mother of four. “Your work emphasises that women have a decisive role to play in the development of the Federal Republic of Germany,” he said in a letter to her. Her acceptance speech was first in honour of her country. “I am honoured at various levels,” she said.
“First, as a Kenyan, secondly as an African woman in this society, thirdly for my family and children to show that they too can achieve things despite obstacles and finally, that the hard work within the African community over 20 years has been recognised.”
With modesty she had accepted the award “on behalf” of all people who struggle alongside her as a social worker in Germany, and vowed to continue with the fight for the welfare of Africans in distress in Europe.
“The work goes on at Maisha’s Centre. My award has not changed people’s problems, so I am still dedicated to the issues of integration, health and the African family. Remember, I never got into this work for an award. The needs of others were and will still be my priority, and the award has not changed me.” These are the words that Virginia lives by as she changes the tide for Africa in Germany.
Born in humble surroundings in Eldoret in 1965 and spending most of her childhood years around Ngong Hills, Wangare in 1982 met her German husband, an expatriate working in development cooperation in Kenya. She married him at an early age — at 17.
When she moved to Germany with her husband in 1986, she was a young foreign woman who was confronted by many “strange” challenges, which must have formed the basis of her social ministry. She was forced to adjust and learn. “Settling in Germany with a young family, understanding the system, the language and later, as my children grew older, the problems of racism in the education system was a major challenge,” she recalls. “In addition, there was always covert and overt racism in the society, where a command of the language is not enough when you are a member of a visible minority.
“There was also the challenge of gaining personal qualifications as my children grew up, with many suggesting that I would never make it in the German language.
“There is also the constant emotional struggle to cope with the reality that my various awards are often seen in the context of my being ‘exotic’ and not in the context of achievement over many years in the German society.”
Wangare is emotional about many young African men and women who find themselves in Europe illegally without an idea of what they are going to do. “They are many, and as a social worker, I have to be both diplomatic and professional… I have to respect my clients’ confidentiality,” she explains.
These are the challenges that must have prodded her in 1996 to get involved with Maisha, an NGO based in Frankfurt, which helps African women in crisis when dealing with German authorities and the public in general.
In collaboration with other NGOs, Maisha aims to empower, give support to and create a platform for the voice of the African woman in Germany as well as fight racism and other forms of discrimination.
All this and a wider scope of her activities have endeared her to the German public, and her role of enhancing cooperation and harmony between Germany and Africa has also boosted her reputation.
Since 1990, Wangare has been teaching African cooking at an adult education centre in Frankfurt. In 1994, she started accompanying Germans on cultural tours of Kenya to show them the real Kenya, away from the clichéd Safari image.
She later worked with an organisation that fought for the improvement of social conditions of women from Africa, Latin America as well as Central and Eastern Europe.
Wangare headed the Africa department at Agisra, an organisation that was founded in 1983 and which has made a mark by especially changing immigration and social integration laws.
“Owing to our fight for the rights of minorities and immigrants, women no longer wait until four years to legally divorce their husbands and retain their residency rights when things are going awry in a marriage; two years is now enough to sort out all that,” she says.
Wangare, who has been living in Frankfurt for 20 years, is also a consultant at a counselling centre for African women, men and families, an advisory centre for health-related issues, which was established in 2001 through her efforts. Under the initiative of the state of Hessen to bridge language and cultural gaps between African immigrants and the police, she lectures trainees at the state’s police academy on intercultural communication.
In 1999, she started the African Queens with Voices, a project for young African and Afro-German girls and women aged between 12 and 25. It promotes their integration and strengthens them in the process of defining their identity and enhancing their confidence.
In 2001, she represented Germany at the UN conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, and in 2002, co-founded African Diaspora in Europe, which seeks to network the African communities in Europe and provide a forum for the exchange of ideas and experiences.
The vibrant mother and social worker also took the time to study and enhance her academic credentials. She obtained a masters degree in home economics and a diploma in social work from the Institute of Science and Technology in Frankfurt.
Through her efforts and initiatives like Maisha, Wangare’s name regularly features as a VIP in many forums organised by the German government.
For example, she was one of the immigrants chosen by the federal government to participate at the first integration conference convened by Chancellor Angela Merkel in July, and she is currently a member of the committee set up by the Chancellor to recommend measures to promote the integration of foreigners in the country.
This year’s invitation by President Kohler was her second. In August, last year, she was one of six Africans invited by the President to the Partnership with Africa initiative.
Today, Wangare’s services through various outlets are crucial for the wellbeing of Africans and other minorities in Germany and Europe at large. At Maisha, for example, health services rank highest on the list of priorities of needs for people seeking them.
“In my health work, we provide free maternal health services to check on the mother and the unborn baby, to provide some good quality clothes for the new baby and to arrange with some hospitals for less expensive care in having the baby,” she explains.
“For older Africans, my work with the health authorities is crucial in meeting some of their health needs as they grow older in Germany. The entire African community in Frankfurt enjoys a weekly clinic, where various health requirements are provided by a doctor,” she says of one of the areas that are her favourite in social work.
Determined and endowed with the sheer urge to serve, Virginia Wangare Greiner is making strides in Europe in ways that can only be admired and praised.