“I don’t think that I will as an immigrant in Finland ever be able to say that I’ve reached my destination.”
I’m Emma, I’m from Tanzania and I’ve been here since August the 11th, 1999. I came to study, to do an undergraduate degree in business administration at Haaga-Helia. Back then it was just called Helia.
After my BBA degree I stayed here. I later did my Masters in International Business and a professional Master of Project Management. I didn’t choose Finland originally; my dad chose Finland for me. He was a professor of science and technology and he was once an exchange professor in Finland. He did many development projects in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland. His work was mostly funded by the Nordic countries.
When I knew I wanted to study abroad I started searching for schools through study abroad magazines that I could access at the University of Dar es Salaam main library. I was interested in some schools in the USA and Canada, but they were so expensive, so my dad suggested I should come to Finland. In Finland there were no tuition fees. He said it was very calm and nice and that I could really concentrate on my studies, with slim chances of doing other wild things. Whereas the other countries would be wild and bouncy.
I adapted quite easily I think. I mean, I had lived in Norway when I was only 6-8 years old. My dad was on sabbatical there, in Bergen. That’s where I started my kindergarten. Sometimes, dad also took us to the university and we used to sit at the back of the class when he was teaching.
Finland was a different place 20 years ago, but the environment I grew up in meant that coming to Finland was not too much of a shock. I was practically born in the university area, I grew up and had my early education at the campus.
Haaga-Helia was not an international place back then and I think Finland is definitely easier for foreigners now. When I see people complaining that everything is in Finnish I just feel like saying that they should have come 15 years earlier. I think that when I compare my life in Finland to other foreigners, it’s quite different.
EMMA NKONOKI: When I see people complaining that everything is in Finnish I just feel like saying that they should have come 15 years earlier.
The beginning is of course always tough, but mine was tough in an easy way. I grew up with Finnish, British, and American neighbours. People came and went.
In Tanzania we sometimes had foreign visitors on Sundays, we had exchange students, went for picnics. So all my life I have been surrounded by these students and academics who come and go. I grew up in the academic world. So, living around Finns and other foreigners was not a huge change for me compared to others who had never experienced that before.
I avoid negative people at all costs, I don’t like negativity around me anymore. I had it when I first came here for a couple of years. Some of my closest people here had negativity around them. After some time I realised that it won’t take us anywhere and even if we can’t change everything we can at least change things in our paths and try and make them work for us. I mean, if you are in a foreign country you have to realise the country was not made to make you feel comfortable. It was made to make its own people feel comfortable.
I think people have changed a lot since then. Of course complaints remain, but they should not be 80 per cent of your life. They should be twenty per cent. People stop listening if you complain 24/7. I’m now 42. I’ve spent almost half of my life in Finland. I never think of that, I’m too busy. I try to think about things that bare something, that bring you something out of the thinking. I don’t want to waste my brain thinking of something that does not get me anywhere. I think I have wasted enough of my time in Finland. I think I wasted my first years in Finland thinking too many negative things, like “Oh that’s racist, it’s cold” you know. You can’t say everybody is racist, you never know who you meet. I’ve met many good people and done many good things.
Now I feel like I have to invest double the effort on many things to compensate for the time lost. I feel like I’ve let my father down so much. He is not alive anymore, but his memory and what he stood for drives me. He got sick when I was waiting for my visa. He was waiting for my visa and permit without knowing if I would get it and if I would come here. I wish I could tell him I got to Finland. I want to think that in some way he knows I’m here and guides me.
EMMA NKONOKI: I have been mentoring foreigners on how to be active in networking as they try to enter working life in Finland.
Funny enough, I’m doing the same things he did; working at the university, doing research, doing development projects, et cetera. I think my mind started to change after my first degree. You know, before that your mind is still wandering around, you’re making friends, good friends, but no focus, the brain is full of disorganised dreams and maybe too many dreams and too few efforts. The first 2-3 years in Finland I think I was just frustrated, new life, new people, losing my dad.
What kept me in Finland originally was my family in Tanzania. My mum wanted me to stay here and study further. We’re middle class at home – nowadays maybe even between middle and low. My mum said I could come back to Tanzania if I found my own place and started my own life. I was not ready for that at that time. My mum visits here a lot. She tells me I’m just like my father. He used to treat me like his boy before we actually had a boy in the family. Before that it was just girls.
In school I used to always get in trouble from falling down from trees, being a close friend of bad boys, or something like that. Dad used to ask me to watch football, BBC news and so on with him. My mum was always asking why he did it, because she thought I should have been in the kitchen learning to be a woman. In Africa it’s so that women are supposed to be more quiet, but that was just not me.
In Finland I also tried to be this lady-like women, going with high heels everywhere and so on. But then I just thought, “No, this is just not me.” The girls around me were very girly. I liked it and it was nice that they were, I respected that. But it was just not me. I like new experiences, things that seem impossible. I like to know how things become the way they are. For example, Mugabe in Zimbabwe; people mostly think of his different characteristics, but I am more interested to know what he studied, his professional background and so on. I want to learn from things like those. I mean, he even did a degree in jail. That gives me a “wow” and more positive things to think about.
EMMA NKONOKI: I avoid negative people at all costs, I don’t like negativity around me anymore.
Finland is a lot less intimate than Africa. I have some close friendships, but they are not the same. There’s not that closeness. I have three female close friends; but the boys, much more – I’ve always connected better with boys. With girls I don’t get that deep and close, but guys I can get very close to with and do productive things. With them I can talk about different issues and other things. My mum always asked why I was so close to the boys, like what I get out from it.
There’s no drop-in culture here, but my cousin and sister drop in at my place or me at their places. They can do that kind of thing. I think you can have that life here, but I don’t want that with too many people. I just want to be with my closest family. We can visit and cook and eat. I’m quite selective about who I let close.
I now work with Aalto University and the University of Turku, and as a seasonal consultant with different organisations. I have also been mentoring foreigners on how to be active in networking as they try to enter working life in Finland. I have done this through a Moniheli project called ‘At Work In Finland’. It was special because it was foreigners to foreigners. My mentee was from Kenya, so we could speak Swahili.
I’ve learned that getting where you want to be is a life-long struggle. I don’t think that I will as an immigrant in Finland ever be able to say that I’ve reached my destination. There are still a lot of undone things. Some of us have been very privileged, but there’s still a lot to do. There are lots of things to do for us immigrants and for Finns too, so why rest? You need to keep your mind fresh: even if I get my PhD I would still need to read and follow news from different media channels, be active in networking, learning and continue investing time and energy in building my career.
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Interview by Peter Seenan recorded in Espoo, Finland in 2018. If you wish to support our work in projecting the voices and achievements of immigrants in Finland please like our Facebook page and share Emma Nkonoki’s story.