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  • Germans on the Kenyan Coast: Land, Charity, and Romance by Nina Berman
  • Ng'ang'a Muchiri
Germans on the Kenyan Coast: Land, Charity, and Romance
Indiana UP, 2017. xi + 268 pp.
ISBN 9780253024305 paper.

On the face of it, real estate, philanthropy, and love have little to do with each other. Nina Berman's Germans on the Kenyan Coast: Land, Charity, and Romance makes a strong case for why a connection exists. Historically, Digo land ownership enhanced cultural practices of self-reliance and communal collaboration. Three phases of gentrification and land dispossession have hollowed out Digo resilience, replacing autonomy with expectations of national government assistance and aid from domestic or international charity organizations.

Berman's analysis of the aid industry carefully attends to the distinction between contraband humanitarians, educational institutions, and registered NGOs. Charitable organizations vary widely. Some possess an awareness of "local contexts, local communities" and how their actions influence both; others lack local partners, local language proficiency, and operate wholly ignorant of government policy (20). Berman's conversations with aid workers are illuminating, and this view from the trenches contextualizes the big picture laid out in Germans on the Kenyan Coast. Similarly, her interviews with biracial and binational couples are enlightening. I was especially intrigued by Berman's double-edged critique: [End Page 265] that while economic precarity spurs African Kenyans to seek out foreign spouses/partners, emotional vulnerability provides similar impetus for German men and women. This, as it turns out, is a highly insightful rumination on the neoliberal capitalist economy—a system replete with global populations that are either economically marginalized or emotionally unfulfilled. Charity is an integral part of the neoliberal economy, assuaging guilt among global elites. Simultaneously, "charity fills the gap that was created through the disappearance of communal forms of support but, arguably, also contributed to their disappearance" (77). What Germans on the Kenyan Coast describes is a feedback loop between the vagaries of neoliberal economies, global poverty, emotional vulnerability, and international philanthropy.

Berman uses questions to great rhetorical effect. When she invites her reader to ponder whether, for example, Germany would permit "Qatari or Chinese humanitarians to fix dismal situations in its areas of urban poverty without any oversight or involvement," the answer is an obvious no (81). This unstated repudiation, combined with fieldwork that recounts how a German national imported 20,000 epilepsy tablets, against the explicit advice of a Kenyan Ministry of Health official, powerfully demonstrates just how disastrous contraband charity can be. I have yet to encounter a more persuasive follow-up to Dambisa Moyo's Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa. That German humanitarians frequently work within old colonial paradigms is clear. That such choices have fomented decades of land dispossession and the atrophy of Digo self-sufficiency is Berman's main takeaway. To a large extent, Berman argues, Germanled charity in Diani is top down, lacks collaboration with local communities, and does not put in place mechanisms of reciprocity (107). "Free" charity attempts to right social inequity not by inspiring collective action but, paradoxically, by encouraging communal apathy and disenfranchisement. Ironically, while corruption and lack of government transparency has left Diani destitute, German-led humanitarian projects—by discouraging civic engagement and political action—further entrench bad governance. Berman's critique further identifies that Diani residents are politically complicit; Kenyans' dependence on charity—often under ruse and deceit—while a rational reaction to economic inequality, merely serves to "sustain rather than alter [kleptocratic] power structures" (121). In line with contemporary scholarship on humanitarian aid, Berman concludes that charity "not accompanied by large-scale economic and political reforms will not address the root causes" of the area's abjection (125). Evidently, philanthropy that ignores fundamental reforms that would eventually render it redundant primarily "serves the needs of those who give, not those who receive" (125; emphasis added).

Most intriguing, perhaps, was Berman's argument that what makes German-Kenyan marriages so frequent is that there exist analogous cultural norms in both societies: fluid relationship networks being the key similarity. The text's focus on African Kenyans' agency is insightful; for one, while not denying...


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pp. 265-267
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