Frankly ... integrated On the Bench

Anyone resting in a park in Germany for a while runs the risk of being controlled by a civilian patrol. Our columnist Dominic Otiang'a shares this irritating experience with other foreigners in Germany who just want to rest  for a while.

By Dominic Otiang’a

On the bench Does sitting on a bench make you suspicious? Dominic Otiang'a has a strange experience. | Photo (detail): Anna Utochkina © Unsplash
I was listening to a presentation on holism theory when an email alert from the Goethe-Institut headquarters in Munich interrupted me. It was a reminder of an article I was to submit. But since the intended article was based on my observations and experiences, I began thinking about it in line with the topic, holism. I sunk down into my chair, thinking of past observations and experiences, and trying to understand them by gaining multiple perspectives on them and synthesizing them into a complete understanding. The first images that flitted across my mind were those of the police, conducting searches on people in parks, on street-side benches and in train stations.  

Under the piercing gaze of passers-by

Some years ago, while looking for a nice spot to sit and read a book as I waited for friends to join me to the theatre adjacent to the Schlossgarten in Stuttgart, a blond-haired couple in their mid-30s walked past me, both in pairs of blue jeans. They proceeded towards the leafy edges of the park where metallic benches were placed along the pavement. They stopped at a bench occupied by two men in dreadlocks and a woman in colourful braids. Minutes later, the blond-haired couple had disposable plastic gloves on and were inspecting documents of the trio before conducting a thorough search on them. They were asked to remove their shoes and socks and turn their pockets inside out, all under the piercing gaze of passers-by and those sitting on the lawns beyond. At the end of the search, the two, supposedly police officers in plain clothes, proceeded to take a walk in the park. 

A soul shaken to the core

The trio remained sitting for a while, talking angrily in Mandinka. The lady in the group was quiet but equally embarrassed. I looked at her as they opted to leave the park. She was visibly angered by the ten-minute ordeal. A soul shaken to the core - like a beautiful monastery on the edges of the ocean, ambushed by dreaded Vikings, plundered for everything that was worth anything; from the golden smile, dignity, the inner peace, to positive self-esteem. Gone! All gone! Only the outside beauty remained. What a day! what a scene! 

What are those benches for?

I sat down on the grass behind a group of five. A guy in that group reacted, "I wouldn't want to sit on the edges if I looked like them." A second person retorted, "If I were a cop and looking for weed or something like that, I would go directly to a group like ours!" They laughed in amusement.

My book remained closed and I kept staring at the cover photo of the author, and the title: "The Souls of Black Folk".

Back to my chair, this and many similar incidents occupied my mind; why do people, often foreigners, hang out around train stations, street-side or park benches instead of bars, clubs, and such places? Well, what are those benches for, I asked myself sarcastically? But why train stations?

To avoid meeting in places where money was needed

My childhood in Kenya had exposed me to the boarding school system, where we only came home midterms and between school terms with the eagerness to meet other youths, to share our experiences, cultivate friendship and be part of the general society. Too young to be in the bar or club yet broke enough to avoid meeting in places where money was needed. The only meeting points were public or private open spaces in the estates, around barbershops and sports grounds. Those who couldn't engage in any activities for whatever reasons remained idle but clearly longed to get busy like the rest of us.

I often wonder whether that boarding school situation bears similarities to the circumstances of those idling in train stations; Do they also live in dormitories, isolated from the general society, either as asylum seekers or something else? Are they allowed to work, or do they also avoid meeting in places where they must spend money? Does the system understand them and their otherness? Wouldn’t it be great to have a holistic approach to dealing with our diversity?
 

"Frankly ..."

On an alternating basis each week, our “Frankly …” column series is written by Dominic Otiang’a, Liwen Qin, Maximilian Buddenbohm und Gerasimos Bekas. Dominic Otiang'a writes about his life in Germany: what strikes him, what is strange, where did he get interesting insights?