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When I was in my last semester of graduate school two years ago, I took a course on “Rethinking Human Rights”, cause well, I had to. We were called on to write a paper of our choosing, and I decided I’d write about the Biafran War in Nigeria in the late 1960s, and how it was really the origin of the modern field of humanitarian intervention. An estimated 2 million people died in Nigeria’s bloody civil conflict, which pitted ethnic group against ethnic group, and displaced many, many more. My mother, who was 12 at the time, was one of those refugees from the war and resettled in Ghana.
I realized then I did not know much about the Biafran War. Even though my mother lived through it. Growing up, my mother would refer to that time as “the war”. Her tales to us about growing up were either “B.T.W” (Before The War) or “A.T.W” (After the War). My brother and sisters and I didn’t really press her on it to learn more. We just knew something kinda bad happened and a few people died, and then she ended up in Ghana and life went on, she went to a good school, met my dad, got married, had us, and we are awesome kids, so I always figured my mom did alright for herself in the end.
I called my mom to tell her I was writing a paper on Biafra. Just to inform her, really, nothing more than that. I told her that I had this class, and I wanted to write about Biafra, and was learning about the radio addresses of Colonel Ojukwu, the fiery leader of the Biafra secessionist movement. I told her about how I was finally learning about the massacres. How armed groups stormed trains and bludgeoned people and cut off limbs of mothers and children. How an entire region was deliberately starved, resulting in images of malnourished children with distended bellies being beamed around the world to the shock and horror of those in the West.
“I didn’t know it was that bad, Mommy.” – I said. I really didn’t know. I felt bad for not understanding. I felt guilty, in a way, that I was learning about this dark period of her life from the cushy vantage point of reading details of the events in books I checked out from my ivy league university.
“Yes, Karen…it was….you know…It was a genocide,” She said. She told me about listening to the radio addresses of Colonel Ojukwu. “Every night, she said, we’d crowd around the radio and listen to him. And he had such a powerful voice, he spoke so well….” I’d never heard her speak about this before.
“You know Karen, we had such a nice life before the war. Grandpa J. was part of the colonial finance ministry so he was respected. We were like what you might say, middle class. We had just bought a new house and we were moving our things in, and then the war….” Her voice trailed off. Then she got angry.
“It just wasn’t fair Karen! We had a nice life. We had everything. And then everything, EVERYTHING was taken from us. We had to run and only take what we could carry and then we were in the jungles…some people had no food, eating lizards in the bushes!”
I just let her talk, just let her release. The Biafran war had taken, the war had robbed, the war had starved people out of their lives as they knew it. Like all wars tend to do, really. I didn’t know if what I was doing was good, letting her release, but I did anyway.
She talked about the air raids. The bombs that killed her classmates in school.
She talked about the dog she had growing up. The faithful dog that would follow her and her siblings to and from school every morning for years. And how on the day that they had to take everything they could carry by hand and flee, that she knew the dog would be eagerly waiting for them to return. They never returned to that house. The image of the dog waiting for a family that would never come back for him is one of the more painful images for her in her mind. (Its for that reason that my attempts to convince my parents to let me have a puppy never succeeded).
She talked about how the war interrupted her education. For a year or two, they could not go to school and had to start over when the family resettled in Ghana. “I loved books, I loved learning,” she said, but we couldn’t even go to school!”
We got off the phone, so I could finish my paper.
A few days later during another phone conversation, she told me, “You know Karen, after our conversation about Biafra, I just…I literally curled up into a ball and cried. I sobbed, like I haven’t sobbed in years.” Here I was, listening to my mother relive painful, traumatic memories for perhaps the first time ever, all because I was writing some trivial paper for a class that I would probably get a B+ in.
I watched the movie adaptation for Chimamanda Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun a few weeks ago. For the first time, I watched a narrative of Biafra on the screen and saw what it was like to see how the war ripped apart lives. I thought of my mother throughout the whole film.
It left me to wonder, what about us who are a generation away from Biafra? How are we to speak to our grandparents, mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles who lived through such a monstrous conflict? And the personality quirks I would see in my mother growing up–were they really her or were they the scars from war? Quirks like–her clear love for animals, but her reluctance to get attached to them for fear of losing them, extreme guardedness around strangers, a sense of detachment from both Ghanaian culture and a sense of anger towards Nigeria, and her tendency to frame what I would consider normal challenges in life in terms of spiritual warfare, struggle, and victors and victims.
In a way, the Biafran War robbed me too, in disrupting my mother’s life. I’ve never been to Nigeria. The new house that my now deceased grandfather built has been sold, I think. I am disconnected from Nigeria because of my family’s displacement. At the same time, Ghana was never “home” for my mother. She learned the languages, learned to cook the foods, but Ghana were not her native home and the culture was not her culture. So in many ways, as someone who has really tried to study Africa and find out more about my roots, I feel like I’ve inherited her distance from those two worlds, and sometimes I feel a bit geographically displaced too.
War is the worst of thieves. It continues to rob for generations. But maybe talking about it can be a path to healing.
Last night, I attended the Andrew Young Lecture at the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Africa Society. The main attraction of the night was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield. After the obligatory free wine, diplomatic corps schmoozing, and sampling of veggies, samosas, and meatballs from the reception table, the crowd (which I reckon was about 80 persons or so) and I were ushered into the auditorium room to hear preceding remarks by representatives from Chevron(!), the Asia Society, and Ambassador Adebowale Adefuye.
Asst. Secretary Thomas-Greenfield’s speech centered around the Obama administrations policy priorities for Africa. She discussed Obama’s Power Africa initiative, a multi-billion dollar project which aims to improve electricity supply on the continent through support from the public and private sector. She spoke excitedly about the Young African Leaders Initiative or YALI, which will bring a group of 500 (out of over 50,000 applicants!) of young Africans to the United States for a chance to learn leadership development during the Summer. Thomas-Greenfield declared this summer to be “The Summer of Africa” in Washington D.C., the culmination of which will be Obama’s African Leaders Summit in August.
Most of Thomas- Greenfield’s speech were the normal talking points that one would expect about U.S. priorities in Africa. We got youth employment, democracy and elections, security and terrorism, and human rights. The normal song and dance. but no mention of the wave of anti-gay legislation sweeping the continent.
Things got interesting during the time for questions.
A Nigerian gentleman in the audience stood up and gruffly challenged Thomas-Greenfield. “Why did you not mention the power of the diaspora in your speech? Why have you not approached us? ” He was right, she hadn’t mentioned the diaspora at all.
Thomas-Greenfield shot back with an answer I did not expect. She said, that the diaspora was not doing enough to pressure and influence lawmakers in DC. “You want us to come to you…you need to come…write to your congressmen! We need the African diaspora to make policy demands on us. Organize yourselves into pressure groups like others have done.”
After Q+A was over, I approached Thomas-Greenfield to clarify what she meant. She said, “People want to set up meetings with us and ask us what we in the administration can do for them when its the congress that has the money!” She said the diaspora needed to organize like other lobbies and use their votes to voice the changes they wished to see in U.S. policy towards Africa. “If you vote, tell your congressmen what priorities are important.”
A lot of rhetoric in the last few years about the African diaspora in the development and policy community tends to suggest that Africans in the diaspora are the secret magical key to unlocking Africa’s development potential. From diaspora remittances to educated Africans returning from the West to Africa to start businesses, we have heard plenty of narratives about the sacred African diaspora. But to have a ranking official candidly challenging the diaspora to be more active for Africa within the U.S. government is a splash of cold water in the face.
Are African lobbies challenging immigration policy? Can we point to African diaspora groups that had a hand in crafting the Power Africa or YALI initiatives? Are there campaigns to lobby congress on policies towards conflict zones? Are there political awareness initiatives that can help the diaspora be more educated about U.S. congressional hearings on Africa? Does the diaspora have priority points when it comes to policy?
I had plenty of conversations about the diaspora after the evening was over. Many of my friends agreed that the African diaspora in the U.S. is indeed not organized, at least to the same degree as other pressure groups. Some on Twitter said that the diaspora should focus on lobbying governments back in their home countries. Others said that the wide range of issues affecting 50+ countries make organizing inherently difficult.
One friend of mine said, “You know, Africans can be complacent once they get to this country. They are not used to asking their government for anything and getting something in return. They are not used to approaching government.”
Whatever the case may be, we in the diaspora can always do more. And maybe when it comes to political organizing here in the U.S. we have been dropping the ball.
First of all, I want to thank everyone who followed me on my hijinks in Curacao. I definitely am grateful for the opportunity I had to connect with many people through this blog and my time in the Caribbean. If you have reached out to me in the last months, and I havent replied, I apologize! Feel free to send me an email with any questions you may have about my experience on the island. I’ve been back in Washington for the last few months, and while I have made the decision to pursue other directions with my career, I find myself often reflecting on life back in Curacao. Many people ask me how I did it, how I decided to pack up my life and move to a tiny island. Obviously one of my reasons for doing so was because of a relationship. But even so, I was ready for an adventure. I saved up a few months of living expenses. Before making the jump, I tried to reach out to people on the island via social media and email who I knew might be able to help me in my writings. I did as much research as I could on the immigration options (That turned out to be a nightmare). The biggest step was just booking the ticket. Setting the date. Getting on that plane.
Similarly, learning when it was time to let go, to make that return trip back to continue pursuing dreams, was just as scary, and just as necessary. Chapters begin and end, people come and go, mistakes are made, and lessons are learned, but the most important thing I have learned is to keep moving, to keep trying new things, and to just…trust yourself.
Learning about Curacao’s past role in the slave trade and the African influence in the culture and language has served to strengthen my resolve to study and write about culture, development, and politics of Africa and the diaspora. I know that it is social media-fashionable to tell the world about what one plans to achieve this year, but I’m a believer in “
don’t talk about it, be about it”. letting one’s work speak for itself. Good things are to come in 2014. Please stay tuned!
I wish you and yours all the best in 2014!
Almost every Shabbat weekend in Curacao, the pews in the Western Hemisphere’s oldest synagogue in use remain largely empty. The sound of the spiritual leader singing parts of the service in Spanish, Portuguese and Hebrew recall a time when Curacao’s Jewish community, made up of Spanish and Portuguese traders, was the largest and most influential community in the Caribbean. But now, the community is struggling for its very survival.
The Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, located just north of Venezuela, is home to the oldest Jewish community in the Caribbean. Sephardic Jewish settlers began arriving in Curacao in 1651.The Mikve Israel Emmanuel Synagogue, consecrated in 1732 is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere. Located in the heart of Curacao’s capital, Willemstad, the synagogue sees frequent visitors from the cruise ships that dock in Curacao’s world famous natural harbor.
Jewish settlers, mostly from Spain and Portugal, began settling in Dutch and Spanish Caribbean colonies in the 15th century. Jewish settlers in Curacao were actively were engaged in shipping, trading, and banking. A number of prominent Jews owned plantations as well as slaves. Today, colonial era synagogues, cemeteries and museums serve as attractions for tourists all over the globe, the reality is that many of the Caribbean’s active Jewish communities have been facing sharp declines in numbers of active members. Curacao, dubbed the “mother of the Jewish community in the New World” and once a hub for Jewish cultural life in the colonial Caribbean era, struggles with the prospect of its Jewish community disappearing.
At its peak, the Jewish community in Curacao reached 1,094 out of a total of about 3,500 whites in 1789. (The total population of Curacao was 20,988, 12,864 of which were slaves) In 1950, about 600 Jews called Curacao home out of a population of about 102,000. Today, around 200 Jews live on the island out of a total population of 150,000 people. A number of members of today’s Jewish community are able to trace back their family history a number of generations.
Mikve Israel’s members admit that the community is rapidly shrinking. “The youth are leaving, and family planning is working better than it used to in our father’s days,” said Rene Maduro, president of the Mikve Israel congregation. On an average Shabbat service, there are about 20 members that come every week. Many of those who leave are young students. 28-year-old Christine Cheis, a board member of Mikve Israel left to study finance at Brandeis, but decided to return to Curacao to help out with her family’s retail business. “To Jews, like it has always been, education is highly, highly important to kids and parents. So almost everyone who is Jewish here, once they finish high school go abroad to further their education. A lot of people go to either Holland or the U.S.” Cheis recalled her days at the Hebrew school on the island. “Back then, my Hebrew school class was eight to ten people. But now the whole Hebrew school has eight to ten people.”
“The main thing is that the children just don’t come back,” said Avery Tracht, the hazzan and spiritual leader of Mikve Israel. “If there is a family that has three children, maybe one of them will come back.”
The decline of the Jewish community in Curacao is similar to other Jewish communities in the Caribbean. Barbados was one of the early settling places of Sephardic Jews from Brazil in the 1600s. “30 years ago, there were about 45 Jewish familes here,” said Celso Brewster, manager of the Nidhe Israel Museum in Bridgetown Barbados. “Today, we have about 16 families.” Aruba is also said to be home to 30 Jewish families.
Mikve Israel’s problems with declining membership are also shared by Shaarei Tsadek, the synagogue founded by Curacao’s Ashkenazi community. Jews from Eastern European countries such as Poland and Romania largely migrated to Curacao in the 1920s, some 200 years after the arrival of the Sephardic community. While there were tensions between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic community in the beginning, Curacao’s Ashkenazi population reached about 200 families at its peak. Today, Shaarei Tsadek’s members classify themselves as Orthodox, though many members admittedly do not keep kosher houses and drive to Shabbat services. Judith Bercher, a member of the Shaarei Tsadek who works at the gift shop of the Mikve Israel Synagogue said it was important to the members to try to keep Jewish tradition as much as possible. “Even though we don’t live 100% orthodox, the only way we can keep Judaism alive here is to have an orthodox leader. Otherwise the children will grow up without any learning.”
In contrast to the colonial Dutch architecture of Mikve Israel synagogue, Shaarei Tsedek is of a modern design with sleek architecture. The multi-million dollar synagogue, completed in 2006, holds its services in a room complete with air-conditioning and 200 plush seats. But just as with Mikve Israel, the majority of the seats stand empty when every week for Shabbat services. Ivan Bercher, president of the Shaarei Tsadek community said that many people left Curacao after the brand new shul was built.
“We used to have 200 families, said Bercher, “Now we have about 67 families, and 10 of those live abroad. We have been in this situation for about ten years. Once in a while we get two or three new members. I hear there are one or two more coming from abroad.” Bercher, whose family has been in Curacao for generations, and has a son that moved to the States, said that many families wished to raise their children in more orthodox environments, and chose to leave Curacao and move to the United States.
But the declining numbers intensely worry the members of both communities. 25-year-old Rabbi Yochai Menachem had his concerns when he arrived to Curacao 6 months ago from Israel to become the new spiritual leader of Shaarei Tsadek. He was keenly aware of the aging population and low numbers. “You know, when I first got this opportunity to come here, I was thinking, “Was my mission to do the funeral of this community or to try to revive it? I decided to go for the revive option.”
“I personally think if the Jewish community could improve their connection to America, they would do better,” Tracht said. “I think we could have more [American] Jews retire here. I know a lot of people who have second homes or timeshares in Aruba. If that connection was more here to Curacao, the community could build up.” Also with the economy of Curacao struggling in recent years, members of both communities say that more Jewish people might come back if there were more opportunities on the island.
“Now the board is talking very much about what to do with our heritage if and when it comes to the point where we have to dissolve,” Tracht said. “I don’t see it happening anytime real soon, but we better make decisions about that now, so that in a generation when there are fewer people and fewer people care, we’ve already got something in writing about what they have to do with our stuff, the things in the museum, and the things in the synagogue.”
Joshua Pancer, who used to be on board of Shaarei Tsadek, shares in the hand wringing over the future of the Jewish community in Curacao. “For both communities it is a big concern, Pancer said. “ A couple of times a year, the presidents of the communities and even the rabbis of the community make speeches about how numbers and shrinking and about how people need to work hard to get people, if they are interested, to come to the island and that everyone should do their part. Because as the numbers shrink, when one person doesn’t pay dues, or if they are on a certain committee to help out, you feel it right away because there is not as many people as there used to be. “
Low attendance numbers also sometimes interferes with the performance of Jewish customs. In orthodox custom, a minimum of ten men, called a minyan, is needed to read the Torah. Leaders of both communities say that sometimes, they do not have enough people to meet the minyan requirement.
Cheis and Pancer say that both boards try to come up with activities to encourage inactive members to participate, such as dinners, lunches, and other weekday activities. “It seems in our grandparents’ generation, those members were more religious, or at least more involved in the community,” Pancer said.
As for tourism, while both communities acknowledge that Jewish tourists from North and South America could help raise the profile of Curacao, and their community, they do not believe that tourism will help solve the numbers problem. “Tourism helps, but it is not something we can fully rely on”, said Cheis. “Tourism can’t make a community. What would the tourists be coming to if we were not here?”
Despite the challenges, members of both Curacao’s Jewish synagogues remain hopeful and are confident that their communities will survive. Cheis said she always knew she wanted to come back to Curacao. “I still knew I wanted to come back. I always believed in Curacao. I just really wanted to make my future here. Like Cheis, other young people are starting to come back. Pancer, 27, also decided to return six years ago to help run his family business in retail and commercial trade in textiles. “In general most people that grow up here and study abroad don’t come back. But our generation is one of the first in many years that a few more have started to come back, compared to the generation above us.”
Rabbi Menachem said he hopes that Jewish families from other countries. “For one thing, we have a neighbor country, Venezuela, that has a pretty large Jewish community. The Jews there are practically living in a ghetto, a golden cage.” Menachem said that he initially considered an offer to go to Venezuela, but declined because of reports he had heard about the anti –semitism of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. “If we have the facilities and kosher food that Jewish people would need, maybe people from Venezuela could realize they could live freely as a Jew here.” Menachem also said he is trying to work to attract more tourism to get more hotels and other attractions on the island to serve Kosher food.
Rabbi Menachem said that he is inspired by the intense commitment and devotion that Curacao’s Jewish community posseses. “I told the congregation that I admire them,” he said. “Many of them don’t read Hebrew. But these people are still coming; every Friday night, every Saturday morning, for 10, 20, 30 40 years. I think this is beautiful, and this is one of the reasons I agreed to come here because I see this devotion that people have here. If not for that, this community is dead. there is no reason to come. But they refuse to die.”
Judith Becher is not worried about the Jewish traditions dying in Curacao. “Those that we have left here are still going. Even if we only have 10 families, we will still keep going.”
(I’m going to use this space to post unpublished stories that I wrote during my time in Curacao. Here is a story I did last year after the San Francisco Giants won the World Series last year. I had a chance to interview Hensley Meulens, who is the Curacao-born batting coach for the squad. I wanted to find out about how Curacao manages to consistently produce top-ranked baseball talent despite its small size and limited resources. Enjoy!)
A Caribbean Country of Champions
With the beginning of the Major League post season underway, the Little League season in he Caribbean island of Curacao has just begun. With every year, more and more young boys in Curacao sign up to play for local baseball teams, hoping to become the next baseball sensation to play for the Major Leagues in the United States.
Many wonder how Curacao, the former capital of the Netherlands Antilles, known mostly for its beautiful beaches and historic Dutch architecture, has come to produce a number of talented baseball players for the Major Leagues. The small island with a population of 140,000 has produced around 12 players for the Major leagues and around 50 players in the minor leagues. Current players active in the leagues include Andruw Jones, outfielder for the New York Yankees, Roger Bernardina, outfielder for the Washington Nationals, Andrelton Simmons, shortstop for the Atlanta Braves ,and Jair Jurrgens, starting pitcher for the Atlanta Braves. The Texas Rangers signed nineteen-year-old shortstop Jurickson Profar in 2009 and called him up to the roster in August of this year, making him the youngest player currently in the major leagues. Many local coaches credit Curacao’s wins in regional Caribbean championships and Little League tournaments with helping to capture the attention of American scouts. Curacao’s Pabao team from the capital city of Willemstad won the 2004 Little League World Series and were runners-up in 2005.
Hensley Muelens, batting coach for the San Francisco Giants, returned to his home country of Curacao on Tuesday greeted by cheering family and friends two weeks after the Giants won the title of World Series Champions. Muelens is one of the small Caribbean island’s biggest sports stars, as he is the first player to have been drafted to Major League Baseball, making his debut with the New York Yankees in 1989. Muelens is the first Curacaoan to become a major league coach, signing with the San Francisco Giants in 2010 as a hitting coach where he earned his first World Series Title. “Curacao is home for me,” Muelens said. I was born and raised here, I left when I was 18, but I always come back here after a long season to spend time with my family and friends.“ Muelens made a brief stop on his way to Venezuela to manage the Margarita Bravos. Former Prime Minister Geritt Schotte congratulated Muelens on his second World Series Title, calling Muelens, “Curacao’s national hero.” Hensley has been named as the manager for the team of the Kingdom of Netherlands for the World Baseball Classic in March 2013. He will coach several players from Curacao and Aruba.
Baseball is arguably the most popular sport in Curacao. There are about 30 youth leagues on the island, with boys as young as five years old joining T-ball teams. Willemstad. Muelens started a youth baseball team after his retirement from playing in the major leagues. “Kids have started to look up to the Curacao players who are making it into the big leagues. More and more families are signing their kids up to play baseball. They used to look up to me, but since I stopped playing you have kids who want to be like Andruw Jones and Jair Jurrgens.” Hensley, who estimates there are 4,000 kids who play in Curacao’s little league teams, runs clinics for promising talent with other MLB players every January. “We have raw talent here in Curacao. Our kids are big, they can run, they can throw hard, and they have a lot of power. Curacao is interesting for major league scouts.” Ryan Hollander, 37, a local sports reporter, says, “The good thing for Curacao from a scout’s perspective is that we had major league players from the island that all had good years. Four teams with guys from Curacao made it into the playoffs so that looks good for the island.”
Randel Muelens, Hensley’s younger brother, is the head coach for the youth team that his brother started comprised of boys ages seven to nine years old. Lacking state of -the-art training facilities, youth leagues often practice and compete on fields without grass. Randel credits the way that youth players are coached. “We say here in Curacao that our kids here ‘train on the rocks,’ Randel said. “When you can field here on our fields, you can field anywhere in the world.” Randel, who works as a field consultant for a local cable company, coaches the youth team twice a week in the evenings. “I think that Curacao’s secret is that we are very, very strict with our kids. We learn our techniques from the United States, and we train our boys in the proper technique from a very young age.”
Good weather all year round may contribute to the success of Curacaoan baseball players. With an average daily temperature of about 80 degrees, youth teams on the island can practice more and play more games than many of the teams that they compete against from other countries.
When asked whether the Curacao government contributes to the success of baseball on the island, Hensley said that there is not enough money in the national budget to adequately support baseball development on the island. Parents and coaches often hold fundraisers to help send their children to training camps. “The success of the kids who play baseball on the island is really due to the local communities and local coaches.” Hollander said. “We are missing a lot of investment from the government. Most of these coaches take time after their day jobs every week to help train these kids, and the families are really supportive.” Local companies help to sponsor the teams, donating uniforms and equipment. The MLB Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) donates equipment and sponsors tournaments in Curacao. While sports participation is largely confined to middle-class families, Hensley has set up programs to help children from low income areas have access to playing baseball.
Current and former Curacoan major leagues often return to the island to set up training camps and academies. Kenley Jansen, pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, set up a foundation, KJ-74 to encourage more youth to participate in sports.
A Dutch investment group Sitching Willem 4 has proposed a 160 million Euro Baseball Complex Curacao, for the “development and placement of high performance talent” for players from the Caribbean and Latin America but plans to move forward have slowed due to political concerns.
When it comes to coaching, Randel says he can already see very promising talent in some of the young boys he coaches. At a evening practice with his little league team, he points to one of the taller boys in the group, practicing his swing. “See, there, he’s got talent. Everything comes naturally to him already at this age. Many parents dream of having their child play in the major leagues, but we encourage the boys to be good people first, Randel said. “We want them to do well in school. And what is most important is that the kids have fun.”
Well my friends, after 11 months of Caribbean adventure, I have decided to return to the United States.
As I hope you could tell from my blog, I had my share of amazing and challenging experiences that I would trade for nothing. Many of those experiences, musings, and observations are still in my head and my heart. As I write now, I am back home in my hometown of Dallas, processing my experiences and preparing for my next moves. I have unpublished stories from the island that I’m excited to share in time. So while my physical self is back enjoying the Texas weather, my mind is still very much on Dushi Korsou.
I believe in there’s being a time, a season for all things. As I have written before, beneath the exterior of beautiful beaches, colorful buildings, and amazing weather, Curacao is a small island with increasingly big problems, politically, economically, and culturally. While I appreciated the laid back lifestyle, to be honest I never quite felt…
at ease accepted quite at home. Maybe it was cultural differences, maybe it was moving from the hustle and bustle of New York to a small island community or just….maybe it was just my time.
Sometimes things don’t always work the way we want, but things always seem to work for the best. At the risk of sounding cliche, I met a lot of amazing people along the way, and there are a special few that are in my heart and I will miss teribbly. When I stepped on my outbound flight last week from Curacao’s Hato airport, I knew I was returning a completely different person than the person who left everything behind in September of last year to chase her dreams.
Thank you to everyone who followed my adventures here, I really appreciated your comments, support and emails. I hope you continue to follow on my next adventures!
I meant to do the obligatory It’s-been-6-Months-Since-I-Arrived-Here post but I was away in Europe, and so much has been going on, so I apologize!
Well, it’s been almost 9 months since I decided to take the Caribbean plunge and transplant my life from New York City to Willemstad, Curacao formerly, the Netherlands Antilles. I had a dream in mind, to leave, to take some time away from the hustle and bustle of the East Coast big city life and just do something else.
Americans are a pretty rare breed here in Curacao. Wherever I go, when people learn that I moved here from the States to live, they usually respond with, “You moved here?? Really? Why?” Very often, this remark is accompanied with a searching look that seems to say, “there’s gotta be a GOOD story behind why this girl decided to come here”! When I first came to Curacao, I used to think this reaction was slightly amusing. Now, I totally understand why people where might think my choice to come here is peculiar at best, crazy at worst.
Curacao is small. Geography wise, one can do a loop around the island in under 3 hours. Most activity is concentrated in Willemstad, which is the capital. So unless one is interested in going to the beaches in Westpunt, or hiking up Mt. Christoffel, or exploring the northern rocky coast, pretty much all of the major social life is in good ol’ W-Stad.
Socially, Curacao is small. There are powerful families that control businesses and financial interests on the island that have been here for centuries. Political and business appointments are given to friends and family members. In many ways, it can feel very difficult as an outsider to “get in” if you don’t know anyone on a personal level. It can take some time before people trust you enough to “let you in”. The same can be said for socializing as well. I’ve talked to people who have been on the island for years and can recall the times when neighbors said hello to each other and thought nothing of leaving their doors unlocked and open without feat. “Nowadays, people are so into themselves”, my Papiamentu teacher told me one night. “Building high walls around their houses, staying inside all of the time.”
Curacao is not the place for big, ostentatious Carnivals, or bustling streetlife. But what has been rewarding for me, is when I am allowed the chance to enter into people’s lives, to see what goes on beyond the colorful architecture so often seen on travel postcards. I’ve had the chance to speak with communities of illegal immigrants, religions minorities, the rich and the poor, the Dutch and the Yu di Korsou (native Curacaon), and I still get the sense of a country whose national identity is still very much in flux. With the recent death of the controversial politician Helmin Wiels, (who some say was actively working to raise the the level of consciousness in Curacao’s Yu di Korsou population) and the rise of violent crime in the last few months, there is a sense of hand wringing among locals about the future of the country only 2 years after becoming an independent constituent country of The Netherlands. I wonder along with them.
As for me, I do miss home, friends and family, naturally. I’ve been lucky enough to have been visited by a few friends since I’ve been here. But living on an island can feel a bit isolating. Gone are the days where one can just take a long road trip or bus right for a quick trip. The key to keeping one’s sanity, I’ve been told, is to be able to get off the island as much as (financially) possible. But things are getting easier. My Dutch and Papiamentu are coming along a bit, so at least I can somewhat follow conversations. Other than the occasional homesickness and island fever, I’m really glad I made the decision to come here. What the next year may hold for me, I’m not sure, but I’ll be ready!
There have been two instances where I have felt pretty uncomfortable as a Black/African-American woman here in Curacao. The first such instance was during the time of Sinterklaas/Zwarte Piet back in November, where scores of both Dutch and local people alike dressed up as Sinterklaas’s goofy helper Zwarte Piet, complete with blackface skin paint, oversized red lips, and curly Afro wigs. It was, and still is hard for me to stomach Zwarte Piet as innocent tradition.
A few weeks ago occurred the second instance that almost made me want to leave Curacao. A Dutch television station called NTR premiered a documentary episode about the “elite” white Dutch who live in Curacao.
The episode opens with shots of yachts, exclusive beach clubs. As the episode progresses, numbers of those interviewed express how they feel about the locals that live here. I don’t speak good Dutch at all, but several of the notable quotes I have heard from others come from this documentary are:
You can take the neger (derogatory Dutch word for Negro, sometimes translated to “nigger”) out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the neger!
Curacaoan men, all they do is sit under trees, play dominoes, and fuck!
They should be on their knees thanking us for bringing them here. Otherwise they would be in Africa with grass skirts on with bones through their noses!
Here is the link to the episode (in Dutch)
After the episode aired in Curacao, many of my local friends who had heard about it were of course upset. (Read Jermain Ostiana’s take on it, here) Some Dutch acquaintances of mine, were at the least, a bit embarrassed about the documentary, saying that the people who were on the episode do not represent the majority of Dutch people on Curacao. There were a few voices in the documentary that talked about living and partying with locals, and that that was more gezelig (nice). But these opinions were maybe 1 or 2.
When I learned about the documentary, and watched parts of it, I was literally shaking. But I could not, in good conscience, agree with my well meaning Dutch acquaintances that these astronomically ignorant and racist views were completely out of the ordinary. I don’t mean all Dutch people on the island share these views, by any stretch. But unfortunately, in my short time on the island I have to say I have heard many disparaging remarks about local people said to my face. I have come to learn that a number of people, while embarrassed that such views were aired publicly, still may hold those opinions in private conversation. Even when they talk with me.
I remember talking about the documentary at dinner with Dutch friends several days ago. Most of my friends were ashamed of the people and their ignorant point of views. I noticed one friend of mine was quite silent about the whole matter. Later, in private, I asked him what he thought.
“Well, there’s gotta be some truth to what they said!”
I was shocked and became upset. And for the life of him, he couldn’t understand why I would be upset because, “Well, what do you care, you’re not one of them!!” I couldn’t for the life of me, understand why he thought that I would ever be okay with references using the word “neger” or derogatory remarks towards Africa (where my roots are), in my presence.
For the second time, I felt really uncomfortable here on the island. For the first time, I had thoughts of leaving. As I said before, I can name numbers of people who hold similar views about black locals. Local papiamento papers did not report on the documentary. Few mentions were made in other media sources. Political leader Helmin Wiels made a few comments against the documentary. Any other country, if such prominent figures made racial slurs against a segment of the population, an outcry would ring out. Boycotts would be instigated. People would demand explanations and apologies.
But here, life carried on as usual. No dialogues, no serious public conversations, nothing. The same sort of silence that continues to perpetuate the deep race/class divides on the island between the minority of the “haves” and the majority of the “have nots”.
But I won’t keep quiet in the face of ugliness and racism/cultural discrimination.
No, I’m not Curacaoan. But yes, I do care what you say about people of color. I am human, and I abhor any form of ignorant, hurtful language used to tear people down and justify one group’s self-constructed superiority.
A few weeks ago, I was at the Curacao courthouse to report on the sentencing of a Curacao-born Olympic athlete for the Netherlands who was arrested carrying cocaine while attempting to board a plane for Amsterdam. While waiting for his hearing, I sat on the wooden benches with other local journalists and watched as other cases were brought before the judge. One by one, the defendants, (all of whom were black men) were led into the room by their translators and lawyers (advocaten). My Dutch is still pretty pathetic, but I could make out that each of these men were answering for drug offenses. A Dutch journalist, who was kind enough to be my translator for the day, said, “This is pretty normal. And so many times its the black poor chaps that get caught. The white Dutch are also smuggling too.”
It is no secret internationally that Curacao is a hub for smuggling. There’s a healthy menu of trafficking options to choose from: cocaine, gold, humans, even counterfeit cigarettes. But what effects do these things have on the island itself?
Many of my friends tell me that cocaine here in Curacao is as cheap as it gets. “And its the good stuff,” they always say. I’ve heard stories of young Dutch interns who pick up cocaine habits, and frequent parties high as kites, grinding their teeth while they grind to the music. Walking down the street, one may see cholers, some of whom are drogadictos walking in a daze in the street. Unfortunately, sometimes these wandering drug addicts are subject to abuse and attacks by ill-intentioned souls. Plenty of times, I hear the stories of business owners and big men who have fallen prey to drugs. Usually the story starts like, “See that guy over there? He was/used to be/used to work at ____________ before the drugs set in blah blah blah.”
One of the major drug addiction rehab clinics in Curacao shut down earlier this year. How will people get help? That is, if they got help in the first place…
Another side effect to this whole drug business is the rise in violent crime. Talk to many people on the island and they say that the level of assaults (atrakos), shootings, and violence with weapons has risen drastically. While there could be other economic explanations for people turning to crime, many people blame the drug trade from Colombia and Venezuela. In the last few weeks, authorities have admitted to the existence of a gang war that has been resulting in reports of shootings and attacks quite frequently.
Let me not forget about alcohol. Drinking culture is heavy here in Curacao. As expected from a small island, there is not always much to do. Happy hours are big here. Every day there is a drinking time at some popular spot. While the happy hour life may be fun for a two week vacation, it can be too much for some living here. I know people who have gotten into serious accidents while driving intoxicated. My boyfriend tells me that numbers of Dutch people who come to Curacao pick up alcohol abuse problems and smoking habits. One of the tour operators, the quirky “Mr. Goodlife” (more about that trip at another time) told me, “Yeah, many Dutch people cannot handle it here, you know? They come here and then gotta go back ‘cuz they pick up alcohol problems. Too much freedom here sometimes.”