Archives For Africa

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.

 

 

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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.

Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield delivering the 2014 Andrew Young Lecture at the Nigerian Embassy in Washington D.C.

Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield delivering the 2014 Andrew Young Lecture at the Nigerian Embassy in Washington D.C.

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.

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.

OnderElkaar

“OnderElkaar”

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.

Setting Sail Again

September 11, 2012 — 9 Comments

The time has come for for me to set sail again.

After two years in New York City, and three years stateside since my last stint abroad in Ghana, I will be setting my sights on a temporary stay in the Caribbean. I will be making a move to the Dutch Antilles in a little over a week. Idyllic choice of location, yes, but I am personally compelled to take myself out of the NYC/DC environment for some time to gain some personal clarity on many aspects of my life and purpose. In order to prepare for life’s next steps, one must take some time to decide what shoes to put on first.

I am also compelled by the untold stories of the Caribbean, the under-reported stories of the black diaspora that are just as much a part of the  of the fabric popular discourse on African migration as the U.S.-Africa connection. Little do people know that the largest collection of African history/slavery artifacts in the Caribbean is in Curacao. Little do people know that people from West Africa come to the Dutch Antilles and find that they can understand the local language, Papiamentu. Little do people know that the issues of belonging, identity, and globalization that I have wrestled with as a member of the African diaspora in the United States, feature prominently with Curacaoans as well. I want to tell these stories, and hopefully stories from other parts of the Caribbean. My hope is that I can find ears that will listen.

I know it is not the traditional path many would have thought I would have taken after graduate school. But after graduate school, I realized that a burning curiosity about the world has been driving me and the best way for me to satisfy that is to gain first-hand experience. I’m not rich, and who knows if I ever will be, but I decided to save up my M&Ms and Skittles in the bank so that I can take this chance, so that I can bet on myself. I’ve always have tried the best I could to follow my heart, and to this day, though I may have made mistakes, I have no regrets, only lessons.  I need to do what is best for myself, so that I can move to serve others in this life.

To those who think I am leaving my work Africa…never fear! Africa is in my heart and my blood. I am looking to make my return to the continent soon, when the time is right.

I will undoubtedly miss my wonderful family, as well as all fantastic friends in New York, DC, and Dallas, and everywhere else in this world I have been fortunate enough to spend some time in. But hey, keeping in touch is what Facebook, smartphones, Twitter, Skype, Gchat, WhatsApp, smoke signals and Morse Code are for, right?

To all those who have supported, encouraged and helped me to work through this process, I thank you. To those who have questioned and criticized, I hear you, but know I still respect you.

Until next time, Ayo, United States!

 

 

 

 

Last month, I decided, on a friend’s advice, to take a trip to Curacao for a little R&R, a little sun, some scuba diving, and some reflection. My friend told me that Curacao was the “hidden gem” of the Caribbean, with great food, interesting architecture, beautiful beaches, beautiful diving, and– perhaps most importantly, Curacao is not as “touristy” as its sister island, Aruba.

Caracasbaai, Curacao

A quick layman’s history of those who aren’t familiar with Curacao (besides the famous blue rum of the same name)..Curacao was a former Dutch colony and was an important point in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Despite a lack of natural resources impressive natural harbor and proximity to South America are some of the geographical blessings that Curacao enjoys. As a result of the successive waves of European explorers and the arrival of slaves from West Africa, the language and culture is a mix of Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, African, and South American influences. Curacao is called home by some 50 different nationalities.

Which leads my to my main point, thinking about the meaning of diaspora, especially in a place where everyone is from somewhere else. This leads to a place with intensely complex and interesting social dynamics among the groups, especially among the European Dutch (or Makambas, meaning “white”), the local, “true” Curacaoans (Yunan di Korsou is the word in Papamientu), the Curacaoans who live abroad or have been educated in the Netherlands (sometimes called “Black Makambas”), and white Dutch whose families have lived on the island for generation. Perhaps Curacao comes close to an idea of a global village, albeit a village where some of the members used to enslave the other members. Well, okay, its a global village thats kind of held together by a shared language, the Catholic religion, and Carnival, but otherwise people stay in their own huts.

Opening of Carnival 2012. Photo by Marie-Jose van der Klugt

I talked with a few Curacaoans who had lived or been educated abroad. They expressed feeling “stuck”. As black Antilleans, they told me they did not feel totally accepted by Dutch society. The ones I spoke to talked of a desire to stay and work in in the warmth of Curacao, to open businesses, stay with their families. Basically, they wanted “to help” their countries. I would ask them, “Well, what is stopping you?” They would tell me that it was their own people. One told me that he wanted to open his own hotel, but that local people were not skilled enough in the levels that he needed, and that Curacao lacked adequate training facilities in the hospitality industry, and that he was better off hiring foreigners to work for him.

I heard from another that it was more than just the notion of a dearth of skilled labor among the locals, but also a sense of rejection from his own people because he had spent time away in the Netherlands and had become a “Makamba Pretu” or basically, a “white black person”. He said that people would refuse to listen to him or work with him because they perceive him to be “not of them”. All the while, the Curacaoans feel like their “skills” and fancy degrees that they earned abroad don’t really matter if the local people at the very least, don’t listen to their ideas and and the very worst, see the Curacaoans educated abroad as part of the group that is oppressing the Yunan di Korsou in the first place.

This all strikes me as fascinating because I can relate. Despite the prevailing romantic notions today about diaspora communities returning to their home countries and helping development, it isn’t always that simple. And let’s face it. People have been diasporing it up for centuries, there is nothing new under the sun. But I propose a challenge to the blanket idea that diaspora communities, and especially African diaspora communities should simply just move back and start to “help”.  Notions of identity, place, politics, race, culture, networks and ideas of who “belongs” and who does not belong complicates a vision of “the diaspora” “helping” their country.

Take my father for example. I asked him after my trip if he would ever think of going to Ghana to “help”.

He bluntly and quickly said, “No.”

“But why?” I asked him. He said that he would be looked upon as different if he went back to Ghana. That despite his education and success in the U.S., he feels he would not be completely reaccepted as a true Ghanaian after all his time away. “They’ve been telling Africans abroad to come back to their country to “help” for years and years. This is not new. But why should anyone think that just because they move abroad, and have a degree, that they are so above their fellow Africans to know how they should live their lives better than they do?”

Ouch. I didn’t really have a response to that. It’s true. At this point my father has lived more years in the U.S. than he did coming of age in Ghana. I don’t blame him for feeling this way.

Like I said, I know “African diaspora” is whats hot in the streets right now in terms of development and helping Africa. And of course, I, as well as many other people I have met in the few years, envision a world where Africans abroad can in some way contribute to the progress of the continent. But it is not always that simple. In what way should a person in the diaspora see their destiny as tied with the people of their homeland, when, lets face it, if things go down in said country for whatever reason, they have the right documents and passports to be able to leave? Or when Ghanaian returns from abroad, they are no longer Ghanaian, but called a “returnee”, or in the extreme case of Curacao, a “Makamba Pretu”?

Its not always easy. For some, it is downright isolating not knowing where to belong. I struggled with where I fit in in the past, and I still do at times. But I do maintain the position, that for those who choose to weather the discomfort at times, being from two places at once gives one a unique perspective which can serve to act as s cultural translator of sorts for both sides. What that means for Western or African policy is a different story.

Thoughts?