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.
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.