Archives For diaspora

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.

Bon Dia, Curacao!

September 24, 2012 — 1 Comment

Bon dia, from Willemstad, Curaçao! After flight delays and missed connections, my overweight luggage and I arrived safe and sort of sound last Thursday night at Hato International Airport.

I’ve taken the last few days to relax and flush out the stress of the last few months years days of New York. I was treated by my boyfriend to flowers, gifts, and a surprise midnight sail with his friends around the Spanish Water near Caracasbaai as my “Welcome Home” weekend. I’m a lucky, lucky girl. 🙂

“Welcome Home” flowers 🙂

It’s going to take some time for the fact that I just moved to a new country to sink in. I thought that updating my Facebook “Current City” would speed up the process, but that didn’t quite work. I mean, if you officially register with the national immigration as a citizen of a new country update your new city on Facebook, it makes it official, right?

Its Facebook Official: I’m an Antillean!

I’m looking forward to exploring the island, and getting familiarized with the politics of the upcoming elections. I’m beginning the hunt for some gigs on the island in order to line my pockets with some Antillean guilders.

A couple things that I have gleaned from conversations over the past few days about Curaçao:

  • Curaçao is apparently entering its first elections since becoming “autonomous” from The Netherlands with €200 Million over its national budget. The speculation is that the politicians of this small, but relatively wealthy island of less than 200,000 people( I heard Curaçao actually supplies oil to neighboring countries of Aruba and Bonaire, yet gas prices are quite high here) have been stealing the country’s resources.
  • Despite being politically autonomous, Curaçao is not economically independent, as its national budget is subject to approval by the Netherlands.
  • There are populations of Haitian, Jamaican, and Dominican immigrants who move to Curaçao for low wage work. But from what I hear, life is not so easy for them, especially the ones that move here illegally.
  • Some of my Dutch friends feel that there has been a sharp rise in anti-Dutch, and anti-foreigner sentiment as the elections draw nearer in October. Of course, I’m sure that that is only half the story when it comes to the social and cultural relations on the island.

I’m looking forward to meeting and interviewing more people of different backgrounds on the island. Stay tuned!

Karen

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!

 

 

 

 

Saint Martin de Porres Feast Day Procession in New York City

With the aroma of incense and the sounds of hymns, a mass of men and women clad in Catholic robes gathered around West 50th street and 9th avenue in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City on the the first Sunday of September. Most men were wearing dark purple robes with golden medallions, others wore black and white.  A group of about fourteen men carried a massive carriage on their shoulder with a statue of a man standing amongst ornate flower arrangements. Curious onlookers, including this author, whipped out their smartphone cameras to capture what was undoubtedly some sort of religious special event.  Instagram first, ask questions later.

One spectator, after snapping photos with his phone, walked up to me and asked, “Wait, is this some sort of funeral march?”

Far from a funeral, the elaborate procession was the New York feast day parade of San Juan Martín de Porres of Peru, who was the first black saint from the Western Hemisphere. Born in 1579 in Lima, Peru, Martín de Porres was the illegitimate son of a freed slave woman and a Spanish knight. Lupe, a friendly older woman saw me wandering around and took it upon herself to tell me Saint Martin’s history in the best English she could manage.

“You know, he was the first black Saint. White father and African mother. He was very nice, very kind to the poor and to the sick. Pope John Paul Twenty Three made him saint. You know how? John Paul Twenty Three very sick. Near death. And then he saw a man in his room, and the man was black. He said to his..you know, helpers, “Who is that man in the room?” And helpers said, “We don’t see no man”. Later, he got better, he found a picture of San Martin and he said, “That is the man, that is the man that was in my room. He make him saint.”

Martín endured a life of poverty and ostracism due to his status as a mulatto. However, he decided in his teens to join a Dominican order. Legend has it that  Martin had extraordinary abilities to care for and cure the sick and ailing. Legend has it that he able to pass through locked doors in order to attend to the sick. Martín de Porres was indeed canonized by Pope John Paul XXII in 1962, perhaps as a nod to the struggle for black civil rights in the United States.

Statue of Saint Martin de Porres

 

The Fraternidad de San Martín de Torres of New York celebrates Saint Martín’s feast day every first Sunday in September, according to Carlos Fuentes, a member of the Brotherhood of Miracles (Saint Martin is their patron saint)  and a participant in  the procession. “In Peru, they actually celebrate his day in November, but here in New York, we do it earlier in September.” Saint Martin is the patron saint of inkeepers, barbers, and of mixed race peoples, and is one of the chief patron saints of Peru.

New York and New Jersey is home to a large number of Peruvian immigrants, a large number of whom are Roman Catholic.

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?