Archives For Dutch Antilles

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.

, I spotted this costumed bike rider around Fort Amsterdam. I couldn’t see his face, as it was covered by a mask under an elaborate headress, but he had protest flags adorning his bike. My friends tell me “he” or at least his character, has been around for years. Who is he and what is he doing? Anyone know?

I have an 8-year old who lives near us and who has been a big part of my time here in Curacao. I’ll call her “Alice”. Alice is one of the prettiest girls I have ever seen. She has skin the color of honeyed hazelnut, and light olive green eyes. Alice’s mother is an illegal immigrant from Jamaica who worked as a hotel maid until she lost her job a few weeks ago. Since then, Alice’s mom pretty much stays inside and plays on Facebook or goes out with her boyfriend, aslo a Jamaican. Alice is an only child and doesn’t have anyone to play with when she comes home from school. “My mom doesn’t have time for me,” Alice tells me. “She would rather be on the computer than play with me.” Because of Alice’s mom’s illegal status, and the fact that Alice is unregistered here in Curacao, her mother does not like for her to walk to her friends’ houses nearby for fear that she may be discovered and deported.

So my boyfriend and I often hang out with Alice. We’ve taken her to Adventure City, a place for kids with arcade games, bumper cars, and prizes that kids can win. We help her with her math and Dutch homework sometimes, we watch bootleg movies together, and when her family doesn’t have enough money for food, I make sure to cook extra to give Alice a plate. In return, she draws us pictures that we proudly display on our fridge, helps me with my Papiamentu, and brings me beautlful sea glass that she collects on the beach.

One thing that Alice seems obsessed with is making beds. If my boyfriend or I am home, the first thing she does is knock on our door to ask to ask us if she can “spread the bed”.

Yeah, sure, knock yourself out, kid. 

After several bed-spreading requests, I asked Alice last week why she was so obsessed with making the bed.

“Well, if I want to work in a hotel, then I have to learn to spread the bed really, really good. So I want to start practicing now so that later, I can be really, really good at it and make beds nice,” Alice replied enthusiastically.

I was floored.

Her reply really hit me hard. Here was an 8 year old girl getting a head start on her hotel maid career. It is true that in Curacao, many cleaning ladies are Jamaican. I realize that that is probably all Alice has seen to aspire to be as a Jamaican on this island. I struggled with wanting more for her, to tell her, Youre EIGHT YEARS OLD. You should be wanting to be an actress, a singer, a scientist, a dancer, a model, or gosh, even a princess! 

Is being able to dream about those things a privilege? I don’t know. All I know is that I’m not Alice’s mother, and as much as my well-meaning and softhearted boyfriend thinks we should adopt her and take her out of her situation, we cannot. Instead of being sad about it, I tell him we should be thankful and grateful for the chance that we have gotten to know Alice, who, despite her circumstances, is a cheerful, sweet, sensitive, and intelligent child.

And that’s beautiful.

My house was too hot and the mosquitoes too pesky for me to stay inside and work a few days ago. So I decided to take my stuff and walk to Pampus Cafe in Punda for the wi-fi, the cool breeze from the inlet bay, and a drink. But on my way, I decided to stray from my usual route. I wandered into the public library just to check it out.

It shouldn’t surprise me that Curacao has a library, I know. During my last experience living abroad in Ghana, there were few ways to get books other than going to the university, or going to the bookstore at Accra Mall. But public libraries? Not that I remember.

I’m glad I wandered into the library, because at least now I know where I can read local Dutch and Papiamento newspapers for free. My Dutch and Papiamento skills are at about -124% currently, so my definition of “read” is looking for words that look like English or Spanish and and look at the pictures. Hey, it’s better than nuthin.’

Luckily for me, I got a B in my Intermediate II graduate Spanish class last year  am more or less (slight emphasis on less) proficient in Spanish, so I was able to read the local spanish language newspaper, El Periodico.

Curacao is facing Parliamentary elections ten days from today. The battles between the political parties, individual politicians, and party supporters have been dominating the news coverage here on the island. One interview with Anthony Goddett, leader of the political party Frente Obrero (FOL) caught my attention.

Curacao is a small island that hosts around 50 different nationalities. Whereas a large percentage of Curacalenos are of African descent, significant numbers of inhabitants are migrants from, or descendants of immigrants from South America and other Spanish-speaking countries. A topic that I keep running into on the island concerns the treatment of immigrants on the island, many of whom say they are subject to discrimination here. El Periodico describes the Oct. 19th elections for immigrants to ” have in the vote the opportunity to exercise their legitimate rights and choose authorities who will take into consideration their needs.”

In response to a question about why foreigners and Latinos in general should support FOL, leader Anthony Goddett, said (translation):

Everyone who resides in Curacao deserves the same treatment. Everyone contributes to the wellbeing and economy of Curacao. Being born to parents from Curacao, or foreign parents, or immigrants, each one that resides on the island and respects its laws, the opportunities and protections should be equal for all.

Now, FOL does not appear to be one of the frontrunning parties in the elections, but I’ve heard over and over again about the fact that there is discrimination against foreign immigrants on the island. From chats with Jamaicans, Haitians and other immigrants, I’ve learned that difficulties for them include not getting work permits, low pay, and ostracism from locals. Of course this is not 100% of the locals. One of the politicians here, Helman Wiels, leader of the party Pueblo Soberano (PS), has come under fire for what is taken to be his anti-foreigner ideologies. “No, no, no, we Haitians can’t support PS”, a Haitian construction worker told me yesterday. “He doesn’t want extranjeros here in Curacao.”

For a nation that draws so much of its intrigue from its history of the intermixing of peoples, one can only hope that tolerances will prevail.

Sidenote: The library also had kiosks where people could come in and learn about the voting process and the platforms of the different parties.

This is my second week here in Curacao, and I’m glad to report that things have been going pretty well so far. This go-round is actually my fourth time to come to the island this year. In the beginning, for the first few days, I was definitely in vacation mode. Sleeping, eating, playing with my 8 year old neighbor, and some beaching were all I wanted to do in order to de-tox the New York from my system. After a few days, however, it began to set in that I needed to switch off from vacation mode and turn to “I-actually-live-here-and-need-to-get-a-job” mode. And living here has been, and will prove to be, an interesting experience.

By the Fisherman’s Wharf in Wllemstad

I come to Curacao as an outsider in so many ways. Linguistically, I don’t speak much Dutch and I don’t speak Papamiento (the local language of Curacao, which is a mix of Dutch, Spanish, English and Portuguese). I can definitely get by in English here, but my inability to speak Dutch and Papiamento makes me feel like I have to contend with a double language barrier here. Despite the assurances of both Dutch and locals that English is sufficient to survive and get a job on the island, I suppose I’m looking to do more than just “survive” here. Most Dutch people speak English, and many are kind enough to switch their conversations to English when I am around, but I do admit I’m conscious of the fact that they are switching to accommodate me. But I am lucky that my Dutch boyfriend and his circle of friends have done an amazing job of making me feel welcome and have agreed to speak “Dinglish” to me so that I can start speaking nederlands little by little.

Culturally, I admit I had never really met a Dutch person before coming to Curacao this year. My experience with the Netherlands had be limited to countless KLM layovers at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport en-route to Ghana. I have probably been to Amsterdam   Schipol near a dozen times by now, but I was never adventurous enough to go explore the city. So oddly enough, my time in Curacao has been my introduction to Dutch culture, Caribbean-style. They love potatoes, mayonnaise on their french fries, being tall, efficiency, honesty, being VERY punctual, and cheese. Not necessarily in that order, of course. It is clear though, that there is a separation between the Dutch community and the local community. More on that later.

Curacao does not have a huge diaspora to the United States, so being here is the first time that I have been introduced to their culture. This is my first time really learning about Caribbean culture in general. That week long Carnival Cruise my family and I took to the Carribean when I was about 10 or so hardly counts as real “experience” in the Caribbean. I find the Caribbean to be under-reported in America, and even more so the Dutch Caribbean.

Now, there is of course the question of how I interact with the local people here. Even the words “local” vs. “native” is tricky. There are Dutch Europeans whose families have been here for generations. There are people from Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti, and Jamaica. The question of who is a yu di Korsou, (literally means a “child of Curacao” in Papamiento), or a true Curacaoan, is a bit of tricky question of identity.  Because really, the way I see it, whether they are the descendants of the African slaves brought by the Dutch, recent migrants from South America or other Caribbean islands, everyone here is from somewhere else. (The actual native Amerindian tribes that were on Curacao either migrated out, or were subdued by Europeans). For the most part, I see “local” as referring to non-white European inhabitants of the island. Despite my dark skin, people can immediately tell I’m foreign. Most people assume that I’m Jamaican. I don’t know why. It is true that not as many Americans visit the island. Maybe for people here, “English-speaking black foreigner” = Jamaican.

It’s difficult for me move between local and Dutch worlds here in Curacao. Despite the incredible diversity of peoples here in Curacao, there is a serious lack of interaction between the Dutch communities and non-white locals in my opinion. Lack of interaction contributes to a near absence of integration. The capital city of Willemstad is divided into two parts separated by the large natural harbor. One side is the Dutch side, of Punda, and Otrobanda, (which literally means “other side”) is where the locals live. There are Dutch friends of mine who have been here for years and cannot speak Papamiento, and who can count the number of local friends they have on one hand. I hear Dutch people saying that the locals are lazy, not professional, never on time, aren’t educated, and are ignorant of the world outside tiny Curacao. There is also a sentiment that anti-Dutch sentiment has increased on the island in last few years, and some say they are even afraid, as a white person, to go to certain areas. (Granted, I normally ask what they are afraid of, exactly. Well, of being attacked! “Really? Have there been reports of racially motivated attacks on Dutch people or something?” No. Not really. So then where is the fear coming from? I don’t know, that’s just what people say! The locals don’t like us and don’t want us here!) I’ve heard too many times, “They (locals) and their culture is just too different from ours. We cannot mix well, so we stay apart.”

Talking with some locals, of course there is the perspective that the Dutch people are arrogant, condescending, and racist. Locals here are accurately aware that numbers of Dutch people (as well as politicians in the Netherlands) see Curacao as a backwards banana republic headed by incompetent and corrupt politicians. Of course, not every Dutch person feels that way, and many live here and love the way of life and the culture. But locals seem to feel that the Dutch come here to make their money and live their island paradise lives without making any attempt to contribute to the long term human development of the locals on the island. There is a sense among locals that the Dutch refuse to acknowledge or recognize the economic and human exploitation of the past, and that those past exploitations and dependencies were, and still are, systemic. But there is a sense of increasing nationalism and an attempt to assert a Curacaoan identity apart from the Dutch that is here.

“Stop Dutch Apartheid” stickers in Willemstad.

Being black outsider isn’t such a bad thing.  As an outsider to both the locals and the Dutch, I suppose I take a bit of an observer role. But its almost like I can physically feel a deep rooted mistrust and tension between Dutch and local populations here. To me, it is obvious that there is a lack of cultural and physical spaces for meaningful discourse and dialogue between the Dutch and local people. It’s incredible, and a bit tragic that such hostilities and resentment can exist on such a small island, and judging from the impending elections here in Curacao, it is possible that things could get worse.

I will say, that many people find me to be interesting. Again, not many Americans come here, and I think that people, both local and Dutch, appreciate that I took such a risk to come here and learn about the island and about cultures totally different from mine. Plenty have told me that they are interested in my perspective as a non-Dutch and a non-local. I will definitely continue to share my thoughts here so, watch this space!

So far, so good in Curacao!

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!