EVERY year, Africa Day is celebrated worldwide on May 25. There are many reasons for such a day. Originally, it was a day to remember Africa’s wonderful stories that are often omitted, the remarkable cultural folklore of the continent and of course the tide of independence from colonialism.
WE are celebrating Africa Week in between lockdown protocols. In 2020 the anniversary was eventually cancelled in many parts of the world because of the Covid-19 lockdown.Is there anything to celebrate this year?
MERCY Muroki, a young Oxford research graduate. was on TV discussing the unpopular recent race report by Dr Tony Sewell CBE for the British Government. She has been vilified for her controversial stance as a commissioner on British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. Kenyan-born Muroki, at 25 years old probably the youngest of the 11 commissioners, has been speaking on behalf of the Commission at every given media opportunity to stress that Britain is not at all as institutionally racist as it used to be. Muroki believes it and says she can prove it through the statistics of the research report released in March 2021, and that some of the indices even indicate black African people do better than their Afro-Caribbean colleagues in education because of social reasons and the latter are not left behind because of official prejudice. It will be ageist to doubt the 25-year-old, but if we ignore inexperience,then we are in danger of agreeing with Muroki simply through the qualitative and quantitative survey the Commission gathered. Did the researchers gather enough people from ethnic minority and white majority in order to make a conclusive report?
THESE days of video telephony have changed the world completely. Some users prefer modesty, others will not mind showing up in their pyjamas. I have heard of Zoom meetings that would have gone Full Monty if not for the watchful eye of the of the video conferencing host. Well, modern video conferencing has met both positive reviews and disapproval. The main problem with it is the unnatural way in which people get together, total strangers, and make decisions that can massively affect others within a short time – and of course there are pros and cons to this. That Zoom meeting I attended the other day was dead boring; I wonder if it would have been fun if it was an interactive face-to-face workshop. I used to attend many of these. Participants used to wait for some official, the mayor of a town most probably, to say a few words from his prepared speech or some small talk that made you feel appreciated. Then lots of tea or coffee (and, oh, I drink these for East Africa). I miss these normal days, I am sure you do as well. You think the Covid protocols here are very strict until you read stories of what is happening in the other parts of the world. The Covid curfew starts at 8pm in Kenya and every living thing is expected to stay off the streets after that. Last week traffic police officers in Kenya blocked movement on both directions of the Thika highway which was brimming with motorists trying to get home. Any government directive gazetted by law in Kenya is final and so ambulances and other emergency services had to tolerate the delays brought by police in the name of saving the country from the pandemic. Covid is a cash cow there; some people are making serious amounts of money by presenting phoney tender bids in the name of procurement for government. The number of fatalities in Kenya is around 2,400 now since the disease locked the world in March 2020.
SO much has been said over the past 20 years about Diversity and Integration in Northern Ireland. This subject has been running concurrently with the hopes to trigger a long-term post-conflict environment in the North. So multiculturalism has been in competition with the peace dividend in the country. Nowadays there are more people in Northern Ireland willing to emancipate themselves from the old school ‘get out of my country if you don't like it here’ approach. Then we have the second group that are either consciously or subconsciously in opposition of cultural diversity and a bit of integration. Many voted to Leave the EU, after all they did not want a supranational entity taking their sovereignty. It is often assumed that it was mostly Protestants or Unionists who voted for Brexit. It is wrong to make these assumptions because I know Catholic immigrants and local nationalists who bade bye bye to the EU. Some described it as a humongous bureaucracy and for the migrants, especially Africans from the so-called Commonwealth, they felt that they were placed down the rungs of the UK job market when EU expansion-integration became a reality over 20 years ago.
ALL over the media, analysts are in a contest about who has the most documented gaffes made by Prince Philip. He was known for that. Philip’s grandson Harry has added to this catalogue of tributes. The other day Harry joined the chorus by remembering Philip as the legend of banter. Africans have their share of memory of Phillip-speak. Queen Elizabeth II sent Prince Philip to represent her at the Independence Day celebrations in Kenya, he did make a fool of himself with one very unfortunate remark at the event. On that warm evening of 12 December 1963, the colourful red, green and black Kenyan flag was waiting to replace the Union Jack which had been reigning over the country for over forty years. It was an evening packed with dancers, singers, bands, speeches, the lot. Prince Phillip was sitting next to Jomo Kenyatta, the Kenyan nationalist leader who had just been released from the colonial prison two years earlier. So, Kenyatta and Philip are exchanging niceties and histories of the past. The two knew each other very well... we will come to that.
ONE of the key mentally traumatising issues affecting the migrant community is what happens when they start to earn the British pound, or in the past, the punt Éireannach, the former Irish currency and now the Euro. Millions of people have been travelling to Europe from other corners of the world to study, work, run away from man-made disasters and those who can afford it come for holidays.
THIS must be the third time mentorship for migrants is being mentioned in this column. It is something that we have to nurture. It is so important because the lack of it can be tricky for people who call Northern Ireland their new home.
THIS year I met a handful of Joseph McCarthys.These are people who think anyone with a contrary opinion is a communist or a Marxist.
THIS week I met three gentlemen doing worthy work for the refugee and asylum-seeker community here in Belfast. I went to the newly established All Nations Ministries Bike Workshop. They opened in January this year with a mission to support refugee families and individuals who were in need of bicycles to get them from point A to B. Ultimately, poverty is the underlying factor of why these families cannot move around the city to do shopping at far distances for specific things they want.
PRESIDENT Donald Trump is continuing to undermine the confidence of Americans in their electoral democracy. He has refused to accept defeat, he and the millions who voted for Trump believe that Joe Biden did not win fair and square. Is Donald Trump preparing America and the world for a US civil war? If this was an African country, journalists would be nodding their heads in admission that another bloody conflict is in the offing and thousands of refugees will be streaming to the global south. Conflict is a push factor of migration and right now many parts of Africa are receiving African Americans who are settling in Africa. They have been returning to their original homeland where their ancestors came from in unprecedented scale during the slave trade. But if the current trend of American trauma continues, if the racial conflict goes on, there will be killing fields that have been sparked off by the 2020 election: the powder keg election.
SINCE Belfast rediscovered itself as a top filming destination, many interracial casts have featured in big and low budget movies. Over the years, thousands of scenes have been shot in Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland. In 2011, the popstar Rihanna shot her We Found Love hit in the New Lodge, a location with residential high-rise buildings. She was welcomed there without any odd preconditions and she loved it. The locals were happy to see her. This was quite different from her negative experience at a Co Down farm owned by a DUP councillor who requested her to stop shooting the music video because it was too raunchy! How is a 21st century popular music footage supposed to look? Many a film critique would probably have trailer trucks of opinions about how Rihanna was received in Co Down, a world that I have seen at its best and worst (my own experience in a supermarket at Springhill, Bangor). Perhaps these are isolated cases. But can you imagine what Rihanna felt when she was booted out of the farm dancing and wearing sexy things? Cardy Band Megan Thee Stallion, those two trophies of daring black music, would not have lasted a couple of seconds on that farm that said no to Rihanna. On a positive side, imagine how much Northern Ireland could bring when farmers and other land owners decide not to be too conservative about the props and styles of music genres that international artists can bring. Not forgetting the impact in job creation and a sense of happiness that some dull places within the country are re-energised by fantastic art, music and films.
THE print and broadcast media have been doing a round of introductions of distinguished and previously unknown black people to the cover of their products. Hopefully, black people are suddenly being mainstreamed. It is well known that across the water, in the United States or for our case here in Ireland, the British press has often carried a distorted overall presentation of the black community. There is a caricature of the black male who is up to no good and whose best form of defence is the race card. They wanted positive discrimination to be the Eleventh Commandment, though that is often taken care of by the bias in the job market, healthcare, education opportunities and housing. So these stereotypes have been there in media for ages. It is good to see that finally some of the old media houses and even relatively new ones are putting lead positive stories of black people and promoting them on their cover pages and television stories. Is it a eureka moment? No. But it is good to see that changes are taking place at a certain pace, slow of course still. Writing this column in the Belfast Media Group newspapers which circulate in the North, West and South of the city was for me initially no mean feat. Being a black man doing a writing gig for a newspaper in post-conflict society away from Africa, where I come from, is a learning curve in itself and I love it. It is also an eye-opener for the natives of Ireland/Northern Ireland who would rather indulge in something more important than reading my weekly rants, bouquets and sometimes officially dry humour. I feel honoured to share stories with you here. An Irish acquaintance asked me one time to explain to her why our lives matter, is it not all lives that should matter?, she posed. It is because some of those people who hold the levers of power outside Africa believe that we are a junior race which must be aided by the white saviour syndrome and that is why for years, movements like the benevolent charity organisations went to take the lead of helping young Africa! She was not having it. Let us just say Miss B concluded that compassion knows no colour. This is mostly true. Then she went on to imply that because this is not our motherland and we are part of minority populations in Europe, America and Asia, why should we demand absolute equality in comparison to our white brethren and sisters? Why? I think the undertone here is this, one cannot pull a cart before a horse. For many years, here and elsewhere, I have met people who believe this and they will tell you that importance comes with numbers, so for example, absolute equality is only negotiable for Africans in Africa and other geographical locations like the Caribbean where their population is not the minority. Phew! So for the newspapers to develop this new attitude, not some cosmetic ploy, it is a good thing for addressing the historical bias. The young black people and other ethnic minority groups should enjoy such a new movement, but will it really last? Is the media finding it extremely difficult to produce and reproduce black faces without jeopardising their advertising revenue? Was this a historical exaggeration?
IN Northern Ireland there is no annual population survey per country of where someone came from before they came to the United Kingdom or Ireland. There is a population census every ten years here in Northern Ireland. That is the most reliable data of how many Africans there are in Northern Ireland. If that is the case, then there is no reliable population data for this group.
ON the good sponsorship of the Belfast Musical Society, a young talented black singer, Rachael Baptiste, came to Belfast in 1772 and stayed for one year, performing every week. It was a very busy season for it was the first time the Irish audience would have seen a black person singing in Belfast. Rachael entertained people at local halls, theatres and churches in Downpatrick, Carrickfergus, Lisburn and in many towns in England. She had her debut in Dublin and sung in many other parts of Ireland twenty-two years before staying in Belfast. Baptiste crooned at balls and theatrical concerts while her equally famous husband, John Crow, was giving violin lessons to budding musicians in Belfast and other towns. Baptist was born Ireland around 1750. Very little is known about her full life story but there are anecdotes of odd 18th century audience behaviour, for example jeering at a real black musician because they preferred, or were used to, a white singer with a deliberately blackened face – what they called minstrels. Historically, the ‘black minstrels’ were a very common feature in America and later in Ireland and other parts of Europe. Now, let us take a long jump forward to black music in Ireland today. Have you heard of the name Dana? Not the Irish mademoiselle, the Dana of 1970s Eurovision fame. This is a Dana who has a masters in her title. She is an American artist and granddaughter of a civil rights activist. Dana Masters moved to Northern Ireland in 2008 with her new love, Andrew, a man from Dromore, County Down. Dana, who is originally from South Carolina, has featured on TV programmes like the Nolan Show and in radio interviews, her music diary has revealed how much black music is sought after here. She is in love with jazz music and her voice says it all. She says that jazz was birthed by her ancestors and she must carry on with the beautiful tradition. When she makes her testimony on jazz, Dana reminds the viewer that it was not until she came to Northern Ireland that she started singing the genre. Dana has performed in the City of Derry Jazz & Big Band festival. Soul, funk and R&B are the other genres of music art that she loves and plays. On stage, she has sung regularly with Van Morrison. This and many other concerts have given her the much-needed publicity for her work in the music industry. There are many more black artists who are trying to find their focus as they constantly market their music in the face of other competing needs in their social and economic life. If you are artist it can be difficult to make a living, especially during this period of the Coronavirus. Others are unpaid musicians who perform in their churches solo or choirs that accompany evangelists who have also migrated to Ireland. Dana has demonstrated that what Rachael Baptiste achieved some two-hundred and fifty years ago here in Ireland and other venues is not impossible. She knows very well that her work in the music industry is not a flight of fancy. Elly Omondi Odhiambo is a Kenyan writer and care worker based in Belfast. He can be contacted by email.