An African in Europe
By Rosemary Ekosso
The Netherlands, where I now live, is a small, densely populated developed country with no hills and many canals. It also has some of the tallest human beings I have ever seen.
Unlike many of my fellow Africans, I am not here as an “immigrant”, a dirty word in the mouths of some, a word that inspires both pity and contempt in the minds of others, and a word of hope for the millions who are described as such.
I am supposed to be part of that breed of human generally referred to as expatriates. But in all the important ways, I am still an immigrant. In any case, I have never really understood what the difference between expatriate and immigrant is.
Perhaps the only difference is that an expatriate leaves his country, and an immigrant comes into yours.
I think it is like the difference between sociology and anthropology. If you’re studying “civilised” society, it is sociology. If you’re studying people who wear bone rings through their noses, it is anthropology, and you can say rude, hurtful and mendacious things about them because you know many of them cannot read your language.
Anyway, expatriate or immigrant, I am here. The white man comes to my country, I go to his county. We’re even. Aren’t we? No, not yet, because he will never let me take from his country what he took from mine.
I live in an overwhelmingly white neighbourhood, just off a quaint old street that, as the wine merchant (already a fast friend, probably on account of what I spend in his shop) has proudly informed me, used to be a Roman road. Occasionally, I see a black person, but he or she is just passing through, or delivering something.
Europe is closing its borders to African immigrants
The interesting thing about living here is the change of perspective. The white people are the natives. I find myself examining them with all the interest of an anthropologist who has just come upon a lost tribe deep in some unknown land.
But I am not alone in this. Some of my white friends also think of the Dutch as different. Not different-interesting, but different-not-nice. I’ve heard terms like “cheap”, “rigid”, “rude”, and “damned stupid”.
I was going through a brochure the other day. The author of the brochure, without actually coming out and saying it, implied that the Dutch are crazy, and have no idea how to run an educational or a health system. I was intrigued, to say the least. I though white people stuck together?
Well, no. They don’t. They are not a homogenous group at all. White people who move to a new country full of other white people still feel disoriented. There are local laws and customs to learn, there are languages to absorb. A white foreigner only fits in if he keeps his mouth shut. But how far can one go with one’s mouth shut?
I have also learned a very interesting thing about prejudice. The way we think about people is the way they think about us. While we complain that white people only see us as poor, corrupt, starving, smelly, sub-human, feckless, sex-mad Africans who cannot manage anything, we also see them as a group of selfish, exploitative, joyless, smelly, sex-mad, unbridled consumers who, in spite of a surface respect for order, have totally lost control of their greed and have, as a result, charted an unwavering course to ruin for all of humanity.
As long as I see them as a group of soulless governments and multinationals, some of those descriptions might hold. But from the moment I start considering them as individual human beings, much of that falls by the wayside.
But I sometimes tell myself I’ll hold on to my prejudices as long as they hold on to theirs. If I am going to be African rather than Cameroonian, Tanzanian or Malian, they’ll all be Europeans to me. There’ll be no English or French, Dutch or Estonian.
The second thing I have had to face is the fear of racism. If you are a black person, you live with it at the back of your mind, and half-expect it in one form or another each time you interact with a white person you do not know.
You could soon find yourself interpreting every act or failure to act on the part of a white person, every word spoken or omitted, exclusively in these terms. This can cripple some Africans to an extent that they only interact with their kind and totally refuse to engage with their hosts.
This might seem a pretty unhealthy way to live, but then you hear that someone attacked and killed a black woman in Antwerp, and you realise that the threat is always there. You do not know which of these people in the street is going to try to harm you because you are black. It is difficult to know which of them are prepared to like you and which of them aren’t.
I do not see an easy way to strike a balance between accepting them in your heart and watching out for the hatchet blow.
Sometimes, you meet a black person who is pathetically grateful because a white person has been nice to them. They are so afraid of racism that its apparent absence fills them with a kind of relief.
Sometimes black foreigners feel that things are not all bad, and these are very nice people, really, and they are going to like this place, inclement weather and all.
Them someone asks them where they come from, and then they realise that they are not like the natives, not at all. The thing about being black is that for all that you are dark-skinned, you cannot blend into the mostly bleak European landscape. You stick out, and in my view, you always will.
It is up to you whether you will stick out as an unwelcome oddity or as an interesting attraction. That, I think, is the nub of it. We must try to function in the white man’s land as if we were to the manner born. I am not advocating that we should subsume our essence to his. What I am saying is that we must carve out a space of ourselves that will afford us some comfort.
The European came to our continent on his own terms, and we must work to see that we return his visit on our own terms. This will determine how easily we can change conditions so that life for us here is more comfortable.
It should be our goal as immigrants.
Rosemary Ekosso is a Cameroonian translator and court interpreter with the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands. She blogs frequently at Ekosso.com
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