Black People in Prague
The presence of people of African descent in Eastern Europe has been steadily increasing since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The case is not different in the Czech Republic, explains Kofi Nkrumah, founder of Humanitas Afrika, an organisation based in the country’s capital. The Ghanaian-born community activist writes on how his association is helping bring people of African descent resident in the city and the local Czech population together through diverse activities, which also serve to present a realistic image of Africa in the society.
Before April 1945 when the first Black soldier entered the country with General Patton’s Third Army, most Czechoslovaks had never even met a Black person, said a Czech journalist Jarka Halkova.
The African or Black presence throughout the Communist era was indeed very limited to a few diplomats and students on scholarships. It was obligatory for such students to return to their countries of origin upon completion of their studies. It was only those who graduated at the dawn of or after the collapse of the Berlin Wall that had the opportunity of seeking their pasture right there.
Some, if not many, chose to stay and, today, they are at the core of the African community in Prague in particular and in the Czech Republic in general. Added to this category of Africans is a new wave of immigrants from both the continent and the Diaspora, who have been trickling in after the iron curtain finally came tumbling down.
There is no doubt therefore that the Black presence in the streets of Prague and other major cities in the Czech Republic is gradually becoming commonplace. There are even Africans who have settled down to family lives with local Czech spouses. Children from these relationships are equally becoming fairly visible, and it might not be too long before some ingenious ethnologist, journalist or activist starts talking about Black-Czechs, Afro-Czechs or African-Czechs.
For now though, Prague is still far away from being a very cosmopolitan city in the sense of New York, London, Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin, Vienna or Johannesburg. The African minority in the Czech Republic is not even included in official statistics. Instead it is placed in the so-called minorities column.
Indeed before the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and even throughout the 1990s, seeing a Black person did not simply attract casual, furtive glances, but looks of open curiosity, as Shawn Shelton observed in the December 2001 Edition of Transitions Abroad magazine. A Black person was spectacular, and skin colour was a factor in most interactions with the native population. Even today, while most Czechs don’t even bat an eyelid when they see Vietnamese owners of grocery shops, they will still often look a few seconds longer at a Black African.
It is not just about Africans and Black people. There is an element that borders on continental Africa itself. Very little is known about Africa, especially Africa South of the Sahara. The people and their culture still remain outlandish, if not mysterious, to the local Czech. Thanks to the globalisation of the skewed Western media in particular, starving children, wild child soldiers, emaciated HIV patients or even forgotten dictators like Mobutu and Amin are the images most people readily recall in association with Africa. Alternative information or images on anything positive about Africa and Africans has been virtually lacking. Until Humanitas Afrika was founded, that is.
Thus the very motivation behind the establishment of Humanitas Afrika was to help shed light on Africa, the people, their culture, and all those positive developments taking place within the continent and in the Diaspora that do not otherwise see the light of day in the Czech Republic.
Since 2000 when Humanitas Afrika was founded, it has remained focused on the dissemination of information, raising awareness, and building cultural bridges between African residents on the one hand, and the local Czech population on the other.
Needless to underline, education on and about Africa and Africans is critical to the very essence of Humanitas Afrika, which has gone about achieving education through various activities, including documentaries, seminars and public fora that target the broader general public.
Another regular activity is African afternoons. These are sessions at schools during which workshops are conducted for young students on African cuisine, drumming, religion, family structure, languages, etc. The rest are cultural events with African music, dance, art performance, fashion shows and the like, regularly organised for all and sundry.
In addition to these programmes, most of which are monthly or bi-monthly, Humanitas Afrika has also pioneered annual celebrations such as Africa Day and Black History Month in the Czech Republic. The icing on the cake, however, came at the beginning of 2005 when Humanitas Afrika launched one further pioneering feat in the name of an African Resource Centre, which also doubles as a library. It provides credible and very well balanced literature on everything African, and has since proved to be the first port of call for academics, students, travellers, tourists and the curious.
Beyond the provision of literature, it has also become the venue for screening documentaries and discussion fora or seminars. As one newspaper famously described it shortly after it was launched, the African Resource Centre “is more than just an academic addition”.
Until lions learn to write, hunters will always write their history for them. More than anything else, this proverbial saying is what inspires Humanitas Afrika most in everything it has been doing. Obviously the hunters will hardly ever pen a line on the heroism of the lions. It is about time Africa and Africans, at home and in the Diaspora, began to write and sing of their own heroism. That is exactly what Humanitas Afrika has been so zealously trying to achieve in the Czech Republic, despite resource limitations and constant challenges.
120 00 Praha 2