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Chika Unigwe    

Like Samson the Cabbie

Chika Unigwe is the author of the novel, De Feniks. In 2007 she became the first African to be elected into Belgium's Turnhout City Council.


Men, women, affable liberals, xenophobic nationalists: they formed the melange of the Turnhout City Council; the Gemeenteraad. Spread across four long tables, they sat and formulated laws and argued into the night. The council sittings were partially open and when I could, I went and watched the faces, heard the voices of the men and women who had our city in their hands. Mostly, I was the only black face in the audience. And at the tables, there was not a single one. And once I joked to an acquaintance, “this city council needs a tanning.” As I saw it, it was democracy with a pallid colour.

That might have informed my decision to run for a council seat in 2001, and again (more successfully in 2007). Add to that the stubborn resilience of the city’s mayor, Marcel Hendricks, and his recruitment (in 2005) of the then ambassador of Nigeria to Belgium, His Excellency N. Umelo, as an ally to bully me into contesting. With three children, a baby on the way, stacks of ironing, and my writing, I was not sure I had the time nor, frankly, the inclination to dedicate hours to pre-election meetings and campaigns. While quite indulgent in certain things, my time is an asset I am parsimonious with, having to ration it, spreading out everything I have to get done in a day over a very short twenty-four hour period.

I remember asking a friend, the writer Caryl Phillips, why he insisted on climbing the Kilimanjaro for a third time, despite the difficulties and he said simply, “Chika, because I’m an idiot!” So knowing from experience, the difficulties, the sacrifices I would have to make, why did I decide to run? In Caz’s famous words, “because I’m an idiot.” My idiocy aside, and the Mayor’s resilience aside, and the Ambassador’s nudging aside, I decided to contest because of the dismal invisibility of black people in Turnhout. Now, in the eleven years I have lived in this ambient city, I have gone from knowing every black inhabitant by name, to knowing them by sight, to in 2007, knowing only a handful by name or even by sight. This has got nothing to do with early onset of dementia. I am, after all, only in my 30s. It had to do with the fact that there has been an explosion of (black) African immigrants into Turnhout, mainly from Nigeria and Ghana. Yet, this growth has not translated into visibility in the labour market. Many of these people work, but what sort of work do they do? University degrees (from African universities) in their suitcases and bills to pay, they do menial jobs in factories. Tucked away from sight, they heave and clean and assemble.

It is 2007, but Turnhout has never been confronted with a black person in the police force. There is no black fire fighter. No black bus driver. No black teacher. No black travel agent. Oh, how we rejoiced when in 2005 one of our own, Veronica, a Bini woman, became the first African cashier at a local supermarket. Africans, not just Nigerians, thronged the GB just for a chance to see her – Veronica (hair extension down to her waist, but very definitely black) smiling the flaccid smile of supermarket salespeople. In the same year Samson, an Igbo man, became the first foreign-born cab driver. Who could forget Samson’s joy, his smile as he distributed complimentary cards telling every black person he came across (in Dutch, alas) that he was now a cabbie, “ja. Vertel maar verder.” He instructed us to go out into the world and spread the good news. And spread it, we did, for what he had done was show us that even in this city where our children had no role models, things were capable of changing. We could be the role models our children were lacking. Samson convinced me that I should be more altruistic. Forget the laundry, forget my rest. Be an idiot and put in my candidacy. And if I won? I dared not think that far.

From the moment my candidacy became public and the election posters were put up in the summer of 2006, I was stunned by the amount of attention I got. A retired priest wrote to me. He had lived in the Congo and Uganda, and was pleased to see an African on the list. He had read my novel, De Feniks, and wanted me to know that he was rooting for me. I was so touched that I sent a reply immediately. Some days later, he appeared at my door, an old(ish) man, leaning on his bike, wondering if I had election posters of myself he could hang up on his window. He lived on a strategic street and it would do my campaign some good to have a poster there. I had none. Being painfully shy of publicity (honestly!) I had only made bookmark-sized flyers. He said, what a shame, but could he have one anyway? I gave it to him and thought nothing more of it. The week before elections, we were out on a campaign tour when someone shouted accusingly, “Chika, I thought you didn’t make any posters of yourself? Kijk!” The priest had made himself a poster by blowing up the picture on the flyer I had given him. I also got a mail from a cancer patient who had read my book and enjoyed it and would definitely be voting for me. People stopped me on the street to say how happy they were that I was running. A black teenager who was going to be voting for the first time wanted me to know that I would have his vote. My Kenyan neighbour and her popular daughters promised to tell all their friends to vote for me. My Nigerian friends were doing the same. When we went door-to-door campaigning, I took my baby son (having a cute, friendly baby is guaranteed to incline people to listen to you) and he got cooed over. Sometimes, we were told where our party was found wanting. At the time of my campaign, my party had been in power for the last three legislative terms. People complained of traffic, of dirt on their streets, of vandalism, of rising drug problems. And what would we do about it? Once or twice, I was asked how I would manage to combine my writing with council duties if I won. Did that mean I would stop being a writer? I said it would not. They seemed, flatteringly, relieved.

However, there were those who found particular displeasure in seeing me on the list. A Nigerian man told one of my friends he would not vote for me because “black people are not nice to each other.” White people are better. Compare Nigeria now to Nigeria of before independence! Another got into an argument with another friend because, according to him, I was an arrogant person. I was particularly guilty of not attending enough African events. And I got to know too that I did not have such a good record of visiting Nigerian homes, nor was I any good at saying hello to people. A Nigerian woman would not vote for me because she did not like the Igbo. It was not the comments that hurt (I have quite the hide of a rhino), but the unabashed ignorance, and the fact that thousands of miles away from home, we still fail to understand the things that matter.

October 7th, we ended the campaign and the following morning voting started. On my way to the polls, I ran into a group of four young African men who walked with the nervous energy of first time voters. I stopped them. Their English was hesitant, their Dutch more so. I managed to establish that they were indeed ‘virgin voters.’ I asked if they knew the party they would be voting for. One of them giggled and said “no.” I said, well, you have to make sure you vote for the right one. They did not know which one was the right party. So, I did my civic duty. I pulled out four of my flyers from my coat pocket and said, this is the party you need and this is the name you need to tick (legally, you can not campaign after 6 p.m. on the eve of the elections, but why let four votes go to waste?) One said, quite incredulously, “But that’s you!” They gazed at the picture excitedly, and said they were pleased to meet me. With a rekindled enthusiasm I was happy to see they went off to vote. I retired home after the vote to wait for the results, which were expected that evening.

I heard the news later at my parents-in-law, where my family had gone, I suspect, to avoid my restlessness. My father-in-law had been on the net to check the progress of the results when I walked in. “Proficiat!” he shouted. “Congratulations!” On January 2, 2007, I was sworn in, together with the 33 other councilors, as Turnhout’s first foreign-born councilor. Like Samson, the cabbie, I like to think that I am showing our children that there are other possibilities for them in a foreign land. And having the opportunity to do that is worth the sacrifice I have had to make and am still making.

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