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Fatou Mandiang Diatta (Sister Fa). Photo by Tania Castellví
Fatou Mandiang Diatta
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Photo by Tania Castellvi
Joshua Kwesi Aikins
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Photo by Kym Darbouze
Whether black with a German ID or white with an African passport, “200 percent” African or “not that African at all”, these 10 Berliners are challenging cultural perceptions and changing the face of the city. Here, they talk about experiencing biculturalism from within... as well as all the prejudices and privileges that come with the colour of one’s skin.
The Hip Hop Advocate
Thirty-year-old singer and rapper Fatou Mandiang Diatta (aka Sister Fa) was born and raised in Dakar, Senegal, where she rose to fame with her 2005 album Sarabah. In 2006, she joined her Austrian husband in Berlin – they now live with their daughter in Neukölln. She’s active in the campaign against female genital mutilation, something she experienced firsthand in her home country, and she’s currently taking part in an album about human rights in Africa. IM
I feel 200 percent Senegalese! I love my country and at least once a year I go back for my project against female genital mutilation. But Berlin is so international that it wasn’t hard to get used to my new life here. At first I was really involved with the Senegalese community: we listened to Senegalese music, watched movies, cooked together and sometimes we would talk so loudly that the neighbourhood people would think we were making trouble.
Here in Neukölln there is a big African community. I learned English from my Nigerian friends. I have a friend from Burundi. Two doors next to mine, I have a friend from Cameroon. Even though we are from a very diverse continent, we are close to each other, our children play together. With my German neighbour, we say hello and talk sometimes but there’s always a distance. It is not easy to raise my daughter so that she feels African but also feels at home here. I want to raise her as a good Muslim, but it is very hard. The rules in the kindergarten are also very different.
In Senegal, the child listens to the mother. She is an authority. Here, Mom is like a friend. Racism is everywhere in the world. In Senegal, for example, we call people from the Ivory Coast ‘Bushmen’. When it comes to the issue of white and black, it gets more extreme though. Words people use can be very offensive. Like when you step on someone’s foot and they turn to you and impulsively shout, “What are you doing, nigger?” It feels worse when I’m walking down the street with my daughter and people say some ugly words as we pass by – like the day when we were crossing at a traffic light and a man between 40-50 came up to us and started making monkey noises. Before I used to cry about incidents like this. Now I just don’t care about them anymore. I changed my philosophy. Plus, I think if you are an African woman, there is more tolerance towards you. African men have it harder here.
The Wall-Smashing Activist
A Berliner all his life, 32-year-old Joshua Kwesi Aikins was raised in the West by his Ghanaian father and white German mother. After witnessing the fall of the Wall and a “dramatic increase in racist values”, Aikins became active with anti-racism and anti-colonial organisations – including Street Initiative, whose aim is to decolonise Berlin street names. AS
Racial profiling is a real issue in Berlin. The BVG will check you especially hard because you’re black. Once as I showed my student ticket, I was asked for my ID – which no white students were asked for on that day. When I said I didn’t have it the man started shouting, “I’m going to have you deported!” I was horrified. It’s like you’re black, so you’re probably not legal!
I grew up metres away from the Wall. When it came down it was really great. I remember taking parts down and then managing to squeeze through a hole – I was one of the first non-military personnel to stand on the Death Strip! But soon after came the whole backlash.
The youth from the East were shaving their hair off and turning into hardcore violent skinheads. Some of my very own white neighbours turned into skinheads! Travelling to school became a hard logistical exercise. Even the lifts in my building had Nazi symbols and other racist graffiti on the mirrors – it meant every day I saw a swastika on my face.
The Fusion Fashionista
Adwoa Ode-Dombrowe, 28, was just 11 when she moved from Ghana to Berlin with her parents. Inspired by her aunt, a dressmaker in her native land, Adwoa and her cousin founded Malaika Design, an Afro-German fashion label, in 2010. She designs and manufactures the label’s clothes in her home in Tempelhof. AS
My mum always wore a traditional dress, and as a kid I didn’t really like it. I remember riding the U-Bahn and everyone would stare at us. It was like a carnival costume to them! Today with Malaika I’m trying to reconcile Berlin and African fashion: traditional African fabrics mixed with European cuts. It’s a subtle balancing act: making the designs wearable but not too European either. It had to remain visibly African. I still use patterns my grandmother used to wear!
Although we now have more and more black customers, white Berliners remain our best buyers. Africans have their own fabrics and tailors, so they can mix things up for themselves – they don’t need us. When my parents first brought me here it was very difficult. I didn’t want to leave Ghana – I really loved my life there. It was terrible coming to Germany and being the only black kid in school. But 17 years down the road I feel more at home in Berlin than in Ghana.
Even though it’s still hard sometimes – like there was a kindergarten group on the U-Bahn one time and no one wanted to sit next to me. I thought, okay this is still going to be hard. But no matter how difficult, I love Berlin.