Africans Adapt to Nordic Chill

Ellen Otzen, BBC News, October 24, 2008

In a small, white house standing in the shadow of Copenhagen’s oldest churches people from Cameroon, Botswana, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Uganda meet each Wednesday night to sing in a gospel music choir.

Ugandan Joel Moses came to Denmark for love, 13 years ago.

“I was once married to a Danish woman. She couldn’t stand living in Africa and so I moved to her home,” he explains.

“I love to sing and so I come every Wednesday even if I am tired, physically—it builds me up and gears me up for a new day.

“To be honest, I really come to do something as an African in a white community because there’s a lot of things I do that are gone, not recognised. But I think I am recognised by reaching out to my fellow Africans.”

Love broke down for Joel as it did for another Ugandan, Peace Kabushenga.

Dramatic

She is a project manager dealing with HIV/Aids among the ethnic minorities in Denmark.

She arrived in Copenhagen almost 30 years ago in 1979, as a diplomat’s wife. Her life then was comfortable.

But it ended abruptly when their relationship broke down and her husband returned to Uganda.

“It was a dramatic change,” says Peace, who found herself as a single mother far from home.

“I had to declare myself a refugee to live in Denmark. I had to live in a refugee camp while my papers were being processed.

“Strangely, I knew no other Africans,” she recalls.

“It was my Danish friends who helped me. Of course I would’ve survived—I am strong; but they made it so much easier for me and most importantly, for my son.”

Historic links

Denmark never had colonies in Africa but ties between the sea-faring Danes and Africa’s Gold Coast, now Ghana, stretch way back in history.

The Ghanaian seat of government, in the capital, Accra, is housed in the original Christiansborg Castle—a slave fort built by the Danes in the 17th century.

After the 11th of September, Islam became a political issue and it is a big one here in Denmark, unfortunately

Stored inside the Presbyterian Church in Accra’s Osu district are records from the 1850s, chronicling families with Danish fathers and Ghanaian mothers.

Eighty Danish surnames, like Svanekær, Richter and Holm are still in use today in Ghana.

More recently the links are developmental ones. In the 1960s Danish doctors, vets and engineers were sent to Africa and in return African students came to study.

Then as oppressive regimes took over it was scared, political refugees, like rapper Al Agami, who started to head to Africa-friendly Denmark.

‘Fear factor’

Al Agami was born in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, but grew up in Denmark. He also spent three years living in Afghanistan. His father was a soldier.

“I am a political refugee. I wound up in Denmark because of my father’s stress with the Idi Amin [a former Ugandan dictator] era.”

Al Agami is now one of the biggest names in Danish rap music.

He recalls how Denmark in the 1970s was “very quiet” which he feels is a contradiction to his “can’t sit still” personality.

He says it was weird because there were “no brown faced children” but there was “no fear factor”, unlike now.

Somali Khadija Fara works as a social adviser. When she arrived in the 1980s, she says things were different; but it was during the 1990s that everything began changing.

“Many, many Somali refugees came to Denmark and they were the biggest minority group,” Khadija says.

That is when the fear factor, as Al Agami calls it, set in.

Shift in attitude

Hostility, resentment and friction rose and two years ago, tension spilled over when Muslims took to the streets outraged by cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed in a Danish newspaper.

“After the 11th of September [2001], Islam became a political issue and it is a big one here in Denmark, unfortunately,” explains Khadija.

“I wish people would instead use their energy on other things like integration and making the second generation immigrants from feeling marginalised.”

Peace Kabushenga believes the problems have stemmed from the large number of immigrants arriving.

“You have to bear in mind that Denmark is a very small country and so many foreigners have come in. I don’t think the Danes were prepared for all of us.”

The resultant shift in attitude has caused Peace to worry for herself and her son.

“When he’s out there I don’t want him to feel like a foreigner. I would feel very sad if he told me, he was mistreated on the streets,” she says.

“Yes, he has a black skin but he has his roots here and he is very, very Danish.”

Tune into the BBC World Service to listen to African Perspective’s Africans Abroad: Part I on Saturday 25 October at 1906 GMT in Africa. The programme will be available for a week on the website.

Part II of Africans Abroad—about chasing the American dream—will be broadcast on Saturday 1 November. Part III on Saturday 8 November will feature Africans who have voluntarily made the former slave island of Jamaica their home.

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