Last year on Africa day I attended a conference in Madrid at which the government of Spain hosted five African ambassadors to mark 50 years of African independence. This is not to say that Africa is a country – as I have heard in some circles – but is due to the fact that 27 African countries gained independence in 1960, with most following soon after. After the conference speeches, it was open question time, and a young man from an African country asked a question. He said this;
‘When I saw the advert about celebrating 50 years of African independence I was very excited and thought at last a platform to celebrate. Imagine my surprise at finding that it is being hosted by the government of Spain – not that there is anything wrong with that per se, but isn’t this rather curious that our independence from colonial rule is initiated, and hosted, by a former coloniser? Gathering momentum – he was quite an intense young man – he then turned to the African ambassadors and asked if they in fact represented him, as an African in Diaspora, or not. He asked why, when he and his friends put up events – granted they were not as well hosted as this one – but every time they asked their country’s ambassador to attend he was not available. Yet all the ambassadors were here in full force for this event. He asked where they were when he and his friends were harassed by the immigration police, when their image and identity was assassinated by the local press who generally referred to all of them all as ‘illegal immigrants’ as if there was no other state of being if you are from Africa.
He spoke long and passionately, and when he finished you could hear a pin drop in that august assembly. The first ambassador to respond did a rather bad job of it – in obvious irritation he attacked the young man for his impudence, and ended (with the obvious intention of embarrassing him), by asking if he in fact did have the required immigration documents. As you can well imagine, this did not go down too well, the hosts looked embarrassed, the rest of the Africans in the conference looked irritated, a few voiced outright dissent.
Then a different ambassador spoke up. He was a dignified looking older gentleman. He addressed the young man directly at first, and essentially affirmed him. He agreed with the young man’s assessment of ‘our situation in Europe’. As an ambassador, he explained that he is in fact a guest in this land, and there are diplomatic protocols to be observed – he cannot just take off and join young men from his country when they protest against the host government. He then addressed the gathering generally, speaking of the pain he feels about ‘our situation in Europe’. In a lot of cases it is far from ideal, the diaspora adventure has not always been fruitful for everyone. He didn’t have to say it, but you could see he cared deeply.
I walked away from that conference with many questions – are any of the Africans happy with their relationship with their embassies? We all have pictures of Americans the world over walking head up with the certainty that their embassy would sort them out in any eventuality anywhere in the world. But then, are we expecting too much from our embassies? Not all are representing countries as rich as America, and presumably they don’t always have the resources. What about ‘our situation in Europe’? Has moving over here been such a great idea? So many questions, so few answers….