Standing out in the crowd - Africans in the Czech Republic

31-01-2005

The African minority in the Czech Republic is so small that it is not even included in official statistics and is placed in the so-called "other minorities" column. On the other hand Africans, especially black Africans, stand out in the crowd.

Before 1945 most Czechoslovak citizens had never even met a black person. But ever since the first black soldier entered the country with General Patton's Third Army in April 1945, people here have gradually got used to Africans and Afro-Americans. But even today, while most Czechs don't even bat an eyelid when they see Russians in Czech spas and Vietnamese owners of grocery shops, they will still often look a few seconds longer at a black African. Dolly Nelson is from Liberia.

"The Czechs look at you and pretend they are not looking at you. When you look back they become red. I often ask them what are you staring at? What have you not seen before? They blush and turn to the other side. Some of them just smile."

Dolly returned to the Czech capital after her friend's wedding when she had seen the Czech Republic for the first time. It took some time for her to learn the ropes. She soon found a job as a pre-school teacher and she is now in her second year of "the Czech reality tour".

"The first time I went to a class and a parent came to pick up a kid, there was this terrible incident. You could see the shock. Then she called one of the parents and asked why I was there. The other parent told her it was OK. I always tell people that Czechs don't intimidate me but I intimidate Czechs. I think no Czech is better than I am."

Contrary to their parents the children at Dolly's pre-school don't seem to have any problem with their teacher's different skin colour.

"I have a kid who is about five years old. She told me "You are not black you are brown." She is so sweet. My kids are so sweet."

As Dolly talks, she has a warm smile. Now in her thirties, she wants to get some broader experiences than her friends back in Liberia. She feels she has nothing to lose. If she fails here she will go on and try again.

Dolly is well settled here but she is not considering staying in the Czech Republic forever. Czech men are not her cup of tea and tourists flooding Prague get on her nerves. Thanks to the tourists, the centre of Prague is filled with strip bars and sex shops, she complains. Even her Norwegian boyfriend had to come to terms with her decision one day to return to Liberia.

"You always want to die when your navel string was buried. Back in Africa when a mother gives a birth to a child and the doctor cuts the umbilical cord, we don't flush it in the toilet. It is given to the mother and the father of that child and it is buried like a dead person. So people who live abroad fly their bodies back home to be buried."

If Karl Laryea had not studied in the Czech Republic, got married to a Czech woman and started a family - he now has a 4-year-old son Oliver - he would probably have followed a political career in his native Ghana. Instead he runs his own business simultaneously in Ghana and the Czech Republic, exporting agricultural machinery. He first came to Prague in the days of communism, on a scholarship to study electrical engineering. Those early days were not easy.

"When I got here I could not speak one word in Czech. I spoke to people in English because I needed help. No one could help me. I thought that people did not speak to me because they did not understand me. Now I understand that people did not want to speak to me."

The very first impression of this country - with its chilly climate - was strange. He had never ridden on a tram before and had had no experiences of racism.

Photo: European CommissionPhoto: European Commission "At times it is very difficult to say something in general because I don't want to hurt my friends - Czechs who like me and I like them. There were so many kinds of racial discrimination. You want to go to a disco but they tell you that you are not allowed because you are black, you are not supposed to go here. I am not bothered but at times you want to go to a disco with your Czech friends. They allow them to go in but say 'No, this guy is not allowed to come in.'"

The situation has been slowly improving with a new generation growing up, but Karl still only visits pubs where people know him. He tries to avoid any conflicts. His attitude is simple - "I don't hear, I don't talk and I don't see."

"My boss saw my CV and certificate and was sure that I could do the job that I had no problem concerning my technical background. But my colour was a problem to most of the workers and nobody wanted me to be in his office."

Circumstances turned for the better and today Mr. Laryea considers himself successful. But there is another task facing both him and his wife - bringing up their son, who now attends a nursery with white children. His father tells him to be better, calmer and more polite than his classmates.

"Everywhere I go I try to be humble. I try to steady what is going on, I try to find out what is going on, what and when I can say and to whom. Then they know I'm not violent but a cool person. I try to play the cards. "

Karl views Czechs as rather reserved and not very open-minded people who will have to change sooner rather than later. Today's world, he says, is a big village.

"Most of the Vietnamese have had children here. They are Czech but speak Vietnamese. In twenty years they will be Czech, they will penetrate into the culture. Maybe in twenty years you will see black people driving buses here."

31-01-2005