Ghanaian-born politician, Amma Asante, who became only the second African elected to the Dutch parliament, talks to Femi Akomolafe on immigration, racism in the Netherlands and balancing work and family life.
Amma Asante was born in Juaben, Ghana. At the age of six years she joined her father in the Netherlands. She studied Political Science at the University of Amsterdam and majored in International Relations. Asante worked as a Social Affairs Specialist for several organisations and also consulted on social policies. Entering politics as a member of the Dutch Labour Party in Amsterdam, she served as a Councillor of the Amsterdam Municipality for eight years. She is married with two children. Amma was sworn in to serve until March 2017, when the next Dutch general elections are expected to be held. Her husband, Pastor Emmanuel Baddoo, and their two daughters, were among the throng of cheering Africans and other well-wishers that graced her swearing-in ceremony.
NA: When and how did you develop your interest in politics?
AA: I would say that my interest in politics was developed at home because my father was always discussing politics. He was not a practising politician, but he has a keen interest in politics and political affairs and he likes to discuss them quite frequently and openly. I am glad that he afforded me the opportunity to participate in such discussions even when I was still very young. He was a tremendous motivator in nurturing my interest in politics. He gave me all the encouragement I could ever have hoped for. My father was an undocumented resident until an amnesty was declared in 1976. He was a benef iciary, and the legalisation of his stay made it possible for my mother and me to join him in 1978. So, I can say that the circumstance of my coming to the Netherlands made me realise the role politics can play in impacting the lives of people. It also made me appreciate that political decisions can create great opportunities, and that one needs to be part of the policy-making team in order to make meaningful contributions.
NA: Can you share with us what your personal and political philosophies are?
AA: Politically, I am a social democrat. While I personally believe that individuals have certain responsibilities for themselves, the society or state has an obligation to help the disadvantaged. Social democracy advocates the creation of equal opportunities for every citizen. For example, citizens should be helped to get the best education possible. This will make it possible for them to realise their full potential.
“Parental guidance is very crucial in bringing up responsible children, who graduate to become responsible citizens.”
I also believe that parents have great responsibilities to help their children. Not everything should be left to the state. Parental guidance is very crucial in bringing up responsible children, who graduate to become responsible citizens.
NA: I am sure that you are aware of the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the first African at the parliament. She is not very fondly remembered by the African and black community here. What do you intend to do differently?
AA: I am aware of her story. But we are two different individuals with different philosophical outlooks. There is a big distinction between our political philosophies.
NA: You will serve as a member of parliament until March next year when new elections are scheduled. What do you intend to achieve within that short time?
AA: I am the spokesperson for higher education in parliament. I intend to continue to hold meetings with students and teachers, in order to understand how the reforms in the education sector can be successfully implemented. My aim is to improve the education sector, in order to create equal opportunity for every student, and make it possible for every student to attain the highest education possible.
NA: There is no denying the fact that the African and black community in the Netherlands faces great obstacles. What do you intend to contribute to solving some of the problems?
AA: I shall continue to do what I have always done which is to encourage our people to take advantage of the great opportunities available in Dutch society. The Netherlands has excellent educational facilities, from which our people can benefit. I am lucky that my parents, despite their lack of education, helped, encouraged and motivated me to study hard. They realised that a good education holds the keys to advancement. Africans in the Netherlands, especially the youth, face enormous challenges. They live in a society that is open and encourages people to speak up, while at home, parents frown upon children voicing their opinions. It is a culture clash that hinders progress and successful integration into Dutch society.
“To be successful, we have to become part of the society in which we live. That means actively participating in every sphere of the society.”
NA: Let us talk about some very controversial issues. First, racism. Many black activists believe that the Netherlands remains a profoundly racist country. What will be your contribution to solving the problems of racial divide and tension in the country? Secondly, December is around the corner, and the troubling issue of Sinterklaas, which many black people consider particularly offensive, is bound to crop up. [The Sinterklaas festival involves the figure of St Nicholas arriving in town with presents for the children. He has black-faced servants with him, the Zwarte Pieten, played by locals in blackface.] How do you intend to help douse the tension?
AA: Yes, Sinterklaas is undoubtedly a controversial and vexing issue. It is one that I also personally find offensive and hurtful. It galls greatly to see black people continuing to be portrayed as ignorant buffoons, to be laughed at. What I have come to realise, however, is that most of those that celebrate Sinterklaas do not do so because of racism; they are simply too ignorant to notice how negatively it impacts on black people. We Dutch people do not know our history. We were not taught about slavery and colonialism. The media here also does not help matters in the way they portray black people and the African continent. I was six years old when I came here, and I did not go back to Ghana until I was 18 years old. So distorted was my view of Africa that I was shocked and surprised to see people in Ghana living with modern amenities. In the Dutch media, Africa is some jungle where people fight constantly and are perpetually dying of hunger and starvation. Very sadly, that was the image I took with me when I went to Ghana. The good thing is that issues like Sinterklaas, which used to be discussed in the private confines of people’s homes, are now part of the national discussions and narratives. More and more people are now realising that what they think is a joking matter is a serious issue for black people. I have no doubt that Sinterklaas shall be confined to the dustbin of history soon.
NA: Many Africans here complain about racism, what has been your own experience, and how did you deal with this?
AA: I have also experienced racism, but I tried not to let it hold me down. It is important to know that black is not the norm here. But you have to make yourself strong and knowledgeable enough not to let racism or anything keep you down. I am fully cognizant of the fact that I am not part of the Dutch norm that is white, Christian, well-educated, with a comfortable lifestyle.
NA: Let us talk about the question of identity, which many Africans find difficult to resolve. Many Africans in the diaspora feel a sort of ambivalence regarding whether they are Africans or Europeans. Where do you belong, and how did you resolve the issue of identity?
AA: I am Dutch. I was born in Ghana and I cannot deny my black identity. Being Dutch does not however mean that I forget my roots. I grew up in the predominantly black community of Bijlmer, in Amsterdam, and still make my contributions to helping out whenever possible. I was a Programme Coordinator for an organisation that tries to help train policy makers from Africa with knowledge, expertise and networking. It is to help us broaden our horizons.
NA: When you look at our continent, Africa, we face so many challenges on so many fronts. What do you think that we are doing wrong, and what do you think we can begin to do to solve some of our problems?
AA: We are certainly doing a lot of things wrong. But the central one is: when will our leaders stop putting Africa up for sale? From slavery to colonialism, we are always selling ourselves very cheaply. How do we end up becoming poor after selling all our precious minerals? Up to today, if you look at the type of agreements African governments continue to sign, you have to ask yourself the reason why they do so? We cannot make any headway in life unless we figure out how to use our resources for improving the lives of our people.
NA: What are your parting words for Africans in the Netherlands?
AA: Don’t give up. There are a lot of opportunities available in the country for those who are willing and prepared to grab them.