The Pecking Order in Spain, According to African Migrants

Pecking order is the colloquial term for a hierarchal system of social organization (Merriam-Webster).

As I sat in warehouse substituting for a worship center I spoke to a Nigerian literary scholar turned pastor about the hierarchy of race in Madrid and what it meant for those who come from Africa in search of work.

Pastor Richard* allowed me to speak to women from his congregation before talking to me himself about his own experience. I spoke to four women, all who were in their early to late thirties and all of who were unemployed. I asked them about their experience. What they found difficult, adversities they had face, how they overcame these adversities and what kept them going.

The common issue that I came away with from all four women was that of unemployment. However, considering that unemployment is not uncommon in Spain, so you might ask, what makes their cases any different?

One story that I heard in particular demarcated the difference between the stories of these women and others who found it difficult to secure work in Spain.

One of the women, name Angela shared a story which struck me as sad.

She came to Spain six years ago. Angela was not formally educated, she had never attended school passed secondary school in Nigeria and had no degree. However, she had a desire to learn and an even greater wish to survive. While in Nigeria she learned how to sew and could repair clothing. When she arrived in Spain, she used this skill set to sustain herself. She would repair clothing for members of the Nigerian community in exchange for money, and through this she was able to provide for herself and send a little money each month back home to her family. Like anyone with ambition she wanted more though. She looked for work and was able to find an apprenticeship with a local clothing boutique. She learned and worked for 2 years and it was promised that at the end of the two years, she would receive a contract for full time work.

The end of her apprenticeship came after two years and Angela expected to be rewarded for her dedication with permanent work, however this was not the case. While everyone else was kept, she was let go without pay or contract. The only difference between her and her coworkers was the fact that she was African, and everyone else was Spanish. Without an explanation or any compensation. Angela was left jobless and penniless, and very much where she started.

She attributed this to discrimination in the work force in Spain. According to Angela and others the social hierarchy in terms of job discrimination goes as follows:

Spanish nationals are the first to be hired when a job is available, second would be Eastern and Western Europeans, third Latin American immigrants and at the bottom of the pyramid are black people, specifically black Africans.

I definitely noticed that in various stores that I visited in Spain, there were rarely any African employees working in grocery stores or clothing stores. I knew of one Malian women who was working for a Spanish company, El Cortes Ingles. But she was working behind the scenes in the kitchen as an assistant.

It might be ironic or intentional that the hierarchy coordinates with the spectrum of skin tones, from lighter to darker. But it is no doubt that black bodies are just not visible as a part of Spanish society. Even in my research it was difficult to find literature relating to the black African population of Spain, as there is very little information available on the topic. There is obviously a disinterest and unwillingness to acknowledge this part of the Spanish community, for what reason, I can not imagine other than it may be believed that they are insignificant.

I do not want to speculate or draw conclusions as to why there is discrimination against Africans in Spanish society, but it is quite obvious that it is present.

Merriam-Webster. Pecking Order definition http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pecking%20order

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From Girl to Woman at Seven

Imagine yourself to be a seven year old girl if you will.

At seven years old, the only thing on your mind is how to get Papa to give you a biscuit even though your mom has already said no, and who your next playmate is going to be. It is hardly an age where one should have to think about anything related to their sexuality nor endure physical pain and emotional pain that will last them a lifetime

Imagine that, you live in a rural village. You have been outside playing and are growing bored. You walk into your kitchen and see Mama and Grandmama discussing in the corner, all you want is to see if Mama will give you a sweet even though it is two hours before dinner. She smiles at you and tells you to come here that she has an errand for you to run.

You skip happily to her side curiously. She asks you to run to the neighbors house and get a knife for her..

You think maybe she’s cooking something for dinner and needs a special knife. Maybe it’ll be something delicious! You agree happily to go to the neighbors, the whole time on your way there you can only thing of the delicious things that might be for dinner.

The neighbor hands you a knife wrapped in a bloody, white cloth. She gives you a funny look, at seven you can barely discern what look means what, but later on you will remember her eyes filled with pity looking down upon your small, seven year old frame.

You make off for home, eager to show Mama that you were able to do what she asked of you without fail.

Upon entering into the kitchen you notice that it is no longer Grandmama and Mama, but that they have been joined by a third woman. You greet the visitor as you have been taught to and hand Mama the knife with a big smile. As you prepare to run outside again, Mama asks you to stay. You are interested to know why and stay where she asks you. You are approached by Grandmama and in an instant both her and Mama are by your side.

You are laid down on a pallet and the next moments are a blur. You remember a wad of cloth being put in your mouth and your pants being pulled down. The next thing you feel is the cold steel blade of the knife you’ve just given your Mama on your skin and the strange woman above you. Next thing you remember is pain. And blood, a lot of blood.

In that moment, at the young age of seven, you have become a victim of tradition, you have become a victim of Female Genital Mutilation.

The sad thing is that thousands of girls all over the globe are forced to go through this traumatic experience at such young, crucial and formative years of their lives. And it shapes who they will be for the rest of their lives.

Fast forward twenty years.

You have managed to go to school despite the odds against you, and have been fortunate and hard working enough to make it out of the village and are now living in a developed nation where basic healthcare is a right. As a twenty seven year old woman, you are having your first visit to the gynecologist, and are terrified. You are terrified and ashamed of what the doctors will think when they examine you. But of course they must have experience with FGM and hopefully they can counsel you in an appropriate manner and point you toward some resources that might be able to help you. I mean, it’s the 21st century and you are living in a developed country, of course they should know how to relate to victims accordingly, right?

Wrong. You lie down on the table and wait for the doctor. The doctor finally comes in after what seems like forever and begins your examination. As the doctor lifts the sheet, her eyes are filled with horror, she looks at your face and then back down again at your lower body. But she doesn’t say anything to you. She stares for what seems like forever then leaves the room. She comes back in five minutes with three other doctors. Now they are all taking a look and discussing in a language that you barely understand. All the while, you are splayed out on the table for the world to see. You are overcome with an abundance of emotions, but the one at the top of the list is humiliation. And anger, anger at your mother for making this your life, anger at your culture for taking part in a tradition that causes so much pain to women, and anger at yourself for trusting these Western doctors, you think should have known better.

No woman should ever be made to feel this way, but this is the unfortunate reality of many.

To learn more about FGM, and what you might be able to join the fight against it, click on any of the following links:

http://tostan.org/

http://orchidproject.org/

http://www.global-alliance-fgm.org/

http://www.stop-fgm-now.com/campaign

FGM: Raising awareness accross the world

I recently attended a conference called AfroMadrid. This conference focused on issues that plague those of African descent in Spain, as well as the issues on the continent which are the catalysts of transnational migration of immigrants. Issues such a race and education were discussed, as well as discrimination and racism and the mindsets necessary to combat the two. Something that stuck with me the most however was the discussion revolving around health.

During the panel on women’s health, there was a testimony by a woman who was of Somalian descent but Kenyan born, as there is a Somalian population in the North Eastern province of Kenya. She spoke of an issue that many women in about 30 countries, many of which are located in Africa, face. She talked about her experience with Female Genital Mutilation also known as FGM. FGM is defined as non-therapeutic, partial or complete removal or injury of each of the external female genitals. There are Four type of FGM, all ranging in severity, from removal of the clitoral foreskin, to complete removal of clitoris, labia minora and majora, and sewing up of the vaginal opening. The practice is deeply rooted in tradition and dates back to the fifth century BC.

It is an encouragement of the patriarchy, a method of birth control, a guarantee that women will behave morally, avoiding promiscuity and promising faithfulness to their husband. It is viewed as a symbol of femininity and beauty, often considered a right of passage from girlhood to womanhood. Unfortunately, the tradition comes with very serious physical and mental consequences, such as bleeding, wound infections, sepsis and shock. Chronic physical problems like anemia, infections of the urinary tract, infertility, pain and menstruation problems are frequent. Women also have a higher risk for HIV infections. Both mother and child suffer during pregnancy and childbirth. Examinations and vaginal application of medicine are more difficult. Women have a higher risk for a prolonged delivery, wound infections, tearing during childbirth, the need to resuscitate the baby during childbirth and an inpatient perinatal death. Mental consequences after FGM include the feelings of incompleteness, fear, inferiority and suppression. Women report chronic irritability and nightmares. They have a higher risk for psychiatric and psychosomatic diseases. FGM carried out by doctors, nurses or midwives is also called medicalisation of FGM and is definitely unacceptable. It is a practice that is done for the approval of men and older generations, but the women and children are the ones who face the consequences of this unjust practice.

FGM is unacceptable, and many international organizations such as the World Health Organization, UNESCO and UNICEF condemn its performance. It is considered an abuse of a woman’s basic human rights, as FGM refuses women the right of freedom from bodily harm. Thankfully, specific laws that ban FGM exist in many countries in Europe, Africa, USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. However what about the treatment of women who have been subjected to FGM? There needs to be conversation between doctors and patients of FGM to support and inform the victims of the medical consequences and international attitude in order to avoid the future mutilation of newborn daughters in foreign countries. In addition, there needs to be an international conversation that creates awareness of how healthcare providers can support victims of FGM who live in western nations. Due to migration, an increasingly higher level of women with FGM now live in foreign countries. However, the knowledge and experience of medical staff in these countries is insufficient enough to handle cases, often leaving women unsatisfied with OBGYN healthcare. In order to prevent the exclusion of these women, it needs to be talked about and people need to be educated! The cycle needs to be ended.

Sources: Utz-Billing & H. Kentenich. Female genital mutilation: an injury, physical and mental harm. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology, December 2008; 29(4): 225-229

Words of Wisdom from the Nigerian Embassy  

As I sat in the lobby of the Nigerian embassy, I received some words of wisdom from Nnamdi Nze, the Senior Counsellor to the Nigerian Embassy of Spain. I’d walked into the embassy with the intention of obtaining the contact information for various Nigerian cultural organizations in Spain. I went to the front desk and saw a woman, without thinking, I opened my mouth and went on a tangent of what I was looking for.  Stupid me, was so nervous, I didn’t even think to introduce myself, forgetting something my mother always taught me to do, the first thing you need to do is introduce yourself. The woman at the desk gave me a blank stare, which shut me up really quick. “Who are you and who do you represent?” I told her and she said, “Why do you want these things?” I went into further detail, because of course you can’t just waltz up into a foreign embassy and start demanding contact information for people, that’s not how things work, no matter where you are from.

She pointed a long fingernail at the lobby to a group of men and told me “see that man in the glasses; ask him if he can help you”. I went over to the group and sat down until I could be seen. After sitting down, I began to introduce myself and was almost immediately stopped, apparently I was not speaking clearly enough, although I thought I thought otherwise. “You talk like an American” “Where are you from?” I told him and mentioned my parent’s Nigerian origins as well. He asked me if I spoke Igbo, and I replied “no, I understand some though”. He exclaimed in dismay and began to speak about how we are losing our children to Western countries. As he talked, he began to speak on the importance of knowing where one is from and embracing ones heritage. You see, as Nigerians, second generation Nigerians, living in Western countries, especially America, we have something that a lot of Americans don’t have, knowledge of where we come from. My parents know exactly where in Nigeria their parents were born, and have a home to go back to. A place where the color of their skin will never determine their social class, or bearing in society. A place where they are free to roam without a target placed on the back of their head because of a part of their identity that is unchangeable.  If my parents up and decide one day that America is not for them they can go back to Nigeria without a problem. Or if one day(hypothetically) America decides to expel people of African descent, or all who cannot trace their American ancestry to 200 years ago, my parents wouldn´t even bat an eyelash as they have homes in Nigeria to return to.

When he asked me why most people decide to stay in America, I pondered and replied, “because of the level of comfort they find”. He said to me “No, because comfort has to do with happiness and many of those who have emigrated to the United States or Europe, are not happy at all, often times, they are depressed.” He began to explain to me that just because you have light that is uninterrupted, running water and security, does not necessarily mean you are comfortable or happy. You find more comfort and happiness in having a home base and a family to go home to and knowing where you are from. He stressed to me the importance of remembering where you come from and knowing that no matter what you will always be welcome with open arms. He told me that he hopes that one day I go back to Nigeria, as I have not been back since I was 8 years of age. I hope it will be sooner rather than later.

He then proceeded to take out his phone and make calls to presidents of Nigerian organizations in Spain on my behalf and ask them to put out a call for help for me. He really reminded me once again one thing I love about Nigerians. Nigerians are loyal to their people, there is no me, and there is always we. That Nigerians will go above and beyond for their own people, they will make sure that you have whatever you need. They only ask that you remember others on your own way. We Nigerians are a generous and loving people and always think about our brother and sister, even if they are not blood. He talked to me that day as if I was his daughter and he was giving me advice to last me a lifetime. Because that is exactly what I am, I am a daughter of Nigeria, however removed, and everyone is a father, mother, uncle or aunty to me, because we are all family, we are one.

“Natural” Beauty: African beauty as requested by Spain

I walk out the metro of Embajadores and step out into the square and am immediately accosted by a Pakistani man, handing me a card that red “Laiba Cosmetics: Pelo Natural Africano, Latino Europeo”.

Sidenote:  I looked Laiba up, it is an Urdu name. Laiba translates to something akin to “Angel of Heaven”.

He urges me to take a left and then another left and come visit his store. I asked if he was the owner and he said yes. Curious that a man who knows probably next to nothing about the upkeeping of African or Latino hair is the owner of a shop catering to exactly that customer base. Of course I decide to go and take a look, no intention of buying anything but for the sake of research I  give in to his urging and walk over to his shop.

I enter and see a small, one-roomed store, two walls lined with cosmetic products while another wall is lined with all different types of extensions. I walk over to the extensions, and it seems to me like just any other store I would see if I were to be in the U.S. Only difference in the hair is that there are fewer colors and fewer textures, more of the texture varying from wavy to straight, and no kinky Marley Braids like I would see in the U.S, the type of hair usually used for kinky twists, crochet braids or to amplify an afro. I turn in the direction of the cosmetic products and notice two things

1. That there is a limited amount of products compared to what I am used to in the States.

2. I sit back and observe the products and realize that there are at least 4 rows filled with perms, hair straightening creams and skin lightening and bleaching lotions and soaps. Nowhere in the shop do I see anything that I would consider remotely “natural”.

Looking at those shelves, I pretty much wouldn’t have used any of those products on my hair, unless I was looking to have to cut my hair off in a month or two. Much less put any of the lotions on my skin, as I know the extensive damage that can happen as a result of using skin whitening/bleaching creams .

Even in the United States large corporations such as Wal-Mart and Target have began to cater to the natural community, offering a small but good selection of products safe for naturalista consumption. However here it is not the case. The chances of you finding anything like a curling cream, or a sulfate free shampoo are pretty much slim to none. You’re much better off making your own products here to escape the damage that you could incur to your hair by using these.

Not to even speak of the fact that all of the products I saw seemed to be geared towards a demographic who clearly desired to achieve the Eurocentric standards of beauty that plague our Afrodescendent community of women. Straight hair and even straighter extensions accompanied by fair skin seems to be what is sought after by those who would frequent the store, and that is African women in Lavapies and whoever else happens upon the shop in search of beauty products. It says a lot about the standards of beauty on the continent of Africa and outside the continent and how are women have embodied these standards, desiring to do away with their kinks and curls and no longer loving the gorgeous, glowing melanin rich skin that they were born with.

One World: Lavapies, Madrid

Embajadores, isa metro stop located in the neighborhood of Lavapies, a zone notorious for being one of, if not the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in Madrid and large immigrant population. Walk down one street and you see more Arab restaurants than you can count with your two hands, ranging from Turkish and Lebanese to Moroccan. On another street, an Indian restaurant is situated next to a coffee shop and right beside it to it is a Spanish bar. A couple of blocks down is a Ecuadorian restaurant and a Senegalese restaurant co-owned by a Senegalese family and a Spanish family, with its terrace full of Spanish and African customers alike, enjoying the flavors of  West African cuisine. Walk down another street and you count no less than four tiendas de pelo and five peluquerias. The tiendas de pelo are owned by Arab and Indian immigrants who sell their products to the various African immigrant women who then sell the hair for double the price in their shops. The women wait at the doors for any women with textured hair to pass by, luring them into their shop to hand out a card and a sharp cry of “come back next week”.

Walk down another street and you can see an Art Shop filled with stones and jewels, selling price starting at 30 centavos. These same stones line the strings of the necklaces sold by Senegalese men on the streets of Gran Vía and the metro stations through out the city of Madrid. Ask where the stones come from and the response is from different countries in Latin America, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and a few Asian countries as well. What about African countries? The response is “Not that I can think of”. But looking at the craftwork of the men and you would think that they were brought with them straight from the red clay streets of Senegal or Nigeria. What does that tell you? We aren’t that much different than we think we are. We are all human, although from different parts of the world, we are all the same? The same products that come from my country could just as easily come from yours. We immigrants come from all over the world to different countries to seek better opportunities, no matter the circumstances or methods of arrival, we all want the same thing. Why do we treat each other so differently? Why is there this hierarchy? The need to differentiate and identify who is better than whom? Can’t we just all be equally as good? We are brothers and sisters in the world, luchando, fighting the big fight. We’d all be better off trying to build one another up, instead of tearing each other down.