African New Zealanders are redefining what it means to be Black in Aotearoa. Filmmaker Naledi Mthembu and co-organiser of the Wellington Black Lives Matter march Beth Teklezgi spoke to other Black Kiwis about their experiences, along with photographs by Renati Waaka.
It’s a Sunday morning, and you’ve just undone your braids and are looking for an afro comb to detangle your roots. You walk into New World expecting to find one in the cosmetics aisle, just like you would in other countries. Instead, you’re met with a wall of fine-tooth combs, and not an afro comb in sight. This is when you remember that you’re Black, that you are different, and that this world wasn’t built with you in mind.
This feeling of alienation isn’t a unique one, and it comes up in the most unexpected ways. When you are a part of a race that represents only 0.3% of the country’s population,you sometimes feel like your existence only matters on the fringes of society.
Black people’s existence in New Zealand is in a fledgeling state and not quite visible. This raises the question of how we take up more space while we try to navigate through a system that we are not centred in. There seems to be lack of understanding when it comes to our culture, and this leads to a lack of acceptance.
We see this in the questions that tend to come up about our hair, skin tone and heritage. Black people feel the need to explain and educate those around them on the most elementary and obvious things. When you are repeatedly asked about how you got to this country and ignorant questions about your features, it feels like a persistent reminder that you are an “other”.
This is also reflected in our education system, where the only form of history linked to people of African descent is African American history, particularly stories of slavery. African people existed before slavery, and there needs to be more teaching about our rich and complex history.
It is disempowering when the only stories you hear of your ancestors are when they are in bondage. Why can’t schools teach about the Great Zimbabwean Kingdom or the strides ancient Egyptians took in developing what we know as modern-day religion and science?
Education is not just limited to the classroom, as our perceptions are often shaped by the media. In New Zealand, stories by and about Black people come few and far between.
“I don’t feel as represented on TV screens and in the media because when I look around at the people I know, there’s so many different kinds of black people, whereas, in the media, there tends to only just be one,” says Sienna Williamson, a 17-year old African-American student living in Wellington.
The lack of opportunity for Black Kiwis to see themselves in New Zealand media means they look to African-American and UK culture to develop a sense of identity.
Rwandan graduate Hycenta Uwukinda feels this way. “I think previously I didn’t really feel fully represented in New Zealand and would often look towards America or the UK.”
African people are relatively new settlers in Aotearoa, so there hasn’t been much time or opportunity to build a strong cultural foundation. Many Black people form associations with the larger BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Color) community rather than just Black people. Like Wasa Ali, who lives in the Wellington suburb of Naenae says, “I feel represented in the people that gave me aroha and that’s tangata whenua and Pasifika people.”
It is heartwarming to know that there are still communities that exist for us and spaces where we feel safe. But there is still a desire to have spaces where we can discuss issues that directly affect our community, and share stories and ideas that only we can understand.
Unfortunately, we find that the little representation Black people do get is often negative, and those stories are usually easier to magnify than the positive ones.
For example, the idea that Black men are a threat to society exists here in New Zealand. Black men often have to appear passive to be accepted or tolerated. You find Black men telling stories about how they have to smile at people in public to disarm them, as people’s initial reaction is to see them as intimidating.
A significant turning point for our community was the Black Lives Matter movement earlier this year. It forced everyone to put their own differences aside and unite for a greater cause. “It felt like we were deliberately reaching for each other,” says Mwewa Kasongo, a Zambian university student. “In a time of tragedy is when I felt like everyone was getting closer because we could all relate to the fear and the anger.”
Sienna Williamson was also touched by the show of solidarity. “I’ve identified a sense of community in how together we’ve all come. Like, there’s not that many of us here in New Zealand but we always make an effort to come together and it’s not just African-Americans or South Africans. It really doesn’t matter where you’re from or what kind of Black you are. We just all come together, and everyone has a good time. We all support each other and lean on each other. It’s just really beautiful to see that interconnectedness.”
These exact sentiments are what birthed the Black Community Project, the organisation behind the photoshoot in this article. We wanted to do this as a continuation of the fellowship that we had started developing after we united to march for Black lives in the US and across the diaspora. As Wasa Ali says, “I’m feeling love at a copious amount, with Black Lives Matter drawing us together like a magnet on some We Can’t Be Stopped energy.”
As a generation, we have recognised the importance of creating a wave and space for us by us. We’re making art and moving in a way that has a revolutionary and intergenerational impact.
We realised that art is a powerful way to make a statement, and in a way, to begin documenting a Black New Zealand history because there isn’t much of that.
African New Zealanders are taking more control of their narratives and re-defining what it means to be Black in Aotearoa. Different creative forms like photography and music are tools to tell these new stories.
Our future is bright and Hycenta captures it beautifully when she says, “I think Black culture in New Zealand is in its infancy, making it something that I can’t fully define. However, it’s great seeing what many in our wider community are doing - the amazing things they are creating and putting out there. People are definitely paying attention.”