[i] Thank you for welcoming me to your office for this interview. And thank you again for your precious time. Before we begin, I’d like to ask you to introduce yourself.
[r] Thank you [name] for the invitation and for your interest in my life. My name is [name] and I am from Congo. I was born in the city of Matadi, I am 44 years old. I am married and have three children. I work for Stek, it is an organization for the State and Church. I am there project coordinator for African women. The project I work for is called Karibu Bibi, which means: ‘Welcome women’. It is a general centre for African women living in The Hague. So that’s something about me.
[i] Looking at your life in the Netherlands. How long have you lived in the Netherlands?
[r] Officially I’ve been living in the Netherlands since 1998. (Speaking French in Congo is different from that in France. We name the figures differently). But I left Congo in 1988. That has been a bit my life. Is that how I answered your question? Then I’ll stop there. Do you have another question you want to ask me?
[i] So you’ve left the Congo since 1988?
To go where?
[r] After I finished high school, I left Congo to go to Belgium. My parents could pay for my university in Belgium. It was my parents’ choice to let me study in Belgium. When I graduated in 1988, I left Congo. I went to Belgium to finish my studies. The first year in Belgium, I lived in Namur. It was neither a problem nor a wish for me to live in Namur. It was my parents’ choice to study medicine in Belgium. For my studies, I had to prepare for one year, a so-called transition year, before I could be admitted to the Catholic University of Namur. After my transitional year, I did an internship. I did my internship at a higher education institute of nurses. I combined my internship with taking study subjects. There were certain incidents at that time. For example, I discovered that I was sensitive to blood. Of course, I realised then that that study was not for me. In 1989, when I went back to Congo, on holiday with my parents, I told my parents that the study was not for me. I told them that I wanted to choose something else. And they were very understanding about that. They gave me the freedom to study what I wanted. Then I went to Brussels to study Public Relations and Marketing. That’s the way I did my studies in Belgium, until 1995. Shortly after completing my studies, I prepared myself for my return to Congo. At that time, people were supposed to return to their own country after completing their studies, to do their bit for society there. Before I went back to Congo, I visited my aunt in The Hague. An aunt from my father’s side who lived in The Hague. I went to visit her during the Christmas holidays. We ushered in the new year, 1996. After that I went back to Belgium. Then I came back to the Netherlands in March to celebrate my birthday with my family: my aunt and nephews and nieces. After that party I met a gentleman, who eventually became my husband. That’s how I ended up in The Hague. My boyfriend lived here in The Hague, then we got married. I wanted to be with him, that’s why I moved in with him in The Hague. I didn’t explicitly choose to live in The Hague, but more because my husband already lived here. As you may know, there are sometimes administrative problems when moving to a new country. When I was studying in Belgium, I had the status of a student. That did not automatically authorise me to come and live in the Netherlands. That means that I also lived in the Netherlands for a while without a residence permit. It was hard because I didn’t have free access to education to learn the language or to work. For me it was a difficult period, which brought a lot of frustration. I first had to have a job to get my residence permit in order. My husband had already received his residence permit then. In those days you didn’t have to do much administrative work for your residence permit, unlike now. My husband took me to the aliens police to tell them we were married. He went to the Congo, with a permit from me, to which we are married there. Because I couldn’t travel. So then we were officially married in the Congo. He came here with the marriage certificate legalized by the embassy of the Netherlands in Congo. We sent the marriage certificate to the aliens police, whose validity was accepted. And then we had to wait. Not all requests are approved in the first place. We asked for help from a local lawyer, who followed our case. I arrived in the Netherlands in 1998 and got my papers in 2002. So for a while I lived in a difficult and stressful situation; without a residence permit. From the moment I received my residence permit, in 2002, I took the same steps as everyone else who wants to integrate into society. That’s why I first had to learn the language. I started a study to master the Dutch language. But I got pregnant, so I stopped temporarily, to pick it up again in 2006.
[i] What kind of residence permit does your husband have?
[r] Excuse me.
[r] My husband came here as a refugee. He had applied for asylum. He came to the Netherlands in 1991 as a refugee. He lived in a Reception and Research Centre (OC) and in Asylum Seeker Centres (AZC). In any case, what was available at that time was reception for asylum seekers. Because I did not know him at that time, I do not know exactly why he applied for asylum. When I met him, he already had his residence permit. He was given a residence permit on the basis of humanitarian considerations. There are things that were not accepted, but he did receive it for that reason.
[i] So you received your Dutch residence permit because of your marriage to your husband?
[r] Indeed.
[i] This means that you are also a refugee; because of your marriage to your husband.
[r] Indeed. As a well-known saying goes; the friends of my friends are also my friends. So a refugee’s wife is also a refugee because my husband fled for political reasons. Yeah, those weren’t my personal reasons. The reason I followed him was because I was in love.
[i] Do you have children?
[r] Yes, I told you when I introduced myself. We have three children. My first daughter was born in 1998, my son in 2001 and my last daughter in 2006. We have three children, two daughters and one son.
[i] Do you ever visit other parts of the Netherlands? Have you ever thought about living somewhere other than The Hague?
[r] It never really attracted me to live somewhere else. I sometimes visit other places in the Netherlands, because we have friends all over the country. And also our families live all over the Netherlands, even in small villages. But I will tell you, when I visited my aunt that time, I visited my first city in Holland; The Hague. So I knew The Hague before I made the decision to live there. When I lived in Brussels, I found Holland very cold. Not cold because of the climate, but because of the peace and quiet. So I said to myself: “I don’t see myself living in the Netherlands”. As they say: you know neither your own destiny, nor your own future. It happens to you. But in the Netherlands I don’t see myself living anywhere but The Hague. I like The Hague, it’s a cultural city. A city where you can easily make contacts and undertake activities. The Hague is a city next to the beach. The bottom line is that you don’t want to go on holiday very often, because you already have everything here. I really like The Hague, I don’t think about moving.
[i] If you’re talking about a multicultural city, with all the conveniences, what do you mean by that?
[r] Practically speaking, The Hague is an international city. You can tell by the embassies, all embassies that are in the Netherlands are located in The Hague. The Hague is also the city where the central government is located. So really a multicultural city. You just have to walk around the city and visit some neighbourhoods. And you will see that there are many Turks, Moroccans, Antilleans and Africans in certain districts. So we can’t compare The Hague with villages in the Netherlands. If you walk as a person with a skin color in a village, everyone will recognize you. They see that you are not from the Netherlands, and/or that you are new in the village. But in The Hague it is not shocking to see dark people in the tram, bus, on the street or in some neighbourhoods.
[i] Does living in a multicultural city make you feel safe?
[r] Feeling safe? So you could say yes. Because somewhere… How can I say that? It keeps you from feeling lost. You feel recognized and recognized in this multicultural city. Even though the cultures may be different from each other. The fact that you see other dark people, even though we don’t speak the same language, gives me the impression that there are people here who are just like me.
[i] As you said, The hedge is a multicultural and international city, are there places you visit often? What are your memorable places here in The Hague?
My memorable places. I can give the example of the International Criminal Court (ICC) building. Not the new building but the old building. That’s a special building for me as an African woman. I have visited it before with my family. I also visited it with my organization, Stek, the organization I work for. With a staff outing. They had chosen to visit the building. Also because of its historical value. For me it was also interesting, because every time you visit that building you learn something new. About our countries, for example. About the countries that signed the treaty. We also visited some courtrooms where people are being tried. And I learned about which countries donated which furniture, like Japan. And what things have been donated by African countries. And the amount that each country has contributed. For me, those are interesting things to know. Every time I receive visits from Africa in the Netherlands, I take them to the ICC. That is one of the places I like to visit, and which I like to show to others. Besides that you also have the beach. The beach of Scheveningen is also a tourist spot. We also like to go to the beach and show it, to friends who visit the Netherlands.
[i] What activities have you undertaken since your arrival in The Hague?
[r] When I came to The Hague I had, as I said before, no residence permit yet. That is why I could not work or study. That is why I focused more on housekeeping and raising my children. I did that until 2007. In 2007 I started to do more activities. That’s also when I started with the work I’m currently doing. I was allowed to think along with other organisations and African churches about setting up a meeting place for African women in The Hague. God, in His love and grace, made Stek accept and support this idea. And that is where the foundation of Karibu Bibi, which I am working for now, comes from. I can only say that my real contribution to Dutch society started with my work at the organization, in 2007. With the work I am doing now, in the African meeting centre.
[i] What kind of work is it? Can you tell me something about the work?
Okay, my job is… I’m coordinator of Karibu Bibi. and my job is to help African women and Africans in general. Including their children, who live in the municipality of The Hague, who are looking for a place where they can meet or a place where they can stimulate each other. A place where they can learn something to contribute to Dutch society. My job is to help women in different areas. Because African women who come to the Netherlands, like me, I came here for different reasons. The women come here for various reasons, such as asylum. Some women come because they are forced into prostitution. There are some who come here with the idea that they can easily emancipate. So all these needs and problems have led me to listen to all these women, to help and orient them in society. In order to carry out my work, I work together with existing organisations. The biggest problem of Africans in the Netherlands is the language barrier. And when a person doesn’t speak Dutch, you can have so much talent, have reached a high level of education, it’s a handicap when a person can’t speak Dutch fluently. In this centre we offer guidance, financial help and administrative advice to these people. Because of this centre African women feel, bit by bit, at ease in society. And so they can contribute something to society. In the centre we work together with volunteers. They help us organise activities. For example, learning to ride a bike, language training, computer lessons: how to use the computer. All these activities are meant to help women integrate into society. We also think that our children are the future of tomorrow. Many parents who have fled their native country, or have come here for other reasons, have to get used to the culture when they arrive in the Netherlands. Because the culture of their country of birth is different from the Dutch culture. And that causes a lot of problems in families. Because parents want to raise their children the way they were raised in their culture, they often find themselves in conflict with their children. At Kariboe Bibi we try to give information to parents about the subject. By means of information evenings we try to inform parents about the importance of integration: and the importance of learning the language. In this way they can be there for their children and get a grip on the situation. It is important that parents follow the progress of their children, from primary school onwards. If parents do not pay attention from an early age, this can complicate the situation later on. Karibu Bibi and I try to help the parents in this way.
[i] Where does the concept of Caribou Bibi come from? Can you tell us something about its origin?
[r] I want to be honest, the origin of Caribou Bibi is not mine. Around 2005, Stek maintained close contacts with emigrant churches. From these contacts, a project called “Migrant Desk” was set up. The goal was to identify and make known all migrant churches in The Hague. A colleague worked on this project in cooperation with a Ghanaian pastor. I think his name is [name]. Based on this cooperation, Stek concluded that such an initiative was necessary. Certain women felt the need to take initiatives themselves to set up their own organisation. But when these women wanted to organize an activity, they could not find a location. At that time, it often happened in The Hague that all community centres were occupied by Moroccan or Turkish organisations. Africans were invisible in society. Even though they were very active in their own community, churches, etc. They were very active but the congregation didn’t see it. Because they did not know who to turn to with their problems. On the opening day of the ‘Loket migranten kerk’, some women made it known that they are also present in the congregation and want to have a place for themselves. They made it clear that nobody takes them seriously while they would like to organize activities. For example, about subjects that are taboo, that cannot be discussed in a church. But also with people who have nothing to do with migrant churches. How can we organize that if we don’t have a location? From there the whole project Kariboe Bibi started. We’ve held meetings. But Stek didn’t want only one community to act as a representative, because the people who submitted the request were mainly English-speaking. So Stek also took an interest in the French-speaking people. And the French community was represented by the evangelical church of The Hague, which has been based in The Hague since 1992. I myself am a member of that church. And in February or March 2007 our pastor was approached by Stek and told him that a project was coming up. Whether he wanted to find out if there were women in the church who had good initiatives. Who could be part of the project, to realize together the establishment of the meeting centre of and for African women. So I was invited to the first meeting with six other women from our church. After the first meeting, together with the English-speaking women, we soon agreed that there was a definite need and that, if a meeting centre for African women were ever to be established, it would be a good decision. After a few meetings we wanted to come up with a name for the centre. There were women who submitted a lot of proposals. Some suggested names, others abbreviations. At the end we realized that we want to create a place where people feel welcome and safe. And that when they walk in, they feel at home and at ease. Also where children could feel safe. After we had thought about that, we asked ourselves: What language is spoken by most people in Africa? Swahili turned out to be spoken by most people. We wondered what ‘welcome’ meant in Swahili and that is ‘caribou’. And ‘woman’ meant ‘bibi’. We assured ourselves that it sounded good for our project. And so we chose the name Caribou Bibi. That’s the story of Caribou Bibi. Karibu Bibi would fall under Stek, a Dutch organisation that has little experience in working with African women. When we talk about a meeting centre, a reception centre, where women feel at ease, African employees should also be present there. We were a group of French and English speakers. Volunteers were needed to work in the centre. All participants in the French-speaking group already had a job. And we did not know how long the project would last. The project had just started and some had doubts. They did not want to give up their work for Karibu Bibi. What if it doesn’t work? Of the English-speaking women who took part in the meeting, many were already leaders in their churches. Some already had their own organization and responsibilities. “We made Caribou Bibi, but we can’t work here,” they said. Luckily I had no work, I was sitting at home, and I said to myself: “Here is an opportunity, I am starting this adventure and I will see if it will succeed”. That’s life, we start with something without knowing where it can lead. When one begins this adventure, one gradually discovers one’s own qualities. Starting this work, I have discovered that I like to help others. As a Christian, it is also a concrete way to practice my life and faith. When I help my loved ones to solve a problem or by referring them to the right authority, that brings me pleasure. I am satisfied; yes.
[i] You mentioned the name Stek several times. What exactly does Stek mean?
r] Stek is a Dutch abbreviation that means: Foundation, State and Church. Stek is an implementing body of the Diaconate. Stek is an organization founded by the Protestant churches in The Hague. before 2004 the Diaconate already existed and assisted people. But in 2004 she decided to no longer just place her work in the service of the church, but also in the service of the state, the municipality of The Hague. In this way Stek has become a kind of social organization. If I can put it that way. Not only for the church, but also for the municipality of The Hague. That means that the deaconate of The Hague set out policy for Stek with the tasks and activities they had to perform. That means that the diaconate is one of the main actors.
[i] Donor?
[r] Let’s say donor, capital provider of Stek was. For example, Stek receives… The Diaconate tells us what work they want us to complete. And Stek tries to accomplish this through the many projects they carry out and the many places they are present, like here at Caribou Bibi. We are currently trying to monitor and accomplish the work that has been entrusted to us. We do this in the interest of society, and for the marginalized groups in society. Stek’s objective is to help the weakest in society, so that they can help and support each other. And also to gain a stronger position in society. and that goes in his work by dividing tasks. This means that when Stek can help someone in trouble. She does. After all, it’s an organization that has its basis in church societies.
[i] You just told me about Caribou Bibi, an organization that helps women. But who exactly are these women you are telling me about?
[r] Yes, Karibu Bibi, when I talk about how they help women, I am talking about all the African women who live in The Hague. From the beginning, the core objective of Caribou Bibi has been to represent all African women living in The Hague. Who are these women? They are Ghanaian, Nigerian, Congolese, Burundian, Rwandan, Tanzanian, Zambian, Angolan, Ghanaian, Zimbabwean, Kenyan, Burkinese, Cameroonian, Ivorian, Togolese, Beninese, Sierra Leoonese and Liberian women. So all African women residing in The Hague are part of the core objective of Caribou Bibi?
[i] And what are their particularities? For example, do they have a Dutch residence permit, or not?
[r] Of the women who receive help from Caribou Bibi, some have a residence permit, others have no official papers. All women are welcome, we do not discriminate. Not even against people who have no papers. The opposite is true. More often we help women who don’t have papers, who are trying to find their place, and who are still looking for their vocation. There are people in this country who don’t have papers, but don’t know that they still have certain rights. For example, in terms of health, work and housing. And that if they have children, their children also have certain rights, perhaps not the right to papers, but the right to a decent life in this society. And the women of Caribou Bibi come to us because we give them that information. We refer them to organizations where they can get the help they need. So Caribou Bibi opens her doors to all women. Welcome women, welcome women, bienvenu les femmes, welcome friends. So Caribou Bibi welcomes everyone.
Can you tell us exactly what you have contributed, as ambassador of Caribou Bibi, to helping these women?
[r] As ambassador of Caribou Bibi, my contribution is mainly, how should I put it correctly, and not just shouting something. My main contribution is my person. As I am inside and out. What do I mean by that? In Africa people say: “If you are a kind and hospitable person, people will come to you. But if you’re a person who’s mean and arrogant, no one comes to you.” With this I want to say that what I give in the first place to all the women who come to Caribou Bibi, without discriminating according to nationality or problem, is a warm and friendly welcome when they enter. That I consider the people as my sisters, because I myself know what it is like to live in a foreign country. How difficult that is: far away from your parents and your loved ones. Far from everything. A life in uncertainty. So that one can have a place where one can be received as an individual and a person. My contribution is also a piece of humanity, receiving people as people, as my African sisters, trying to find their place in Dutch society. And I can offer them my help or my support. The support is not just financial or material. I also offer moral support, spiritual support. Because one day one meets at Karibu Bibi #NAME? the contact goes much further than giving aid. We become a family, that’s how it is.
[i] You said that when you were still in the Congo that your parents wanted you
[r] Medicine.
[i] Would you study medicine? As a doctor, one also helps people. The work you do today is also about helping people. Is it a way of compensating for the cancellation of your studies?
[r] As I just said, sometimes there are things we do without knowing why. When a door opens, you are not prepared for that, but in the end you realize that it is your calling. It’s in my nature. Your question does awaken something in me. I’ve never thought about that before. I’ve never drawn a parallel with my parents’ desires to study medicine, I’ve never seen any resemblance in it, but maybe, who knows, it was in me. Helping people is something that’s very strong in me. I like to give help on a voluntary basis, without expecting anything in return. And when I help someone I do so with all my heart and all my energy. And so it is, it’s my nature. It is a little bit my nature. Even when I look at the road I took for my studies in public relations – which, by the way, has nothing to do with the work I’m doing now. Because that study is about selling products, selling yourself, and that has nothing to do with what I’m doing today. I’d simply like to say that it’s something that’s in me, what I’m putting into practice today.
[i] I can imagine those women coming to you with a lot of stories, possibly horrible stories. What influence do those stories have on you?
[r] That’s a really good question. It’s true it was very difficult for me in the beginning. I experienced the stories in a bad way. Not experiencing them in a negative way, but rather that in the beginning I didn’t see the difference between my professional life and my everyday life. When someone came to tell me his story, it was as if I absorbed everything. And those thoughts did not limit themselves to my workplace. I took everything home with me. And that really bothered me. When someone with a difficult problem came to me, I wanted to find a solution. And as long as the solution wasn’t found, I put all my energy into it; it was really hard for me in the beginning. But after a while, and also because of my colleagues, things got better. Stek is committed to people who have difficult problems. Some of my colleagues were also confronted with the stories of women, the stories of people in general, the stories about families. I can give the example of a person who came to me and said: “I have to pay: I haven’t paid the rent for six months, I have a debt of so much money, and I don’t know how to get the money, so if no one helps me pay the rent, I’m on the street with my four children, and the smallest one is two years old. If no one helps me, I’m out on the street.” If anyone has a heart and humane feelings and charity. When we hear such stories, we try in all kinds of ways to contact organizations, looking for capital providers who can collect the money, so that the person is not evicted from his home. If, in the meantime, things happen that make it impossible for the person to receive that help, then you can imagine how painful it is to live with that. For example, you are confronted with people who don’t have a residence permit, and they have travelled all kinds of roads, but at the end of the day they still can’t find a solution. they have to move from one place to another. When you’re confronted with that kind of thing as a human being, it’s painful. And when you don’t find a solution, you feel a kind of powerlessness. And then you also feel the same suffering as that person, that was my suffering and my difficulties, in the beginning. But with time and by talking about it with colleagues and talking to my manager, I was able to develop a slightly stronger character. Or, rather, a more professional attitude towards my work to prevent my work from affecting my private life and my health.
i] Can you remember memorable moments in your work or private life in The Hague?
[r] I have many moments that I cherish. For example, something may seem small to others, but for me everything I do, small or large, is important. I will give an example: We have worked with volunteers in the past on a project to help children do their homework and improve their school performance. We had children in the project who got very low grades at school. For their parents the Dutch language has always been an obstacle. They don’t speak a word of Dutch and they don’t know how to help their children with their homework. We took those children under our care. Even the schools were surprised to see that the children who were doomed to follow a vmbo education had a different result than expected at the Cito-test and were able to choose a different further education. There is even a boy who is now studying information science. You can understand how a small victory brings a very great joy in my heart, and in the hearts of everyone who contributed to the project. And also, for example, when I think of a person who had come to Caribou Bibi, not so much without papers, because he was without papers because he did not know how the procedure went. And with the little bit of information we gave him, that person received his residence permit after some time; that pleases me. My joy manifests itself in fulfilling things I do for others. In addition, my joy comes from my family, my children who are healthy, and my household that is running well. So those things contribute to my joy. And for me to work in such a position as an African, to be a point of contact for other African women, a person who can help other women to find their place in society, that also contributes to my joy. to make Africans more visible in society, because we African women are very active, each in his own way. We have many talents, many innovative ideas and good initiatives. Maybe African women don’t stand out yet, but we are working on it. We don’t give up, so that Africans who have come to the Netherlands, regardless of their migration reasons, feel at home in the Netherlands They have chosen this country as their adoptive country.
[i] Do you dare to say out loud that the biggest problem African women face in the Netherlands is the language barrier?
[r] That’s right, one of the biggest causes of the problem is the language barrier. It is a big problem. I’ll give you an example. If someone asks me to go to China and I don’t speak Chinese or any other national language of China, do you think I have a chance to flourish in that society? Because if a person doesn’t speak the language, they end up in isolation. They isolate themselves, because the circle of acquaintances is limited to people from the country of origin. And that often happens here. The Ghanaians who arrive, first of all they cling to other Ghanaians. And when they receive information, it is limited, because they give each other the same information. The Bible says that we only give what we have, if you do not know how to do it, how can you give someone that information? What I mean to say is that language is crucial to flourish in a society. Even if we only speak a little bit of the language, it opens doors. And with that little bit, you can continue to develop yourself from one level to the next. Because once you have mastered the language, you are also more motivated, because you no longer have to rely on yourself, you can also rely on others. Even to people who are not part of your ‘own’ community. You can go to the public services, for example the municipality and the community centre. Where the people, the women of the neighbourhood meet, you no longer say that this is only for Moroccan women. You say: “I’m also part of this neighbourhood, the information that is shared there also concerns me, I’m going there”. For me, the most essential thing is learning the language.
[i] When you work with those women, what advice do you give them? Especially looking at integration in society.
[r] I like to give examples. Last Saturday we held a presentation during a networking meeting for Caribou Bibi and other organisations. And I met a woman of Caribou Bibi there and she said something of great value. She said that the language is very important in a society. Often people say that they stay at home because the municipality has not ordered them to follow a language course. But in all organizations, such as community centres, language courses are organized. Here too, we organize language courses three times a week: Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. At all levels, even beginners have the opportunity to learn to speak the language. There is also an advanced language course. I think a language opens doors. It is a key for people who want to open doors. Who want to integrate into society. They must first take an interest in the language. Because you can’t move forward if you’re blocked at the level of communication. It is true that the English speakers have an advantage in the Netherlands, because English is an international language. But if we look at the number of French countries, we see that French is also an international language, but that it differs per country whether it is spoken or not. In the Netherlands, mastering the French language does not benefit you. However, it means everything to my work, because I can help French-speakers and English-speakers because I master both languages. But it can also help you find a job. In certain sectors, they require you to speak the Dutch language. That is why I encourage my African sisters and brothers who have decided to consider the Netherlands their second country to invest in the language. Because when Europeans come to Africa, we also see that they take the time to inform themselves about the country of destination. What language is spoken there, what they eat there, what habits they have, the culture, what can I do, what am I especially not allowed to do. When people come here, we have to read into the culture of the country, the language of the country, we don’t do that for them but for ourselves. And that opens doors.
[i] You have talked a lot about your work and the support you give to African women. Please tell us something about your private life in addition to your work. Do you have contact with people from the Congolese community?
[r] Yes, I am in contact with people from the Congolese community because I am first and foremost a member of the evangelical church in The Hague. That is a French-speaking church in The Hague. Where the majority of the visitors are of Congolese origin. There are also Angolans and Cameroonians, but the majority are of Congolese origin. And that makes me stay in contact with people from my community during the week. I also have family in The Hague, my aunt. And I also have family in Belgium and in France, which means I haven’t broken up with Congo. This is also very important to me: my culture and my country of origin. I always say that I am authentic, I live in the Netherlands but I am Congolese. And I remain faithful to my Congolese customs which, in my opinion, go well with the values in this society. I keep my culture, because that is my identity. I cannot say that because I live in the Netherlands, I throw away everything that has to do with Congo. I remain authentic, that’s very important, and that keeps me in balance.
[i] To which habits of your Congolese identity do you remain faithful?
[r] For example, Congolese cuisine, I like to cook Congolese food. And I like to eat food from my country of origin. Even my children who were born here have no problem eating Congolese. The music, the clothes, everything that has to do with the culture of our country, the theatre, etc. I like that because it does me good. And also the news from Congo. Through the internet I try to keep track of the current situation in my country of origin.
[i] Can you give me an example of a Congolese dish or of Congolese clothing you still wear in your heart?
r] It is a pity, if I had known, I would have worn a Congolese ‘pagne’ today. Unfortunately the weather doesn’t allow it, it was raining today and then I can’t arrive in a ‘pagne’. I still love my African clothes, my African skirts. As soon as I get home from work I take off my trousers and sweater and put on an African dress. So every day, at home, I dress on his Congolese. Instead of putting on a jogging suit, I prefer to put on my African dress and feel at ease. As for the food, Congo is so big and rich. It is one of the richest countries – I don’t know if others will agree with me – in terms of cuisine. Even though we are now talking about my private life, I make a short trip to work. For my work, I organise a place once a month to learn African cooking skills. I have been able to taste the meals from other countries together with the other women, but when I walk through the Congolese kitchen in my head, I notice that we have a very rich kitchen. We have prepared our pondu (leaves of manioc), which is eaten in all countries, in different ways, but at least everyone in Congo eats pondu. And also here I eat pondu, with rice, with ‘chikwange’, with semolina, ‘foufou’, or with fried bananas. So Congo has a great wealth of food.
[i] So you invite everyone who sees this video back to taste Congolese food!
[r] I invite them and advise and encourage them to eat it. And I don’t know if I should say it out loud I think that in the days to come, they will be well served, because projects are coming to Karibu Bibi. Together with other like-minded people we have the great idea, maybe in the future, to open a restaurant in The Hague. Where one can taste the great African cuisine, and especially the Congolese.
[i] (laughter) Great.
[r] That’s my public relations side coming around, I make a little publicity.
[i] Very good! Coming back to the church, do you have a special role within the church?
[r] Yes, I joined the church as soon as I arrived. In 1998. My aunt was already a member, although she is not anymore nowadays because she travels a lot to Africa. When I was young and joined the church. When I lived in Africa, my whole family was Protestant. I myself spent my whole school years at a boarding school with Catholic nuns and I received Catholic education there. When I was 16, I said to myself, “I will never find the time to perform the catechism of Protestants to be baptized. I had made my choice, I made my First Communion, baptism; everything. And when I arrived in the Netherlands, we couldn’t go to a Catholic church because of the language barrier. I didn’t know a French-speaking Catholic church in The Hague. My aunt and friends then took me to the Protestant church, of which I am still a member today. In the beginning I was the headmaster of the Sunday school. Because I loved Sunday school, and I loved teaching children about the church. And after that I was also responsible for the prayer group at the church. Right now I am the one who deals with the finances of the Church and also the administration of our temple. For God has blessed us with the purchase of our new building, where we have been sitting for three years now. At the moment I have been elected for a period of two years to take care of the finances and administration of the building. In addition, I still take care of the Sunday school for the children. In the meantime, I train young ladies to take over my task at Sunday school, because I cannot combine all those things on my own. I am also a member of the church council, because as the person in charge of finances you also have to take a seat on the church council.
[i] You say you bought the Church’s new building? How did that happen? Buying a building! Does that mean you have a well-stocked greenhouse?
[r] No, not at all. We’re not a rich church. One of the things we were wondering was, how is it possible that a church of immigrants, refugees, and people on welfare benefits, was able to pay for the new building of the church? We didn’t have an opportunity to take out a mortgage, because then you would have to show an accounting update, there were a lot of circumstances that we couldn’t meet. We just got lucky. Let’s just say it was by God’s grace that we owned that building. Because for the last ten years we’ve been renting the building. You know, for some time now, more and more churches have been closing. Dutch churches closing because the church members are getting old. And the new generation isn’t taking over. Which means that the building we acquired belonged to a church that had to close its doors. When the owner of the church announced that he wanted to sell the building, they didn’t even contact us, because they knew we didn’t have any money. It was fate, an unexpected light. A lady from our church happened to pass by. She had an appointment at the church and she had arrived before all the other participants were present. When she got there she saw a group of people walking, and they asked her if she was looking for someone? They told her they were visiting the building, because it is for sale. Oh! It was a surprise for her. She called the pastor and the other people in charge and told her that they were in the process of selling the building. She contacted the owner of the church and inquired about the sale of the church. She said she wanted to buy it. And that’s how we came to be among the other potential candidates. But when we made the decision, we didn’t consider the amount of money. We had been saving up for a while to buy a building for our service. But the savings at that time were not even fifty thousand euros, while the temple cost one million euros. To make matters worse, it was an auction sale, which could make the price even higher. There was a well-known Nigerian church in The Hague that was a potential buyer. And unfortunately for us it seemed that they actually had money. But due to problems with the bank they could not get a mortgage. The previous owners of the church did not want a restaurant in the church, or a community center, or something like that. They wanted the building to remain a church where church services were held. Among the potential buyers, some wanted to turn it into a mosque, others into a temple to Hindus, and others into something else. At that time they said a firm no to it. They told us that they wanted us to buy it. Then they asked us how much money we had. We told them how much we had at our disposal. They wanted to know if we could go up to fifty thousand euros. Thanks to the grace of God, we had that sum at our disposal. And that way we were able to sign the deed of sale, without having to go through the bank. God wanted us to be the owners of that building. Three years ago we started paying our mortgage, and within twenty years the building will be fully paid off and will belong to our ecclesial community.
[i] And how do you pay the mortgage every month?
[r] By collecting a fixed amount from Church members. Which all members of the Church will have to pay on a monthly basis. With that money, we pay the monthly mortgage.
[i] Your church, do you think it’s a reflection of the Congo in The Hague?
[r] Then maybe that’s how God sees it, but I can’t say that myself. It is the people of the community who can testify, because as churchgoers we cannot testify about ourselves. It may be encouraging, not only for the Congolese, but for all immigrants. We even have a Dutch church that rents from us. One can have crazy ideas about immigrants buying a church building in the Netherlands, but it is a challenge we have taken up. The other day I heard that the owners of another church, which is behind ours, are Nigerians. Now that the Dutch are closing their churches more and more, other hijackers are coming to the coast, not looking at the colour of their skin. And as long as the people work with the same goal as what the church was built for, I don’t think it’s a problem. But it is certainly a mirror for immigrants in general. Because we are not just a church for Congolese, but for anyone looking for a place to listen to the word of God. The church service is not only French-speaking. And we do it to ensure that people integrate. Also for the young people who study and grow up here, we hold the divine service in Dutch and French. In this way everyone feels at ease, because even our children have difficulty understanding the French language. So during the Dutch church service they can also follow it. And that way we also try to teach them the importance, the willpower and the love of God. That is how it is.
[i] Can we go back to the Congo, to the fact that you left the country in 1988. Is there anything of Congo you miss today?
[r] I miss my mother. She’s still in the Congo. My father is already dead, but I miss my mother very much. And I also miss the warmth of Congo. The big family there. Somehow we always keep the country in our hearts. That’s why we often go there on holiday. We can’t go all holidays, because the trip is so expensive. And that’s why the lack is always in our hearts. There are so many things from Congo that I miss. It is also true that now that we live in Europe, we no longer have the same connections with the country, because our friends are no longer there either. If I were to go to Congo today, I wouldn’t be sure to meet my childhood and school friends there. Some of them have moved. And many have married and worked somewhere else. Others are also somewhere in Europe, others have died. Somewhere we feel lost when we leave the country.
[i] Is there anything of Congolese culture that you miss and that you want to see again?
[r] Well! like I said there just now: “Thanks to the Internet, everything is closer.” Unless maybe you live in a village. But I can’t say I’m missing something huge. It’s not material things I’m missing. It’s the feeling of being at home, in your own country, your own earth. That’s what makes you feel good. Finding your roots and living surrounded by family. And the way people live there, there’s a lot of good sides to that. Here everyone lives on their own, even the Africans who are here have adopted that culture. A bit isolated, living with your own family. And that’s where we find the atmosphere of living in the now and in society. Living from day to day, as we call it.
Do you still have regular contact with your mother and other family members?
[r] I call my mother every day.
[i] Every day?
[r] Every day she calls me two or three times, and I call her too. Also because she is alone with my niece and I am her eldest daughter. My brothers live in South Africa. She calls me for advice and information. So we give advice not only to women in trouble but also to family members, even on a family level. I also call her if I have a problem.
[i] Actually, we had to start the interview with a symbol. Do you have a symbol that’s special to you? Something you brought back from the Congo?
[r] After all these years, I can’t keep a symbol from my country. I don’t commit myself to the material. I do have memories in my heart.
[i] Can you give an example of that?
[r] The memories I tell my children. The memories of the boarding school, how I lived there. That’s a way of life they don’t know here, but I want to give them through stories. And also the memory of my father, because he is already deceased. How he was with us and things like that. But those are memories of myself. It’s not something tangible like the symbol you’re talking about. I don’t have a totem for protection. I’m a believer and we don’t believe in that kind of thing. I don’t have a totem, not even a family symbol. But I have many memories. Like the day my father died in 2005. Then I went to the Congo. Because my father worked on a ship, I brought a book about ships among his personal belongings, which I don’t have with me now, by the way. It is very important to me because I wanted to show it to my children. I also brought his binoculars for my children, and his hat, which is also at home. I don’t really care about them, they are just small gifts as a memento that I like to show to my children, and it’s up to them whether they want to keep them. But it’s important to me because it connects me to him. For the rest, I don’t have any personal symbols or things I value that I take with me everywhere I go to Congo, to Germany. No.
[i] I saw some pictures on the table. What kind of pictures are they?
[r] They’re not pictures, it’s more for the scenery.
Can you show them?
This is my workplace. It’s just Caribou Bibi’s flyer for marketing, in three copies: Dutch, French and English. I show it to women, for their information. So they know what we’re doing. And this is a photo album. When Kariboe Bibi was founded in 2007 and opened its doors, we worked at a different place. Now we are on the Meurstraat in the Spoorwijk, previously we were in the Schilderswijk on the side of the centre of The Hague. It was a small building. A small house where we organized activities to meet children and mothers. We moved here because of the crisis. That means that the photo is a souvenir of the building we started in. A documented memory of the building. It is a bit like the soul of Caribou Bibi. That’s about it. It’s a bit damaged, but it’s a Caribou, Welcome, given to me by a Dutch colleague. He was on holiday and told me that he had seen Caribou. And that everyone said Caribou. That’s why he brought it for me. Unfortunately, we lost the last three letters. But I still keep it because it reminds me of the fact that my Dutch colleagues attach just as much value to the project of Caribou Bibi. That’s how it is.
[i] If I may sum up your stay in the Netherlands, can I say that your goal is to really help people, especially African women, to integrate easily into Dutch society?
[r] Definitely.
[i] Would you like to add something to that?
[r] Your summary is very complete. Because of what I do, I cannot say that I limit myself to the Netherlands. My ambitions reach further. For example, to the Congo. And also to other neighbouring countries. Last month I was invited to a conference in Kenya. And there I also found that women have other concerns. Women who have studied, who are doctoral students, or who hold a position at university are also confronted with social problems, cultural problems and the emancipation of men. I say clearly the emancipation of men because the women are emancipated: they have studied, they are doctors, but men do not accept that women also flourish. And it is a struggle for women to claim that in society. And then to take up a certain position. With us in Congo, the social standards are not well established either. I would like all women and children in Congo to be able to live in a decent way. With the knowledge and experience I have gained here, I would like to take an active approach to their future. To carry out a project for women who are not in the Netherlands. That the Kariboe Bibi project can be represented in all countries.
[i] Can you indicate in a few words what your ambitions for the future are?
[r] At the moment my plans for the future are first and foremost women, the ones who are already here. The other ambitions will realize themselves with time, but my current plans are first and foremost that African women in The Hague can make use of the help of Caribou Bibi in a practical way. We have helped women in different areas over the past five years of our existence. We have helped people with residence permits, with coming out of their isolation. We have taught women things. There are also other problems that we notice, such as women who have talent, but don’t know how to use it. Intelligent women who don’t know how to contribute to society, because of the language barrier. For the future, I would like every African woman to be visible and valued by the institutions that are here. Because the language really is a barrier, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be of value to Dutch society. Those are my concerns for the future.
[i] And it sounds super. I thank you very much for your time in this project. Thank you very much.
[r] Thank you for showing my importance, my work and my contribution to Dutch society.