The Woyingi Blog

Passing for Desi: The Strange Case of Christopher Simpson

Irish Actor Christopher Simpson has made a name for himself staring a disaffected South Asian (Desi) young men in such British films as White Teeth (the adaptation of Zadie Smith’s novel) and most recently Brick Lane (the adaptation of Monica Ali’s novel). But he isn’t South Asian. He’s actually Black, and not in the British sense where Black means everyone who isn’t White, but Black in the sense of being of Sub-Saharan African descent.

Christopher Simpson was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1975. His full name is Christopher Crawford Gatsinzi Simpson. For someone who lives in Ottawa’s African community and so has grown familiar with various African last names Gatsinzi sets off alarm bells. Gatsinzi is a Rwandan name. The most internationally well-known Gatsinzi is Marcel Gatsinzi, an ethnic Hutu who is currently Rwanda’s Minister of Defense. Simpson is actually the son of an Irish father and a Rwandan-Greek mother.

When White Teeth was aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre, a viewer inquired about Christopher’s name as follows:

Dear Masterpiece Theatre,

Why does Christopher Simpson, who played the roles of both Millat and Magid, have a white name?

“asian black”

New York, NY

According to actor Christopher Simpson:

“My name is Christopher Crawford Gatsinzi Simpson. I was born in Dublin to a Rwandan Greek mother and an Irish father. I lived in Dublin until I was six when I moved to London, where I have been ever since. Imagine, if you will, the difficulty I have responding to the question ‘Where are you from?'”

What is a White name anyway?

It’s been impossible to find interviews where Simpson discusses his ethno-cultural background and how this relates to the fact that he has made a career portraying members of an ethno-cultural community he doesn’t belong to (If you know of any interviews like this, please let me know). However, in a 2006 interview with the Irish newspaper The Independent, I was able to learn more about Simpson’s parents. The following are excerpts from this rather amusingly frustrating interview with journalist Donal Lynch :

An innocuous question about what his father was doing in Rwanda when he met his mother is greeted with a theatrical look of horror. “I’m not that comfortable talking about all of that. You want my dad’s CV? You’ll have to ask him yourself. Does that make sense?”

I’m in the middle of trying to explain that it might be interesting for people to also learn a little bit about his background, but he’s still not sure. I don’t really care what his father does but, by now, I am truly intrigued.

I’ve hit upon something interesting. Was his father a gun-smuggler? An arms dealer? A millionaire playboy? Surely this veil of secrecy must be concealing something very exciting indeed.

“OK, he was training to be a teacher,” Chris, sorry Christopher, tells me with a withering look. I try to conceal my disappointment that his father is not James Bond. I can tell this is going to be like pulling teeth.

When I ask him whether he encountered racism while at school in England, he says: “I don’t think any country has a monopoly on racism. My recollection of school is lots of things and for sure, people will look to what is different,” and leaves it at that. I nearly leap for joy when he speaks about visiting Rwanda with his mother as a child, as this represents a quantum leap of frankness compared to the generalities he has been using up to now.

“It is a beautiful country,” he says. “Our mum gave us phrases in Rwandan so we could order things. We were on the hillside, by a brook. It was the first time I had avocado cut from a tree.”

He tells me he was “touched and saddened” by the massacres there.

Did he have relatives who died in the war?

“Inevitably if you have any relatives in Rwanda, you know of people who died.”

What age was his mother when he left Rwanda? He doesn’t know. It must have been difficult for her to cope, knowing the situation in her homeland?

“One has to live one’s life no matter how tragic the circumstances of it are.”

He tells me his mother has since died but doesn’t feel he wants to say how she died. He tosses his hair and stares out the window. More silence.

He has gleefully bored me back into talking about his career and waits out the final few minutes of the interview with a monologue on “the travesty of the colonial and imperial imperative to divide and rule”.

I personally would like to know how Simpson’s mother’s parents met. How many Rwandan Greek mixes could there possibly be?

That said, it doesn’t really surprise me that there were Greeks in Rwanda, there definitely were many in Burundi. I learned this while reading model Esther Kamatari’s memoir. Kamatari is a member of the Burundi Royal Family and Burundi’s Prince Louis Rwagasore was assassinated by a Greek National living in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura, in 1961. But why were there Greeks in Burundi? Here is blogger Douglas Muir historically-based explanation from the blog A Fistful of Euros:

History: the Greeks had been in Alexandria since forever. So, when the British came to build the Suez Canal and politely detach Egypt from the decaying Ottoman Empire, the Greeks were there to ease into place as translators, merchants, vendors and general facilitators to the new colonial overlords. And in the late 19th century, some of them followed the expanding British Empire across East Africa, down the Nile to Sudan and around the Horn of Africa to Kenya.

Now the 19th century British, being British, were of two minds about these Greeks. They were useful, but they were… well… Greek. Not quite the thing, you know.

But the Belgians — who ran the Congo and, after World War One, Rwanda and Burundi as well — were different. They were lazier than the British, and more corrupt, but they were less arrogant and much more willing to allow a hard-working Greek to make an honest franc as a factor, tax farmer, or overseer.

So in Rwanda and Burundi, the Greeks became junior partners to the Belgian colonial masters. In the interwar years, hundreds of them came from all over the Greek diaspora to settle here, trading in coffee and ivory and palm oil, taking jobs in the civil service. By World War Two there were a couple of thousand of them, and they were raising a second generation. They had their own district of the town. They built the big church, right in the middle of Bujumbura, just a little bit smaller than the Catholic cathedral that housed the Belgian bishop. They had settled down in a distant, quiet corner of the world and built a prosperous community. Things looked good.

Then: the long slow colonial withdrawal. Independence. Ethnic tension. A young government playing with the economy, experimenting with socialism, import substitution, export controls. Europeans pushed out of power, not only in politics, but in trade and business. A civil war in the 1970s; economic collapse. Dictatorship. The economy contracted to subsistence agriculture, coffee and tea exports. Another civil war in the 1990s; another collapse.

By the early 21st century most of the Greeks were gone. The community had shrunk from a couple of thousand to perhaps a hundred. Those who remained were second and third generation, and some of them were very prominent in the country’s business community — they owned export businesses, farms, urban land — and they’d managed, one way or another, to come to terms with successive Burundian governments. There aren’t enough to keep the community going much longer; their children are mostly going away to school, and not coming back. Another twenty or thirty years, and they’ll probably be just a memory, a very small footnote to colonial history.

But meanwhile there’s the Greek consulate. And the big Orthodox church, where the few remaining faithful can gather every Sunday morning. It’s closed the other six and a half days a week, but is still kept very clean.

So, most likely, one of Simpson’s grandparents was from Rwanda’s Greek communities.

Further Reading:

Homing in on Simpson no job for amateurs by Donal Lynch (2006 interview available online)

The Greeks of Burundi by Douglas Muir (2008 blog post available online)

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Black Firsts: Rotimi Adebari, Ireland’s First Black Mayor

Posted in African Diaspora in Ireland, Black Firsts, Countries: Ireland, Nigerian Diaspora by the woyingi blogger on December 29, 2010

Rotimi Adebari

On June 28th, 2007, Rotimi Adebari , a Nigerian-born father of four, made history when he became Ireland’s first Black mayor. Adebari was elected mayor of the town of Port Laoise, in County Laois, in the province of Leinster, in the midlands of  the Republic of Ireland.  Adebari ran as an independent. Adebari came to Ireland as an asylum seeker in 2000 from Nigeria.

Before I go on to discuss Rotimi Adebari, I want to take a closer look at the Republic of Ireland in general and the town of Port Laoise in particular. 

One can find parallels between the history of the Irish people and other colonized indigenous peoples. Ireland was literally colonized by the English. Even before the religious division that further divided English Anglicans from Irish Roman Catholics, the Irish (Gaelic) were viewed by their colonizers (Normans and the English) as uncivilized savages and barbarians. In reaction to the fact that many of Ireland’s colonizers were beginning to intermarry with and take on the culture and language of the indigenous Gaelic population, England enacted The Statutes of Kilkenny in 1367. The statutes forbade the English settlers from marrying the Irish, adopting Irish children, and using Irish names and dress because English authorities were concerned that the English settlers were becoming more Irish than the Irish themselves. The expression “beyond the pale“, which means unacceptable behaviour (His behaviour was really beyond the pale) actually refers to this time period. The Pale was the demarcation line between territory in Ireland that was directly under English control and therefore “civilized”. It is clear that the English really perceived the Irish as a different race. Even as recently as the 1950s, English landlords actually put out “No Irish need apply” signs while renting out houses and apartments.

The Republic of Ireland has long had the reputation of being one of the most ethnically and religiously homogeneous countries in Western Europe. Since its independence from Britain, the Republic of Ireland has also been considered Western Europe’s poorest country. It’s been known more for its emigrants than its immigrants. So many Irish have fled Ireland over the last two centuries that the Republic still has a population less than it had before the Potato Famine of the 1840s (As a bizarre example of positive Muslim-Christian relations, The Ottoman Sultan actually donated money and three shiploads of food to support those starving in Ireland) The Irish abroad faced a great deal of discrimination based on religion and culture. Although many found success in their newfound lands, many also faced gruelling poverty becoming part of North America’s exploited working classes. As we can see here in Canada, many Irish settled in the Maritimes, worked in horrendous conditions in mines, and still haven’t escaped cycles of poverty. However, beginning in the mid 90s, the Republic of Ireland went through an economic boom, sometimes being called “the Celtic Tiger” in comparison with the economic growth of Asian countries. This led to an influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe, South Asia and Africa attracted by jobs and some of Europe’s most generous immigration laws. Several of these migrants came as asylum seekers (some 30,000), most from Nigeria. As you can imagine, integrating into a society like that of the Irish hasn’t been easy. The Irish government has recognized this and actually created a Minister of State for Integration! I would think that the recent crash of Ireland’s economy and rising unemployment (currently 14%) is only going to escalate anti-immigrant sentiment.

The town of Port Laoise is about an hour’s ride outside of Dublin. As of 2006, Port Laoise had a population of 14, 613. That’s quite small I would think.  The major employers in the town are the Irish Department of Agriculture and Port Laoise Prison, a maximum security prison which housed the majority of Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners sentenced in the Republic of Ireland. But the majority of prisoners are in there on drug-related convictions. The town is also the base of the international charity organization Self Help Africa, which promotes and implements long-term rural development projects in Africa. It’s the first Anglo-Irish development agency. It appears that Port Laoise is mostly a commuter town for people who work in Dublin but can’t or don’t want to live there.

So how did this small Irish town make history?

Rotimi Adebari was born in 1964 in Oke Odan, Ogun State, Nigeria. Ogun State borders the Republic of  Benin. Its capital is Abeokuta. Although I haven’t discovered it in my research, I would assume that Adebari is ethnically Yoruba. He studied Economics in University. He was never involved in politics in Nigeria, however he did take on leadership roles at school and he was a chief of a local Palmwine Drinkards’ Club, otherwise known as a Kegite among Nigerians. He also worked in the marketing division of a television station.

He is a Christian and his interest in Ireland developed out of his relationship with an inspirational Irish missionary in Nigeria. When Adebari arrived in 2000 in the Republic of Ireland he claimed asylum based on religious persecution. When he made headlines in 2007, many Nigerians were elated but his claim that he fled from Oke Odan due to religious persecution didn’t hold water and the newspaper THIS DAY investigated his claims and found them to be wanting. There is no doubt there is religious persecution of Christians in Nigeria but this occurs mainly in the Middle Belt and Nigeria’s North, not in the South-Western Yoruba heartland! Actually, according to THIS DAY, Oke Odan is a majority Christian town, with a minority of adherents of traditional African religions! Also, although there were no interreligious clashes in the town in 2000, there was a serious flood that left many of the town’s residents homeless. It also appears that some Oke Odan residents want him to return to Nigeria and run for Governor of Ogun State in 2011. The controversy over the legitimacy of Adebari’s asylum claim has helped fuel racist and anti-immigrant reactions to Adebari’s election. On Youtube, I was rather shocked to find comments demanding that Adebari be deported for coming into the country on a false claim. However, they should know that according to The Associated Press Adebari wasn’t granted asylum due to insufficient evidence of direct religious persecution. His family’s citizenship was established because his third child was born in Ireland. However, in 2003, Ireland stopped granting automatic citizenship to immigrants whose children were born in the Republic and in 2004 it stopped granting automatic citizenship to children born in Ireland whose parents were not citizens Actually, Adebari’s asylum claim hampered him because asylum seekers are not permitted to work in Ireland. Instead, Adebari began volunteering and helped to found the organization Suil (Supporting the Unemployed in Laois) that lobbies for the interests of the unemployed. As Adebari puts it: “I got involved in the community and I volunteered. It gave me the opportunity to meet people firsthand and they got to know me.”

Whatever the circumstances of his coming to Ireland, Adebari soon went to work making a name for himself, and as Port Laoise is a small town, you can’t say that he got the “immigrant vote”. In 2004, Adebari, by then a citizen, was elected to the Port Laoise town council, as a councillor. Adebari earned a Master’s Degree in Intercultural Studies from Dublic City University. In 2005, he won an award from Social Entrepreneurs Ireland. On their site, they give the following description of Adebari’s accomplishments:

Rotimi hosts a local community radio programme, called “Respecting Difference” on Midlands 103. The programme draws on the presenter’s experience and his election into Portlaoise Town Council to serve as an inspiration to the socially disadvantaged in the community, by engaging in discussions that motivate and offer a lift to people currently experiencing social exclusion.

Originally from Nigeria, Rotimi Adebari has lived in Portlaoise for the last 5 years. He is an elected member of Portlaoise Town Council, and has a Masters degree in Intercultural studies at Dublin City University.

He works with Dublin City University on the European Intercultural Workplace Project (EIW). He delivers training in intercultural awareness and anti-racism issues and works in association with local, regional and national groups to achieve an integrated society where everyone has a sense of belonging

He is an elected member of the National Executive Committee of INOU – Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed, and is a director on the board of Portlaoise Community Action Project (PCAP).

Rotimi is also a founding member of Suil – An organisation that provides support for the unemployed in Laois, and a member of Laois Ethnic Minority Support Group.

Adebari also set up a consultancy firm, “Optimum Point”, which trains companies and educational institutions on cross-cultural awareness.

What those who aren’t familiar with Irish regional politics need to understand is that the town did not elect Rotimi Adebari as mayor. The town council did. The Port Laoise Town Council is made up for 9 town councillors. Six of the nine town councillors voted for Adebari to be mayor. Again, those who are outspokenly against a “non-national” being a mayor have blamed “political correctness” for Adebari’s election. I somehow doubt this. I think it had a lot more to do with him being an independent candidate while many of the other town councillors were party affiliated. Adebari was actually supported by two rival parties, the “left-wing” Sinn Fein and the “right-wing”  Fine Gael. So, Adebari’s real accomplishment, and one not to be underestimated, was getting elected as a town councillor in the first place. Adebari has said that he owes the success of his campaign for town councillor to this campaign team. He explains:

It was one team, but in the team we had Africans, Irish and non-Irish as well. But when I went out knocking on doors I went with Irish members of the team. The reason is because I understand the society. This is a society that some people are yet to come to terms with their changing world. In November 2001, a man approached me on the street and said he had never seen a black man before. So you can imagine, if two black people then went knocking on the doors, the sort of reception they would probably get. And I thought that won’t be a good idea. I did go knocking on doors with Irish members of my team, and we were well received. That is not to say that there were no instances where people slammed their doors in our faces. But it was not because I am black. They slammed their doors probably because they were disillusioned with politics.

But why did people vote for him? According to Adebari, his manifesto (in Canada we would call it a platform) related to people’s concerns and his experience volunteering in the community and setting up an organization representing the interests of the unemployed helped him to really understand these concerns. As he says:

I understand the issues. I was only four years in the country then, but my antecedent over those four years, what I have been involved in. I set up a support group for the unemployed. I was in the board of community organization in Portlaoise that caters for the lone-parents, the travellers, etc. So I understand the issues of each and everyone. And it was all these issues that I brought together, in putting my manifestoes. What is there for the unemployed in the country and what is not there for them? What aspect of education do I want an improvement on? Services to the youths and the elderly. Is there anything in the town for them? All these and more were the things I put together.

According to Adebari, the secret of his success was just getting involved in his community. As he says: “I want to encourage immigrants to be a force in their communities, to engage with their communities. People will get to know you. Their perception of you will change just like that. That’s what happened to me.”

But why did Adebari decide to go into politics? In an interview in Xclusive, an magazine for the African Diaspora in Ireland, Adebari explains:

When I arrived here in 2000, if anyone had said to me that I would be going into politics, I would have said to that person that he was joking. I felt I was not cut out for politics. I was looking at politics the way it is played back home in Africa. We all perceive politics like dirty water: if you don’t want to get stained, don’t get involved. I remember during my college days in Nigeria my Political Science lecturer used to say to us that, if you want to know the name that people call you at your back go into politics: they will no longer call you that name at your back, they will say it to your face. I would have arrived here with that mindset as well. But I see those of us who are here as the first generation of immigrants in Ireland. That is not to say that immigrants have not been coming here before we arrived, but it wasn’t as evident as it is in the last ten years. So we are like the first generation, and we know we have to really put something in place for generations coming behind. It got to a point that I had to say to myself what legacy do I have to leave for generation coming behind? Maybe one of those legacies would be to get involved in politics. One other thing that might have led me into politics was the image of Nigeria in Ireland at that time. They associated anything with Nigeria with fraud, criminality and all that. So it was like something has to be done. And I thought maybe politics was one of the ways to go: if I got elected people would begin to see that we are not all criminals.

There is no doubt that Adebari is a pioneer and the immigrants of Ireland will need him because I foresee that times will be tough for them now that Ireland’s economy has crashed, and not only will they face discrimination at work and school, but actual physical violence. Frankly, I’m afraid for them. And they include one of my Nigerian cousins and her family who live in Limerick.  But I am also hopeful. Many immigrants in Ireland, particularly Africans, are making names for themselves and showing that African immigrants are not all criminals. Maybe someday, they too will be accused of being more Irish than the Irish themselves.

Further Reading:

Rotimi Adebari’s Website

Rotimi Adebari’s 2007 Interview with Xclusive Magazine

Ireland Gets Its First Black Mayor by Shawn Pogatchnik (2007 article available online)

Ireland elects first Black Mayor (BBC article available online)

Laois County Council Article about Rotimi Adebari (article available online)

‘New’ Ireland’s changes go more than skin deep: Country long known as a land of emigrants is transformed by migrants (article available online)

Life in the land of a thousand welcomes by Crispin Rodwell (TIME article available online)

The African Voice Ireland’s No. 1 African Community Newspaper Website

Xclusive Magazine: Ireland’s African only lifestyle monthly and the first and only African magazine to break into the mainstream Irish media market

Akina Dada wa Africa (AkiDwA; Swahili for sisterhood) is an authoritative, minority ethnic-led national network of African and migrant women living in Ireland. The non-governmental organisation with charitable status was established in August 2001 by a group of African women to address the needs of an expanding population of African and migrant women resident in Ireland. The organisation is a recognised authoritative and representative body for migrant women, irrespective of their national/ethnic background, tradition, religious beliefs, socio-economic or legal status. AkiDwA’s advocacy approach is based on a gender perspective and the organisation promotes an equal society, free of racism, discrimination and stereotyping. AkiDwA’s advocacy approach is based on strengthening migrant women’s voice, applying a gender perspective to policies and practices and the promotion of equality of migrant women in Irish society, free of gender and racial stereotyping.

Irish Aid’s Africa Day Website

Africa Centre Dublin Website

A Short History of Ireland: A BBC Radio Series that tells the story of Ireland from the Ice Age to the present over 240 episodes. Transcripts of each episode are available on this site.