The African-Latvian Association AFROLAT is to be formally launched at a ceremony on Saturday 13 March, at which representatives of Latvian Government and society, the international community and the media are expected to be present.
It seems the first African appeared in what is now Latvia back in the 17th century, probably a slave working for one of the German landowners of the time. With the colonies of Gambia and Tobago, Latvians certainly had opportunities for contact with people of African descent. And let’s not forget that people with African blood such as Pushkin had much to do with the Latvian territory.
But the modern story of Africa in Latvia starts around 1973, when the first students arrived to study at the Riga Institute of Civil Aviation Engineers. Most eventually returned home. But a few had reason to stay on, having found their love here and decided to marry. Over the years, others came as students or on business and settled here. The thirty or so African residents of Latvia today include teachers, lecturers, business people, musicians and sportspeople – sometimes more than one of the above at the same time! And the “handshake” between Africa and Latvia has already produced a new generation of young people who share the two cultures. These include a former aerobics instructor turn entrepreneur, a former European and World rhythmic gymnastics champion, and a television presenter.
Latvia is about to join the European Union. It has made great strides over the past 12 years in developing democratic institutions and changing a people’s mindset from the blinkers of the Soviet time. But it is still a country that is uncertain about its position in the world, a society that has been for too long isolated from the cultural and social currents which have so enriched other parts of Europe over the past half century. The few faces of African (or indeed other non-European) origin in the streets of Latvia have remained a novelty, almost an alien presence.
This then was the right moment to create the African-Latvian Association AFROLAT, a registered Non-Governmental Organisation representing and bringing together people who have African roots or feel a particular affinity with Africa. Our fundamental goal is to show that we do indeed belong and have much to offer to this country, by promoting the integration into Latvian society of those of African origin and an awareness among the general population of Latvia of African culture and values – and more widely the values of cultural and ethnic diversity.
Our cultural work will be important. Our children will be performing African dances at the launch ceremony, to demonstrate their pride in that part of their heritage. We hope that African artists will increasingly visit Riga. The large audiences flocking to see the South African troupe Umoja or the Cape Verdean Cesaria Evora are testimony to the attraction that African culture has for the people of Latvia.
But we will have a campaigning side, for integration is a two-way process. In return for what we are contributing to Latvia, we have a right to be treated as human beings. We are hurt by abuse received either in person or through thoughtless use of language: words like “negeris” in Latvian are used in negative ways which are not always recognised. We are Africans – but every reference to us does not need to mention skin colour or our geographical roots. Our children should not need to worry about what they are called: they are members of a united human race, citizens (present or future) of the Republic of Latvia and of the European Union. So we will monitor the press and public statements for any abuse, and ensure that Latvia fulfils its commitments to a range of international organisations: to put in place not only legislation which forbids racial discrimination but also practical instruments, including educational programmes, which will ensure that future generations will be liberated from the kinds of prejudices all too common today.
We will be in the front of the campaign for social integration, working closely with other organisations representing ethnic minorities, but also those working for a more tolerant society more generally, against discrimination on grounds of disability, or sexual orientation. Our campaign is a common one: all forms of discrimination cast a shadow over a truly open and tolerant society.
And we remember that Latvia does not exist in a vacuum. There is nothing unique about intolerance here. So we are establishing links with parallel organisations in other countries and international bodies working in these areas. We all felt deeply the tragic deaths resulting from the fire at the Patrice Lumumba campus in Moscow not long ago. We stand united with all people of good will.