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War and Racism: Blacks in Ukraine 

By Eric Ngalle Charles


‘Evonda.’ Time.

‘O nooo Wa Ndi Ngundu’
‘Maluwa A’endeh ndo yondo’or’

Endlessly lost placing ribbons on our foreheads

portals into fairylands upon our return

we speak in tongues,

they place us in asylums,

junctions and crossings, 

mentioned in our stories of transitions,

a union of Mbosri chorusing –

Questioning why we are dying?

   ‘O noo Wa Ndi Ngundu’
   ‘Maluwa A’endeh ndo yondo’or’

From this cell, watching

trees falling, ants holding their heads as if praying,

bugs, and spiders clapping,

woodpeckers diving deep

with their beaks, tadpoles pleading,

and, beyond the greenery of Abertawe,

rabbits fiddling with their nuts.

   ‘O noo Wa Ndi Ngundu’
   ‘Maluwa A’endeh ndo yondo’or’

Flowing downhill, frogs croaking, 

mating lizards, heads shaking,

starlings zigzagging, rhyming,

feeding on skies’ piteous offerings,

on a brown leaf chameleon camouflaging,

twisting tongue enticing,
a mosquito dying,

fate sealed, sadly.

   ‘O nooo Wa Ndi Ngundu’
   ‘Maluwa A’endeh ndo yondo’or’

I was in the middle of reading this poem when the telephone rang.


Have you seen what is happening in Ukraine?

About a week before the outbreak of war between NATO countries and Russia, sorry between Russia and Ukraine, Johnson called me from Moscow. ‘European leaders are laughing at the size of each other’s penis.’ We laughed. Johnson, a cultural attaché at the Cameroon embassy in Moscow, reassured me that there was not going to be a war between those two countries. ‘War is antiquated, it is for the uncivilised. Currently, no matter your point of view, arguments should be resolved by talking.’ I stopped; did not want to bring colonialism into our discussion about the surrounding of Ukraine by Russia. 

As we talked, Johnson reminded me of that Russian joke about three travellers on a train from Kievskaya station in Moscow to Odessa in Ukraine. One is a Russian, the other a Ukrainian and the third an African. In this joke, the Russian is the only one who gets to keep their identity: the Ukrainian becomes a Hahli (Russian slang for a Ukrainian), and the Black guy is simply known as a Negre. As the train clackiticklangs, the Russian reaches into his bag and brings out a banana. The Ukrainian asks, ‘What is that?’ ‘Eta banana’, the Russian answers. The Ukrainian asks if he can try some. The Russian answers, problem nieto and shares his banana with his two companions. As the train moves at the pace of a chiripaha (tortoise), the Black guy reaches into his bag and brings out a pineapple that he peels and eats. The Ukrainian asks, ‘Sto eta takoi? What is that? ‘It is a pineapple’, the black guy answers. ‘Moxna evo pa probo?’ Can I try some? the Ukrainian asks. No problem. He shares his pineapple with his two companions. Ten hours into the journey, the Ukrainian reaches into his bag, looks round, satisfies himself that his companions are asleep, and brings out some salo. ‘What is that?’ the Black guy asks. The Russian opens his eyes. ‘Salo’, the Ukrainian answers. ‘Can I try some?’ the Black guy asks. ‘Everyone knows what salo is, why do you need to try it?’

This anecdote works better in the Russian language. If you spent your time with Russians, the chances are you would have heard this joke. They use it to mock the Ukrainians. If the teller of this joke is racist toward Ukrainians, they would add another slang word, Yobane (extreme profanity) Hahli. The undertone in this anecdote is to tell you, the visitor, that Ukrainians are selfish, they hate sharing.

These are the types of racial stereotypes we were taught when we arrived in Russia in the summer of 1997. I have met four Ukrainians in my life. David that I met in Ylitsa Grebaedova in Sochi. Nina whom I dated while in Pechatniki, Moscow. Katya, I met whilst working as a security guard in HMV, Croydon. And Katerina from Odessa. After two days of meeting Katerina online, she told me her grandmother had died and that I should send her ten thousand dollars. That was the end of that.

David, I remember well. He’d come to Sochi from Kyiv to work in the seaside resort. I was penniless and hungry. David, a Ukrainian, brought me what they call in Russia Gariachi khachapuri, a delicacy from Baku, Azerbaijan. He showed me around Sochi. Most evenings after work, we would stop at various restaurants where he bought fish pies, meat pies and soft drinks. He once asked if I was gay; I did not understand what he meant. I remember David for his kindness. 

Between 1998 and 1999, at the peak of my desperation as an illegal immigrant in Russia, its train stations became my friends. My favourite train station was the Kievskaya railway terminal. It was here that I quickly learned that as a Black man, sitting looking lost in a train station or its immediate environment was an invitation for police officers with big German shepherds and Kalashnikovs to harass you. ‘O, edisuda. O, tebia prava jitelsva yest?’ Oi, come here, have you got the right to be here? Passers-by would stop, shout abuse, call you Cheurnie joppa, cheurnie abysian. Black ass, Black monkey. No one batted an eyelid. 

I remember one afternoon; I was picked up by two police officers in their truck outside Volgogradski Prospect station. They dragged, took me to a station outside Pechatniki; I was punched, kicked in the stomach and my shoes confiscated. While detained, one of the guards, thinking he was being funny, would hand peeled bananas to me. As I ate, he would laugh and say, ‘Ti kushet kak abysian.’ You eat like a monkey. I have met many Russians, under dubious circumstances. But the few Ukrainians I have met showed me human kindness.

Imagine the shock when my wife phoned me at almost 2am, asking me to switch on the television and watch Al Jazeera. Before putting down the phone she said, ‘Black people are being stopped by Ukrainian guards.’ 

From behind the news reporter, I heard these words, words that sent trembling waves down my spine:
O, Cheurnie, o vas propuska yest?
Prava Jiteslva yest?

Oi, blackie, have you got your documents?
Right to stay here?

I screamed at the television in Russian language, ‘Voina ei racism!’ War and racism. During times of war, every border should open and remain open to welcome displaced people. Isn’t that why we have institutions like the United Nations? The various refugee agencies? In my head, I paraphrase George Orwell’s Animal Farm, ‘All life matters, but some lives matter more than others.’ Was Ukraine showing its ugly face?

Dearest Ukraine, we sympathise with you, the world feels your pain, we cry for you. Superpowers, like elephants, are dancing on your doorstep. As Chinua Achebe said, ‘When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.’ In your country today, it is not just two elephants fighting. Your people are dying, Blacks and whites. Please advise your border guards that during wars questions like, O, Cheurnie, o vas propuska yest? are meaningless; during times of war, people flee. They do not have time to go home and collect their meagre belongings. Questions like ‘Prava jiteslva yest?’ should be left behind once they flee for relative safety.

As I contemplated the fate of those stranded at the border crossings, my telephone rang, the clock on the wall said 4.45am. 

It was my wife in Cameroon.

Hun, yes.
Do you remember my friend, Laura?
Which Laura?
Laura, she sells fish on Down Beach, Limbe. You never listen when I talk to you.
What about her?
Well, her husband visited Cameroon last month.
Okay. (I was going to ask why she couldn’t have waited at least till the morning to tell me. Before I could ask, she continued.)
Well, he just returned to Kyiv last week. Laura has been trying to call him to no avail.
The Russians have bombed the airport and have sealed off Kyiv from the rest of Ukraine, I said. No one can enter or leave.

Before she put the phone down, I told her I was going to contact my friend Johnson at the Cameroon embassy in Moscow, to see if they’ve got contingencies in place to help their stranded students. She sent me another video on WhatsApp, again Africans being pushed back by heavily armed guards asking for their documents, their right of abode.

In the morning, more and more videos emerged of the poor treatment of Blacks as they attempted to flee. A Black woman cradling a toddler on her chest with a bottle of milk was shoved to the side, to make way for white Ukrainians.

Bombs do not discriminate, dearest Ukrainians; they do not care if you are Black or white. I was angry at the treatment of Black Ukrainians. I called my daughter, a film student. I was going to do a one-minute video, addressing the Ukrainian people on war and racism: We stand with you, do not go humiliating black- and brown-skin people. In times of war, borders should remain open for those fleeing. Please, do not do what Polish border guards did when those fleeing from the Taliban were sprayed with water tanks at the border. The world is watching, we are watching. We have great memories; we would remember.

I will leave you with an extract from a poem by the Great African/Russian writer Alexander Pushkin: ‘Я вас любил: любовь еще, быть может’. I have loved you, and I can love you again.

Dearest Ukrainians, for too long the Blacks have been told by the whites to jump; we learned to ask how high. They pushed, stole and bastardised our ancestors. Please do not show this ugly head. They are not there to steal or to chase after the gold and silver our forefathers sold for broken mirrors as Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o puts it. Please refrain from this seventeenth- and eighteenth-century behaviour; ours will not be a generation of meaningless history. We are waving our flags, supporting you, but if you leave our people to die because of racist policies, you will lose our sympathy.

*Glossary: These are words in the Bakweri language, spoken by the people on the foothills of mount Cameroon. Songs migrants sing to minimise the pain of hunger as they seek border crossings. This language and its people were almost wiped out between 1884-1916 by the Germans.

O nooo Wa Ndi Ngundu.
You are killing me for no reason.
Maluwa A’endeh ndo yondo’or.
I am like water, I flow, I travel.
Mbosri. Voices.
Izruuuki. We have not arrived.
We have arrived.

photos courtesy of Eric Ngalle Charles