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Red, White, and Black: The Lives of African Singaporeans and PRs

Red, White, and Black: The Lives of African Singaporeans and PRs

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“If you’re black, being in Singapore is a blessing,” Theresa Mindi Saguda tells me over a meal of Swahili fish curry (mine) and Moroccan lemon chicken tagine (hers). “I feel like we encourage a culture of tolerance and acceptance here. People aren’t fazed by different races as much.”

I choke in incredulity. Or maybe it is the sour-spicy hit of the habanero and tamarind that just hit the back of my throat.

Unperturbed, Mindi, whose family comes from Tanzania, goes on, “Anywhere else would be tough. I’ve had family who have experienced racism even in other African countries.”

Surprisingly—to my cynical heart, at least—this sentiment is not unique to Mindi. Over the past few months, I’ve been hanging out with various Singaporeans and Permanent Residents of African descent to find out more about this community. 

Talking to them, I learnt that, despite the microaggressions and stereotyping they face occasionally, all of them appreciate the inclusive racial policies in Singapore that we often take for granted. Furthermore, even though only one out of four have attained citizenship (two of them are still in the process of applying for it), all of them consider themselves Singaporeans, so I will respect the terms they use to describe themselves. 

A caveat: I’ll be the first to admit my ignorance. Prior to writing this story, I didn’t even know there was a community of Africans who have sunk their roots into this tiny equatorial island, so far from the continental landmass that is Africa.

Any knowledge I had of black Singaporeans was limited to what I had learnt from watching Ayer Hitam: A Black History of Singapore, a 2019 play, and the occasional viral posts on social media, such as this Tweet imploring us not to throw the “N-word” around, or Alvin Philemon’s TikTok videos documenting his crazy versatile accents and Tweets documenting his crazy versatile parents.

These social media posts offer us voyeurs living in our bubbles (one we ought to burst) a glimpse of what life is like for this community. Beyond the 30 seconds of a TikTok video or 280 characters in a Tweet, however, there is so much more to them that I—like many other Singaporeans—remain blind to and even insensitive towards.

What’s it like for black Africans to live in Singapore? Why did their family choose to emigrate here? How do they stay connected with their cultural roots? What are some things we always get wrong about their heritage and culture?

Most importantly, do they like durian?

Theresa Mindi Saguda, who prefers to be known as Mindi, in Kafe Utu, a restaurant serving African-style cuisine.
“I LOVE durian,” Mindi enthuses.

All right, that’s it, interview’s over, I think. I know everything I need to know about Mindi. She’s more Singaporean than all my traitorous friends who have applied for a restraining order against our holy king of fruits.

Then she continues: “My dad LOVES durian too. We first had it three years ago at a church event—durian ice cream, durian mochi.”

It seems apt that Mindi’s dad is as big a patriot as she is, seeing as he was the one who decided to fly his family to Singapore in the early 90s. However, like so many life-altering decisions that we make, his move was not born from logic but a whim.

“There was no cool, real reason,” Mindi says, laughing. “He saw Singapore on a map and just decided to go.” 

Mindi’s necklace has a pendant in the shape of the African continent. Continent. Not country.
About ten years after he settled in Singapore with his wife, Mindi was born. At 21 this year, Mindi is a Permanent Resident (PR), but fully intends to apply for citizenship because of how she feels about living in Singapore.

“I definitely consider Singapore my home,” Mindi says. “Born in Singapore, raised here my whole life, went to local schools: CHIJ, Crescent Girls’ School, junior college, and now I’m in NUS studying political science.”

“When people ask me where I’m from, I tell them ‘Singapore’.”

“And when they reply, “Where are you really from?” Mindi mutters, a dark cloud drifting across her face, “I tell them, ‘My parents are from East Africa, if that’s what you’re asking.’”

Doesn’t Mindi feel some form of attachment towards Tanzania, though?

“Actually, I feel even more foreign in Tanzania than in Singapore,” Mindi reflects. “People there can tell I’m not Tanzanian by the way I dress and walk.”

How do Singaporeans walk?! I ask her.

“I don’t know, I’m Singaporean, so I can’t tell the difference!” she retorts.

Fair point.

“Walk faster? Like aunties on the MRT?” she suggests.

Her words conjure a determinedly striding auntie with a tote bag kiapped by her armpit, pushing the MRT doors open with sheer strength. Yes, that’s Singapore. So I concede the point to Mindi.

Mindi goes on: “I don’t know the culture, I don’t speak the language … when I go back to Tanzania, my relatives speak to me in Swahili, but I can’t respond and they get confused.

Kafe Utu is decorated with art and artifacts from various African countries.
Listening to Mindi, I feel an odd sense of solidarity with her. I, too, was unable to talk to my late grandparents or relate to their culture because they spoke in dialect, a language lost to me. Indeed, it seems that the immigrant’s complex relationship with their “home” and “host” culture and language is a universal struggle, regardless of “where we come from” (itself a problematic concept, as Mindi’s annoyance with the question demonstrates).

“Or I respond in Chinese because Swahili and Chinese are both very unfamiliar [to me] so for some reason they gel together in my mind,” Mindi says, throwing a spanner into my thoughts.

Wait—Chinese?

“I was forced to learn Chinese for 12 years, till I was in JC,” she grumbles. “My dad was like, ‘China is coming to Tanzania, the language is a good skill to learn. You can help the people there.” 

“你的中文一定比我好. [You are definitely more fluent in Mandarin than I am],” I say.

Laughing, Mindi takes the bait and demonstrates her prowess: “一点点而已。 没有啊, 不会不会. [I only know a little bit; not that much better than you.]”

Her enunciation is immaculate—if I had closed my eyes, I would have thought those words came from a Tanjong Pagar OL.

“My Chinese is better than my Swahili! But honestly, the [best] use of Chinese is to flex to the uncles and aunties at the hawker centre,” Mindi admits. “So I can get a bigger portion when I order black carrot cake and satay.”

More artwork and books at Kafe Utu.
Mindi’s integration into Singapore culture hasn’t come without a cost, however. As she explains, she feels as if she has lost touch with her parents’ Swahili culture and language. Her mum, who is currently living in Tanzania, sends her elementary school Swahili textbooks in the hopes that Mindi will pick up the language again.

And even though she might see herself as a Singaporean, other Singaporeans may not, at least on first glance. It is only when “they realise I’m Singaporean that they treat me the same,” Mindi says.

Mindi doesn’t blame them—she acknowledges that she “doesn’t look Singaporean”. (Though, to me, physical looks should play no part in determining someone’s affiliation to a community unless it’s a cosplay or drag queen group or something.)

“There is a schism between who I am and who others see me as,” Mindi says. “Although I may feel Singaporean, do everything Singaporean, sound Singaporean … although this is home, people around me don’t see me as Singaporean, as part of them.”

This disconnection between inner identity and outer appearance—something every adolescent struggles with during puberty—was hence amplified for Mindi as she was growing up.

I was bullied a lot because of my hair [which is naturally dense and curly]. So I straightened and rebonded my hair every two months, so I would look more Chinese. But my hair refused to cooperate. It started to break off.

Because of how distinct her hair looks, it would always attract unwanted attention in public as well, making Mindi feel like “an exhibition”. She recounts to me a particularly egregious encounter:

“I remember in May 2019, I was in the toilet in Jewel and this auntie came up to me, touched my hair, and she said, ‘Negro hair.’ And I was like …”

Mindi is then lost for words; her face takes on an expression that I can only describe as “?????????!!!????”

Thankfully for Mindi, she found solace in Instagram. When she was in secondary school, the app was launched and introduced her to the world of black culture. She started following black women and black artists—in short, black role models and representation, painfully scarce in “a sea of Asian people” in Singapore.

It was then that Mindi started to take care of her hair and embrace her identity both as a black woman and a Singaporean. She has since reconciled the two aspects of her identity—a synthesis-through-struggle that, I suspect, many of us second- or third-generation immigrants in Singapore have to undergo.

“You create your own culture,” Mindi declares. “It can be said for most Singaporeans as well. You can’t connect to mainland China, India … you just do the ceremonial Chinese New Year.” 

And in what is perhaps the best encapsulation of who Mindi is, she suddenly exclaims, “Oh! Actually, my prom dress was like a low-key cheongsam.”

“People say it’s cultural appropriation.”

“But no. I’m Singaporean. I can’t appropriate my own culture.”

Rolu Oyekanmi tucking into a hearty plate of roast meats at Rong Liang Restaurant, which, according to him, serves the best char siew in the west of Singapore.
I next meet Rolu Oyekanmi, a 25-year-old chemical engineer and Singapore citizen who says he’s from Nigeria but who I think is really from Muscle Beach, California, because his biceps and pectorals are struggling to burst free from the teal shirt he has on.

The truth about his background lies somewhere in the middle. Rolu is half-Nigerian and half-Filipino; he first arrived in Singapore 15 years ago, when his late father was sent here to help set up the Asia-Pacific headquarters of his company. Prior to that, Rolu grew up mostly in the Philippines, with some time spent in Nigeria.

Rolu, then, is an immigrant playing on hard mode. Unlike the typical dichotomy most immigrants face, he has to negotiate between three identities: Nigerian, Filipino, Singaporean.

Keeping up with the cultures takes time and effort, but Rolu puts in the work. One way he keeps his Nigerian side alive is by cooking Sunday rice—so termed because it is often eaten after church on Sunday. Rolu is particularly fond of Jollof rice, which he describes as “a tomato-based fried rice [that is] the Nigerian national dish”. He also constantly visits his mother, who currently lives in the Philippines.

Those are not all the cultures Rolu juggles. 

“Sometimes my Chinese friends invite me for Chinese New Year,” he says, “and a lot of my friends are Malay so I have gone visiting for Hari Raya too.”

In other words, Rolu is multiculturalism personified. This is most evident in the number of languages he speaks. In addition to English, he speaks Yoruba, Tagalog, and French (which he took as a third language in secondary school).

“I also speak Singlish!” he insists.

“One thing that’s very similar between Singapore and Nigeria is the fact that people use a lot of pidgin language. In Nigeria if you don’t speak in the pidgin language people will be like, ‘Ah you’re a foreigner.’ In Singapore, if you’re Singaporean-looking and you don’t speak Singlish, people will be like, ‘Ah you jiak kantang.’”

“That’s because a pidgin language is the best way to understand another person’s culture.”

Rolu is a really cool dude.
Going by that logic, Rolu—with his “jiak kantang” and “eh bro you do this can already” thrown casually into our conversation—is as much a Singaporean as any of us.

Rolu confirms this: “I grew up here. Singapore is my home; I see myself as Singaporean.”

I wonder at the strength with which he pronounces that statement. I’m not trying to cast doubt at his sentiment, but if I had a tri-cultural background, my struggle in figuring out Who I Really Am would have been a lot more protracted and angsty.

Wagering a guess, I ask him if National Service played a part in nurturing this unambiguous sense of belonging in him.

“Oh hell no!” Rolu fires back immediately.

We chuckle in commiseration, the shared misery of all Singaporean men 18 and above from 17 March 1967 resurrected in that laughter.

After this brief moment of trauma (for me) passes, Rolu clarifies: “NS just cemented what I already knew [about my identity].” Indeed, is there anything more quintessentially Singaporean than a bunch of middle-aged men nursing a nascent beer belly reminiscing about their BMT days over a round of Tiger beer?

(We were not drinking beer then, and you’d have to replace the beer belly with abs [on both Rolu and me], but that was essentially us.)

“I experienced a lot of stereotypes in NS,” Rolu laughs. “People always think black people run really fast. Especially in BMT, they were like, ‘This guy is going to run 2.4 in 5 minutes.

Swipe right.
So did he?

“I did mine in a … respectable time.” He refuses to tell me what this “respectable time” was.

And even though it was a stereotype, Rolu doesn’t think it was done in malice.

“Nobody … used any slurs or negative stereotypes. It’s always been like a joking thing. You could argue that jokes could still be offensive. But it’s more like a casual jab directed personally to me instead of people of my colour.”

After he ORD-ed, Rolu applied for citizenship and was granted it during his freshman year at NUS. He invited his friends from Tembusu College to witness his citizenship ceremony: the oath-taking, pink NRIC acceptance, and all that. However, it was not a momentous occasion, Rolu says.

“It was just paper confirmation. I’d always thought of myself as a Singaporean.”

“After that, we had dim sum at Tim Ho Wan.”

Alvin Philemon and his mother Angela Verah in their Hougang HDB flat.
There are two types of parents in the world ...
There are two photographs of Alvin Philemon at his Passing-Out Parade (POP) ceremony.

In the first, Alvin is posing with his mother, Angela Verah. She affectionately lays her head on his shoulder, puts her arm around his shoulder; her caption of the photograph reads: “What an honour to see you marching like a real Soldier 👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾” 

His father, Walter Philemon, is standing beside him in the second. Walter’s face is stoic but hides a smile, as if anticipating the dad joke that is to come in the caption: “Sometimes I need armed bodyguard,”.

Juxtaposing these two photographs with each other, Alvin tweets: “the difference between an african [sic] mom and dad”.

In real life, however, I quickly realise that Angela has the same wry but warm humour as her husband.

When I ask Angela how she feels about her son’s viral fame, she confides in me, “POP is not a big deal! I went to the army in Tanzania for one year, it was compulsory. I trained for combat … we did everything ourselves, even cooking!”

Beside me, Alvin sits on the couch, on his face the tight grimace-smile all children unconsciously put on whenever their parents crack a deprecating joke at their expense.

A series of photographs of the Serengeti (I think) in the Philemon’s home.
Some context: Alvin has graciously invited me to his house, so here I am in an HDB apartment in Hougang, talking to her and Alvin. 

Their house oozes a sort of African chic. It’s bathed in a warm orange light reminiscent of the sun setting on the Serengeti, of which there is a series of posters hanging on their wall. Tchotchkes with tribal designs dot their house. From the decor of their house, it’s evident that the Philemon family—who hails from Tanzania—has dressed up their house to remind them of their old home.

Angela and Walter decided to move to Singapore in the 90s because Walter was invited here by his cousin.

Angela’s response upon learning that they were to move to Singapore was: “Oh my gosh, I didn’t even know what was Singapore. I asked my friends to find Singapore on the map for me. It was just a tiny dot!”

“There was one person who knew Singapore very well. He said, ‘It’s Singapura. Not Singapore.’”

Like all the other black Singaporeans and PRs I hung out with, Angela (who is a PR) eventually integrated into Singapore society—so well that when she goes back to Tanzania to visit her relatives, she finds it hard to adapt.

“In Singapore, we are taught manners, taught to queue up. So when I go home, I try to bring that. It’s not working. My sister tells me off, ‘Don’t bring your Singapore style here!’”

Some groceries that Angela stocks up on whenever she visits her relatives in Tanzania.
Her one complaint about Singapore is how difficult it is to find groceries she uses for traditional Tanzanian cuisine. Thus, whenever she goes back to Tanzania, Angela stocks up on bags of traditional maize flour and spices, which she commands Alvin to retrieve from her kitchen cabinet to show me.

This is not to say Angela only cooks 100% ‘authentic’ Tanzanian food while in Singapore—it’s only brought to table “when we really really really really really miss home”. As an avid fan of cooking shows on Food Network, she cooks all cuisines, from African, to Italian, to Indian, to Chinese … (“Lucky you,” I mutter to Alvin.)

Angela sums up her cooking skills: “My cooking is anyhow: put in this, put in that.”

Which, I think, is an apt analogy for how Singapore society was formed: put in this, put in that.

Angela bemoaning Alvin’s disconnection from his Tanzanian roots, like how my mum scolds me for not knowing Teochew.
Yet, as with any immigrant family, the connection to your homeland (a term that I am using loosely) becomes more and more tenuous with each new generation born in your adopted land.

“Alvin knows nothing about African culture,” Angela laments.

“I’m learning!” Alvin interjects.

“He’s learning. Can’t even speak the language. So if he goes home now, it’s really hard for him to adapt … here, he is taught not to talk to strangers. But at home, there are no strangers. You must say hello to everybody. Even people you don’t know. You must. It’s culture.”

The gulf between Alvin and his parents’ culture is not that surprising. Like Mindi, Rolu, and many second-generation immigrants, his bond to the place he grew up in is much stronger than that to an abstract cultural homeland he has visited perhaps once a year through his whole life.

Alvin’s expression is the expression all of us take when our parents nag at us.
At the same time, like Mindi, Alvin can’t shake off the feeling that he’s only Singaporean on the inside.

“I think of myself as ‘Singaporean-ish’ … I feel Singaporean but I’m a PR, but I’m serving in the army and went through a local primary and secondary school, but I don’t look like Singaporean … that kind of thing.”

I blink at him for a bit, and he elaborates: “You know my whole code-switching thing? Sometimes when I meet new people I speak in Singlish or Chinese to them, and they get kind of confused because of how I look. Then I’m reminded that … I’m an African. Oh ya, I forgot that I’m Singaporean-ish.”

Alvin says this in a humorous, self-deprecating tone, but—maybe I’m projecting—I hear, and feel, an undercurrent of sadness in his voice, that of someone who has yet to find unconditional acceptance from the place he calls his home.

Even Angela, who has lived in Singapore for more than 30 years, who has worked in multiple jobs, seen the MRT system develop from “just two lines—red and green!”, raised a family in a HDB flat in Hougang, still doesn’t feel entirely at home.

 “Singapore is home away from home,” she says.

Like all HDB homes, the Philemon’s apartment has a collection of trinkets and random magnets accumulated over the years.
As I am tying my shoelaces, preparing to head off, Angela suddenly bursts out: “How could I invite you to my house without offering you some African food or drinks! You like masala tea?” (Masala tea is very popular in East Africa; in general, East African food is heavily influenced by Arab and Indian cuisine, according to Angela.)

 I nod.

 “Next time, you must come back. You ask Alvin, and I will cook you a meal.”

An artwork at Kafe Utu.
At the end of all three of my conversations with these Singaporeans and PRs of African descent, I ask them what some misconceptions about their heritage other Singaporeans tend to have, or what we should be aware of when we think about the countries on the African continent. Their responses were, by and large, identical:

“Africa is not a country.” 

“African is not a language.” 

“We don’t live in trees. We live in buildings. Big ones!” 

“We have roads. People drive fancy cars. We have Lamborghinis.” 

“African-American is not the same as African.” 

And most fundamentally:

It’s not cool to say the N-word. Shows how ignorant you are.

As their experiences demonstrate, African Singaporeans and PRs do not find straightforward acceptance in Singapore. They still encounter microaggressions and ignorant stereotypes directed at them.

Mindi encounters people who comment on and fondle her hair without invitation. Rolu is teased about his body. Angela and Alvin contend with people staring at them like they are an exotic sight.

These grievances aside, all of them—Mindi, Rolu, Angela and Alvin—expressed how rooted to Singapore they feel. 

One reason for their attachment to this land is gratitude. They are grateful that they don’t face the sort of racism against black people that is interwoven into governing structures and ingrained by historical circumstances. (What we have here is an improvement over that, but it’s a low bar that we are clearing and we can, surely, do better.)

Another is that they genuinely enjoy the character of Singapore and Singapore society.

Rolu likes the cosmopolitan and multiracial aspect of Singapore society, especially because we get “lots of holidays in a year” thanks to all the different festivals we celebrate (he says this half-seriously). Mindi, as mentioned at the start of the piece, thinks that “being black in Singapore is a blessing”. 

And, in Alvin’s words, “whatever you are, whatever you believe in, Singapore is a safe place for you”.

Ordinarily, I would have cringed and made some dry heaving noises if I heard that statement from an organisation or government body. I can immediately think of some demographics that would disagree with that assertion.

But this time, it comes to me straight from the mouth of someone from an ethnic group usually discriminated against. Who am I to question the sincerity or accuracy of his statement and lived experiences?  

What matters, at the end of the day, is that this community has found a home in Singapore, and we are enriched by their presence.

This piece is brought to you by the Ministry of Culture, Community, and Youth (MCCY). 

Everyone wants to feel at home—but this is easier said than done. MCCY’s mission has long been to make Singapore the best home for everyone by fostering a sense of identity and belonging to Singapore. Part of this also involves promoting inclusivity, empathy and understanding of the different communities that make up our society.

Do you have any friends who are of African descent? Do they like durian? Let us know at community@ricemedia.co.

Author

Yeo Boon Ping Staff Writer