What expats say: I miss feeling the African life
Samuel Antwi Darkwah (age 59) from Ghana, Africa has lived in the Czech Republic for more than 30 years. As a young man he saw snow here for the first time ever. And also xenophobia. Now this Mendel University professor represents Nedvědice – where he lives with his Czech wife and three kids – in the local municipality, even though some people there didn’t even want to shake his hand at first.
What brought you to Czechoslovakia?
I came to study economics on a scholarship when I was 22 years old. First I lived in Jihlava for a year where I went to a language school. I met a guy form South Africa there who told me the best way to learn Czech is to go to a pub. That’s how I learnt a few first words – pivo, prosím, and ještě jedno, prosím, and then platit! I learnt gradually, and came to Brno in 1982.
Why did you decide to study economics in Brno and not back home?
The educational system in Ghana or Africa altogether is not very good, not even today. When you have the opportunity, you always want to come here to learn. I was fortunate to get the scholarship. You don’t only learn the economics or others, you also learn about the culture and people.
Did you know anything about Czechoslovakia before you came here?
I knew some things because my father had a shop where he was selling almost everything, from A to Z. We had some small footballs and tennis balls that were made in Czechoslovakia. And also bullets. When I got the scholarship, I started reading more about Czechoslovakia. I went to the embassy and got some materials. I knew that winters here were very severe. In Ghana, when we said it was cold, it was about 25 degrees. I saw snow here for the first time. I found it very difficult to walk on the snow, and was not well prepared for the cold so I had to go to a Tuzex shop and get a winter jacket.
What else were you surprised by when you came here from Africa?
When you go to Europe, you expect things to be different, to be better. Everything was in order, neat and clean. We were suprised that some things were the same, though – like the cars Volha or Lada then. As we couldn’t understand the language, we couldn’t understand the society and culture. But by going to the pubs we got to make friends and realised that people are not as bad as we thought. If Czechs don’t know you, they ignore you. But if they know you, they are very nice to you.
I imagine Czech food took some getting used to.
It was a problem. The way of cooking is completely different. I started to learn how to eat Czech food by cooking a lot of rice with some sauce. Almost all meals in Africa are served with sauce. Here when you have řízek with potatoes, we don’t know how to eat it because it is too dry. I like guláš, it is similar to what we prepare at home. But now I eat everything, even knedlíky.
Are you able to buy any African groceries here?
It’s been difficult. Only recently an Indian guy opened a shop in Cejl with a few African products like palm oil and garri (granular flour with a slightly fermented flavour made from cassava, a starchy root vegetable). I’ve nearly forgotten about African food, I only have it when I’m back in Africa.
How did people react to seeing an African back in the 1980s?
People sometimes wanted to touch my skin or my hair. Once I started speaking some Czech, they would ask how I got here from Africa – they thought there was no transportation there. Or they asked if I had any shoes before I came here. And if we had a TV and how we could watch it in the rain because they thought we lived on the top of trees. Partly they were ignorant, partly they were making fun of us.
Sometimes people still point at me and laugh. I get a bit irritated and sad about it. When I am at school, people see me as a teacher impacting knowledge on them. Outside of school, they don’t know who I am. That’s why I don’t use public transport and I don’t go out with my Czech wife much or even shopping together. You can feel people are watching us, thinking why we are together, it’s uncomfortable.
After your studies in Brno, why did you decide to settle down here?
I didn’t. I went away. First I went to Ghana to do my national service, I had to work for the government for a year in exchange for the scholarship I got. My wife came to Ghana with my son – I got married just before I finished school. The original plan was to stay in Ghana but my wife was very ill in Africa. The conditions were not good for her. When she got pregnant with my second son, she decided to go back to Czechoslovakia. I could only come back as a tourist, the government did not accept the fact that my wife was from here. When I ran out of money, the immigration said I had to leave.
It was a horrible situation for us but we were determined to make it work. I went to Britain and got a job there. After the revolution in 1989 my wife joined me in London. There we had our third child, my daughter. After some time my wife’s mother convinced us to come back to Czechoslovakia as the situation changed after the revolution. When I came back here I started teaching English. Later I got a job at Mendel University, where I now teach about development programmes in Africa.
How did your family take it when you moved out of your country forever?
My father had died before I left Ghana. My mum was not very happy but eventually, she understood that it is very important to further my education. Later she came to stay with us in Czechoslovakia for a few months.
What did she think of this country?
She realised that people here are totally different from what she assumed. She had heard much about white women – for example, that when a black man marries one, nobody can visit them. She realised that it was not true. My mum even said that she was more comfortable with my wife than if she was a black woman. Because they are very troublesome.
How often do you get to visit Ghana?
In the early years after I left, I didn’t visit much. There was a 10-year stretch when I didn’t go to Ghana once. But now thanks to Mendel University I go often, we have a collaboration programme with the University of Ghana. I take students there for a month every year. This year I was in Ghana twice.
So what do you like to eat back in Ghana?
I always plan that every day I am going to eat something different and after a few days I always get sick. The food is very spicy and my stomach is not used to it anymore. I have yams, banku (corn-based dish) and fufu (cassava-based dish). I love fish and when I am in Ghana I eat it every day. We also eat beef, goat, lamb, and chicken is now very popular.
Is there anything else you miss from Ghana?
Friends and my family. Even when I go home, I don’t have much time to stay with them. I should go to the village where I was born and stay there for a whole month, be with my siblings, stay at the farm that my parents had. Feel the African life. That’s what I miss.
You have lived in Brno for more than two decades. Do you think the city changed much?
Very very much. Brno has changed and it is for the better. Students from Ghana say transportation in Brno is very efficient. There are more jobs, I know a lot of people who commute to work here every day. You see more colourful buildings that used to be all gray. The streets are nicer. We have tunnels now. Some people are more enlightened, especially here at the university. People now have travelled and realised that black people are also human beings.
When I go to Prague, can you believe that nobody speaks Czech to me? I get angry, I say “What do you mean? I want to speak česky!” They always laugh. I am proud of this language. Czech is freaking, you know. When you are talking to a friend, you can say “ty vole” or “ty jo“, you don’t get these expressions in English.
What about any downsides of Brno?
There should be an international airport. It could bring more international business to Brno. Another thing – Brno has to embrace foreigners as part of its development. Why is the USA so powerful? Because it embraced foreigners to build the nation. Brno should be more flexible in the approach to foreigners. Foreign students would love to have some part-time jobs, even cleaning, to survive, but it is hard for them to get any.
And people shouldn’t be afraid to speak English when foreigners want to speak to them, for example to ask their way. They sort of run away now. I also would like for more tourists to come. Sometimes I go to Náměstí svobody and look at the beautiful architecture, but most tourists don’t come to see it, they just go to Prague. We have to make people aware that Brno also has something to show.
Do you have any favourite places in Brno?
It used to be pubs like Pegas in the city centre. I like to go to places with good food, unfortunately, the culture is changing and Asian bistros take over lots of traditional restaurants with good guláš and beer. Sometimes I go to places where I can just sit and watch people, like in Vaňkovka or Olympia. I love Brno, I spent my youth here, it is like my hometown to me. Once I was in India and the Czech ambassador there asked me where I was from. I said “Su z Brna“. When he heard the word “su“, he laughed saying “Sam, ty seš Brňák jak poleno!”
But now you are a town representative of Nedvědice.
Yes, they voted for me to represent them. Initially, I had problems in Nedvědice, when I moved there some of the people even refused to say hello or shake my hand. But now they’ve realised I am not a bad person, that I work and pay taxes, and we have become friends.