A tale of two cities: Bruges and Ghent

In the 11th article in our “Inside View” series Madalena Pedro Miala recounts growing up in Belgium.

Not so very long ago a video of actor Jesse Williams surfaced on the net, in it he explains quite eloquently – as we’ve grown to be accustomed by now coming from him – why he, like many others, was not interested in (American) history growing up. The essence behind his explanation reminded me of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk about ‘The Danger of A Single Story’. At the risk of being accused of namedropping, I would in closing like to cite director Tim Reid, who in an interview given some time ago last year so rightly pointed to the fact that we are no longer living in a time in which only one narrative is relevant. We are now in fact dealing with a very mobile diaspora in which all voices and stories are very much deserving of a listener.

This long preface just to bring me to a a point we often discuss when talking about Black women living in Europe: racism. We often wonder whether one has experienced discrimination as a Black person living in Europe? Yes, I have. It ranges from petty behavior like always having to show my bus ticket when I step into the bus to more institutionalized forms of discrimination that I believe are part of the culprit that have kept me and many others stagnant in our career paths despite being fluent in numerous languages and possesing an array of much needed and employable skills. I am not going to focus on either one of those two stories, we have enough dichotomies going on in our worldview today. I’d rather share a more nuanced, humorous story that coincidently also consists of two parts, hence the title ‘A tale of two cities’.

Bruges

Madalena in 2nd grade in Bruges.
Madalena in 2nd grade in Bruges.

Caspar* threw a puzzling look my way as we were going up the stairs after the break. He repeated this about two or three times. I braced myself mentally for what I was sure was about to ensue: the generic N-word was going to verbally be tossed my way. Imagine my surprise when instead Caspar asked me whether I was a fan of Cercle Brugge. I must’ve given a negative response because the next question he threw my way was why then, if I wasn’t a die hard fan of Cercle Brugge, did I decide to wear their scarf. That’s when my attention shifted to that thing around my neck. We had just moved to Bruges and despite having lived most of my life on the Northern hemisphere, even till this day I am not accustomed to the weather conditions and always prefer spring and summer over the colder months. So in all my haste to protect myself from the winter, I just threw something on without thinking too much about it. No, it had not occured to me that Caspar and most people living in Bruges preferred Club Brugge (the blue soccer team) as opposed to Cercle Brugge (the green soccer team).

Ghent

Madalena in 3rd year of high school in Ghent.
Madalena in 3rd year of high school in Ghent.

After a decade of living in Bruges, my mother decided it would be best for us to move eastward for a better chance at receiving permanent residence papers and pursuing our higher education. Seeing that me and my siblings are close in age and were all soon about to embark upon another journey in our lives, my mother saw this as most fit. Being an introvert – at the time I didn’t have a word for the way I was, I just knew I had a hard time opening up and making friends – made it hard for me to be happy about moving to another town and changing schools. In hindsight it was one of the best decisions my mother made for our lives, some of the friends I made in my new school are still in my life today. But at the time I didn’t see it that way. One particular accident that stands out to me till this day is about my first days at the new school. I had moved from a Catholic school in Bruges to a public school in Ghent, the system was more relaxed for lack of a better word. In my former school we had to stand in line prior to entering our respective classrooms, in my new school we were allowed to get up about five minutes before the bell rang. We would then all huddle to the door and stand there for another five minutes, just chatting away. I dreaded this time, especially since I was new…and had a foreign accent. I had a West-Flemish accent, which differs significantly from an East-Flemish accent, even after living for a decade in Ghent (that is in East Flanders) my West-Flemish accent persists (as I was told during a recent job interview with a fellow West-Flemish man). The difference can be compared to that between Americans from the south and those further up north. Each time I tried uttering a word, laughter would ensue. I understood that they weren’t making fun of me, but rather laughing at my accent but try telling that to an awkward, shy, introverted, sole teenage black girl in the entire class. Nowadays I can laugh about it, and it gives nuance to our perspective of discrimination. A comedic one at that, which we can all use this day in age.

Madalena

Madalena Pedro Miala is a 29 year old who has been living in Belgium for over a quarter century. Her parents first came to Belgium to work at the Embassy of Angola, the country from which she hails. Five years later they decided to return to Angola following the cease-fire. Three years later the war resumed and the family were forced to leave Angola for Belgium, this time as refugees seeking permanent residence. My father stayed in Angola and shortly after we got news from our family that he was deceased. She grew up with my a brother and three sisters to whom she remains close. Next summer she is set to graduate with a Master of Arts in African Studies from Ghent University. Her long term dream is to be fluent in several languages, write for a living and be a walking billboard that harbors the potential of the African continent.