Culture, Interview, Narratives, Travel

Challenging the old narratives: Monika Ribeiro’s Afro-Polish perspective

If you happen to be born in a country with a scarce Black presence, it is not uncommon to hear a variety of assumptions about it based on popular perceptions rather than personal experience.

Poland, treated as a poster child of ‘Eastern Europe’, – although, in fact, situated in the Central part of the continent – is one of them.

Monika Ribeiro is an Afro-Polish writer who lived in the country till her early adulthood and still maintains close ties with it. Having heard many opinions about her homeland from others, she decided to share her own story and perceptions in a memoir and via other mediums.

Nina Camara talks to her about this work-in-progress, as well as other projects she undertook as an editorial and book publishing consultant, and that are particularly close to her heart.

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NC: As an Afropean, you have a background that may seem unique to some people. Can you talk about your heritage?

MR: I was born in Poland to a Polish mother and a Nigerian father. My father came to study in Poland and met my mother at the University of Lodz – they both were students there. I lived with them in a student home for the first few years of my life. This may have contributed to my vaguely academic tendencies, e.g., writing books, although I prefer creative writing to the academic side.

My parents’ relationship didn’t survive, and my dad returned to Nigeria when I was only three. He tried to stay in touch but I still grew up in Poland without him and thus, without any connection to my African side. Finally, when I turned 18, my father’s Nigerian family invited me to visit them in London, England. My first exposure to Nigerian culture was intense.

Most of his family are part of the Nigerian diaspora born in London. As a result, my cousins are more or less Westernised. However, their mother, my great aunt (my dad’s older sister), migrated to the UK from Nigeria; and one of my cousins – I referred to her as auntie, in line with Nigerian customs, because she was about ten years older than me – is married to a Nigerian man from Lagos. So, I received a solid dose of Africa whilst in London. I had lived with them for about three weeks at first, then a few months more after I came to London the second time – just before I decided to settle there.

                                        Monika as a little girl in a school choir.

NC: When you were still living in Poland ‘full-time’, how did people perceive you based on your background?

MR:I grew up in a small Polish town, so I feel like people got so used to my younger sister and me that we became part of the town’s tapestry. When we travelled outside the small town, people would stare, of course, and some would say stuff, but for the most part, I was very comfortable in my skin and felt okay in Poland. With that said, at some point, I became a little tired of always standing out and not being able to blend in. Subsequently, London – the melting pot – became quite attractive.

In London, I could stay anonymous and didn’t get asked constantly (often by strangers) why I was so brown, how my parents met or where they came from, and stuff like that… I have never experienced any hardcore racism in Poland, however. I remember a few occasional remarks, like people pointing fingers and calling me “murzynka,” i.e., Negress (offensive), or “czarna”, i.e., “black”. But, I never felt unsafe while living there – the most disturbing thing was being the constant centre of attraction – outside my familiar environment. I’ve shared what it was like growing up in Poland in this YouTube video.

NC: Nowadays, you live in the UK. What are your experiences when you are back in your old environment? Have you noticed any changes in the attitudes towards yourself or people of Afropean heritage, for better or worse?

MR:I find it difficult to answer this question because, these days, I come and go. I’d probably have to stay in Poland for an extended period for this comparison to be like for like. But Poles are more used to seeing outsiders now. Since joining the EU, we’ve been travelling much more than before. Younger generations seem especially more accepting that the world is a colourful place. But it also depends on where in Poland you find yourself. You’ll likely attract much more attention in smaller towns than large cities. There are a few metropolitan cities, like Krakow or Warsaw, for instance, that draw people from all over the world – in those places, there seems to be very little fuss over one being different. I like going back to Poland. It still feels like home, although that might be because my grandma is still there and because, once again, I come and go… I am not sure if I would feel comfortable staying there permanently. That said, my uncertainty is not due to any safety concerns. Sometimes, one outgrows places, I guess. I like the ethnic and cultural variety of London – a lot.

NC: How about if we reverse it – how do people with African heritage react when they learn that you come from Poland?

MR: It depends. Many believe in negative stereotypes or judge by the experiences of one or a few individuals. I’m in Ghana right now and had a conversation with a Nigerian man a few days ago. When I told him I was Polish/Nigerian, he said without hesitation that Polish people are racists, basing his opinion on what his friend who lives and plays basketball in Poland told him. That friend is his only connection to Poland; he has never been there.

People also follow mainstream media reports, but those accounts are often exaggerated. My dad, for instance, still fondly remembers his Polish experience. Mind you, he was a black man living in Poland for approximately five years in the 80s…

I don’t mind entering these conversations and hopefully bringing a little balance to people’s perception of Poland – whenever I get the chance to do so…

NC: How did it impact you as someone who lives at the intersection of different cultures?

MR: I feel it’s necessary to add that over 15 years ago, I married a Ghanaian. So that is why I am in Ghana right now (the first African country I’ve ever visited).

I have travelled extensively between England, Poland, and Ghana for the last two years. I am still discovering African ways while in Ghana. But having had some exposure to Nigerian culture made those ways more accessible and less shocking. If I were to pick one thing that developed in me due to living in between cultures, it would be the ability to switch and navigate different cultures and places with relative ease. Country borders mean very little to me. I could probably live anywhere in the world or keep moving from one place to another and still be okay.

This world is small, and people are different, but still, people are people wherever you go. With that said, I would be dishonest not to admit that there are specific cultural differences – some are good, others not so much. For instance, patriarchy can be extreme in West Africa. Being a woman here can be significantly more challenging in some respects than being one in the West. Although, this doesn’t have all that much to do with colour or race – more to do with culture. For someone coming from a culture where women are considered equal to men, it can be a little shocking to suddenly find yourself disregarded – in some instances – just because you’re not a man… I will probably talk about that soon on my YouTube channel: @AfropeanMonika.

In the meantime, I did share what it’s like visiting Ghana as a mixed-race person, i.e., suddenly becoming a “white” person.

NC: You mentioned coming across sceptical opinions about building bridges among cultures that are too different. What do you think about it, based on your experience?

MR: What breaks my heart the most is when black and white biracial people distance themselves from their dual heritage by obsessing over their mixed-race identity. Don’t get me wrong – I identify as mixed-race and love being that. But being biracial (to me) is an invitation to connect black and white. Unfortunately, I see much disconnecting and shunning instead. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but, for instance, many American mixed-race-oriented YouTube channels shame and hate against the black community. Of course, I understand that those black communities often shun mixed-race people too. Still, I would love to see that while we celebrate our mixed uniqueness, we also appreciate that the fusion of the two different races is what birthed this uniqueness in the first place…

NC: Apart from your profession, you have also started experimenting with creating content. Can you tell us about your platform and the goal behind it?

MR: Part of my desire for @AfropeanMonika is that it helps bridge the gap between the West and Africa and between the black and white communities. I often vlog my travels to the two previously mentioned racially distinct countries, i.e., Ghana (almost entirely black) and Poland (almost completely white). I hope to show that one can navigate these different environments and that they don’t have to be that foreign, irrespective of one’s skin colour.

From Poland, I vlog as a “black European”; in Ghana, I am somewhat of a “white African”. I also like discussing issues connected to being biracial – respectfully, celebrating our uniqueness without taking away from others. I want to break racial stereotypes. To gain and share a more balanced view of the world, I sometimes invite guests to talk about the issues of race, culture, and other “isms” we love to hate. Being or looking different doesn’t mean that we must be at war.

NC: As a creative professional, you also got involved in supporting young talent from the Diaspora. Could you talk about that in more detail?

MR: I am a writer. As you’ve already mentioned, one of my projects in the making is a memoir about my mixed-race Afropean experience. However, whilst writing and self-publishing my own books, I have also been helping other aspiring authors self-publish theirs.

My most recent project involved turning a story written by an eight-year-old British/Ghanaian girl into a book that celebrates black and brown representation in kids’ literature. Initially, this was a manuscript about friendship – void of colour and cultural nuances… And heartbreakingly, the author, a black girl, wasn’t even sure what her protagonist should look like – while, at the same time, the protagonist’s best friend was described as a blonde, blue-eyed girl.

So, as the book’s developmental editor and publisher, I decided to introduce colour and culture into her story – turning it from “just another BFF story” into a book that celebrates the West African diaspora experience in British kids’ literature, allowing young readers from minority backgrounds to see positive representations of themselves in this book.

More of that is needed because, according to a 2021 report by the Guardian, “…33.9% of children of primary school age in England are from a minority ethnic background…” while only “8% of children’s books have a minority ethnic main character.”

The book is titled, Diary of a Tween: Not Just Another BFF Story, and it was recently seen on the BBC where a certain successful multi-talented writer and TV presenter, Sir Lenny Henry, asked my young author for a signed copy! I am thrilled about this project and others coming up.

Most of my author clients have similar exposure to different cultures and races. Like me, they often successfully navigate living between continents or different cultures and ethnicities. I attract people who celebrate their unique heritage but don’t judge others, knowing that what is inside is what truly matters. I guess that’s my main intention when supporting talent from the diaspora…

Thank you so much for this conversation, Nina. I truly appreciate you and Afropean.com.

Please subscribe to my YouTube channel @AfropeanMonika where I share my thoughts, projects, and Afropean adventures.

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