Obonete Ubam - Chairman of the League of Ethnic Minorities
In many ways there's nothing unusual about my guest in this week's programme - he's a Czech who grew up in a small town in North Moravia, did his military service like most other lads his age, stayed on in the army for a few years, and now runs a small organisation from a modest office in Prague. But this polite, well-dressed man immediately stands out from the rest of the Czech population for one simple reason - he's black. When Obonete Ubam, chairman of the League of Ethnic Minorities, came into the studio this week, I began by asking him what it was like growing up in an overwhelmingly white environment.
"I grew up in a very small town in north Moravia, and my childhood was situated in the period of the late 70s and early 80s. Actually the situation in those years in terms of tolerance to visual diversity, just to different things, was very much different to what we call tolerance these days. I could actually tell you some very strange and funny and sad stories."
Well tell me one.
"Well, you wouldn't believe what kind of a problem it is to have a Czech girlfriend. People like me, or I would say people like us, we always have problems with fathers-in-law, or potential fathers-in-law. So it is always difficult when you fall in love, and you have a girlfriend, and you find in her a person that you really care about and then she takes you home and she wants to introduce you to the parents. That is always very difficult, and myself I have experienced that traditional Czech fathers really do not know how to handle it."
Give me an example, embarrassing comments or questions, or do they just retreat into the living room and don't say anything?
"Well it's not really about comments, because generally Czech people do not like open confrontation. Mainly it's the atmosphere. You always feel it, you always know what time it is and you always know what's going on around you. It's the atmosphere."
Have you also experienced violence? Problems at the hands of skinheads? Much is made in the media about the problem in the Czech Republic with skinheads and skinhead gangs.
"Certainly I've had some problems of this sort, but they are mainly linked with my activities in human rights protection. So I have been receiving threats and anonymous e-mails, SMSes, letters, and things of this kind. I think it's part of the job. When you do such a thing you have to be prepared for such things. But I have not really been attacked on the street, as has happened to many people I know. Actually, one of the reasons might be prevention. We have been speaking about this before we started recording, so I can say it now. I spent a few years in the military, and the military training prepares you how to avoid certain situations. To know how to act, just to know how to avoid it. So I try and avoid it."
A few years ago you founded an organisation called the League of Ethnic Minorities. Perhaps you could tell me, was there something in your own life which led you to create this body, was it a reaction to something?
"Well, definitely. I've always been saying that this organisation and the fact that I founded it is very personal to me. The very first and original idea was that I knew a lot of people who just did not know how to cope with the fact that they were different and the society treated them different or looked at them different. They just didn't know what to do with their lives. We founded an organisation that would actually help and advise these people how to take care of some problems. We also wanted to give some hope, because most of them are very lonely. We have to realise that people who are 25-30 and are Afro-Czechs are actually from the first Afro-Czech generation in the Czech Republic. Unlike the Afro-American community in the United States, we don't have our own neighborhoods, we don't have our own music, our own culture, role models, we don't have anything. The worst thing is that we do not even know each other, we do not know how many Afro-Czechs there are in the Czech Republic. These people are very lonely and we just wanted to create an organisation which could possible give these people a sort of hope and a feeling that we are now getting together and as the first generation we can start something. If you now watch carefully the Czech media you find out that human rights problems and ethnic minorities are being very much presented, unlike in the past, and that the media are actually giving very positive information about ethnic minorities and we definitely need something of this kind just to have the feeling that we are a part of this society. Because there is no other country or other society that we could possibly belong to. We're Czechs, we're just different but I mean we're still Czechs."
I've noticed looking at your website that the league does count among its members not only members of the Afro-Czech community, the Vietnamese community, but also member of the Roma community. I have found that from talking to ordinary Czech people over the years that a huge proportion of them do seem to harbour very negative feelings towards the Roma, and I'm including in that people who would never, ever consider themselves to be racists. And often they've said to me "I'm not a racist, I don't have a problem whether someone's black or from Asia or whatever, but I don't like gypsies". This is something I hear again and again. Do you think the Roma does enjoy a particularly uncomfortable position in Czech society when compared to other ethnic minorities?
"Well, I believe this to be a very complicated issue. We could name hundreds of reasons why the relationship between the Roma community and the Czech majority is so negative and so complicated. But actually most members of the Roma community are living in a very different style which is very much hard to understand for the Czech majority. Also these people, as a result of the lifestyle that they have do not have a proper education, which results in large unemployment. This unemployment also might be the cause of let's say a high criminal rate, and I think this is one of the basic facts which may bother the majority society. On the other hand I think this antipathy from the majority to this community has been here for centuries. If you go back through Czech history you find out about people hunting gypsies, you find out things about gypsy slavery and such things which are so deep in history and might be also deep inside the mentality of the nation, that it's difficult to get them out."
We've talked a bit about intolerance in Czech society, and about how there are certain problems to be overcome in harmony between different ethnic groups. Are you looking forward to the day when there will be no need for an organisation such as the League of Ethnic Minorities?
"Well, definitely I'm looking forward to this day. I have said this many times before - I will have the best feeling of my life when I just lock the office one day at 8 o'clock in the morning and send everyone home and say, ok, they don't need us anymore. But for the time being unfortunately we still have to be here. We have to be talking to people on both sides, we have to look for possibilities, to get these groups closer together, to make them try to understand each other. We have a big problem in communication and when we get over this things are going to get much easier."
To find out more about the League of Ethnic Minorities, see http://www.lem.cz