Welsh sheroe

Welsh poet Eric Ngalle Charles welcomes the statue of Betty Campbell to Cardiff

Yes, the Welsh government has a plan to rid Wales of racism by 2030. As a writer who has been living in Wales for the best part of 21 years, I welcome this pledge. However, I think 2030 is ten years too late, we should strive to rid our society of racism today, there’s simply no place for it. The recent unveiling of the statue of the great Betty Campbell is a welcome sign of change, and to be lauded. She stands tall, looking into a future planted with roses and hibiscus flowers. Betty Campbell should be, must be, celebrated throughout the year, from January to December. This should not just be a gesture politics. I am happy the teaching of Black history has been inculcated into the Welsh curriculum. Wales, and especially its capital, Cardiff, have been a melting pot of different cultures since the industrial revolution of the 1790s. The trading of coal and the opening of different docks transformed the fortunes of the country, and Cardiff in particular. It is estimated that by the early 1900s Cardiff alone had at least 50 different nationalities, all settled in the place we call Cardiff Bay. It is from within this mixture, this melting pot, that Betty Campbell rose, standing tall despite the perils and the plights that people of colour unfortunately still suffer. Betty Campbell was told she would “never amount to anything”, yet she became a respected head teacher, and today we celebrate and acknowledge her contribution to Welsh history. We should celebrate our sheroes when they are still alive; I can only imagine the warmth of Betty Campbell’s personality, looking at us with her infectious smile from the grave.

Why should Black history be celebrated only in October? I have pondered this question ever since I came to Wales.

Black history is Welsh history, and part and parcel of British history. I must applaud the various groups that advocated for the statue of Mrs Campbell and the public who voted for her. This should be a lesson for other Welsh organisations, those who receive support from the Welsh government to engage with people from minoritised communities.

You see, when October comes, some organisations employ people to act as extra noise amplifiers, singing about Black history. This celebration becomes a tick-box exercise. As soon as October disappears, only memories of Black History Month linger. They then form different committees, to discuss and plan on how to obtain funding for the following October. There seems to be this fear of open engagement with the Black community, those with African and Caribbean heritage:

“Oh, they will bring up slavery”

“They will want to talk about colonialism”

“They will want to tell us the uncomfortable truth about the Berlin conference of 1884.”

While anti-slave trade activist William Wilberforce was still warm in his grave in 1833, European nations met in Berlin and carved up the continent of Africa into their various spheres of influence. Did you know I was born in Buea, in South West Cameroon, which was the capital of German Kamerun from 1884 to 1916? It’s a fact I am not proud of, not an inch.

Growing up as a boy in the village of Zroppo Zralli in Buea, until the age of eight, my name was Mosreh Mo Mgbwa (the dog of dawn) Ngalle (one who creates thunder). Upon being baptised by Father Francis, I was given the name Eric Charles. My mother calls me Eric if I have done something wrong. She has never called me Charles.

This diversity of voices and stories must become part of the education system. If history is a looking glass, then we cannot pretend it never happened. All histories must be taught throughout the year, heroes and sheroes celebrated.

Wales has a long way to go, but I am proud of the strides that are being made, we are moving in the right direction. When I was first invited to attend a Black History Month event many years ago in Cardiff, everyone on the organising committee was white, everyone in the audience Black. The committee members were dissecting the speech of Martin Luther King, “I had a dream”. I was thinking, Mr King had a dream, most Black Americans are living a nightmare. I wondered where the sheroes and heroes of Black Welsh history were hidden.

As we celebrate the start of Black History Month by elevating the statue of Betty Campbell, let us all remember this maxim: “If you follow a stranger in your city, you will discover places you never knew existed.” In celebration of Black History Month, October 2021, let me leave you with an excerpt from my poem, Still, she calls, commissioned by Aberystwyth University.

Eric Ngalle Charles is a Cameroonian writer, poet, playwright, and human rights activist based in Wales. He was awarded the Creative Wales Award 2017/2018 for his work on the topics of migration, trauma, and memory. In his autobiography “I, Eric Ngalle: One Man’s Journey Crossing Continents from Africa to Europe” (Parthian, 2019), he recounts many years as a refugee. He sits on the boards of Literature Wales and Aberystwyth Arts Centre Advisory Group and has just begun a PhD at King’s College London

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