Even for professed atheists and agnostics, some things so defy logical explanation that only the word “miracle” can describe them. Take the case of John Abraham Godson, the Nigerian-born member of the Polish parliament, the first African ever to have that honour.
That a black man got elected into the parliament of a rigidly white, homogeneous society like Poland is a testament to the way the world is making amends for the bigotry of the days of yore. And not only that: Godson was re-elected in last month’s Polish elections. For those who have not been there, it is quite possible to walk the streets of Warsaw, the Polish capital city, the whole day (as this writer did in the second week of August 2011) without seeing a single non-European face.
Well, if you branch off the major streets into some side corners, you might encounter some Asians running their own versions of Chinese restaurants. But in Warsaw, as in most of Poland, a black face is as scarce as the proverbial chicken’s teeth.
According to the statistics I gathered, there are about 4,000 Africans in the country of over 38 million people. Most of the Africans are said to be students, some of whom arrived a long time ago on government scholarships and for one reason or another decided to make Europe’s eighth (in terms of size: 312,679 sq. km) and seventh (in terms of population) largest country their home. Some of the Africans are also those who got stuck on their way to other (more appealing) destinations in Europe. Others are footballers who are looking for opportunities to ply their trade.
But even if all the Africans had voted and had given all their votes to their kin, their number is so insignificant that they could not have gotten one of their brothers into the Polish parliament, called the Sejm.
It is equally significant that at a time when fascist elements in several European countries are clamouring to “take their countries back” from immigrants, and Tea-Party faithful in the USA, like Donald Trump, are asking President Obama to produce his birth certificate, a homogeneous country like Poland has decided to elect an African immigrant into its parliament.
A miracle is exactly what happened when on 14 December last year, John Abraham Godson, the Nigerian-born, now Polish citizen, was sworn in as the first black member of the Polish parliament. Understandably, his appointment caused quite a stir in the overwhelmingly white country.
Born on 25 November 1970, in the Eastern Nigerian town of Umuahia, Godson (named Godson Chikama Onyekwere) moved to Poland in 1993, becoming a Polish citizen in 2001. He married a Polish woman and they have four children.
Apart from the BSc he earned in agronomy from the University of Abia State, Godson holds several academic degrees including a Masters in Human Resource Management and Development, and another one in International Relations. He is currently in the process of earning two doctorate degrees at the University of Warsaw (political science) and University of Lodz (management). He is also participating in a joint MBA/Master of Science in Professional Communication (MSPC) run by Clark University and the Lodz Academy of Management.
Before entering parliament, Godson was a senior lecturer at the Technical University of Szczecin and at Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan. He is now a guest lecturer at several institutions of higher learning in Poland and abroad, besides being the president of the African Institute in Poland.
He first dabbled in politics when he served as a councillor in the central Polish city of Lodz, the third largest city in the country. A member of the centre-right Christian democratic Platforma Obywatelska (or Civic Platform Party), Godson took up the parliamentary seat vacated by a party colleague, Hanna Zdanowska, after she became the mayor of Lodz.
His supporters believe he is Obama re-incarnate and rent the air of his campaign route with shouts of: “Vivat! Vivat Polski Obama!” (“Long live the Polish Obama!”).
Twice beaten up by racist youths, Godson blamed his assaults on plain ignorance of other cultures rather than outright racism. When I sat down with him in a formal interview, Godson was full of hope for his adopted country and the Africans in it.
Q:Tell us, who is John Abraham Godson?
A: He is a simple man of deep faith; a family man who is passionate about what he does and tries to do his best in the service of his people. I am also a man with a profound intellectual curiosity who believes in the advancement of human progress.
Q: You were born in Nigeria and you grew up there. Can you describe the type of family into which you were born?
A: I am from a typical African house with a large extended family. Luckily for me I was born into a family of educators. My father was a secondary school principal and my mother was a primary school headmistress. My parents are rather well-off and they are strict disciplinarians. They do not believe in spoiling their children. Mine was a strict, disciplined family where every member was assigned a task for which he was solely responsible. I was responsible for cooking for the family. I learned a lot about traditional Igbo cooking from my mother, and even today I remain a very good cook.
Apart from that, we were taught values such as honesty, responsibility, hard work, having respect for elders and authority, and a sense of justice. They also inculcated in us a sense of service to one’s community. They believed and they taught us that those who are better off have a responsibility to help the less-endowed. Those were lessons well-learned and they have remained my guiding principles.
Q: Can you tell us some of the things you still remember from your early years?
A: I don’t want to sound nostalgic, but I remember a great deal of the happy moments we had. I remember the total sense of security. The whole town was our oyster, and we felt completely at ease and secured. I also remember the sense of community where people shared the joys as well as the sadness. I remember the fun, the laughter, the joys we had playing; the festivals. I have so many happy memories. Of course, there were sad moments, but overall, I had a very good and rewarding youth.
Q: What can you tell us about your education and career?
A: I had a very good and solid education. Those were the days when education in Nigeria was on a par with the best in the world, and a high premium was placed on quality education. It was the period when graduates of Nigerian universities could compete with the best in the world.
I studied agronomy at the university after which I served in the mandatory Youth Corp scheme in Nigeria. I later worked at the famous International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan. I gained one of my Masters degrees in the United States and the other one here in Poland. I am working towards my PhD.
During my school days, I was very active in the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) and it was through them that I got posted to Poland as a missionary. That was in 1993.
Q: Many people will find it incongruous, the idea of an African being a missionary in Europe. They think it happens the other way round. How did the Polish people react when you started your missionary work?
A: Actually, I was not the typical missionary you read about in books. I was basically working with students at the university where I was a lecturer. My work was essentially that of a student mentor. It was, of course, a novelty for both parties. But like most humans, they relate to those that relate to them at their level. I am happy that the people I met did their best to make me feel welcome. It helped tremendously that I did my best to study and understand and adapt myself to their way of life.
Q: What are some of the experiences of being a new immigrant in Poland?
A: The short answer is that it was difficult. Like anyone who finds himself in a new environment, the beginning is strewn with difficulties and it’s always tough going. There are new languages to cope with; new customs and norms to learn.
There is the mercilessly cold weather to contend with, and there is new, alien territory to explore and discover. There is also the lack of family support. It is not easy to be surrounded by new and unknown faces. But with determination, one forges ahead and makes the best of the new situation. We humans are very adaptive, you know. It is a choice of giving up in the face of adversities or rising to the occasion and making the best use of the new space and opportunities that present themselves.
Q: Apart from the language, which even the Polish people themselves admit, is not among the easiest in the world to learn, what are some of the challenges you faced?
A:To be honest, at the beginning I missed the traditional Igbo food the most. I told you that at home I was in charge of the family culinary department where it was my duty to prepare delicious spicy food. Suddenly, I found myself having to survive on totally foreign food with unpronounceable names. In my part of Nigeria, people enjoy isi-ewu (goat’s head) as a delicacy; here people will think that something is wrong with you if you start to attack the head of any animal.
Q: How about racism, how have you coped?
A: I hate to use the word racism because I believe that it has been overused. I prefer the term “low intercultural competence”, which I believe is responsible for most acts we blame on racism. There are a lot of misguided and ill-informed people who believe that they are superior to others because of their religion or tribe or race.
My own take is that you should let your superiority manifest itself in positive ways. You don’t need to prove a thing if you have confidence in yourself and in your abilities. It simply means that you have no confidence in your own superiority if you
have to beat people up or act nastily in order to prove it. People with low intercultural competence tend to hide behind race or tribe to mask their own personal inadequacies.
Q: You were reported to have been a victim of two attacks, what happened?
A: Yes, that’s true. On the two occasions, it was an attack that was totally unprovoked and rather thoughtless. But I have put it behind me and moved on.
Q: You are also very active in the African community in Poland; can you tell us about some of the activities you are engaged in?
A: The truth I have discovered is that we Africans only seem to appreciate our Africanness when we are outside our continent. This is very sad and could be partly responsible for some of the problems besetting us. Back in Africa, we see ourselves first through our nations – as Cameroonians, Kenyans, Nigerians, etc. We then reduce ourselves further into Zulu, Peul, Mande, Yoruba, Ashanti, Kikuyu or what have you. We compound this by further dividing ourselves along religious lines.
But outside Africa, we tend to discover that we share so much in common and we get along very, very well. Here in Poland, we, the Africans, see ourselves as brothers and sisters and we relate to one another with little distinction on tribe or country or religion. Through the African Institute in Poland, of which I am the president, we organise events to secure the bonds of brotherhood among our people. We also try to help our people who find themselves in difficult situations, and we help newly-arrived Africans to find their way in the new environment, and steer them in the right direction. Through the Institute, they get pertinent information to ease them into Polish society. We also organise an Orientation Week every October to sensitise new students. We also have social and cultural activities. There are about 4,000 of us here and we try to help one another as much as possible.
Q: Many Africans in the diaspora say that they have a problem reconciling their identities; have you resolved yours, and if so how?
A: I consider myself a Polish person of African descent; Polish-African if you like. I have chosen to make my home here in Poland, so I consider myself a full-fledged Polish citizen with all the privileges, duties, responsibilities and obligations it confers.
Q: What are the main challenges Africans in this country face?
A: Mostly it is the cultural-cum-language challenges. It is a difficult language and sadly many Africans seem to give up on it. Poland is very, very different from Africa. It is even very different from most European nations like France and the UK, which many Africans, for colonial and historical reasons, consider second homes. But those who scale the hurdles have found that the Polish people are rather welcoming and very accommodating to foreigners.
Q: Let’s talk about your politics. What drew you to politics?
A: The short answer is that it is a natural progression from the teaching and the evangelical work I did. All three professions involve dealing with people and trying to help them solve their problems.
Q: How would you describe the experience so far?
A: It has been very rewarding, despite the challenges. I was brought up to be passionate about whatever I chose to do. It makes you feel happy to see that you are part of the process where decisions impact positively on people’s lives.
Q: Poland is a country of close to 40 million people, out of which there are about 4,000 Africans. For those who do not believe in miracles, how would you describe your meteoric rise in Polish politics?
A: Ah! Miracles help only those who prepare themselves to receive one. I am a very determined person. When I came here, I was very determined to succeed and make it my new home. With all humility, I can say that the modest successes I have achieved are due to two important factors: determination and hard work.
First, I courted my constituents assiduously. We have given over 60 scholarships to local students and we are also involved with community activities. It came as no surprise when my constituents supported me when I launched my political career.
I served diligently as a city councillor before I became an MP. And today, here we are.
Q: Having lived in other societies where things appear to work, what, in your opinion, are we doing wrong in Africa that makes our problems appear so intractable?
A: Our problems in Africa stem primarily from two factors: failure of leadership and indiscipline. First, we have rulers, not leaders in Africa. We have people in government who appear not to have a clue as to what they want. They have no vision as to where they want to take the country. They see governance as a hit-and-miss thing that does not require vision, planning, and rigorous monitoring of policies.
We then have the problem of indiscipline, which is also closely related to the first. You see, here in Poland people have disciplined themselves to obey laws, rules, and regulations. No matter what an individual thinks, as soon as a law is enacted, he obeys it. In Nigeria, and most of Africa, people see laws as mere suggestions.
We then have the problem of people believing that the laws are not made for them, but for lesser mortals. Of course, this
creates indiscipline in society. It is impossible to make any progress in an undisciplined environment; that’s what we have to learn.
Q: Can you share with us some ideas and insights on how we can begin to move the agenda of the African continent forward?
A: Apart from the two factors I mentioned above, I will add education. You see, we don’t take education seriously in Africa. The city of Lodz has 20 universities! How many universities do we have in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city? The city of Warsaw boasts 40 universities. And Warsaw is a city of only two million people! And we are talking about high-grade universities that produce world-class scholars, scientists, mathematicians, technologists, writers, etc.
What we have in Africa are glorified high schools masquerading as universities and churning out students versed only in the rote system. We need a total revamp of the education system in Africa. Only education, discipline and good leaders with vision can save Africa.