Africans Struggle to Succeed in D.C.

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The Mayor’s Office on African Affairs (MOAA) and the Congressional African Staff Association (CASA) held a panel discussion on Sept. 9 in the U.S. Capitol’s Visitor Center. The forum, “Diaspora in Dialogue: Demographics, Public Policy and ConneXions,” allowed an open discussion about the experiences of native-born Africans living in the nation’s capital.

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Mamadou Samba is the executive director of the District’s Mayor’s Office on African Affairs. (LinkedIn Photo)

Diana Konate, president of the CASA, said, ” We work to try to debunk the myths about Africa and Africans on the Hill.”

Mamadou Samba, the executive director of MOAA, noted the importance of the discussion and its timeliness. “This is September and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has declared this month ‘African Heritage Month'”, she said. “This month we will increase awareness and promote the diversity of the African community. We want the people of the District of Columbia to know who we are and what we are doing.”

In March 2015, the MOAA and the George Mason University Institute for Immigrant Research launched a project to get a sense of the demographics of Africans living in the District and the metropolitan area. The report from this project is called “Diversity in the District: African Immigrants in Washington, D.C.” and reveals in detail what countries African immigrants come from, where they live in the city, and what their occupations and income levels are.

The report states there are 16,000 African immigrants living in the District, primarily in Wards 1 and 4, with a lesser presence in Wards 5 and 6 and scant representation in Wards 2,3,7 and 8. The report shows that Ethiopians constitute 7 percent of all immigrants surveyed and make up 45.2 percent of African-born immigrants.

While Ethiopians are the chief Africans in the District, the report reveals that nationally, it is Nigerians that are dominant. Nevertheless, Nigerians have a significant presence in the District second to Ethiopians with 2.2 percent of all immigrants and 13.1 percent of native born Africans.

Msia Kibona Clark, a scholar at Howard University’s Department of African Studies, served as the moderator of the discussion with experts that included James Witte, a George Mason University scholar; Lydia Nylander, a commissioner on the District’s Commission on African Affairs; and Fatmata Barrie, chair of the Montgomery County, Md. African Affairs Advisory Group.

Clark quoted statistics that show African educational attainment is almost equal of that to Asians and mentioned data that Africans lived in large cities and even small cities such as Sioux Fall, S.D.

Witte, who worked on the “Diversity” report, said during the discussion that “Africans tend to be well-qualified for the job market.”

“Africans are more likely to have a $50,000 a year income than the average American and they are trained to be in managerial and professional careers more than the average American,” he said. “We just don’t see this here we see it across the country. Despite this educational and professional attainment, Africans are still less likely to be professional successes.”

Nylander said that discrimination is a fact of life for many Africans but they don’t dwell on it.

“Many Africans come here for the American Dream and really believe in it,” she said. “Africans are reticent to talk about race because many of them don’t see this as a primary concern. They have learned to deal with not getting a job or an interview because of the difficulty non-Africans have pronouncing African names.”

Barrie agrees with Nylander. “Africans encounter discrimination in the U.S. but they stay here and more are coming,” she said.

But, Samba, who wasn’t part of panel, but said things are getting better for Africans living in the District.

“We now have an African liaison on the D.C. police force that helps with Africans who don’t speak English well but are versed in their native tongue,” he said. “We have a program that teaches African children to code. However, there is still work to be done.”