African popular university to open in Geneva

Kanyana Mutombo, the director of Europe's first African popular university

Young Africans in Switzerland are slightly lost and need help rediscovering their African roots, says the director of Geneva's new African popular university.

This content was published on February 13, 2009 minutes

swissinfo talked to Kanyana Mutombo about Europe's first African education centre, which aims to teach people about African history and culture while offering legal advice and help for new immigrants to adjust to Swiss life.

The centre, which will be financed by the canton, communes and federal authorities, will open its doors on February 20.

The university is a direct descendent of the Geneva-based Regards Africains association and related magazine, which Mutombo helped found in 1986.

The project was partly inspired by the Albanian popular university in Geneva.

swissinfo: Why are you creating an African education centre in Geneva?

Kanyana Mutombo: The university's mission is to serve as a meeting room for African communities and others, including Swiss people.

The Africans who first came to Switzerland were young people who came here to study. They used to finish their studies and then leave, but today lots of Africans come here and stay, and the population has aged. This group of people is living here without a framework to help mobilise them.

On the one side there are lots of Africans with skills and qualifications – overqualified even.
They have skills that are not being used and we could use them at the popular university. On the other side there are needs, especially among young people and adults.

swissinfo: What are these needs?

K.M.: Young people from African families go to school here in Switzerland and get a good education, but they don't know anything about the African continent. Their parents came here very young and perhaps didn't know anything about their home culture and they haven't handed down to their children knowledge about Africa.

Their kids are a bit lost. We want to offer them the opportunity to rediscover their African identity.

swissinfo: What kind of courses will you be offering?

K.M.: For the first time the university will concern almost all sectors, all nationalities and all ethnic groups.

Our approach is about integration, directing people practically, but we are putting the stress much more on co-integration. Lots of people say they think they know Africans but it's often via clichés or prejudices rather than the truth. So we'll develop seminars and meetings between Africans, Swiss and other nationalities to better learn about Africa and its people.

Lots of Africans, especially young people, only know themselves via these clichés, so there will be courses about identity and the positive history of Africa. Rather than giving academic courses, we'll teach history via the experiences of elders.

Young people complain about finding accommodation or jobs. By bringing older people in we can get them to share their experiences about how they managed.

swissinfo: What was your integration experience in Switzerland?

K.M.: I arrived in Geneva in 1975 from the Congo to do a PhD in international relations. When I arrived, blacks were not seen as a problem – it was rather the Italians or Spanish.

The question of integration was never really an issue for me and it's the same for many Africans. I was integrated before arriving in Switzerland. I spoke French and most of the history I learnt at school was about Europe. For me it was like leaving one African region and moving to another.

The question was more about my acceptance by the Swiss. Initially this was not problematic, but with the arrival of more immigrants it became a problem due to racist attitudes.

swissinfo: What's your perception of racism in Switzerland?

K.M.: An African can forget his origins and speak local Swiss dialect, but as long as he hasn't changed his skin colour he's not properly integrated. I'm not accepted due to my visible difference.

Racism in Switzerland is developing as there is no proper mechanism in place and the people attacked are not profitable from an electoral perspective. There is an article in the penal code that punishes racism, but it is only for acts carried out publicly and state prosecutors have to lodge a complaint. But you can't force them to deal with a case.

If someone is a victim of racism by say a housing or job agency, there is nowhere for them to go to complain. They either have enough money to hire a lawyer or they drop it. There are lots of cases like that which let racism develop as the victims don't have the means to take things any further and the legal and judicial structure is inadequate.

But despite this, there are lots of positive signs. More and more Africans are taking part in political life in Switzerland and becoming recognised by the population. Ricardo Lumengo [an Angola-born former asylum seeker who in 2007 became the first black elected to the House of Representatives] was elected just when the [rightwing] Swiss People's Party had a record number of voters.

That's encouraging and very positive. But Lumengo is not the only one. There are more and more Africans who are benefiting from the Obama effect and I think this phenomenon will continue.

swissinfo: You've lived in Switzerland for longer than you did in the Congo. Do you feel more Swiss or Congolese?

K.M.: I have certainly become slightly Swiss, but I only notice when I'm abroad. They're clichés but I don't like it when things don't work properly and I appreciate cleanliness. Not that these things don't exist in Africa.

And there are Swiss values that I value like consensus, which is also important in Africa, and cultural diversity.

Perhaps by creating this university it might help strengthen ties between Swiss and Africans as we share many common values.

swissinfo-interview: Simon Bradley in Geneva

In brief

In 2007 nearly 144,000 foreigners took up residence in Switzerland, an increase of 45 per cent from 2005.

The three cantons with the largest number of permanent foreign residents are Zurich (299,842), Vaud (195,071) and Geneva (163,951).

The three cantons with the largest proportions of foreign residents are Basel City with 33.3 per cent (56,106 people), Schaffhausen with 31.6 per cent (16,323 people), and Basel Country with 29.9 per cent (48,719 people).

According to Federal Migration Office statistics from the end of August, only three per cent of foreigners who are permanent Swiss residents come from Africa.

Switzerland boasts only a small handful of black parliamentarians. Apart from Lumengo in the House of Representatives, Carl-Alex Ridoré, who was born in Haiti, has held the post of head of the Saane district since July 2008.

In canton Neuchâtel Nathalie Fellrath, who was born in Switzerland to a Gabonese mother, is a member of the cantonal parliament and Rupan Sivaganesan, from Sri Lanka, is a local politician in canton Zug.

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