Conversation with Pamela Ohene-Nyako

Historian in becoming, Communicator, Activist, Multifaceted artist, Founder of Afrolitt’

Some women scream inspiration, motivation and admiration. So when you find out what their history is, where they actually come from, the steps they took to arrive where they are, it relieves you. It makes you ponder about the tools necessary for you to truly make manifest the best of yourself.

Pamela is that type of woman.

Pamela is of Swiss and Ghanaian background. In Switzerland, she created the new, yet already successful literary group regarding literature from Africa and its diaspora called Afrolitt’. It is one of a kind in the region as it questions how stories featured in Black fiction can relate to oneself, one’s surroundings and enable empathy to others’ experiences.

She is also a militant and an active member of different groups fighting against racism and sexism. I really like the fact that she’s not only active but also respectful of her own energy. Everything she does is always related to who she is, whether it’s history, literature or activism.

Pamela’s travels changed her perspectives and reinforced her personal projects. Writing is also a powerful tool in her life and that is what Sebenni ni Taama (Traveling and Writing) is all about. We talked about activism, deconstructing our privileges, nervous breakdown, Black mental health, traveling solo and much more. I trust that you will be as inspired by our conversation as I am. Be sure to follow Afrolitt’s FB page.

Tell me more about yourself. Where are you from? What are you doing right now?

I was born and raised in Switzerland. My history is related to a history of migration, of different people meeting and of colonialism. Who I am is related to my family history. My great grandfather was born and bred in Switzerland and travelled to the Philippines. He married my great grand-mother, who is a mix of Spanish and Filipina. My grandfather grew up there as a White privileged middle upper class man. He moved to Europe and married my grandmother who was from Germany and they had my uncle and my mom. My mom had this very good friend who was getting married to a Ghanaian so she decided to travel to Ghana and that is how she met my dad.

It’s funny because we often hear about African orality and the rest of the world being anchored in writing. However, most of my history has been transmitted orally through my White part of the family. In my African family, there has been silence and amnesia until quite recently. I now know that my grandmother was a professional stenographer and businesswoman and my grandfather was one of the directors of the bank of Ghana. I still got a lot to know about them, my father and my uncles. On both sides, I come from a middle class well-educated family. My history is related to colonialism but we were the privileged ones.

I consider myself today a Black feminist because of the sexism and racism I firstly experienced within my Black and White families. I had a very difficult time being a young mixed girl, which explains why I fight against racism today. I understood what sexism was after I understood what racism was. At the same time, I still have to deconstruct my class privilege.

I went to University in Geneva, I studied International Relations and I am currently doing my Master’s in history. I worked in communication and PR in between my BA and MA in a private agency and I gathered a lot of experience within associative and collective groups.

How did Afrolitt’ begin?

Going back to me being that soul-searching mixed child, I turned out to make the wrong 2decisions as a teen such as falling in love with the wrong people, which ended up in emotional, physical and psychological violence. At some point, I decided to put all my energy to work and studies, trying to avoid my issues doing this, which eventually led me to the hospital.

You can’t fully understand the spirit behind Afrolittif you don’t understand that nervous breakdown. I ended up in a psychiatric service where I had to take medication. I had emotional and identity issues, so I decided to do a psychotherapy. But the therapists did not understand the racial and sexist paradigms and issues I was dealing with. Therapy did help me, but I had to find other tools to get better. Those tools were (and still are) music, reading novels and writing.

Therefore, books helped my therapy. I knew that Black people wrote novels but I never had the chance to get them and read them. Whilst going through this, I needed those books to help me find answers to my racial and gendered issues. In that process, I came across Léonora Miano “Blues pour Elise”. For the fist time I thought “this is me, I am not alone”.

After a few years reading all those books by myself, I felt I needed to share their insights. A very close friend of mine had a few home-based all female reading meetups. I loved them and I thought that I was ready to do it more openly. It was not planned; I just decided that I was going to do a meetup called Afrolitt. I never thought there would be such an interest for it. I want Afrolitt’ to be a platform that emerges from an Afro-European experience in which we also talk about us Black people from Switzerland.

What about travelling?

Chale Wole Festival in Accra

Travelling is also a tool but it came later because you need money to travel. One year after the breakdown, that is when I really started traveling and taking prolonged weekends. At first, I did it with my boyfriend at the time, but then I reached a point where I wanted and needed to do it by myself.

The first travel I did by myself was the in US: New Orleans, Boston, Chicago … The longest travel I did was two months and a half in Ghana last summer. It was the first time my dad wasn’t there to welcome me in our home. It was amazing.

It was just before Afrolitt’ began and this long travel also gave the project an impulse. The atmosphere was futuristic, especially during the Chale Wole Festival in Accra where I met amazing creative people.

When you are always fighting against racism and sexism, you are always fighting against something and hardly making time for yourself. You then ask yourself “What do I actually want?” “What does this future mean for me?”

Thinking about these amazing people using arts to create and think about society, politics, I can now see Afrolitt’ being something more, not only gatherings around books.

What about your experience as part of the collective Afro-Swiss?

4It’s an everyday enriching experience. The way I see it, we are a bunch of badass incredible women who collaborate on great projects! The women in the group are all very different and I think that, yes, it’s necessary for me to be part of this all Black committee; we then collaborate with allies who can be from different backgrounds. At the same time, I no longer need to be solely in a collective of people of African descendent. I will never say that anti-Black racism does not affect me, it has and will probably still affect me, but I now have the tools. I healed, my soul is healed, which means that I feel ready to gather other experiences. I figured I can also be an ally for other struggles going on like anti-Muslim racism, which is a huge thing right now. You are never born a militant, you eventually become one with time, with knowledge and you gather courage.

There is nothing romantic about it, there is the negative and the positive and it’s the combination of the two that make it beautiful because you gain more and more respect for people you work with, when you see that though there are tensions, everyone is willing to make it work. Yeah, we are badass with the good and the bad (laughs)!

Studying, working, managing the literary platform, being involved in associations. How do you do it all? What would you say to people who have lots of projects and are willing to do more?

I think that part of the work relies within you. I’m not saying that this is a general toolbox anyone can apply. When I wanted to do everything at the same time, I actually crushed because my foundation wasn’t strong enoughIt’s actually a process. I needed to make sure my personal foundation was strong enough. At the same time, while building this foundation, I gathered my tools and I’m still using a combination of these tools in whatever I do.

You also need to trust the energies you get. Of course, a lot of it has to do with your will and determination. However, you can’t just force things on you because you may crush. Sometimes the signs are going to tell you “hey this is not for now”. Accepting that maybe what you want is not going to work out or maybe it’s just not the right time yet. You need to hear those signals, see them, be all eyes open. You need to be aligned with this inner voice, with your emotions, without being ashamed of them but instead learning how to deal with them.

This foundation helps you gain confidence because there will always be challenges. And sometimes, yes, you might have to accept that the rhythm is going a little bit quicker for a while. Being open to change, this is the most beautiful thing you could do for yourself. A quote by Octavia Butler says “Change is God and God is change.” You can be an atheist and still get the message from this quote. Each time you resist to change, your life repeats itself and you make the same mistake, over and over again. In my opinion, it’s about acknowledging I made a mistake and seeking what it is I can do to make a change. So I would say it’s important to know who you are and have your tools. It might look as if I’m doing multiple activities, but to me they’re all related to the same perspectives.

© Ashley Moponda and Pamela Ohene-Nyako