Who is Babah Tarawally?
After fleeing Sierra Leone for the Netherlands 17 years ago and spending the first seven of those years filing an asylum application, Babah Tarawally began working for independent media outlets in Africa. Alongside this work, he contributes stories and columns to several newspapers. His novel De god met de blauwe ogen (‘The blue-eyed god’) was published in 2010 by KIT. Babah lives with his partner and two daughters in the Netherlands, though is currently working on a project in Sierra Leone.
In mid-November, Dutch children and their parents assemble at the bank of a river to welcome the arrival of Saint Nicholas and his Black Piets. This yearly event is perhaps the last tradition that reminds the Dutch of their glorious, domineering past.
By Babah Tawarally
The event marks the beginning of a month of euphoria. Shopping centres, schools and workplaces are visited by a man impersonating the fourth-century noble white bishop, Nicholas (known as Sinterklaas in Dutch), and his strange black servants who are all named Zwarte Piet (literally 'black Peter'). They dance around like drug-addicted monkeys, throwing candy to nearby children.
I have been confronted with this unavoidable episode for the past 17 years, and every time I am struck by the juxtaposition of grand jubilation and the dark history of slavery.
On 5 December, the last day before this holiday season comes to a close, the evening is celebrated with an exchange of gifts within families. Poems are written in the name of the saint. These poems reflect one’s agitation, satisfaction and dissatisfaction, and provide space to say things to your loved ones that you would not normally dare to say.
With children of my own, I’ve realized how important this is for them. During the festive period, every night before going to bed, they sing seasonal songs. They leave their shoes in front of the door, with the hope that the bishop and his Black Piets will stop by and fill them with gifts.
Critics and defenders will not relent in their efforts to speak up about this tradition. Critics see it as nothing but a derogatory Dutch marketing tool that is not so different from 200 years ago when slaves were considered commodities. For the defenders, it marks the last remaining tradition of a nation fighting to hold onto its identity.
Given its controversial undertones, there are attempts to rewrite the tradition in a more politically correct manner. In one original story, the white bishop, accompanied by his black slaves, contributes charitably to the poor. More recently, stories have been told to mask the fact that this event has anything to do with slavery. One frequent take you hear is that the Black Piets are not slaves: they got their dark skin by going down the chimneys at night to bring gifts to the children. But how many houses these days have chimneys?
At home in Holland, we cook on gas stoves – that’s why my children put their shoes in front of the door. So, I cannot sell the chimney story to them.
Read all the other columns in the series Africans going Dutch.