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Saturday 1 November  
Chocolate models of Sinterklaas (left) and Zwarte Piet
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Amsterdam, Netherlands
Amsterdam, Netherlands

Africans going Dutch: Part 44 - Bishops and monkeys?

Published on : 23 September 2012 - 7:12am | By RNW Africa Desk (Photo: FlickrCC/Aldo van Zeeland)
More about:

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.

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.

Discussion

Samba 30 September 2012 - 3:14pm / Sierra Leone

You have a limited knowledge of the history of slavery, and the role the Dutch played. Please revisit your history books.

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Skelm49 24 September 2012 - 7:02pm / Portugal

Well Babah, it has nothing to do with slavery and the pieters are all whites with black faces. As a kid we used to have a fireplace and we left our shoes there. We were singing to the fireplace and suddenly sweets came down the chimney, covered with soot. As far we could see. Ran outside to look at the roof to see if the horse was there...
What happened was that our dad threw the sweets over our heads with a force into the fireplace and it bounced back into the living room. We believed in Sinterklaas 100%.
I was born in Suriname but I have never as a child have seen a black person in Pieter. They are race-less and sex-less. Often they are females.
You have listen too much to the PC Dutch who want to destroy a children feast. As adults, writing poems and making surprises is great fun. The Dutch have little traditions so please don't try to criticize the one tradition, which has nothing to do with slavery. Slaves were shipped from Africa to the West and no Dutchman ever saw them. Sold by their own kind but different tribe.

Samba 30 September 2012 - 3:13pm

I am quiet surprised with your knowledge of the Dutch history and the role the Dutch played in slavery. Please revisit your history books.

Benjamin Edward Hanson 24 September 2012 - 3:56am / USA

Great Read, I have just started reading the columns. Thanks Bab T for representing.

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