Passion and joie de vivre are palpable in Victoria’s and Vancouver Island’s Afro-Caribbean communities. Supported by elders and inspired by youth, these local Black leaders work tirelessly to educate the wider community, to champion and mentor in their organizations, to celebrate culture, and to keep the flames of their African heritage burning bright.
Silvia Mangue has a passion, actually several overlapping passions: supporting Black entrepreneurs and youth, educating the community, and bringing the British Columbia Black History Awareness Society into the 21st century. Born in Equatorial Guinea, Silvia came to Canada by way of Spain, where she spent many of her childhood years. It is her country of birth, however, that holds a special place in Silvia’s heart. Her return to Equatorial Guinea at the age of ten for a two-year stay, Silvia describes as “the happiest years” of her life.
President of the B.C. Black History Awareness Society since 2017, Silvia is focused on growing the membership and is actively recruiting committed members, particularly those who share her vision for supporting Black entrepreneurs and youth. Silvia, an entrepreneur herself, founded the elder-care service, Kulea Love—“kulea” a Swahili word that means “caring from the heart.”
When asked how knowledgeable the wider community is about Black history in B.C., Silvia says there isn’t much knowledge “even in the Black community” and that her own son asked her “if Black pioneers existed” in British Columbia. “This is why we have to work so much harder,” says Silvia. Her goal is to add more educational presentations to her community work. Silvia regularly visits local schools to talk about B.C. Black history and even recently presented at William Head Institution, a correctional facility near Victoria. It was an experience Silvia describes as inspiring and enlightening. Despite being a champion for Black history education, Silvia doesn’t think “education about Black history should be mandatory” and that “the desire to learn should come from within, from curiosity.” However, Silvia believes exposure to other cultures in general is important, especially in this young, diverse country: “Now we are here, we are all Canadians. Let’s treat each other as we deserve, with love and respect.”
Pulchérie Mboussi never slows down, moving from one idea or event to another with boundless energy and enthusiasm, her generous smile inviting anyone and everyone along for the fun. Organizer in chief for the many public events and celebrations hosted by the Victoria African Cultural Society (VACS), including the popular AfricaFest, Pulchérie brings the cultural heart of the African continent to Vancouver Island. The concerts, dance performances, film screenings, and fashion shows are most certainly celebratory in nature, but underneath all the fun and glamour, VACS has a serious agenda.
When Pulchérie first moved to Victoria from Quebec City seven years ago, she was unprepared for what seemed like a widespread lack of knowledge in the community about Black people. She would call her friends back in Quebec to say that she felt like she had just “immigrated again.” It bothered her especially that people she met in Victoria would generalize that Black people were just “African” and not even distinguish between the many countries in Africa (nevermind consider other countries of origin). “After twenty years in Canada, the first time someone asked me if I was African was here in Victoria. It shocked me. It was like me asking someone if they are European. I am not African, I am Cameroonian. I am a Cameroonian-born Canadian,” says Pulchérie.
These experiences motivated Pulchérie to form a society to celebrate African culture and raise awareness in the community. At first, it was named the Victoria African Cultural Society, but Pulchérie says that she had a few Caribbean friends, so she thought, Let’s make it an African-Caribbean society. Over time, however, Pulchérie felt that the society’s mission was getting confused and wanted to refocus on her initial mandate: “to raise awareness about the African continent, its 54 countries and more than 3000 ethnic groups.”
When thinking about what it means to be a welcoming society, Pulchérie says it’s crucial that the receiving society know something about the newcomers who are coming: “You can try to have an inclusive society and bring people together, but nothing will change if you don’t learn something about where people come from and what they believe in. Canada will get there.”
Originally from Gulu, Uganda, Alfred Okot Ochen is one of the founding members of the African Heritage Association of Vancouver Island, known more commonly by its acronym, AHAVI. Two words come to mind when one meets Alfred: humility and intelligence. Not one to seek the spotlight, Alfred is that special kind of leader who chooses to lead from behind, encouraging and propelling others forward.
In 2004, Alfred was a university student and had only been in Canada for one year when he and a few elders in the Black community came together to formulate the constitution that would be the backbone for what is now AHAVI. Alfred says that the AHAVI vision at the time was that the association would be an umbrella organization for all the Afro-Caribbean associations in Victoria and on Vancouver Island. Officially, AHAVI’s mandate is: “to build a united and strong community by cooperatively organizing and supporting events and activities to meet the needs of Africans, people of African descent, and friends of Africa on Vancouver Island.”
Alfred believes it is vital for those of African descent to come together to “have a platform and welcome new members in the community” and says that “when there are successes we celebrate together; when there are difficulties in families, we are there for each other.”
Alfred says AHAVI has “come a long way” but acknowledges that “funding is always a struggle” and the association needs to raise more awareness. The long-term vision for AHAVI? To have its own centre. Alfred says that although he is AHAVI’s current president, he “claims no ownership” and will hand the leadership over to a new executive in October 2018 when elections are held. Alfred wants others to “have the experience” and opportunity to develop their own leadership skills, but will continue to provide support and guidance if needed.