What it’s like to meet Wani Le Frere in Footscray – spoken word wunderkind, Afronaut, pioneer
I ride to meet spoken word poet Wani Le Frere on a warm day in February. I leave Northcote and head west. Along the Capital City Trail that was once Melbourne’s inner-circle train line, through basalt rail cuttings, past the zoo where monkeys call out, under the peppercorn trees lining the old stockyard route in Kensington where innumerable cattle and sheep were herded to market. Across the footbridge over the saltwater river, the Maribyrnong, the tang of saltbush and the stench of deep mud, marshlands and bird crap, the tide lapping upriver, past the new Regional Rail Link, the bluestone columns nearby covered in curiously polite ‘Police are bad’ graffiti tags, riding past the unfinished Chinese Buddhist temple being built brick by brick, its enormous lake-bound statue overlooking Vietnamese fishermen drinking water from Coke bottles and waiting for bream, weaving past a defunct shipping railway. And here – the Footscray Arts Centre, a green lawn sloping down to palm trees and the river, and beyond, the giant’s Lego playpen of the docks and a swathe of cranes in the city beyond, working tirelessly to build apartment blocks for Chinese buyers. Footscray – the suburb where migrants first settle, from 19th century Irish to the post-war Southern European wave.
I’ve been thinking as I ride of the Muslim African lads I saw one recent summer at Lorne – a swag of them, smoking shisha, jubilantly chasing soccer balls, erupting from the water off each other’s backs, sending fine spray high into the air. And how – in that white town – they stood out and were aware of their standing out and yet came anyway – and a sign that the first African generation might be emerging in earnest, coming out of the new arrival suburbs – Footscray, Dandenong, Noble Park – and making their mark.
But what stands in their way? What is it like to break into this society?
It’s for that reason I’ve come to meet Wani.
I know two things about him: he is outspoken – and wary of giving his story over to whitey. It has happened many times already – his own truth, moulded and massaged to suit white needs.
For race-baiting white conservatives, the story they tell is a twist on the Black Male Threat narrative. Here, they repurpose the vicious old African-American stereotypes: dangerous, lawless, physical, gang members, rapists. For progressives, it is to show that black African migrants are the archetypal Grateful Migrants, whose stories of woe and terror, of surviving child-led militias and civil wars and tribal insurrections and refugee camps, are all fodder to show their goodness and worthiness, and forever they must perform this gratitude with giant white smiles. In turn, these stories show the goodness and worthiness of white progressives who make public acts of acceptance through Intercultural Celebrations and Multicultural Music Days and Citizenship Ceremonies.
But where does that leave people like Wani? How can you carve out space to simply be? How tedious, how tiresome, how draining.
Wani is sitting alone at an outside table shaded by a giant umbrella. We shake hands and begin at once to discuss whether we can talk in earnest. Will I take his story and whiten it, he asks – will I make it palatable, a migrant story? What can I say to this? Of course not, I say. But I will not know if I have succeeded until he reads it and sees himself.
I can understand his concern. A grateful migrant story of Wani Toa (his real name) would be simple and rewarding. It would start with the vast lawless Congo, whose civil war would grow larger and larger in the 1990s, eventually become known as Africa’s world war, as nearby nations like Rwanda entered the fray to carve out informal turf, smuggling routes of coltan – needed to make smartphones – and seek reprisals against genocidal killers. It would show Wani separated from his parents by war, raised by American missionaries, and then sent to New Zealand, a refugee. It would show a hard working, inspirational young man who played for his new country in basketball and who might well have made the Olympics had injury not stopped him. A young man who moved then to Australia and found solace in spoken word to tell his story, and who began to work organising de-facto social services for newly arrived Africans and Islanders in Melbourne’s booming, low-infrastructure western suburbs. And this would be true, and it would also not be true. Because it would miss a great many complexities. It would miss his anger at what society expects of him. It would miss his frustration at being seen as a threat by white women. It would skirt around the issue of blackness, and frame Wani as a multicultural success story. And there, the story would end. But I am interested in what happens next. He arrives. He finds a bewildering new society. He is made black for the first time.
Here, then, is my attempt.
Wani is easy to like. He smiles easily, and laughs often. He wears a silver cross that looks like it was cut out of a dog tag. He wears a black tshirt, blue suede shoes, green-gray pants, a maroon cap. He has not dressed to stand out. His English is tinged with American. From movies? No: he was raised by missionaries for several years during the war. But we will not speak about the war. He does not once mention it, or how he was separated from his parents. His voice is somehow placeless, from everywhere and nowhere, and when, an hour into our conversation, he mentions how he thinks of himself as a third-culture kid, it shakes my assumptions. Here I am, waiting for my African story to package, to make palatable. It makes me think of how Chinese and Italian restaurants here are adaptations to Anglo tastes – how we expect that difference is domesticated, made digestible, easy, understandable – a little different, a novelty, an exoticism, a diversion to chew and forget.
In Wani’s eyes, the sheer visibility of blackness must be appeased through giant smiles, hard work, taxpaying, African restaurants, Kenyan funk bands, second-gen doctors, lawyers, NGO workers, businesswomen, AFL players, basketball players, rugby, through hip-hop and song, through connecting us economically to Africa rising – this is how you pay us – the white majority, that is – back for the thing that we were born to: being part of the group, the belonging that accretes without question. Gratitude and lawfulness – these are the coin in which you, migrant, must pay, for you are forever in our debt.
He has the fluid movements of an athlete, though injury cruelled his hopes of making the Olympics or the NBA. “I want to act as a trampoline for others,” he says, and ripples his shoulders as if propelling someone high. When I spill water, he reaches out long fingers and moves my phone and orders it neatly nearby, and traces the spill, pulls the puddle towards him. He tells stories with the still life of my pen, phone, notebook. He tells me stories of police beatings and tricks to getting pepper spray out of your eyes and how to use a cloth nappy correctly and how to appear harmless, non-rapey to white women – with the same aghast laugh, an easy laugh. A disbelieving laugh? Not quite. Gallows humour? Perhaps.
What he would like me very much to avoid is the white saviour’s narrative – that well-meaning storyline that comes easily to the lips and animates many people in Western countries. That feeling of Making a Difference to These Poor People. But to make a difference requires that there are poor, benighted people, rendered simple through need. And this difference is also a way of performing goodness – for white Christians and humanists and progressives to show the world that they are good people.
The story runs beneath heavy handed foreign aid, under NGOs shipping second hand tshirts to Africa (destroying domestic industry in the process), and makes possible gap years spent building houses for orphans. The story enshrines the world’s wealthy and powerful (who happen, at the moment, to be mainly Western), reaching out benevolently to raise up and support the poor and powerless. “The idea that we’ve got to be eternally grateful – I mean come on,” Wani says. “People want to feel like they need to be applauded for they have done, that they are good Australians for saving these people.”
The issue is simple, he says: Westerners want to feel powerful. And that means they often wrest control of others stories. Perversely, Wani says, it’s the do-gooder mentality that can be most detrimental. “Your story gets hyper fantasised. People want to know all the grit of life, what happened. But war and genocide? Man, I don’t want to keep reliving that,” he says. “My life didn’t begin at colonisation or slavery or war. My country wasn’t discovered. It was there all along,” he says, laughing now. “But when you tell another side of the story, everybody’s so shaken – it’s like we don’t want to hear that.”
What does he say that shakes his audiences? “I speak about race, man. And they get quiet, they get weird, they get awkward. But if the same thing I just said was said by a white person, everybody’s like yeah fine. It’s like they want our stories assimilated a particular way. And I don’t think you can assimilate people because that means you want them to drop everything that makes them, them, and become like you. But I can’t become like them.”
When Wani performs, he is billed as an “African spoken-word performer,” not simply as a spoken word performer. When he is interviewed, people want to extract his war story. No wonder, then, that he is reluctant to speak, to hand over control of his story to me, a white man. It is the main reason he started performing in the first place – to narrate his own life, his own experience.
“People can’t imagine there’s layers to you. You’re just this one thing. So most of us have ended up trying to tell our own stories,” he says. It is a little like hearing about feminism as a man for the first time, he says. The first thing you think? Women are trying to take over. But then you realise all women want is the same power as you, the same ability to move confidently through the world. So too for whites talking about others. “I almost feel it’s about control – about wanting to control the narrative and being scared that the narrative doesn’t include them,” he says.
He toys with a napkin. A mother keeps a watchful eye on her cavorting toddler, and momentarily, we both watch this small joy.
Control, he says, means choosing where the story starts.
If it were up to him, Wani would choose to start in Ranui, West Auckland, where he grew up. So let’s start there. Ranui might be the closest thing New Zealand has to a ghetto – a concentration of poverty and low expectations and stereotypes. And that inflected the futures of many of his peers and friends, dragging the curve of their hopes lower and lower.
The Toas were one of the first African families to arrive in Auckland. Wani was the first black kid in a school of more than 3000 students. He was a diligent kid. His father, a preacher, would return to the Congo often. Sometimes he would go for six months. Once, he went for two years. And so it fell to Wani, the eldest, to help his mother raise his two brothers, both much younger, and his younger sister. Then came an endless supply of baby cousins to tend when their parents went away. “I’m done with having kids,” he says, laughing. He sketches in the air the right way to pin a cloth nappy, and tells me tips on Vaseline use for scratches and nappy rash for use with my young children.
The Toas settled, as migrants must, in the cheapest area they could find. Ranui had seven bottleshops and dozens of fast food outlets. Ritzy North Shore had one bottleshop and little fast food. Ranui had a huge obesity rate as well as high rates of poverty. “That’s not an accident,” Wani says. “You can go to a bad neighbourhood and think, look at these people, look at the mess and dirt, they’re so incompetent. Or you can drive to the same place and wonder how often the street cleaners come in comparison with the rich neighbourhoods. I can’t remember seeing a street cleaner come to Ranui.”
The stories Wani tells remind me more of the endemic poverty of some African-American communities, cut loose from the rest of society. I hadn’t known that progressive New Zealand, too, has such pockets kept from society. Ranui was migrant – Islander, Maori, Indian, African.
A sense of unfairness flowered in Wani. His smart, overqualified father, struggling for seven years to get his first job in social work. His father, always leaving for the Congo, for his other life. Wani’s domestic responsibilities, looking after siblings while dad was away. The looks he got as the first black kid in school. The street smarts needed to navigate gang colours and turf. But he did not show it. His anger went inwards, and turned sharp. Basketball gave him his first release. He started on his 12th birthday and went hard. “When every kid was at home and spending time with their dads, I was out playing,” he says, and his face quirks. “When everybody was asleep, I was up at 3 in the morning.” Really? Wani nods. He’d play 3am to 5am every day, come home and pretend he’d been asleep, take his brothers to school, go to school himself, finish school, play basketball until 5.30pm when the drug dealers and gangs would set up shop on the courts, go to work at a factory in the evenings to make cash for the family, come back, help his mum clean up, pretend to sleep, jump out the window – and play basketball again.
“I felt that life wasn’t fair. I couldn’t get to places because of what I was, but on a basketball court, you had a ball and you had a hoop and you had to get through me to get to that hoop,” he says, eyes flashing. “Nobody ever wanted to play against me because I was like I will destroy you and let you know about it.”
Wani’s particular delight was in taking down the rich North Shore team. There they were, warming up in their nice uniforms with expensive trainers, and there they were looking at laptop replays of past games. And there was Wani and his team, western suburbs and they looked it – netball bibs, socks shared between two people in quick-changes on the bench, socks that didn’t match, no coach. And the anger burned pure and bright – here was injustice made flesh. Most games he averaged 40 points. But at one home game against North Shore, he scored 75. Tunnel vision came over him, a curious mixture of rage and focus, and Wani scared his own team. All they did that game was pass to him – give him the ball, they’d shout, just give him the ball. And there’d be four North Shore players on him, no route to the hoop, nothing, and he scores anyway. Wani was short for a basketballer – just under six feet. North Shore’s average height was 6 foot 6 inches, with one guy 7 foot 2. But Wani carried himself like he was eight foot tall. He knew, deep down, that the North Shore kids weren’t jerks. They were nice guys. But Wani was angry and his anger had to be lanced. The other options were worse.
There were 37 young people in the photo of Wani’s first year high school class. Only four finished. At the age of 15, many of his schoolmates were pulled in for quiet chats with teachers. Had they thought about apprenticeships? University might not be an option. But there was a thousand dollar incentive for apprentices. Had they thought about leaving school, right now, and getting that money? Some took the bait. Many of the girls got pregnant as teenagers, and alcohol claimed more. Some killed themselves, and some were drawn into crime. Four of Wani’s friends are in jail – and for the long term. “The streets took so many of my friends,” he says. But he’d had seen what alcohol could do in his own family, and he was determined that would not be him. Basketball became his drug, his meaning, and his release.
Did it pay off? At 14, he made the under 18s New Zealand team. No one under 17 had ever made it that far, he brags. He didn’t play for his country, though. It cost too much money to play internationally, and the training was in North Shore, which was hard to get to. He was also a track and field prodigy in running and javelin, in the junior squad aiming at the 2012 Olympics. Success, surely, would come, money or no.
But then came that curse of athletes everywhere. Injury. Wani tore his calf severely when new starting blocks malfunctioned, pinning his feet as he leaped forward at the starter’s pistol. He recovered from that one just in time for his next one. In a basketball game, he went up high for a dunk. An opponent jumped too, and they collided in midair and Wani flew sideways and down, crushing the socket of his shoulder joint. This time, it would take years to recover. Stripped of the competition, the proving grounds that gave him meaning, Wani fell into a great bleakness. He took it deep inside and did not say anything to anyone. He didn’t even let his sorrow show. But he was not doing well. It was, he says now, the darkest time of his life.
When you’re 16, you have the world ahead of you. That’s what they say. So as Wani tried to make his broken body respond as it had before, to restore its limberness, he dreamed of his comeback. He’d come back at 18 and still be the best. But when he returned, a little gingerly, a little more cautious, he found the game had changed. The weaker players had dropped out and a sea of tall, fast players now dominated. “You’re still 5 foot 11, everyone else is 6 foot 7 and they’re strong,” he says. No-one knew Wani’s name. “There are different kinds of athletes – has-beens, could-of-beens, should-of-beens, and never-was. You know, the old dudes who say, back in my day. But that was me. I became the one thing I hated,” he says. Two of his friends would go on to play in the NBA, and another thirty or so in top US college teams. That was Wani’s dream. But it wasn’t to be.
Wani had got his body back, but without the dream that animated it. Both his mother and father had headed back to the Congo, leaving Wani as head of family. In his final year of school, he threw himself into paid work at the factory, pulling off 80 hour weeks. He skipped a few exams, but thought he’d still scrape by. But he failed by a single point on attendance. “That killed me,” he says. “That meant I couldn’t get into uni. Delivering that message to my parents was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’d failed my final year, and to an African family that was huge.”
And so, wounded in body and mind, Wani ran. His anger had gone, replaced by an all-consuming greyness. He had no future. Maybe, he thought, the problem was where he was. Maybe the problem was an African trying to make his way in the West against tall odds. Maybe if he found people who looked like him, he would fit. And so he left. He flew to Bukavu, on the far east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the Hutu killers of Rwanda once fled to and where resource-hungry militias have long warred for control. It was peaceful, now. Here, surely, Wani would find solace. A home.
He arrived, a hopeful migrant returning to an ancestral country. His first time in the DRC since he was a kid fleeing war. And he paced around Bukavu, a pretty city of wide roads running around the southernmost tip of vast Lake Kivu and up onto a peninsula, looking into the deep blue of the Great Rift lake. He was looking for something, but it was not there. When Wani thinks of that time now, he can glimpse it more clearly. It was identity, place, belonging. Of course. That ceaseless search for home. But at the time, he had no idea why he went. He just knew that he had to go. So he paced around Bukavu. He met people – family and family friends. But teens his age didn’t know how to place him. Soon, they gave him a nickname that meant “dark skinned white guy” and they laughed and laughed. But for Wani, the name meant more than that. It meant this home, too, was illusory. He had been rejected from New Zealand. And here, excited, he thought he was finally home. And they were telling him he was not one of them. They didn’t understand anything. They didn’t know what it was like to be black – to be forced to think about the colour of your own skin, the pigment stigmata. And he could say nothing to them, because to them, he was the lucky one – he had escaped the Congo when the world had turned mad and the killers came and the people became killers. And Wani knew full well that his own struggle was small, but knowing that brought no relief. “It kills you, man,” he tells me, toying with a sugar cube. “There is nothing worse than feeling like you don’t belong to anything and anywhere, knowing that wherever you go, you aren’t going to belong.”
The trip dragged on and Wani suffered inside and sweltered in the heat. Towards the end, though, something gave way. He met people he clicked with. And they realised, in turn, that he was not the stereotype – arrogant, wealthy – that they associated with ex-Congolese. And they reminded him very much of his Kiwi friends. And he started to realise that home was not a place but people. “Nobody can own a place. Each generation fades and passes. So you can’t tell me where I belong,” he says.
So when he came back to the Congo a couple of years later, Wani was ready for the place – ready to belong and not-belong, ready to straddle worlds. People knew him now. He was different. A different accent, a different story. But he was still one of them. And that feeling meant everything to Wani. The only time he’d felt like that in New Zealand was when he was winning games for his country in the reserves.
Wani took the ego hit and enrolled in a foundation course to get access to university. He did that, and got into a Bachelor of Arts. And there, at Auckland University, he kept drifting. And then one day, he was shooting hoops at the university basketball court and a white Kiwi guy was watching. His name was Jeremy, and he gave off an evangelical glow. Wani was skeptical. Jeremy approached him between games and plunged right in. Had he heard of Jesus? Wani scoffed. Asking a preacher’s son if he’d heard of Jesus? And besides, he was most definitely not in the mood to entertain such ideas. He was still awash with misery. “It was the worst thing to ask me that that time,” he says now. But Jeremy was persistent. How had he realised that Wani was suffering, when he’d kept it from everyone else? Day after day, Jeremy from the Christian Club came and sat patiently and radiated hope and goodwill and other irritating religious tropes. He asked if he could play, and Wani shrugged him off. But in the end, Jeremy simply wore Wani down. There was something comforting in his constancy. “I’d never had a constant, because he’d either left or I’d left, or people had died or got hooked on drugs or gone to jail. But this guy just kept coming,” Wani says, and lets out an incredulous laugh. “The irony! Of all the things I dreaded most… I was mad at my dad for being absent and he was my idea of Christianity so I was resentful of it. I was mad at white people for hating me and then I was mad at basketball. But I meet a white guy who’s a Christian at a basketball court. And he’s the one. Oh, it made me laugh.”
That was one strange awakening. Another white Kiwi, a friend, would bring another: the knowledge of black consciousness. From a blonde haired blue eyed white guy, Wani had his first introduction to the wider sweep of blackness – colonisation, slavery, and their long wake.
With religion came a new stability. At last, the turbulence seemed to be receding. In 2012, like many other Kiwis before him, Wani felt the pull of a larger island. He quit university and came to Australia to assume yet another identity: African-Australian.
In Australia, Wani would undergo yet another transformation, leaving his dreams of sport behind in favour of expression. The quiet boy who took life’s pain inwards had gone. His years of painting and doodling cartoons gave way to a fierce desire to perform his story and to embrace, as much as possible, who he was.
Wani started going to open mike nights in Footscray and the city. He can still remember the feeling he got when he saw a black man perform. “I was like, man, that’s a brother – and he is doing it,” he says. “And then I saw a woman, Aaliyah, and it tripped me up.” And then, one night, he took to the stage himself. The microphone was his. There was a small crowd, but they were listening. And Wani spilled himself out, all his anger and vulnerability, for strangers. And he saw that he made some people uncomfortable – that his anger was something people shied away from – but it was his truth. But there was a boy who said nothing through the show. He sat there watching as others came up to Wani afterwards, waiting for everyone to leave. Only then did he come forward and tell Wani – you said what I’ve always wanted to say but never knew how. That got Wani good. It didn’t matter if he made whites uncomfortable, if he challenged the idea that Australia was the supreme multicultural nation where we All Get Along. “If me being up here makes people feel like that, I gotta keep doing it. If I don’t do it, who will?” he says.
From there, he found his way, quickly, to Still Nomads, an African-Australian artistic collective. It took getting used to. From being a visible minority, from standing out – here, he was one of the crowd. They were all different – gay, straight, Muslim, Christian – but they happened to all be black. And they were talking black politics, talking racial discrimination and about how African teens were being hassled by police in Footscray and Kensington. It felt weird. So weird, in fact, that he suggested including other groups, too. But someone sat him down and said – Wani, when you go to a movie where you don’t see any black people in it, nobody calls those white movies. And Wani thought to himself – yes! At his school in Auckland, he was the only black kid out of 3000 students. And no-one called it a white school or an Islander school. It was just a school.
Still Nomads gave Wani a taste of what life could be like – to walk, think, talk unfettered, to stand tall. More than that: to challenge how Africans were seen in Australia and New Zealand. And to think beyond the commonplace myths told about how Africa won freedom from Europe and promptly messed it up. To show the successes, who far outweighed those struggling to adapt. The Sudanese PhD students, Eritrean businesspeople, Tanzanian artists. But it taught him new constraints, too. Nearly all its members were women, and they told him to read up on feminism. “I found it hard to lose power as a man,” he admits.
It had been a long journey for Wani. By his estimate it took 23 years for him to get to the point where he felt comfortable in his own skin, a black man in white majority countries. “It took so long to feel that something wasn’t clicking right, to know that I was feeling broken and empty and weird. You go through school and you come out one of two ways – either wanting to completely disconnect from who you, but your pigmentation won’t let you do that. Or you’re mad – you feel like you’re less than nothing, and that’s not right.”
That second one was you, I say. He nods, once.
It’s no wonder, then, that Wani wants to be visible in a different way. Growing up on the rough streets of Auckland, he had no-one like him. He’s determined that when – if – he has children, he wants to be able to take them to a library and show them a book of what the first wave of African-Australians achieved. The good they did, the changes they wrought. The fact that they were there. “My generation – you always feel like everything you do, you’re pioneering,” he says.
He’s spot on there. I think for a moment of how the poor Irish were the racial pioneers of the 19th century – audible rather than visible, with their accent – and who settled in Footscray and Preston (then known as Irishtown), and who were widely distrusted and scorned for their radical Papism and revolutionary ideas. And I think of how Pauline Hanson rode the tide of suspicion during the 1990s Asian migration waves – and of how Southern European migrants numbered heavily amongst her supporters.
To be new is to have to break in a country, to teach people – one by one – to be comfortable with this change, this visible break in the way things supposedly always been. For Wani, it means that African-Australians have to make up for the sins of the few. “You have to work twice as hard to get half as much right,” he says. “You might do a gazillion good things, but the moment one person does something bad, everything we’ve ever done is flipped on its head.” I think, here, of Hamdi Ali and his constant smile. It must be wearying. No threat, no threat, no threat, it telegraphs. I am/we are no threat.
“Think of how much dope stuff the Muslim community has done here. Look where they at,” Wani says, laughing. “I can talk about the amazing achievements of the South Sudanese. But one fight at a train station – and look where they at. You know what I mean?”
Here, then, are the modifications Wani has made:
Smile at all times. “I can’t just not smile because people will be like oh, something’s up.”
On public transport, sit facing the window and stare out. “Just in case anybody else wants to sit next to me – I have to give them enough distance for them to be okay. When I first got here, I had empty seats next to me at rush hour. You can call it what you want, but it says something.”
Maintain a very safe distance from white women. “I don’t want to freak anybody out. Your genetic makeup as a black person is you’re a threat by default, and you walk through life making sure people don’t feel you’re a threat.”
When he gets off the train late at night, he maintains a strict distance from any white women – even if they’re in a large group. He can sense their wariness. It could easily turn to fear. “They freak me out,” he says. “If she calls the police and I call the police, I’m going to jail.”
To get a job, pull on a white suit. Downplay ethnic culture. Boost cultural familiarity – make clear the ‘Australian’ part of African-Australian is clearly visible. “I change how I speak, how I dress. You wake up in the morning and wear a white suit. You get home and you can take it off.”
Experiment with Anglo names. Wani’s friends ran their own version of the famous CV experiment, submitting applications with their real names – and with Anglo versions. From Wani to Wesley, say. “Do you know how many calls the white name got? No calls for the other one.
Be aware of the pit that yawns beneath you. “At school, I struggled thinking – if I do something bad, I’m getting expelled. If a white kid gets caught, his parents get called to have a meeting.
Do not believe the stories told about you and people like you. “As soon as African kids get to year 10, the school starts telling them not to do VCE because the school doesn’t want to look bad.”
This happened to four kids Wani knew – two South Sudanese, two Islander. All four excelled academically. But the school principal pulled them aside, one by one, and suggested quietly that TAFE might be a better option than university. Swayed by his authority, all four did so. And then, all four realised they’d been had. They could have got to uni, easily.
It’s hard for me, a classic white-middle-class-Anglo, to reconcile Wani’s account of Australian life with mine. How can we pass through the same places and provoke such wildly different responses? It challenges my belief in the idea that much of Australia is a safe place able to deal with difference. To be part of the ethnic majority is, as everywhere, to live life differently.
Racism can, of course, be combatted. Institutional slavery in the West is no more. Nations defined by single-ethnicity have widened into nations of parallel cultures. Cities open to the world have thrived, while hinterlands have dwindled. But the point Wani makes is that it is a constant fight. Racism is not thinking – it is unthinking. And this should be no surprise. Psychologists have shown that babies express racist preferences – they prefer to look at faces most similar to their own. Prejudice is a heuristic – a mental shortcut that allows our brains to simplify decisionmaking based on stereotypes and memories. Heuristics are useful. But they are shortcuts. They work by turning the world into a simpler model and discarding a great deal of information. They allow us to feel the comfort of knowing something.
For years now, African-Australians in the inner west have complained of police harassment. If they walked down the street, police would pull them aside. The message was clear: we’re watching. You’re a possible threat. Sometimes there is reason – there are still lost boys, lost this time in booze or drugs. If school doesn’t stick or you can’t find a job – the street beckons. It is an angry, listless life. And that creates the visible perception of threat – the threat that Wani spends his life defusing.
In 2013, a group of young African-Australian men won their civil case against Victoria Police over claims of harassment. During the trial, the men produced research they’d commissioned showing young Africans were stopped 2.5 times more often than the rest of the population – and yet committed significantly fewer crimes.
In December 2014, Wani flew to Sydney with friends to play in the South Sudanese national basketball tournament, which attracts many African-Australians. His team blitzed the competition. Jubilant, they hired a club for the evening in Kings Cross. There were hundreds of black faces from across Australia. Wani and his teammates were high on victory, talking carp, bragging with huge grins on their faces. Sometime after midnight, Wani and a couple of friends decided to leave. As a newcomer to Sydney, he didn’t know there was a curfew in place, stopping people from entering nightclubs after 1.30am. But he wanted to catch the last train. “We didn’t know our way around and Sydney transport is tricky – not like here,” he says. He and his friends stepped outside – and froze. Rows of police stood on either side of the street. Cars, riot shields, dogs, batons. They blocked off all three sides – but left a narrow gap near the Kings Cross station entrance. No-one was saying anything. The bouncer – a burly Islander – pulled Wani aside and said – the cops are looking for trouble. Better leave right now. And they did, walking down the empty street as rows of silent police waited for a club full of African-Australians. And then, without warning, the police moved in. A giant dog took down one of Wani’s friends and bit him, hard. An officer sprayed Wani with pepper spray. Somehow, the trio escaped and ran through the streets. They ended up at a hotel, where they slept on the floor of the foyer. Wani, in agony, poured milk into his eyes as his friends instructed. In the morning, the friend who was bitten had to go to hospital, where he would stay for days. The worst part was that a week later, a Sydney friend sent Wani the newspaper write-up. The gist was: police stop gang violence. “I was so pissed. My friends were so casual about it – I was like aren’t you guys mad? They’re like – bro, they do this to us all the time,” he says. Wani tells me this story peppered with disbelieving laughter, gallows humour. Later, I try to confirm this story, but I cannot.
It amazes me that Wani, for all his anger against the world, against people thinking the worst of him, against his dad, against his injured body – is able to switch from tales of his own beating to sunny and upbeat. Time has passed without notice. People have come and gone. Kids race around the grass and the sun chases Wani and I around the table in pursuit of shade. High cirrus traces the day. 25 years, I think, only 25 years and all this. His anger has forged him, it seems.
We talk about what it is like to be a father and I find myself confiding in a near stranger about how it broke me, early fatherhood, and made me again, how it felt like joining a cult – personality broken down and remade around the new being. Wani listens and tells his own stories.
The last story Wani tells me is of a soaring white building on the outer fringe of suburbia – Ecoville Community Centre in Tarneit. Wani lives nearby, and he wondered why such a building was not being used. Vandals had started moving in and tagging. Windows were broken. The basketball court was locked. And he spoke to his friends at Wyndham Council and they brokered a deal with the body corporate who controlled it, and gave him access to do art. Wani drew in the community centre. It echoed. It was a place designed for many, and soon, he felt odd being there. The story goes that Tarneit, the suburb, was once owned as a block of land by a wealthy Chinese man who sold it bit by bit to developers.
And this building, he says, was intended almost as a private park for the millionaire’s children, who did not use it. Then it passed to the body corporate, who also did not use it. They started installing higher fences and security cameras to ward off vandalism. But it was a cost, and so Wani’s pitch met receptive ears. What if, Wani asked, we did what it says on the tin and turn it into a community centre. And he managed to get permission, and the centre opened and Wani sat in it, and so did his friend, Ely, an Islander who lives locally. And then the children came, skulking in sideways, exploring this place, confident children and wary ones. The wary ones confessed later it was them who’d been tagging and breaking, and later still, they would become defenders of the centre, seeking out those who still dared tag. Then came loping teens to use the skateboarding ramp and to form tight knots of gossip, or to escape a home life that was hard; then came single mothers, bringing their charges along to play together while they nattered and enjoyed a reprieve. And then came organisations bearing food or help with domestic violence, and Wani and Ely pooled their money to buy breakfast for the children they knew were going hungry and would not eat otherwise, and they came at it sideways, the way that works – not top down with strangers tagging at risk kids or refugee kids unfed but by simply knowing these kids, approaching these kids, and saying there’s food there if you need it. And Ecoville grew and grew in a way most pleasing, in a way that community activists dream of – build it but will they come? – and the kids grow up fast, savvy eight year olds report strangers like me to Wani, playing dumb to suss out who this newcomer is, teens escaping, a small library growing, a boom box, play, an open space. Ely comes there daily to open and close and talk and Wani, too, comes to see this thing flourish.
But that is not where the story ends. The story never ends. When I first talk to Wani, it’s February of 2016. By the end of 2017, Ecoville will have been thrust onto the national stage, part of the Fear of African Crime moral panic gripping Melbourne. Images of graffiti and burned rooms at Ecoville, would-be gangsters hanging out, scared locals, rumours that it will be sold off. Herald Sun reporters manage to get sworn at and threatened when they arrive. Peter Dutton makes political hay by claiming Melburnians are too scared to leave their homes to go to restaurants. The Labor state government gets slammed for supposedly being soft on crime. South Sudanese community leaders decry the actions of wayward youth, or criticise the government for smearing a whole community. That very visibility of being black, that sense of being watched, judged, only intensifies. And Wani wins top spoken word events like Melbourne’s Slamalamadingdong and the VCA’s slam poetry competition. But these things are much less visible than a ruined community centre or a brawl in St Kilda or a trashed AirBnB.
So let me finish instead with a night in Werribee, that outer suburb sprouting around market gardens, the place that crops up in the media for youth crime or jokes about the sewage treatment works near the sea.
Wani has put on a night of performance in the stylish cultural centre there. I walk down the main street. It’s pretty – trees, the sound of the Werribee River behind. A crop of stylish Somalian girls in jilbabs and gold earrings comes chattering past. Inside the centre, a trio of jilbabes talk in casual strine. Everyone is dressed to the gills. And that fits, because Wani has named the event Sapologie, deriving from the Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People, the sapeurs of the Congo. Milling around in the foyer are Melbourne’s own sapeur set, ultra-fashionable Congolese men who save up their money for Saville Row attire. This crew are in grey suits and panama hats and sunglasses at night.
And the performance begins, and not one Anglo takes the stage. There are plenty in the audience, but it’s not our turn to speak. A striking young African woman steps up to and says three words: “Dear. Black. Men.” She is calling for her male counterparts to step up in their relationship game. A young Somali woman performs a piece about rape and her country’s fall and her father’s cancer. A Samoan woman begins: “I see my perpetrator reading from the pulpit.” And then Wani steps up. His mum and dad are here, watching him perform for the first time. He tears up when he sees them, but then snaps to it and performs a spoken word piece about the bloke ranting about Africans on the Vline train from Geelong. “May your family never have to know this”, he says, to the man on the train and to all who stayed silent. “May your body never become someone else’s apology.”