Do US presidential candidates care who Kwaku the plumber will vote for?

Waiting for a cab in The Bronx. Image by Damon Winter (NY Times).
Waiting for a cab in The Bronx. Image by Damon Winter (NY Times).

The lack of a distinct “African” category in polls or surveys in the United States make it impossible to definitively talk about the “African” perspective. However, according to “The Newest New Yorkers Study from 2013,” a study by New York City’s Department of City Planning, the city has the highest concentration of Africans nationally. That coupled with the fact that Africans are driving the recent growth in the number of black people here, means African immigrants are, and will be, an important demographic for future elections. From talking to Ghanaians in the Bronx, one day after the much discussed Bernie Sanders rally, there have few attempt to reach the proverbial “African man on the street.”

In no stump speech will you hear about “Kwaku the plumber.”

Malata African Market off 167th and Grand Concourse is ostensibly a grocery store, but its main function is really as a community center with goods on display for decoration. Dilys Wireko, who has owned the market for 12 years, calls it “the politics store.”

Behind us, between aisles of assorted local beverages, fufu powder andBlack Stars jerseys so common to many stores in Ghana, a group of men, in a mixture of Twi and Ga, loudly debated the upcoming Ghanaian elections. Ms Wireko shrugs,

I love my customers, we’re all family here. They come gather here and watch matches together. When there is a big soccer match, I don’t even sell anything! I have to turn on this TV, the TV at the back, and the place is full.

Ms Wireko doesn’t often discuss politics herself, but regarding the American elections, she says firmly, beaming with a smile “I am for Hillary, full stop.”

Her 13 year old son and 6 year old daughter are the ones with whom she discusses the presidential race, usually as they watch commentary on CNN. They’ve taken to chanting “Donald Trump, Donald Trump,” knowing it will irritate her.

For many African immigrants, the Clinton name is a reminder of the 1990s economic boom. As a self-described man-of-the-streets or Asraini), Kofi Antwi Okoh, told me:

Clinton was the best president I ever had. When I came to this country in 1995, when someone gave you one dollar, it was like today’s $100. When she comes, the life of Ghanaians will be better.

Samuel Osei, a local fashion designer echoes this saying:

I had a job at the post-office and everything was okay. Now everything has changed…. When Bush came, he came to kill people. He took all the money Clinton had saved and spent it on the war and brought the debt.

American dream, I heard about America, I want a good business. So I am going to America, now all my businesses have collapsed, I have only been able to lay blocks for my house in Ghana.

Bill Clinton’s first trip to Africa was to Ghana in March 1998, where over half a million people gathered to see him at the Independence Square. Ghana then president, Jerry John Rawlings, would reciprocate and visit Washington the next February.

The only Sanders fan to be found here, is a chartered accountant. Moses Mensah explains that “when it comes to economics, his ideas produces better jobs than Clinton’s.” Mr. Mensah who is the New York chairman of the National Democratic Congress party in Ghana, finds that Sanders appeals to his socialist ideas like the NDC’s in Ghana, inherited from the first president Kwame Nkrumah. “Clinton used to be my lady” he explains “but as Sanders came on board, I shifted to this guy.”

When I brought up the question of US-Africa policy, Mr. Mensah nodded:

America has a special foreign policy. They go where they can gain something. They don’t have permanent friends. They have permanent interests. That is the underlying principle of American foreign policy.

To be sure, On the 21st April the Africa America Institute will hold a forum on “Setting U.S. Policy in Africa for the Next U.S. President” with representatives from each campaign and where “congressional leaders, U.S. government officials, policy experts and Members of the African Diplomatic Corps to discuss and propose U.S.-Africa policy priorities for the next Administration.”

But events like this don’t make up for the lack of outreach to the communities here, and perpetuate the problem of overlooking voices and opinions from members of the communities who see a connection between their livelihood here and an ability to contribute back to the continent.

For Bobby Digi, an activist of Nigerian descent involved in Staten Island’s African-American-Caribbean community and the owner of the first African-Diaspora gallery Canvas@Studio150 in the borough, the political outreach and conversations to convince the people in the African community to organize must come from the bottom up.

After attending Bernie Sanders’ rally in Harlem with Harry Belafonte, former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner, Erica Garner (the daughter of Eric Garner, murdered by police), Digi planned on allowing the Sanders campaign to use his gallery space and give them any resources needed to reach the diaspora community there.

Having worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign and as a guest at one of his debates. Digi is one of the few links between the national campaign, and the local communities on the ground.

Sadly, for the majority of people I spoke to, there isn’t the general feeling that there is a permanent interest in the African communities in the U.S. For the amount of attention and organizing looking at electoral democracy in Africa, the effort towards America’s Africans here leaves much to be desired.

Anakwa Dwamena

Anakwa Dwamena is a reporter-researcher at the New Republic.

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