I am hanging out with Salma’s friends – almost all immigrants from countries in West Africa – in one of Berlin’s most popular parks. The men are jovial, each one with a story, each one a fighter, a survivor; some of them are awaiting full legal status. I am happy for two reasons: I am getting useful interviews for a book I am writing set in Berlin and I have finally overcome my reluctance to hang out in parks, especially ones full of black people.
I am conditioned to like parks. My father’s idea of paradise was a compound full of trees and greenery: plants he could recognise and name, plants that held promises of health and vitality – moringa, aloe vera or whatever other plant was rumoured to perform magic tricks in the human body. I have without a doubt inherited his love, not for health concoctions but for greenery.
When I first arrived in Berlin, I was fascinated by the ubiquity of parks. Sure, Abuja had Jabi Park where people either played sports or held open-air parties at weekends. But the gardens that littered my Abuja all served a purpose: a venue for the consumption of beer, spicy skewered meat called suya, fresh fish called point-and-kill roasted over open grills (because, in Abuja, why waste a perfectly good park when you can turn it into a beer garden?), all with music from loudspeakers filling the air and competing with conversations. What amazed me about the parks in Berlin was that fields with grass and trees could exist for no other purpose than providing people with a place to hang out. So why did I develop a reluctance to hanging out in parks?
It stemmed from a walk I took with a German friend through Görlitzer Park, one of the most notorious places for drug dealing in the Kreuzberg area, soon after I arrived. I had brought my best clothes from Nigeria and I was dressed for a date. I found myself walking down a road flanked by black men offering items to passers-by and sometimes making quick exchanges. I tried to avoid their eyes, but I had not completely rid myself of the very Nigerian habit of staring at people, and every time my eyes met anyone else’s, white or black, my mind filled with the questions I suspected were filling theirs.
Is he one of them?
Is he one of us?
Is she with one of them?
Who is he trying to impress dressed like that?
Do you think you are better than us?
“I don’t like this park,” I said to my friend. She paused, the incipient realisation of why I would be uncomfortable in this space emerging in her face and eyes. She apologised.
For many months after I moved to Berlin I found myself avoiding parks and train stations where I was likely to see black people hanging around. I have come to accept certain realities. That I am and will always be a black person in this city. That there are other black people in the city whose circumstances I am not in a position to judge. That I gain nothing by squirming through phantasmagoric hallucinations of being arrested at just the moment I decide to walk through the park and having the permanent humiliation of being profiled by a Berlin police officer (worse, before onlookers). That I am not responsible for how others choose to see me. That I will have to live with there not being grilled fish in the parks of Berlin.
These days I walk or cycle in Berlin’s parks without thinking of the eyes – or at least I try to. When I encounter other black people, on the move or just hanging around, I do not stare, I do not wonder. And if our eyes ever meet, I nod silently, and move on.