Written by Anna Rastas (University of Tampere, Finland)

The African Diaspora in Finland consists of people with various countries of origin and diverse cultural backgrounds. Migrants from Africa and other Finns of African descent form a small and relatively recent but rapidly growing visible minority. In a predominantly white society, they challenge the earlier imaginations of Finnishness and nationhood and their presence has influenced the social and cultural life of Finnish society in various ways.

According to the demographic statistics based on immigrants’ countries of origin, around 20,000 people have moved from Africa to Finland. In their families there are already thousands of children born in Finland. Even though the African Diaspora in Finland mainly consists of first-generation immigrants, the rapid growth in the number of Black children of mixed parentage can also be seen in the street scene and in every school yard. Their presence cannot be statistically demonstrated, because official statistics in Finland do not specify ethnicity or “race”.

Until the 1990s, Finland was a country of emigration rather than immigration. The share of people with a foreign background is still smaller than five percent of the population of approximately 5.4 million people, and the majority of Finns with an immigrant background are white Europeans, of whom most are from Russia and Estonia. Before becoming an independent state in 1917, Finland was a Grand Duchy of Russia. Already during the 19th century, there were some Africans and Black people from the Americas, usually working as servants for wealthy Russians, in the few Finnish cities that now belong to Russia. The first Africans in what is now known as Finland were children who were brought to Finland by Finnish missionaries who had been working in Ovamboland in the northern part of the present Namibia. As far as we know, the first African who was granted a Finnish passport was Rosa Emilia Clay (later Lemberg), born in 1875 in the present Namibia as a child of a local woman and a white British man. She was still a child when she arrived in Finland with a Finnish missionary couple in 1888. They wanted her to study in Finland to become a teacher and then return to Africa to work at the Finnish missionary station. However, after finishing her studies she decided to stay in Finland. She made friends with many Finns, worked as a teacher in the City of Tampere and in some smaller towns, and she also led an active social life as a singer in local choirs. Even though she loved her work as a teacher, and was liked and respected by many of her students and colleagues, she also faced prejudices and cruel racism. In 1904, she moved to the US, like many Finns those days, and never returned to Finland. The Rosa Lemberg Story, written by historian Eva Ericson (1993), tells about her childhood and youth in Finland and about her life as an active immigrant and “the only Black Finn” in the Finnish immigrant communities in the U.S.

Only a small number of Africans and other Black people from the Diaspora were living in Finland between the 1900s and the 1970s. Their experiences and reminiscences are documented in two radio documentaries and a three-part TV documentary, both of which were broadcast in 2010 by the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE. During those years, the few Africans and Black people from the Americas in Finland were either students (e.g. from Nigeria and Ethiopia), political exiles from South Africa or people who had married a Finn. Unlike many other European countries, Finland remained largely unaffected by immigration flows until the 1990s, when the number of immigrants started to grow rapidly.

Due to the civil war that started in Somalia in the early 1990s, thousands of Somalis moved to Finland as asylum seekers. Some of them had been living in Russia, others flew from Somalia to Russia and soon found themselves to be asylum seekers in a country that they knew nothing about. Today, Somalis constitute the biggest group of Africans in Finland. There are over 10,000 Somali-speaking people and in their families there are thousands of Finnish-born children. The number of people with a Somali background will grow also in the near future due to family reunifications and because the majority of Finnish Somalis are either children or young adults. Today there are Finns with a Somali background in all bigger cities in the country.

When Somali communities in Finland started to increase, strong clan divisions continued to exist. Nevertheless, nowadays numerous Somali associations collaborate a lot locally as well as nationally to value and maintain the Somali culture, especially the Somali language, and to assist their countrymen and -women in their integration into a new society and culture. In public schools all immigrant children are entitled to study their own language. Teaching of the mother tongue is organized by the cities and financially supported by the state. Many Somalis have found work as Somali-language teachers in public schools or as interpreters in public services. However, like many migrants from Africa, most Somalis are doing lower paid jobs, for example as bus drivers or as cleaners. The Somali population is highly diverse with regard to their educational background. Especially among women there are many illiterate individuals, but even highly educated Somalis have found it very difficult to enter the labour market, not only due to their insufficient skills in the Finnish language but also because of racism and discrimination. Therefore, young educated Somalis are more likely than other Finns with an immigrant background to abandon Finland. Although 50 percent of the Somalis were still unemployed in 2007, their position in the labour market is slowly improving.

Africans in general have faced a lot of discrimination and racism in Finland. Somalis constitute the largest group of Africans in Finland, and as Muslims and as refugees they especially have become victims of stereotyping and overt racism. According to an EU-wide survey by the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights, Finnish Somalis are victims of racist crimes most often of all other surveyed African minority groups in all EU member countries. The Somalis in Finland were also on the top in the figure indicating overall discrimination of minority groups in the EU countries (EU-MIDIS, 2009). Many Somali organizations have become active in speaking in public, trying to change the predominantly negative images and discourses concerning their presence in Finland. Some individuals with a Somali background have tried to bring about change as active members of Finnish political parties.

As Muslims, Somalis have contacts with other Muslims, for example with people from Northern Africa, but otherwise their contacts with other people of the African Diaspora in Finland are fewer, especially in the case of older people and the first generation. Since the other African communities in Finland are considerably smaller, they are more likely to have contacts and collaboration also with each other despite their countries of origin.

Immigration also from other African countries to Finland has grown markedly since 1990. There are communities of over 1,000 immigrants with a refugee background from Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (former Zaire), and hundreds of other people with a refugee background have arrived also from many other Sub-Saharan African countries. Some North African migrants, for example Algerians, also have a refugee background, but many of them have moved to Finland because they have married a Finn. This can be explained especially by tourism from Finland to Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. A considerable number of Africans from Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya and Ethiopia have moved to Finland to study. In Finnish families there are also hundreds of transnational adoptees from Ethiopia and South Africa, some of whom are already adults and parents themselves.

Administrative procedures and conditions regarding foreigners’ entry into Finland, as well as their residence and employment, are outlined in the Aliens Act (301/2004). The purpose of the Immigration Policy Programme (Government Migration Policy Programme 2006) is to promote work-related immigration, to develop the immigrant integration system and to improve ethnic relations. However, immigration policies as well as administrative practices regarding the implementation of legislation have always been relatively strict in Finland. Furthermore, in Finland, like in many other European countries, the current political environment has become more anti-immigrant and even hostile towards immigrants and racialized minorities. Openly anti-immigrant politicians who claim that the immigration and integration policies are too liberal have gained a lot of supporters in local and national elections in the 2000s. In public discussions, refugees are often categorized as unwanted immigrants. Therefore, especially Africans and their descendants have found it very difficult to have a voice and to create a feeling of belonging in Finnish society.

Throughout the history of Finland various ethnic minorities, like the Finnish Roma and the Sami people, have faced racism, but as a topic of discussion racism has been avoided. The fact that there are no established words in the Finnish language that people could use when referring to their identifications with the African Diaspora, or for any collective racialized identities, is only one manifestation of the absence of discussion concerning racialized relations in Finnish society. The presence of Africans and other Black people in Finland has changed Finnish society dramatically: questions of racism can no longer be ignored. Racist discourses and discriminative practices have become a topic of discussion not only in the media and among some politicians, but also in schools and public services. Immigrants from the former colonized countries and their non-white descendants whose everyday lives are overshadowed by the collective memory of subordination and its present-day implications have also questioned the earlier ideas of Finns’ (and other Nordic countries’) involvements in (post)colonial relations. Discourses emphasizing “Finnish exceptionalism” are now also being questioned, and the colonial complicity of Finns, and its various consequences, have – although gradually – become a topic of research and public discussion.

In the case of first-generation immigrants, questions of racism are often turned into questions of cultural differences, but the second generation, as well as children of mixed parentage and transnational adoptees, can better speak for their rights as Finnish nationals. Unlike the first-generation migrants from Africa and the other parts of the Diaspora, who are forced to pour their energy into learning a new language and surviving in a new society and culture, people born in Finland have more possibilities to talk back and fight against racism. Furthermore, first-generation migrants from Africa usually have strong social, cultural, economic and emotional links to their countries of origin, whereas for the second generation and for children of mixed parentage the international Black Diaspora is more likely to be an important source of identification. Various manifestations of diasporic Africanness, strongly rooted in anti-racism struggles, can be found in youth subcultures among young Black Finns.

In Finland, policymakers and public authorities have encouraged immigrants’ social and political participation by allocating funding for their associations and cultural activities. Somalis alone have founded dozens of associations, and many of them have become active agents both in Finland and abroad. Across the country the Somali culture is presented by local Somali associations, and Somali Book Fairs are arranged in the biggest cities. These events are often organized together with Finnish authorities and NGOs. The multi-local lives of Finnish Somali communities are also shaped by transnationalism. The literature produced in the Somali Diaspora is brought to Finland, and young people communicate with other young Europeans with a Somali background through their networks on the Internet. Various Finnish Somali associations and individuals have started development co-operation projects in Somalia, and they also have contributed to peace-building projects in the Horn of Africa. In 2010, when the presidential election was held in Somaliland, a self-declared sovereign state in the northern region of Somalia, one of the candidates, Faisal Ali Warabe (b.1948), was from Finland.

In addition to associations based on people’s countries of origin, migrants from different African countries (e.g. Ethiopians, Nigerians) have also founded their own churches, mainly in Helsinki. Many communities, like refugees from Sudan, also have their local associations across the country. African immigrant associations and churches help them to strengthen their own communities in Finland and to maintain their ties to their countries of origin. People from Finnish African communities meet each other and other Finns with an immigrant background also in local community centres. Young people of African descent, including those who were born in Finland, also seem to seek and find each other’s company. These young people’s subcultures are influenced by the global Black cultural and political movements and their social networks often include also Black individuals of mixed parentage, as well as transnational adoptees from Africa.

Until recently, studies on Finnish Africans have focused only on Somalis and their integration into Finnish society. The national network for researchers studying the African Diaspora in Finland (and in Europe) was founded in 2009 to promote research on the history and presence of Africans and their descendents in Finland. New research projects have been launched, and in the network there are also young scholars with an African background.

Africans and their descendants have become active agents also in the political life. In the 2000s, many political parties have nominated Finnish Africans as candidates both in the municipal and national elections. There are Finnish Africans in many city councils; in 2011, Jani Toivola (b. 1977), a Finnish-born actor whose father was from Kenya, became the first Black member of the Finnish Parliament.

Literary contributions of the African Diaspora in Finland are still to come. Only a few people of African descent have written and published on their experiences in Finland. Most of their texts are based on interviews and published in what are called immigrant anthologies, usually edited by Finns with a majority background. The first autobiographic novel was written by Kenyan-born Joseph Owindi, who was the first African student at the University of Tampere in the 1960s. His experiences as a Black student in a Finland in the 1960s and 1970s are summed up in the title of his book Kato, kato nekru! [Look, look a Nigger!] that was translated and published in Finnish in 1972 after Owindi had returned to Kenia. The memoirs of Ellen Ndeshi Namhila (The Price of Freedom, 1997), a Namibian student also in the City of Tampere in the 1980s, were translated and published in Finnish in 2001. Lamin Sullay Sesay, who was born in Sierra Leone and moved to the City of Turku in 1990, published several essays as author’s editions and launched a magazine titled Scandi-B for foreigners in Finland in 1993. In 1997, a collection of his essays, Messages from Finland. The exiting experiences of a foreign student, were published in Finland in English.

Moroccan-born M’hammed Sabour (born in Casablanca in 1947) is a scholar and professor of sociology at the University of Eastern Finland (former University of Joensuu).  He has written and published widely on ethnic relations, onthology, power and cultural identification and alienation of the intellectuals in the Arab and Mediterranean societies, but his areas of expertise include also cultural and economic globalisation and knowledge economy. In addition to his scholarly texts, including his studies on Africans’ experiences of racism in Finland, Sabour has published a book Suomalainen unelma [1999, A Finnish dream], which is based on his diaries.

Some memoirs, like the story of Kenyan-born runner Wilson Kirwa, who was chosen as “the most positive person in Finland” in 2008, are based on interviews. Kirwa, well-known in Finland also for winning the 400-, 800-, and 1,500-metre runs in the same Finnish Championships in Athletics, has also written fairy tales for children, and nowadays he travels across the country visiting schools and day-care centres, reading African stories and telling about his childhood in Africa and about his life in Finland. The autobiography of poet and teacher Amran Mohamed Ahmed (Rauhaa etsimässä, 2001) [Looking for peace], also based on interviews, was published by Somali Women’s organization Goolis.

There are only few visual artists of African descent in Finland. The most famous of them is Sasha Huber, a Swiss-born artist of European and Haitian heritage, who has lived in Finland for many years. The art work of this internationally recognized artist can be described, as a Finnish art historian Taava Koskinen writes, “the art of investigative post-colonial collaboration”.

Of all the artists with an African background in Finland, especially African musicians have contributed to the exchange and cross-pollination of cultures. From the end of the 1980s there has been quite a lot of African music on offer in Finland. As a result of co-operation between Senegalese and Finnish musicians, many recognized musicians from Senegal moved to Finland. Among them was Papp Sarr, who in 1992 founded Galaxy, one of Europe’s best Senegalese bands, together with Yamar Thiam and Rane Diallo, who had got married and settled in Finland permanently. In 2005, the Finnish Minister of Culture rewarded Galaxy with the Finland Prize, the highest governmental prize annually given in the field of art. In 2002, Senegalese-born musician and solo dancer Ismaila Sané joined Galaxy. Sané had already made a career in Spain in 1981–1999. After moving to Finland in 1999 he has played in various bands with both African and Finnish musicians.

Co-operation with Finnish musicians and the Bagamayo College of Arts in Tanzania has also brought African musicians to Finland. Among those who have stayed in Finland are, for example, musician and teacher Arnold Chiwalala and choreographer and dancer Menard Mponda, who also has taught African dances for hundreds of Finns, including children. They have not only enriched the Finnish cultural life with their own performances of African music and dance and paved the way and created job opportunities for other African musicians, but also worked as teachers and trainers for both Finnish professionals and hundreds of other Finns inspired by their work.

Afro-Suomen historia. A three-part TV documentary, edited by Mia Jonkka, broadcast by the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE Teema) on January 29 (first part) and in February 2010 (second and third part).

Aliens Act: http://www.finlex.fi/en/laki/kaannokset/2004/en20040301

Ericson, Eva (1993) The Rosa Lemberg Story. The Työmies Society, Superior Wisconsin.

European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, “EU MIDIS: European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey,” http://fra.europa.eu/fraWebsite/attachments/eumidis_mainreport_conference-edition_en_.pdf

Finnish Immigration service: http://www.migri.fi/netcomm/Default.asp?language=EN

Finnish Music Quarterly 3/2000. (Special Issue on African and other immigrant music in Finland).

Government Migration Policy Programme (2006): http://www.mol.fi/mol/en/99_pdf/en/90_publications/migration_programme2006.pdf

Nationality Act: http://www.finlex.fi/en/laki/kaannokset/2003/en20030359

Rastas, Anna & Päivärinta, Jarkko (2010) “Vastapuhetta Afrikkalaisten diasporasta Suomessa”. Kulttuurintutkimus [Finnish Journal of Cultural Studies] 27:4, 45–63. (All the autobiographical texts written by Africans and their descendents in Finland and published before 2011, including short texts in anthologies, are listed in this article, on pp. 61–62.)

Rastas, Anna (forthcoming 2012) “Talking Back: Voices from the African Diaspora in Finland”. In McEachrane, Michael (ed.) Afro-Nordic Landscapes: Engaging Blackness in Northern Europe. New York: Routledge.

Rastas, Anna & Seye, Elina (2011) “Ammattina afrikkalaismuusikko”. Musiikin suunta 33:4, 22-36. (An article including a brief history of African musicians in Finland)

Roosa Suomesta – Ensimmäisiä afrikkalaisia etsimässä. A radio documentary, edited by Leena Peltokangas, broadcast by the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE Radio 1) on 13 January 2010.

Statistics Finland: http://www.stat.fi/tup/suoluk/suoluk_vaesto_en.html#foreigners (29 June 2011)