Building a community of black women in Amsterdam

Black women everywhere need to congregate to celebrate our dopeness and support each other Click To Tweet

“Black women are made out of brown sugar, cocoa, honey and gold

And the strength of ten thousand moons”

#Blackgirlmagic is one of the top trending hashtags of 2016. Created by CaShawn Thompson, “Black Girl Magic” illustrates a feeling that some of us have known all along, that black women are universally awesome and it is impossible to count all the ways that we are dope, inspiring and mind-blowing.

I am a firm believer in the idea that black women everywhere, at every opportunity, ought to congregate to celebrate our dopeness, to support each other in living out our fullest potentials and to find ways to be there for each other. If we don’t have our backs then who will?


The Amsterdam experience

When I moved to Amsterdam in 2011, beyond the beauty of the city and the openness and sense of freedom I experienced, one thing that also struck me was how “white” the city was.

Now I’m not saying that it was a negative experience from the beginning, but the truth is that most times I was the only black girl in my classes at the University of Amsterdam, in a café in the city centre or at my job…and it got lonely really quickly.

When I would encounter another black person, it felt like finding an oasis in the desert and I would try to make the most of the encounter, unsure of when it would happen again.

During these times I often wondered where the black people in the city congregated and if there were any spaces in the city where I could just walk into and not feel out place. I eventually came to the conclusion that there weren’t and so I set out to find or co-create a space where black women in Amsterdam could feel safe and secure enough to meet and share stories from their personal and professional lives with like-minded women.

The Amsterdam Black Women’s Network was formed to provide community for black women Click To Tweet

As the saying goes, “Seek and you shall find”

Almost 4 years after I moved to Amsterdam, through luck and determination, one evening I found myself sitting at a table with four amazing, talented and courageous black women from America, Jamaica and Bermuda. We had all been looking for the same thing since we moved to Amsterdam and by the end of our discussion, that evening the foundations of the Amsterdam Black Women’s Network had been formed.

In a year, our numbers grew from the 5 founders to a community of over 100 women in and around the greater Amsterdam Area. We recently asked some of our members to share their experiences since they joined the group and these are some of the stories we gathered.


It’s been hard to feel part of a community

  • “Co-creating Amsterdam Black Women was a way for me to connect to other like minded women from all over the world, and also help to provide a community where we can share experiences and resources.
  • Our group is becoming about collaboration and support for all of us and I’m here for that. I love that we are now starting to connect and help each other in all our different endeavours.”
  • “What I love most about this group is how it brings together all these dope black women who are doing great things who can serve as a source of friendship, inspiration and support for each other! So excited to see us grow together.”
  • “I have lived here for seven years and have tried everything to meet awesome black people but it’s been hard to feel part of a community. This is something I really need in my life and it comes at a great time. Thanks again for taking initiative. Also it’s so great that the group is so inclusive. It’s important that people feel safe in such a group.”
  • “There’s something special about being able being able to turn up in a foreign land and find a community with whom you know you’ll be understood and accepted, where you’re just allowed to be your unadulterated self.”
  • “I like the multi-faceted events, i.e. book clubs, going to the club, brunch, shopping, visioning, etc. I also like that I get to meet black women from all parts of the diaspora: UK, Netherlands, US, France, Germany, etc.”
Our motto is simple: Connect, Belong, Soar - Bringing #blackgirlmagic to Amsterdam Click To Tweet

Our motto is simple: Connect, Belong, Soar

We are here to create a space where black women can be amongst others who fully share and understand their experience. With the Amsterdam Black Women’s network, we envision a community that is centred on empathy and support that provides a non-judgemental space of communion for those who enter. We want to facilitate growth and support of goals while nurturing inner strength. We aim to be a space of service and advocacy.

It’s not easy juggling full-time jobs, families and other commitments while trying to build a group that achieves all of the stated objectives and strives to become a staple in the black community in Amsterdam. But from the sounds of it, we are well on our way and so we will keep putting in the work because #blackgirlmagic.

If you are ever in Amsterdam, please look us up on Facebook, Instagram or email us. We would love to welcome you into our little family, show you our Amsterdam and most importantly ensure that you have a place that where you can go that feels like home.

Carmen Attikossie: I want Cartik to contribute to a better Africa

In these days of ubiquitous African wax prints, only a few businesses stand out. One of them is Cartik, a brand started by Carmen Attikossie. Carmen used her links to her homeland of Togo, along with new networks formed while studying in Ghana to start a fashion label that uses African wax print. Here, Carmen gives us insight into Cartik, explains why she plans to venture into agriculture and schools us on the Nana Benz.

What sort of artisans does Cartik you work with?

I work with artisans from all walks of life in Ghana and Togo. In Togo, there is an artisan village in the capital city Lomé and when I started Cartik, my aunt took me there. I met artisans who were shoemakers, leather-workers, jewelry-makers, etc. I took my time, picked the artisans I wanted to work with and went from there. In Ghana, I had the opportunity to travel to Kumasi, and I met some artisans at Bonwire, Kente village.

Throughout the time I was Accra as a student, I took my time to search for individuals who were skilled in bag-making and were interested in making my designs. There was difficulty in finding these artisans and I spent weeks and months trying to find the right individuals to bring my designs to life. Most of the artisans I work with are people who have either left their countries due to conflict or lack of jobs and have settled in Ghana or Togo. They are young individuals who have graduated from university but due to lack of employment, they picked up artisan skills and are looking to have a steady income.

I like working with these young individuals because I am young myself. As a university graduate, I understand the difficulty of receiving a degree and not finding work in your field or employment in general. Today, I work with a small group of artisans in Accra and in Lomé, I still work with artisans at the artisan village.

What is the fashion scene in Togo like?

Togo is a small country and the fashion industry is slowly gaining momentum with the likes of Grace Wallace. Grace is a Togolese-Nigerian fashion designer that is well known throughout Togo and in West Africa.

Lomé, the capital city known to be a hub for African prints. Many people travel from Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal and other countries just to buy prints at Assigame , the biggest market in Togo.

Model: Karima Bah Photo credit: Darlington’s photography

Tell us about your experience studying in Ghana.

I went to Ghana on a study abroad programme at my university. In Ghana, I stayed on campus at the University of Ghana and lived in the international student hostel. My experience there was phenomenal. I did not want to leave Ghana, I even asked my school if I could stay for another semester but I was not given the opportunity.

Honestly, I felt comfortable in Ghana. I grew up in the USA so when I was there everyone thought I was from the USA. Many people were shocked to know that I’m from Togo. My classmates and professors were always surprised when I spoke Ewe, one of the languages spoken in Ghana and Togo. They couldn’t believe that after 15 years in the USA I can still speak Ewe so well.

I made new friends, learned a little bit of Twi and experienced life as a student in an African country, something that I’ve always wanted to do. I also volunteered at Future Leaders, an organization that takes disadvantaged kids off the streets of Accra and provides them with the basic tools of education. I taught science to 5th and 6th graders in Teshie, Ghana. At Future Leaders, I helped initiate a plan for women and microfinance and got involved in many other aspects of the organization.

As someone who has received scholarships, do you have any advice for other young African women looking to gain a scholarship?

Google is your best friend, go to networking events if you can because you never know who might be there and what connections and networks they have. When writing scholarship essays or filling out grant applciations, start early and take your time. Also, make sure to have others look over it.

Looking for a scholarship is a like looking for employment. You want to take time to research and plan how to write your scholarship essay.

You mentioned that you want to venture into agriculture. Why agriculture?

Once Cartik is out of its startup phase and is well established and known, I want to delve into agriculture. At the moment the only steps I’ve taken is to do more research on African agriculture. I became interested in agriculture after reading Africa Unchained by George Ayittey in college. That book taught me the importance of agriculture in Africa. The rural population in many African countries hold the wealth to Africa’s prosperity and that is agriculture.

If we spend time investing and educating the rural population on better and efficient farming techniques, I believe would be on our way to alleviating some of the problems we have. From what I’ve learned in college, at times rural areas in African countries are neglected when it comes to development. If we provide rural populations with access to healthcare, education, development for women and children, the possibilities will be endless.

Cartik LogoCan you tell us a few things about Togo that other Africans don’t know?

– Togo is home to the Nana Benz women. The Nana Benz are a group of women who began their journey as textile traders during the time of French colonization. These women came from nothing and rose to fame, power, and fortune because of the wax prints. They were ambitious, hardworking entrepreneurs and leaders who contributed greatly to the economic growth of Togo.

The lives and stories of the Nana Benz women have been preserved in a book called Nanas Benz: Parcours de Vie. The English translation would be, “The lives of Nanas Benz”. The book was written by a Togolese woman name Dalé Hélène Labitey, who is also professor of Law in Senegal.

– Koutammakou, the land of the Batammariba, is a rural part of Togo located in the north of the country. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

– The international music group, Toofan that has been nominated for the BET “Best Act International Africa” award, along with many other prestigious entertainment awards in Africa is from Togo.

– Togo is one of the world’s largest phosphate producers.

If you’d like to share your story with She Leads Africa, let us know more about you and your story here

Rafiat Kasumu: I was literally weaving history

The kente cloth of the Ashanti is one of the most recognisable African fabrics worldwide. We’ve seen kente dashikis, kente wax print and now kente graduation stoles. Rafiat Kasumu is a Nigerian-American who developed a love for kente while working with kente weavers in Kumasi, Ghana. Rafiat took this love to the next level by co-founding Kente Master which seeks to expand the international reach of Ghanaian kente weavers. Here, Rafiat schools us on international social impact and the importance of maintaining the tradition of kente weaving.

What was the spark that lead you to start Kente Master?

Kente Master started as an idea amongst a group of my peers and I who participated in University of Pennsylvania’s joint International Development Summer Institute (IDSI) with KNUST in Ghana. While I was in undergrad, I was fortunate enough to be one of 15 UPenn students selected to go. There, I was placed in a small group of students who worked directly with local kente weaving associations daily to help scale their businesses and practices. It was a life changing experience! Thanks to it, I fell in love Ghana’s culture and history.

The most profound moments of this experience were when I heard about the history of kente from the weavers themselves. I witnessed it’s traditional production from thread to final product, and got to try my hand at weaving traditional kente cloth. I was literally weaving history and this was the spark! Learning about the significance of kente –down to the meanings of colors and patterns– really opened my eyes to how important this craft is. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to be a part of the movement to expand this craft internationally. Not only the significant story of kente needs to be spread.

International social impact might be a new term to some, what exactly does it mean?

Sure, “social impact” is a broad term that has been used a lot over the years by different organizations and within different contexts. Because of this, the definition of social impact is continuously in flux. It is really determined by that institution in that given time.

Kente Master is a social enterprise that promotes African entrepreneurship by servicing premium Kente graduation stoles to major universities abroad. For us , “social impact” is the positive impact an action has on a community or society. At Kente Master, we create international social impact through the connections we facilitate between local Kente weaving associations in Ghana and top universities in the United States. These connections provide greater opportunities for local entrepreneurs to scale their craft and businesses. With the influx of inauthentic and over-priced kente textile merchandise coming from China and other non-traditional manufacturers, these opportunities are essential for local Ghanaian entrepreneurs.

What steps do you take towards economic self-empowerment for the weavers you work with?

As I mentioned, Kente Master is all about economic self-empowerment of the artisans and weavers we work with. As an organization, we do not change any of the current business practices of the various weaving associations we work with. Rather, we give them an online platform as well as resources to market and sell their products and goods globally.

Economic self-empowerment of the weavers is also tied to the fact that they are still able to use the traditional weaving methods of kente. These methods are passed down from generation to generation. For weavers, self-empowerment is the notion of knowing they can continue their craft the way their ancestors taught them as well as knowing that their clients value these traditions.

Kente weaving

Share with us a brief history of kente weavers. Is the tradition as prestigious as it presumably was in the past?

Sure! To understand the history of kente weavers, you must first understand kente itself. Kente cloth is the finished product of a traditional form of weaving that originated in Ghana from the Ashanti Kingdom. It is a fabric made of interwoven silk and cotton strips that has a really unique texture. According to Ashanti legend, centuries ago the first piece of kente was sewn and was given as a gift from two weavers to an Ashanti king as a symbol of royalty and wealth. Since then, the brightly woven kente has been passed down through generations of esteemed royal families, with each symbol and colour standing for a particular meaning.

As the years went by, kente became widespread beyond royalty and was used to mark important stages of life in Ghana, such as weddings and baby naming ceremonies. Today, its significance to these important passages of life has transcended both continents and cultures. Kente stoles are now, among other things, seen as a wearable staples of a collective heritage in the United States.

In Ghana, the craft is as prestigious as it was in the past, as skilled artisans still customize kente for important ceremonies. Abroad, we found that though people may wear kente stoles at graduations, many may not know the origin or creation process of the cloth. Kente Master was created to solve this critical gap so that students at universities abroad understand this unique tradition and know that their stoles were made in Ghana.

Who are the clients that go for Kente graduation stoles?

Great question! Some of our past customers have been the black cultural centers of universities and individual student organizations that identify with the African Diaspora such as multicultural Greek organizations, Black Student Leagues, or African Student Associations. But, we’ve also had clients that fall outside of these groups. Really, kente stoles are for anyone who wishes to stand out at their graduation by wearing a customizable piece of graduation regalia!

Do you work with any universities in Ghana or other African countries?

Yes! During its early stages, Kente Master was selected to participate in the World Bank-backed Kumasi Business Incubator (KBI) at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST). This program equipped us with tools we needed to turn our innovative idea into a practical, successful social enterprise. You can read more about us here and watch our World Bank Africa video feature here.

UPenn Gradution_ Photo Credit - Rafiat Kasumu

What did you learn from your partnership with UPenn and what advice would you give other Motherland Moguls looking to secure partnerships internationally?

As our first Kente Master client, the University of Pennsylvania partnership was crucial to our humble beginnings. It has taught us a lot about how to build rapport, nurture connections, and place customer satisfaction at the very top of every interaction. By communicating to University of Pennsylvania stakeholders the mission and vision of Kente Master and by driving home the impact their relationship would make, we were able to secure a partnership with the school that has been 2 years strong!

My biggest piece of advice to Motherland Moguls would be to never give up, practice pitching your story and value proposition to potential international partners, and maintain every relationship you create!

If you could meet one woman from Ghanaian history, who will she be? And why?

If I could meet any woman from Ghanaian history, I would meet Patricia Mawuli Nyekodzi because she is currently making history today and continuously reaches back so more women can follow in her footsteps!

If you don’t know Patricia, she was the first female certified civilian pilot in Ghana and the first female aircraft engineer in West Africa certified to build and maintain aircraft engines. She currently teaches young girls to fly in Ghana –talk about the sky’s the limit!

If you’d like to share your story with She Leads Africa, let us know more about you and your story here

Ledet Muleta: I had to ask myself, “What is the loudest way to make a statement?”

ledet muleta

Mental health is rarely approached with the care and attention it deserves in both African and African Diasporic communities. Nurse turned filmmaker Ledet Muleta hopes to change this statusquo. She started Medixaa Health Services to address the lack of proper mental health care in many African countries. Now Ledet wants to push further with her most recent project the film CHULA, which she is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for. Here Ledet shares valuable insight to those Motherland Moguls who want to be filmmakers but are not sure how. She also reminds us why mental health and substance abuse should be of more concern.

Your work draws attention to mental health in Africa, is there anything in particular that lead to this?

I have been pretty fortunate to have the experience of working in facilities that support a large population of psychiatric patients. I worked for six years at the University of Maryland Medical Center where I gained great experience in giving care to those affected by different types of psychiatric conditions. Our hospital was in the heart of Baltimore City and we took great pride in providing high quality psychiatric treatment. I learned how to deal with acute psychiatric conditions and took care of patients that smaller hospitals could not care for, enhancing my ability to handle stressful situations.

Since then I have been working at the National Institute of Health (NIH) as a Research Nurse focusing on mental health. The NIH has inspired me even further as I get to work with renowned scientists, dedicated nurses, and an overall interdisciplinary team. Each time I traveled to an African country, I dreamt of replicating that level of care and the impact it makes. I also had a year long volunteer position as a nurse working with refugees in the Washington D.C. area, mostly from Ethiopia and Eritrea. That was certainly an eye opener and the motivator behind this entire project. The stories I heard and the heartache I felt enabled me to be fearless about starting this project.

How is mental illness viewed in your community and what else can be done to change attitudes?

Mental illness carries stigma all around the world but in my community, this stigma is severe. People who suffer with mental illness in Ethiopia are often forced into isolation because their families are ashamed of them. The problem is often hidden and ignored until it is too late. Some forego healthcare completely, and subject their mentally ill family members to constant religious intervention, when the issue could easily be solved with medication.

It is important to divert more funds towards mental illness. With the proper funding, access to medication and information could make mental illness easier to manage. In order to change attitudes, it is also important to create a more public dialogue about mental illness and what it means to be mentally ill. If people talked about their experiences with mental illness, it would be normalized and those suffering with mental illness would know that they’re not alone. Another way to combat these issues is with education. By providing educational resources on substance abuse and mental illness we can ensure that our community no longer feels the need to be ashamed, and that they know that their conditions can be effectively managed.

CHULAWhat message do you hope to tell with CHULA?

The inspiration for CHULA comes from seeing some preventable issues becoming life threatening problems for individuals. There is no cure for mental illness, however, most mental illnesses are treatable and can be managed. The lack of access to adequate mental healthcare combined with the stigma of mental illness has intensified the impact of mental illness in Africa.

Furthermore, the market for drugs like heroin and cocaine is growing in many African countries, making substance abuse a major health concern as well. With the public looking for preventable education, many are becoming victims and that disparity is what inspired me to make this film.

As a nurse, when did you take the leap into film making? Is CHULA the first film you’ve made?

I never thought I’d ever venture into film making. This happened out of desperation to tackle the stigma of mental illness in the African community. In my own experience, I see too often that Africans in the Diaspora have a hard time dealing with the stigma in their communities. This often forces them to hide their personal struggles and as a result, they often find themselves in a more dire predicament.

In my travels across different countries in Africa, I was enraged to see so many affected by mental illness as well as substance abuse. I wanted to start a campaign that would address these issues and I had to ask myself, “What is the loudest way to make a statement?” which led to the creation of my first film, CHULA.

chulapic1How did you go about getting the skills to be a filmmaker?

The first thing I had to do was to draft the script for the film while simultaneously weaving my travels as a great source of inspiration. I wrote the script in various environments, either spending time with my close friends or on long flights from DC to Maputo, for example. Once I completed the script, I reached out to friends who were highly involved in the arts and pitched my script in the hopes of finding a director.

That’s when I was connected with Shane Colella, CHULA’s director, and it was through him that I was able to learn more about the film making process and gain the relevant skills needed in order to be successful. Additionally, I had to take the initiative of going through my own personal learning process; this occurred through attending film events and turning to the library and internet for resources, and so forth.

What words would you use to describe the last three months of your life?

Fearlessness, trust, dedication, team work, and change are some of the words that can describe the last three months of my life.

If you’d like to share your story with She Leads Africa, let us know more about you and your story here.