New York Times
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jun 01, 2013
HALLE, Germany » When Karamba Diaby arrived in Germany as a student from Senegal he knew only two things in German: Bundesliga and BMW — the professional soccer league and the automobile manufacturer. The only hitch was that it was October 1985 and Diaby had landed in East Germany, where comrades frowned on both West German capitalist institutions.
"They weren't too fond of hearing that in the East," said Diaby, 51. "They told me, 'We don't say BMW here, we say 'Trabi,'?" the nickname for the rickety yet ubiquitous East German car, the Trabant.
The bland, greasy food in East Germany was a far cry from the spicy cuisine of his native Senegal, where his sister used to cook his favorite dish, thiebou dien, a paellalike preparation made with fried okra, yams and fish. Yet he stuck it out to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, making a home for himself here in the state of Saxony-Anhalt and becoming a German citizen in 2001.
Now Diaby has the opportunity to make history himself. He placed third in the Social Democrats' state primary in February to earn a coveted spot on the party's parliamentary list. If Diaby and the Social Democrats can defend the three seats they won here four years ago, he would become the first black member of the Bundestag in German history.
Around Halle, a former hub for East Germany's chemical industry, Diaby is renowned for his extroverted personality, which bears no trace of Teutonic reserve, and for his loquacity. His loud, cackling laugh is immediately recognizable, and his accent blends both the regional dialect here and his Francophone African roots. People here like to joke that Diaby takes five times as long as other people to get anywhere because he stops to talk to everyone he meets along the way.
An outdoor May Day festival this year on Halle's central square was no exception. Diaby was chatting with constituents in a long brown jacket buttoned all the way up, a red carnation pinned to his collar. In one hand he held a chocolate chip muffin that remained half-eaten for hours, he was so absorbed in shaking hands and greeting voters.
The fact that Germany has never voted a black man into Parliament is an indication of the sometimes arms-length relationship Germany has with its minorities.
"It wasn't easy for him at the beginning," said Klaus Magyar, 77, a retired hospital director from Halle who spoke with Diaby at the festival. "People weren't used to someone with a different skin color."
The former East Germany is still at pains to shake its reputation for being a breeding ground for far-right extremism. The far-right National Democratic Party has seats in two state legislatures in the former East and none in the former West.
In 2011, an ultraconservative newspaper published a story accusing Diaby of unilaterally calling for stricter laws against hate speech while he was the head of Germany's Federal Council on Migration and Integration. The report was inaccurate, but pictures of him in traditional Senegalese garb known as a grand boubou began circulating in Internet forums along with the words "the black dictator." He received hundreds of angry emails and two death threats, including one over the phone. He no longer wears his boubou out in public.
Diaby grew up in a small town in southwest Senegal called Marsassoum where children played soccer on dirt roads and many of the town's 5,000 residents subsisted on raising livestock or harvesting crops such as peanuts and maize. The youngest of four children, Diaby had lost both of his parents by the time he was 7, leaving his older sister, who is 17 years his elder, and her husband to raise him.
As a boy, Diaby worked in his brother-in-law's fields and rode his bike to neighboring towns to collect money that was owed to his family. In 1974, when he was 13, he left home for boarding school in nearby Sidhiou where he began the seventh grade. Four years later, he moved to Kaolack to attend the Lycie Gaston Berger, a high school that, like many institutions in Senegal in the 1970s, bore a French name.
By the time he got to college in the capital, Dakar, in 1982, the university students were pushing to rename many institutions after prominent Senegalese who had fought for independence in 1960.
"We were the ones who were always trying something emancipatory," Diaby said of himself and his university friends in an interview after the May Day rally.
It was through his political engagement in Dakar in the early '80s that he came into contact with a left-wing student organization in Prague that encouraged young people from around the world to study behind the Iron Curtain. Diaby applied for a scholarship.
The application was divided into two columns, Diaby recalled. On the left-hand side he checked off desired destinations: Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Hungary and East Germany. On the right-hand side, subjects: agriculture, hydrology, electrical engineering and chemistry.
Then one day in 1985, a telegram came in the mail. "Karamba Diaby. Accepted. University. Stop," it read. "Register. Herder Institute, Leipzig. October 2. Stop."
After Diaby had completed nine months of language training in Leipzig, he was to be sent to a less prestigious technical college while the other students, all of whom were from Socialist countries, had secured spots at a nearby university.
"That's unfair!" Diaby complained to administrators.
"There's no such thing as unfairness in socialism," an administrator told him. "You'll have to call it something else."
Diaby arrived in Halle on July 6, 1986, to study chemistry at the university there but remained engaged in student politics as the head of the International Student Committee. When a fellow exchange student was denied access to the student lounge because he was a foreigner, Diaby again complained.
"I told them that what they were doing was racist," Diaby said. "They told me: ‘No. There's no such thing as racism in socialism. You'll have to call it something else.'"
The certainty of life behind the Iron Curtain gave way to widespread insecurity after the fall of the wall. With so many people suddenly out of work, Diaby was not even sure that he would be allowed to finish his studies. But he found a topic for his Ph.D., one that combined chemistry and advocacy.
A real estate investor from the West wanted to raze the small private gardens on the edge of town and develop the property. The developer claimed the gardens were polluted, the soil too toxic for agriculture - but Diaby conducted his own chemical analyses of the earth, water and air.
He scraped together dirt samples and sopped up groundwater to take back to his lab while his out-of-work neighbors were busy manicuring their small plots on the edge of town.
In the neat, green spaces, he met janitors and engineers, security guards and university professors. There was even a former conductor with the old East German state railroad company, the Reichsbahn.
"That was when I gathered the most insights into their society, their conditions," Diaby said.
Diaby's work helped disprove the claims that the gardens were contaminated, short-circuiting the developer's plans. People here still remember how the young chemist from Senegal tried to protect one of the few things that had survived the turbulent transition period. It also set him on a path away from science and deeper into activism and politics.
Today, Diaby works in the state Labor Ministry and is a member of the City Council in Halle. Analysts say the chances are good that Diaby will represent the people of Saxony-Anhalt in the Parliament in Berlin, but he does not want to leave anything to chance.
That's why he was out on May Day, talking to people he knew and introducing himself to people he did not.
"Not only voters in Halle but all of Germany, especially the African community, are watching me," Diaby said. "They'll ask, 'Is he just here to have his picture taken or does he actually have something to say?'"