ALPHONSE MULUMBA: African-Australian Political Young Gun.
Alphonse Mulumba arrived in Tasmania in 2008 from the Democratic Republic of Congo (via the Republic of Benin) and quickly established himself as a man with more than just a dream, but a desire to achieve. After quitting a degree in medical research Alphonse pursued his real passion, politics, and in 2014 ran for the state election in Tasmania.
Although unsuccessful, Alphonse is quick to point out that he wasn’t as unsuccessful as the doubters believed he would be, winning five times the amount of projected votes.
THE PIN. You grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, have lived in the Republic of Benin, and moved to Tasmania in 2008, what lead to your family’s migration?
ALPHONSE MULUMBA. We came under the Humanitarian Visa and were part of the cohort of refugees from the Republic of Benin who were found worthy by the Australian Government to be granted the Humanitarian Visa / permanent residency to come to Australia.
When you first came to Australia what characteristics of the Australian culture really stood out in stark contrast to the Democratic Republic of Congo?
A. Australia is a very individualistic society. You carry the weight of all responsibilities, you carry the weight of all the choices and it’s basically your life. So if you mess up with it, you’ve lost it and if you do something with it, you’ve succeeded. It’s almost the other way around in Africa...I’m taking the example of Congo. The decisions and the choices you make are not actually yours, but they are a reflection of the community. For example, if you want to get married the wife that you marry is not actually your wife; people in the family call her ‘our wife’. It goes a long way, even to career options.
You arrived in Australia as a young adult, I imagine that was a pretty pivotal moment in your life and in different cultures as well. Were there different expectations and did you find it hard to adjust to that idea of individual pursuits?
A. I wrote an article on the web when I came back from the Congo (2015) about the third space. I am not fully a Congolese. I am not fully Australian. I am not rejected by both worlds. I am not really accepted by both worlds. I am somewhere in the middle. Did I embrace that new character? Somehow yes, because I understood from day one, if I want to make it here I have to be like them but I have to keep my uniqueness... I decided to take the good things of my African heritage and give up on the bad things and... embrace the good things about Australian culture and give up the bad things. In certain areas of my life I adopted the individualistic nature and in other areas I still expect the backup from my family and from my parents.
Are you often asked where you are from?
A. I am, which is a very complicated question.
Has that answer changed in the eight years you have been here?
A. I think the answer is still the same. From the early days I didn’t really know how to answer that question because when people ask me where are you from, the natural answer is where were you born or what is your primary cultural heritage.
The answer: DR Congo.
I left the Congo when I was around fifteen and went to Benin...Going to Benin at that age meant that I had to embrace the way of living of people from Benin. My Congolese heritage got shaped by my experience in Benin. Where am I from? To satisfy people, originally from Congo but deep inside me, it’s a struggle.
When you ran for election in 2014, you presented yourself as the first African-Australian person to run for state election. How important is that hyphen of African hyphen Australian as opposed to Australian.
A. Being called an African-Australian in an election campaign says a lot. It is an advantage to Australia; it is a wake-up call to all Africans and to all migrants. Because for the very first time, if I was elected that was going to send a great message not only at a state level but at a national and international level. Mind you, that was the early stages of when our treatment of asylum seekers was getting worse. So it was going to send a positive message in contrast to the negative message about refugees already on the horizon. To me, African-Australian shows a sign of full, I don’t like to use the word, but full integration, it shows the success of our social inclusion.
Australia has a high potential to be the best, the most successful, multicultural society in the world. You don’t have to go far to see that, go to Melbourne to see that, it’s coming to Tasmania. The reflection of a real Australian is no more defined by the colour of your skin, It’s basically just because I tell you I am Australian, because we come from everywhere.
What are your political plans for the future?
A. I will be in politics, as simple as that.
You mentioned earlier being in-between culturally, in the third space. How do you see the third space evolving in Tasmania?
A. The third space emerged when I went back to the Congo. Speaking the local languages over there, mentally in my head, I said that qualifies me to be embraced. But as soon as I got there I was somehow like a white man in a dark skin because it was like, ‘yeah, he speaks the language, even though it's with a funny accent, but he’s not really like us, he thinks differently, that’s not really us’.
Coming back to Australia I realised Australia doesn’t take me as an Australian either because they still refer to me by my skin, my past, all these things. It’s nice in the ears to a person from an African background to say I am Australian but as soon as you appear in a public space they will ask you your background. Somehow in Australia I am not an Australian because my African heritage still speaks louder than anything. I am not accepted by Africans, I am not accepted by Australians, I am lost in between. I have a new identity, which is a mixture of the two half-gotten identities...I belong to a nebulous third space where I get an experience from this world and the other one and where I get the pains and the joys from different worlds. That’s how I came up with that concept and I think it’s a growing thing in Tasmania. More and more you see individuals coming here from different places and they don’t know where to land their feet.
Do you think the third space is something that will grow so much that it will no longer exist?
A. That’s my fear. The first generation born in Australia or to grow up in Australia will keep the third space, the second might, the third might not. Because as you live here you start, it’s a natural thing, you embrace what is closer to you. You start embracing more and more of everything you see here than what is far away. It might still keep some sense of connections but the real meaning of it, of people being proud of just being different, might disappear somehow. And that would be a very boring society to be in.
You’re chairperson of the Multicultural Council of Tasmania and also a politician, in these capacities what kind of things would you like to do to ensure the third space remains?
A. The way we ensure the third space remains is to encourage multiculturalism. Politicians have to make decisions that actually reflect our society, our parliament should be a reflection of our society. When you have a parliament that is almost all white in a country of 200 plus nationalities, then you start saying, ‘What’s going on here, what’s really happening?’. I want to see more Muslims, I want to see more people of African heritage, I want to see Burmese, Bhutanese, Asians... I want to see people from everywhere there. This way we know it is a reflection of who we are, a representation of our people.
From a Multicultural Council of Tasmania point of view, there should be some funding to the words. Victoria invests almost $42 million to implement the multicultural policy and make sure it’s alive. Tasmania invests $90,000 a year. Now when you do the maths between $42 million and $90,000...
In the 2011 census it was found that Tasmania is the least culturally diverse state in Australia. What is the Tasmanian political landscape like for someone from a minority? Do you think you’re knocking down barriers?
A. The landscape was very tough. I think everybody gets some backlash when you run for state office, campaigning from door to door. It hurts when you realise that backlash is based on your race.
I remember a lady in her forties came to the door and said, ‘Never in my life would I vote for a black person, never in my life’. I said, ‘Thanks madam, thanks very much. May I know why?’, she said ‘I don’t want to have this conversation with you’ and shut the door. So in the middle of the campaign, you start to lose some energy because you think ‘Is this a reflection of the whole street or, just the one person?’. And even when you go to the next door you don’t know what they will say.
It was tough because not only did I have to stand for what I was campaigning for, I had to prove a point. It got more complicated when I started to think, whatever I do in this election will determine whether another migrant will stand up tomorrow. Because, if I did really poor I don’t think there would be any migrants who would be able to stand tomorrow. I thank heaven that I didn’t do that bad. In that sense, I think it gave courage to some people.
You have previously stated that you inoffensively accept to be called black. In Australia, the media accepts terms such as black, white and people of colour. Do you think terms such as these are still relevant?
A. It depends on the intention with which those terms are used, they are still relevant, yes... Some are just ridiculously stupid. Are you a person of colour? Am I? Is the Prime Minister? We all have a certain colour. I understand that by convention when they say person of colour they mean a person who is black or not white.
Sometimes we judge people by their actions and we tend to judge ourselves based on our intentions. It should be the other way around. We should judge ourselves by our actions and others by their intention. When you do something you should actually travel in the mind of the other person and assess the impact of what you have just said. There are some comments that people make, they think it’s a joke, but it actually has an impact on the other person.
You mentioned earlier that you are not fully Australian and not fully Congolese, just somewhere in between. If you were to have children how would want them to identity?
A. I think I would want my kids to be identified as Australians but they have an African heritage. I would want them to remember where their parents came from and where their blood came from. At the same time, I would want them to work as hard as Australians. In a way that if there was anything for them to compete for in Australia they would be equally qualified to go for that.
Honestly, I don’t expect my kids to fit into an African environment, in a way that all my kids would live here and go back to the Congo and become members of parliament of Congo. No I don’t expect that from them. I can see such a thing happening in Australia, not the other way around.
Since moving to Tasmania, almost eight years ago, what are the biggest cultural changes you’ve seen?
A. In a positive way, we are becoming a diverse community. Glenorchy would be the reflection of a diverse Tasmania five years from now. With that comes the level of acceptance, inclusiveness, people feeling part of a community, feeling being accepted.
On a negative note, Tasmanians who were here before us still think somehow that we have to go through the painful experiences as if that was the baptism to become really Tasmanian. The reason why they did it tough was for us to do it easy.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
ALPHONSE MULUMBA. Don’t ever take no for an answer, don’t ever take no for an answer. Go with your bad self and do what you have to do.
- This interview has been edited and condensed
Photo credit: Lucie Cutting