Under the baobab: community in motion

Advocacy while navigating work and life as an African diaspora professional can take many forms. At the latest Baobab Nights event by Omek, Marie-Anne Leuty (she/her) shares how the platform is connecting and empowering community members in the Netherlands and worldwide.

“The challenge these days is to be somewhere, to belong to some particular place, invest oneself in it, draw strength and courage from it, to dwell in a community.”

– bell hooks

An emblem of strength, longevity and lineage, the baobab is the African continent’s most iconic tree.

The ‘Tree of Life’ not only offers protection and shelter, its leaves, fruit and bark are known for their healing qualities. 

Traditionally, baobabs are the location for gatherings where villages come together to pass on wisdom through dance, storytelling, music and communal offerings. 

With some trees dating to over 2,000 years old, many cultures from Madagascar to Senegal the baobab is a conduit to the ancestors.

And so it was on a sunny May afternoon that I headed from Amsterdam to Rotterdam for Baobab Nights: Diaspora Odysseys hosted by Omek at Hiphophuis.

The community building event is a regular fixture on the calendar of Omek, a platform established in the Dutch capital in 2019 with one mission in mind: to make connection and collaboration simple for professionals from the African diaspora and their allies.

Founded by Social Entrepreneur, Economist and community builder Kemo Camara, the platform came about at an important time. 

With the world on the cusp of the pandemic, the necessity of connection was thrown into sharp relief.

With digital events and the development of a members’ platform a main focus during lockdown, the seeds of something beautiful were planted.

Omek has gone on to grow into a full fledged community with workshops, networking events, members’ directory, forums and talent days.

The sold-out evening was the first Baobab Night held in Rotterdam.

I arrived at Hiphophuis to a room 100-strong, listening intently to a community panel. 

The circle was in full session.

The panel opened up to the floor for Omek members to share their experiences asserting their identity and how biculturals from the African diaspora cultivate a sense of self.

It was affirming to hear the perspectives of others.

It’s little wonder that by holding space for these honest and open conversations, Omek has grown so rapidly in its first five years.  

Under the proverbial baobab, Kemo shares his experience:

“Your bicultural identity can be your competitive advantage,” he says. “Learn about it, become truly conscious of it, educate yourself about it and become intentional about how you use it.

“When you live in a white space and you’re also Ghanaian, Kenyan, Surinamese, from Curaçao… and also Dutch, you need to understand your African culture as much as your Dutch culture and interpret it in a way that’s meaningful to you.

“With this you can navigate society, go into any boardroom. Bicultural competencies, or the ability to navigate across cultures seamlessly and consistently, is a super power. It means being able to connect with and relate to people, to tap into innovation, creativity. It becomes a tool that you can leverage.”

Inspired by these words, the next item of business was education.

Grouped into teams to make new connections, a series of games about African mythology brought me out of my social shell as well as encouraging my competitive streak. 

Learning about the myths, legends and gods of different tribes and nations highlighted the importance to diasporans of understanding our heritage and lineage.

Over chicken, rice and peas and a little coleslaw, I asked Omek members what the community meant to them.

Tiara Christian, Founder of creative consultancy Wilde Parlour, shares:

“I found out about Omek through another community group called Netherlands Black Women who posted about one of Omek’s events. I thought, ‘OK, this is what I’m looking for’. I’m American and always want to know where my folks are and a professional mixer seemed really cool. 

“They’ve been incredibly welcoming over the past six months that I’ve been attending their digital writing events. It’s great to make connections for business but also to make friends.”

First-time attendee Timothy Leerdam, Founder of CY Coaching and Co-Founder of wellness space Studio Grounded, says:

“First of all I saw Omek on Instagram – my intention was to get to know more people from the diaspora, to find my tribe and like-minded, colourful people who I can do business and connect with. Omek looked like the perfect place to do that. This is my first time at one of their events and within a couple of minutes walking in the room, it felt like family. Like I don’t know you, but I know you.

“It’s been an exciting evening from spreading knowledge about diasporan and African heritage to the amazing food. It makes me curious for more, I’ll certainly be coming to Omek events in future.”

After food, the results of the mythology and legends quiz were announced and I was happy to learn I was on the winning team (big up Team Pink). 

From the inspiring presentation to talking to people about their experience of the community, the evening was a rewarding one. 

It reminded me what it means and feels like to be in a safe space.

For sure, I’ll be at the next event, Omek Summit 2024: Era of the Bicultural in Amsterdam on Friday 28 June at Tolhuistuin.

Running from 10:00 – 23:00, this all-day program includes a meet and greet talent fair, keynote talks, workshops and discussions, community dinner and Awards show.

Want to learn more about Omek? 

Visit the website to find out more, get your tickets for the 2024 summit and become a member of the community.

Thank you to Kemo and the team for the invite to Hiphophuis. I look forward to sharing a special feature about Omek with readers in Journal 003, ‘Advocates + Allies’ out in July.

Follow Omek: @my_omek

Follow Kemo Camara: @imkemocamara

WORDS: Marie-Anne Leuty
PHOTOGRAPHY: Shannon Kanhai

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