Why do we always have to tell people where we come from?

African people in Denmark need a common voice. AfriCAN is a Danish NGO trying to become that common voice. It promotes education for young Africans in Africa and makes an effort to create a common platform for African citizens in Denmark. “Just as Africa is fragmented, so are we fragmented,” says Shani Mahama, who is the general secretary of a small, but ambitious NGO called AfriCAN.

The fragmented people he refers to are the thousands of Africans living in Denmark. “Here, AfriCAN is very relevant. We think that Africans in Denmark need a common voice. The Danish government is always revising and developing its strategies towards Africa, but there is a lack of an African voice in shaping this strategy.” According to Shani Mahama,” There is a need for an African voice to tell the story about Africa, speaking for and on behalf of the African diaspora in Denmark. A voice by somebody who knows Danish culture and the tradition for people’s participation in Denmark. The Danish development space needs people like us.”

“We target young Africans in Denmark because many of them have lost their identity. Are they Africans – or are they Danes? We need to tell them a story about Africa which they can relate to when they navigate their path through Danish society. We need to tell a story about Africa to make it attractive to those who are skeptical. Some of these young people who grew up in Denmark are totally confused. And they are angry. Because of our physical traits, we cannot hide our identity”.

“My daughter and my son have a Danish mom. Are They Danes? Are they Africans? Where do they belong? They are asking: Why do we always have to tell people where we come from?”.

Problems within the African community in Denmark

AfriCAN was initiated in 2012 by a group of young Danish students with their hearts in Africa. The founders recognized the importance of access to education as a way of empowering youth and strengthening African communities. Today, the membership number is about 53, and most members are African citizens with families, jobs, or ongoing educations in Denmark. “Members are not only students. Actually, it cuts across. But there are a lot of problems. There is a lot of mistrust within the African community. The colonial effort to divide Africa follows us wherever we go. Many people think this is a Ghanian thing. What do we have to do here?” explains Shani Mahama, who grew up in Ghana. He has lived almost twenty years in Denmark and has two children with his Danish wife. He has worked as a teacher at a folkehojskole, and now he works for a Ghanian Technical University and spends part of his time in Ghana.

The communication manager of AfriCAN, Dorothy Antwi Boasiako, has her roots in Ghana as well. “We have to speak to people in a way that makes sense to them. So, we need the capacity to do that. We are talking about it all the time. We need many more hands, and we need competence,” says Shani Mahama. For ten years, the main activity of AfriCAN has focused on “education”, and this is still the case. Through funding from different Danish sources, AfriCAN is providing tertiary education scholarships to young Africans.

The “Edu-Africa” scholarship program provides scholarships to young scholars in Africa. It is a sponsorship project, which aims to give young African students the opportunity and economic resources to attain higher education. It intends to create better job opportunities and chances for economic stability with local anchorage in the countries they come from. By providing the students with skills-based education and trainings, the organization has supported students throughout the entire course of the education in different areas, such as nursing and teaching.

“Our education work has two layers,” Shani Mahama explains. “We sponsor young people who are active in their community and help them to get an education. But we also try to engage university students in African countries. Student leaders are a strong voice, in Ghana we have close to four million students, and we work with the student leaders to give them tools to have a say regarding educational governance and influence local authorities.” The Student Leadership for Change (SL4C) project aims to educate young leaders in Ghana. The project is funded by the Danish NGO network CISU (Civil Society in Development) and is designed to help the students develop competencies to make them capable to manage themselves and others, teach them how to influence educational policies and how to combat corruption.

The goal of this project is to equip the students with the necessary tools which will help the students become effective leaders after they finish their education. Apart from Ghana, there is a sister program being initiated in Uganda at the Makerere Business School. AfriCAN hopes to be able to extend this project to many other higher educational institutions in Africa. After undergoing organizational and structural changes, AfriCAN is now a growing non-governmental organization that is committed to improving the lives of African people in Denmark as well as their home countries in many other ways than education. The organization has also expanded its activities and works towards the improvement of the African diaspora and its mobilization.

Making the diaspora more visible

The Diaspora Civic Engagement Project (DiCEP) is a project, also funded by CISU Denmark. Through this project, AfriCAN aims to engage the complex African diaspora and attract the attention of Africans living in Denmark. The goal of this project is for the diaspora to be more visible and heard so that they can engage and contribute to the Danish development policy-making processes. One of those activities, carried out by AfriCAN, was the Engagement Forum for All held on the 24th June 2021 in Copenhagen. This forum was organized with the goal for AfriCAN to introduce itself to the Danish-African open space. This event was successfully held, attracting people from different nationalities and a lot of young people accompanied by their parents.

Besides that, AfriCAN is engaged in developing more projects which will target the youth and provide counseling and career guidance for young people, families, and individuals in Denmark. The organization seeks to give guidance to educated young Africans living in Denmark who struggle to acquire a job. The organization is also working on launching a monthly newsletter and organizing what has come to be known as AfriCAN Diaspora Dialogue Series (DDS). This is an online dialogue that brings knowledgeable people in different fields to deliberate on different topical issues relevant to diasporas in Scandinavia. “So far, we have not done so much to identify and engage the business community. But slowly we are beginning to do that,” Shani Mahama explains. “We try to prepare people for reintegration in their African countries so that they can do business there. We are very much aware that we cannot ‘aid’ our way out of poverty, but we can trade our way out of poverty.”

“But we cannot only prepare people for going back to Africa. We also have problems here in Denmark which we need to address.” Therefore, AfriCAN works to promote access to quality and sustainable education in local communities and globally through advocacy, dialogue, and lobbying with authorities in Scandinavia and African countries. “Diaspora groups together have a great opportunity to present stronger voices and position themselves as stakeholders regarding the development in their countries of residence and their countries of origin.”

On September 25, 2021, AfriCAN organized the Commemoration of the African Union Day event in Copenhagen, Denmark. “We have tried to reach out to Black Lives Matters,” Shani Mahama continues. “We would very much like to relate to other organizations in the field. But they too have capacity challenges, they got so much attention, and their confrontational style has given them some extra challenges. Sometimes people are so preoccupied with their own little associations that they forget it is only through working together that we can achieve something. But we are trying. Hopefully, someday we will be able to create a common platform.”

Dragica Dimova is a MSC student in Development and International Relations at Aalborg University 


Shani Mahama, General Secretary 

Dorothy Antwi Boasiako, Communication Manager