Tribute: Mustafa Olpak, a Vanguard of African Awakening in Turkey

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Mustafa Olpak. Photo:

The history of the African continent is not limited to its geographical region.

The African Diaspora’s experience is also a part of that history. In this respect, with its large number of citizens of African descent Turkey should have been a considerable contributor to the continent’s history. Fortunately, this matter has recently began attracting some attention, thanks to Turkey’s “Opening Up to Africa” Strategy.

The vanguard of the inquiry into the experiences of the Afro–Turks, was Mr. Mustafa Olpak who passed away on October 4, 2016. He was the inventor of the term Afro-Turk, to describe the community with African origin.

Mr. Mustafa Olpak, was the person who defended the view that Turkey’s interest with the African continent cannot be improved merely on economic grounds. For Olpak, Turkey’s Opening to Africa strategy was also an “awakening of the Afro –Turk” project. This would, he argued, move the Turk closer to the mindset of the African. In this sense, understanding this community’s experience would help developing Turkey’s new African odyssey on a healthier footing.

Studying the Afro–Turks’ experience was also important for newly arriving African migrants particularly with the race issues they encounter. Turkey’s Opening to Africa strategy provided the Afro–Turks with an unprecedented task.

Turks of African descent mobilized Turkey’s African memory chip. They were now able to demonstrate and put into use their most valuable but concealed assets: their culture; traditions; and, the memory they have been carrying for many decades. The new conjuncture was enabling Afro–Turks to add their voice to the future of the country.

They seized the chance to become more visible when they organized themselves in 2006 into an association named Afrikalılar Kültür ve Dayanışma Derneği (Africans Culture and Solidarity Association) or in short Afrikalılar (Africans), in Ayvalık.

The vanguard and the founder of the association was Mr. Mustafa Olpak, born in Ayvalık in 1953. He was the the fifth of nine siblings of a migrant Muslim family from Crete. Because of the family’s admiration and love for Atatürk, the founding father of modern Turkey (Mustafa kKemal Ataturk), he was named Mustafa. Similarly his mother was named Kemale after Mustafa Kemal.

Mustafa Olpak was of Kenyan origin and belonged to the Kikuyu ethnicity. His family moved to Turkey from Crete after the population exchange with Greece. During his young age he was an activist with matchless energy. He worked as a master craftsman in the marble industry. Mr. Mustafa Olpak, symbol of perseverance, was the biggest contributor to the African cause in Turkey.

I got to know him from the very early days of my life. Prior to 1980 coup he was active in People’s Houses in Izmir. There, he was attacked and shot by obscurantist thugs. He survived the attempt on his life with a small limp as a reminder. In 1980 he was involved in the notorious uprising at a state-owned factory in Izmir, known as Tariş with thousands of workers. Protests there very rapidly spread to the entire city and lasted for a few days, with severe political consequences for the working class struggle.

Subsequently, with his wife Sevgi, he produced a pamphlet explaining the dynamics and outcomes of that resistance. He suffered the consequences of being a progressive person. He got his share of not being understood by many of his peers. Mr. Mustafa Olpak was the inventor of the concept of Afro–Türk and he was the one who popularized the term.

We reconnected after so many years of separation since our days in Ayvalık and İzmir, at an event titled “Slavery as an Institution” organized by the Africa Studies Centre which I inaugurated within the collaboration of an academic organization, the first of its kind in Turkey. Since 2006, we had frequently conversed and exchanged ideas for the activities of the Afrikalılar or for the organization of the Calf Festival.

He was a profound reader. He enlarged his understanding and educated himself with his rock hard patience peculiar to the people of the African continent. He became known as a careful researcher, particularly on the issues relating to Afro-Turks. The association he started hosted many significant events particularly in the Aegean region with İzmir being at its center where many of the Afro–Turks reside. One of his most important undertaking was the revival of a traditional African festival that had been celebrated for nearly two centuries, namely the Calf Festival.

This event went dormant during 1960s. But after the founding of the Afrikalılar, it was re-activated and has been celebrated since 2006. This traditional festival has given its name to a historical quarter in İzmir, the Bayramyeri (literally translates as "the Location of the Festival"). The most recent Calf Festival was celebrated in the beginning of May 2016, with even a bigger coverage ranging from traditional dance shows from Africa to talks and seminars and an all dressed up parade across the city.

Mr. Olpak wrote his mother’s life story and titled it, “Kölelikten Özgürlüğe: Arap Kızı Kemale”, ("From Slavery to Freedom: Arab Girl Kemale") which was published in 2002. The title reflects Turks’ branding of the “Black Africans” as Arabs. This book, revealing the story of his own family was later produced as a documentary film by the Turkish state television TRT in 2006, under the title of “Arap Kızı Camdan Bakıyor” (“Arab Girl is Looking Through the Glass").

This title was dubbed in English with the more racially charged “Baa Baa Black Girl…” and released in England, France and the USA. The film received the “Breaking the Chains” Prize at the Zanzibar International Film Festival in 2007. His second book “Köle – Kenya, Girit, İstanbul Kıyısından İnsan Biyografileri” ("Kenya-Crete-İstanbul: Human Biographies from the Slave Coast") was published in 2003.

This book was translated into French and published in 2006 by Librairie Özgül, in Paris, under the title of “Kenya-Crete-Istanbul: Biographie d’une Famille d’esclaves”. The book is also scheduled for an English translation. A project inspired by this work has been launched under UNESCO’s Slave Route Project umbrella. The history of the Afro–Turks that has been unearthed by Mr. Olpak’s efforts will also help modern day African migrants in overcoming their difficulties.

His work will help mobilize their potentials and will guide the “Opening to Africa” strategy onto a more healthy basis. This is why Mustafa Olpak's death from heart failure is not a loss only for Afro–Turks but for all Africans and the African continent.


Professor Sedat Aybar is Professor of Economics and Head of the Department of Economics and Finance, and Director of Africa Research Centre, İstanbul Aydın University

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