The Young and Disenchanted

“For My Culture” – Africa, Part II

Posted on: 1 March, 2009

Fact: I love South Asian dance.

One of my friends and I are the biggest bhangra groupies of all time – every time our university’s team performs we’re present with the quickness, sitting enthralled in front of the stage. I’m not entirely sure what attracts me (a Nigerian) and her (a Chinese-American) to South-Asian music/dance forms. Maybe it’s the incredible energy the performers give off on stage. Maybe it’s YouTube videos like this one. Maybe I should stop being so ignorant…

Anyway, this evening the aforementioned friend and I went to a fusion performance on campus. Fusion is kind of a mash of traditional South Asian dance forms and more Western styles like hip-hop and modern. And while I was blown away by the show (and by the ridiculous hotness of the NYU bhangra/hip-hop group), I left feeling rather sad.

You see, I’ve never been part of an event like that. The audience at the fusion show – which was in its seventh year – was packed full of supportive friends and family. Every person on the stage looked so incredibly proud and confident in their culture, like they were fully aware of the hundreds and thousands of years it was the product of. And I felt a little pang of envy watching them because I’ve never had the opportunity to express the richness of my culture in that way. And also because I’m not sure that if asked, I could even properly define what my culture is.

My family is from the Niger-Delta region of Nigeria – if you imagine Africa is shaped like a gun, we’re from the trigger (yes, we are that gangster). In that relatively narrow strip of land bordered by the Yoruba on the west and the Igbo on the east live a huge number of ethnic groups. However, I have never lived in the part of the country that I am technically from. I was born and raised in Lagos, the largest city, which is in the western part of the country. I’ve only ever visited my home village once in my life. Because my parents are from different tribal groups, they don’t speak the same language. As a result, my sisters and I don’t speak any Nigerian languages – we joke sometimes that Pidgin English is our “native” tongue. Growing up, this was never a problem for me (except for the inevitable uncomfortable moment with an elderly relative speaking Isoko to me and having to explain – politely, of course – that I didn’t understand what the fuck they were saying). I was never put in a situation where I had to really think about my culture or traditions. Those were vague concepts that I took for granted because I knew no one could ever deny me the name of my tribe or the nationality of a Nigerian.

But as I got older, I became more aware that my passive approach to my culture wasn’t something the people around me shared. Other Nigerian and African friends of mine – even those who weren’t raised in on the continent – speak their mother tongue fluently, know the history of their various ethnic groups in detail and go regularly to their home villages. I began to feel ashamed of myself. Why hadn’t I pestered my parents more to teach me at least one of their languages? Why hadn’t I asked my grandmother to tell me about Isoko traditions? Why did I think of Lagos first before Ofagbe when someone mentioned the word “home” to me? Was I somehow failing at being a true “African” because I didn’t know enough about these things?

I realise now that I was oversimplifying things. First of all, the word “culture” means vastly different things to different people, especially in the African context. The markers of cultural identification I listed above are ones that usually apply to people who identify strongly with their ethnicity because it was a fundamental part of the environment in which they were raised. My parents, like many people from our part of the country, left the region for Lagos after they completed their education to seek better job opportunities. Lagos is a very multi-cultural city which I am fortunate to have grown up in. But the physical separation I have from the land of my people as a result of living in Lagos has fed into the cultural distance I feel from it. I’m not entirely sure what the typical Isoko household is like, but I’m fairly certain my family does not quite fit the standard description. The heterogeneity of experiences in Lagos – the people of different backgrounds that I was surrounded by – is a world away from the rural quietness of my home village where everyone belongs to the same tribe: a tribe so small no one even knows how we ended up where we are today. I didn’t grow up the same way that my friends did and our cultural experiences are vastly different, so I can’t really compare myself to them.

So what does my culture mean to me? It isn’t something that I can present to other people through dance, the way the South Asians I watched tonight can. Nor is it something I can prove that I am in touch with through my knowledge of the language. Being an Isoko is important to me – something I realised at my sisters’ traditional weddings where for the first time I got to partake in a tradition that truly belongs to me and my people. But my own idiosyncratic culture transcends that. I am also a Lagos girl (even though I’m too chicken to ride an okada). I am also a proud green-and-white rocking Nigerian. I am an African who is learning more and more about the intersections between my life and the lives of others from places like Maseru and Addis Ababa. My culture is more than just words and a village – it’s my politics, my outlook, my way of telling the world, “Oi, look – this is me!” It is a product of everywhere I’ve lived, including the UK and New York. My culture is the kicks I sport here and the headtie I wear at home that makes me feel like a queen. It’s its own little fusion. It isn’t textbook, and it doesn’t make for a thrilling show, but I love it and embrace it all the same.

I know that was mad corny, but sometimes it has to be done. Humour me.

P.S. I snatched the title from this track. 1 Great Leap is a fucking amazing project. I also love the band Faithless whose lead singer/rapper, Maxi Jazz, is on the track: best electronica/rave track of all time is “Insomnia.”

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1 Response to "“For My Culture” – Africa, Part II"

PUFF! I really loved reading this…we are both aware of the diluted and disconnected cultural fortitude of the American Negro…so sometimes when I am picking out my big red afro, I look in the mirror and examine my freckled face and celtic tattoo, as I dance to my Sohk music and yell at my son in Spanish to stop practicing kung fu next to my post modern satues and finish his chicken lo mein before meditation…I can relate to trying to grasp the intangible concept of culture…

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