The Young and Disenchanted

Archive for the ‘Stereotypes’ Category

Le sigh – and another stay at home comes to an end. In 3 days time I’ll be sitting in the Atlanta airport after a vigorous patting-down and grilling by airport authorities (thanks, underwear bomber) waiting for my flight back to NYC and my last semester of college. Although I’m excited for this final stretch and to see all my people back on campus, I’m really going to miss home. The thought of trading jollof rice and the heat of the equator for greasy pizza and North-Eastern snow is wild depressing, especially because this trip home has been particularly enjoyable. My father, feeling adventurous, decided that we should make a trip to Senegal. Yesterday we returned home after spending 6 days in Dakar, which is officially one of my new favourite places in the world. It’s where the French Riviera and the West African savannah had a love child raised by a North African nanny. It’s considerably less chaotic than Lagos, and much more of a walking city. I loved the fact that the buildings were so close to the roadside that you could reach up and touch one of the brightly coloured shutters. It was fun practising my (rusty) French with market traders. And poulet yassa with un peu de pili pili? Heavenly.

Of course, it being a city, the hustlers were out in full effect. Every time we walked out of our hotel, we would be approached by an Abdul/Amadou/Yuyu who would smile and hail us with a “Bonjour!” hoping that we hapless tourists would be persuaded to take him on as our guide (for a few thousand CFA, bien sûr). If only they’d known that we were Nigerians: mon cher, you can’t scam the original scammers. But that was the interesting thing – they didn’t seem to know that we were Nigerians. I got asked if I was everything from Senegalese to Ethiopian, but never my home country. Given recent events, I’m sure most would tell me to be grateful that people don’t think I’m Nigerian. It’s been an interesting pattern since I’ve lived abroad, people thinking that I’m not from West Africa. I’ve been asked if I was from the USA, Kenya, Botswana and even Fiji (yeah, that right there got the side eye). I don’t think there’s anything about the way I look that suggests that I’m not a Nigerian. And as I grew up here, it’s even more baffling to me. Maybe motherfuckers just aren’t that perceptive. Or maybe I have a “non-African” air about me that throws people off – perhaps I don’t come across as your average African.

This is something that has plagued me increasingly throughout my life. What is it about me that makes people think I’m from Brooklyn rather than Ofagbe? Why don’t I come across as “authentic”? I guess the ideal place to begin answering that question would be to figure out what the “typical” African is like. Let’s begin with appearances: according to an African-American security guard at my college, African people are black.  As in, we’re all on that chocolate/ebony/midnight type skin tone. I guess my brown skin fails the first test – thanks, Scottish great-grandfather. Second of all, African women don’t wear their hair the way I do. In Lagos, I stand out when my hair is fro’ed – most women here have their hair relaxed, in braids or in weaves. If they do wear it natural, it’s cut short like a man’s. Second fail. What about the way I dress? West African women are supposed to wear ankara (traditional cloth often sewn into dresses or a skirt and blouse), and love them some gold jewellery. I guess my skinny jeans and wooden bracelets fail this authenticity test. Other ways in which I don’t measure up: I don’t speak any African languages. My accent has lingering traces of South-East England and New York City. I didn’t go to secondary school in Nigeria. I’m not poor. I like Russian literature… the list continues. Everywhere I go, from the streets of Dakar to the sidewalks of NYC, people seem to enjoy reminding me how I’m not really African. Yes, I have a Nigerian passport, but because my appearance and experiences are not typical, I’ve somehow lost my African-ness (if, indeed, I ever had it) and fallen into a no-man’s-land (after all, with a name like mine I can’t possibly pass for a real Westerner or as being from any other part of the world but West Africa). As a friend once told me, my “bourgeoisie” background which enabled me to fly home 3 times in as many months for my sisters’ weddings undermines my claim to being a “real” African. Mon Dieu! – I am, vraiment, in the position of being a member of the colonised elite that Fanon and so many others have written about. Caught between the world of the colonial power, which my education has given me some level of access to, but to which my skin tone denies me full entry, and the world of the colonised subject which my socio-economic status has moved me out of reach, what am I to do?

Following along this reason, I guess Leopold Senghor, Chinua Achebe and other intellectuals like them are also not legitimate Africans. Neither are any of the Africans that attend my university. Although some of them pass more “tests” than I do, surely their failure of others means that they too are condemned to flounder in the frustration of being an undefined hybrid, of not being fully able to “belong” to their respect homes.

Just in case you haven’t noticed, I think all of this right here is bullshit. To all the people who have questioned the authenticity of my West African-ness: are you fucking serious? The fact that you define “true African-ness” just highlights the extent to which your mindset is dominated by colonialism. In case you forgot, when the British, French and Portuguese came it was them who drew a line between the “native” and the “citizen.” Your denial of my African-ness is you repeating the exact same ideology. Here’s the wonderful thing about identity: it’s fluid. This means that it doesn’t follow a set of rules or fall under a single list, especially in the context of Africa. I have the freedom to shape my own African identity, to accept what I was given, change what I don’t like and embrace the new. Just because it doesn’t match up to your personal definition doesn’t make it less valid. If you tell someone that their Western education makes them un-African, you are suggesting that Africans can only learn within the context of Africa. If you tell someone that their clothing makes them an outsider, you are saying that Africans can only dress in an African way. If you tell someone that speaking English instead of Wolof highlights a colonial mentality, you are claiming that Africans are only truly African when speaking “native” languages, and underscoring your own colonial mentality.  In other words, you are making a monolith out of the people of this incredibly diverse continent and reinforcing the very stereotypes that are keeping this continent down.

I think it’s important to make it clear that I am in no way, shape or form privileging my own experiences as an African to those of others: my American education doesn’t make me “better” than someone who went to the University of Lagos. Although I’m not going to engage in the “Western” vs. “non-Western” debate here, I’m definitely not okay with the privileging of Western ideals and standards over the many African ones. What I do what to emphasise is that difference – even when that difference comes from outside of the African context – is what makes Africa so vibrant and beautiful. Part of what I love about being African is the fact that you can see so many different cultural influences at play within our societies – for example, the way Dakar is a totally different kind of African city to Accra because of their histories.

In summary, I don’t believe judging people according to how “African” you think they are in order to make yourself feel better is doing anyone any favours. We’re ALL African, period. And especially to those who tell me these things as we both sit in an American university classroom – c’mon son. Fuckouttaherewiththatshitson. Africans, “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery” and fucking do better.

And with that said, let me go find some rice and beans to eat. I’m starved.

P.S. Title is from Fela’s “Gentleman.”

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Kumbaya

Imagine a world of no conflicts, a world where everyone believes in the oneness of the human race. A world where people of all races sit down together and share equally in the wonderful resources the earth has to give. Africa and the Middle East are peaceful regions. The distinction between the third and first world, the developed and the developing, no longer exist. Racism, tribalism, xenophobia are all things of the past. The human race respects nature and the environment is safe. On that day, human beings shall hold hands together and we shall sing “Kumbaya” in unison.
Now to the realists/cynics amongst us, this vision of the world is unattainable. For such a world to exist we would have to give up the selfishness which marks us individuals, part of what defines us. While I do generally agree that this Kumbaya existence in unattainable, I do however feel that as humans we have the responsibility to try our best to eliminate bias and prejudice in every area of endeavor.
The reason I’m even thinking about this “I have a dream” scenario is because as an African, and specifically as a Nigerian, I come across all sorts of bias and prejudice in my daily life. I have always been of the opinion that education and exposure helps to lessen ignorance and hence helps to stem the tide of bias. It then surprises me that as a Nigerian that people, educated or not, are more concerned with what ethnic group I belong to than anything else about me. I say this because within the context of Nigeria or even Africa, people find it hard to place my ethnic group based on my name and hence I get all sorts of questions, “Are you really Nigerian?” “Are you this tribe, that tribe or the other?” – all of which are typically wrong. I am yet to meet a Nigerian even when I was in the US who wouldn’t, knowing that I’m Nigerian, ask as a follow up question to “What is your name?” what my tribe was.
Now there are people that would blame this on the colonial strategy of divide-and-rule. The colonial rulers played one tribe against the other to ensure easy rule although before the colonialists came, I am sure tribes were conquering each other and fighting. You would think over time people get over certain prejudices. Then again, it’s almost 50 years after the end of colonial rule and to the best of my knowledge Nigerians and Africans in general have been traveling to other lands and getting educated on the bigger picture. I say this because from my own experience, going to study outside my country provided me the opportunity to see the issues that are affecting my country outside the lens of tribalism. It gave me a sense of the bigger picture in the sense that I began to see my fellow Nigerians not as people of this or that tribe but as my fellow Nigerians. I also began to see my fellow Africans as brothers with whom I could share some common experiences. I would even venture further to say I see African-Americans as cousins of some sort and, in the complete Kumbaya state of mind, I judge a person by their merits and not by their skin color or culture. Of course as a human being, I’m not immune to all forms of bias, but I try to not let these biases be the major decision-makers in my life.

To put my thought process in context, I recently came back to Nigeria after studying in the US, and I am settling in for what could be a year or more in Africa. What has struck me while I have been back is hearing supposedly educated people spew stereotypes about a person of one tribe or another. You can walk through the streets and hear stereotypes that the Yoruba man, for instance, is dirty by nature, the Igbo man loves money and the Hausa man is an uneducated Islamic fanatic who rules and consumes all the country’s wealth. I am from the northern part of the country, where the Hausas/Fulanis are the majority tribes so anytime I tell someone I am from the north, it is assumed that a) I am a Muslim b) I am uneducated (they are surprised to discover I have finished university) and c) I come from an area that is wealthy. Of course all stereotypes have an element of truth: Nigeria is a country with enormous wealth and the north of the country has held power for longer than the other regions. The country is also has an illiteracy rate of almost 50%. The surprising thing about these stereotypes is that there are sometimes physical attributes that go along with them: the tall, skinny Fulani man, the light-skinned Igbo chap, the dark-as-hell Yoruba man and so on and so forth. If you look closely though, these so called physical attributes are almost complete hogwash as many people defy these parameters of identification. It still amazes me that people treat me a certain way because I look like I’m from a part of the country that I’m not. When I am in the northern part of the country, people sometimes treat me with disdain and speak in the language not knowing I understand, whereas when I’m in the southern part of the country, people speak their language to me and are surprised when I don’t understand them.
Now I am not anti-culture, nor do I advocate the adoption of European culture where all ethnic barriers are lifted and Africans sing Kumbaya with a Yorkshire accent. I say this because I have often been accused by people of my own ethnic group of having no respect for our people or culture because I feel we aren’t so different from others. I feel that there is a strong problem when people of different tribes do not take the time to appreciate and learn from each other’s cultures. I feel there is a problem when people of one tribe make it difficult for people from two different tribes to marry. Of course, times are changing and there are intercultural marriages, but there is still a deep suspicion of people of different tribes often steeped in the stereotypes many people already hold. I think there is a problem when as a governor, minister or president in my country, if you don’t provide dividends for people of your tribe as opposed to for all people in your constituency, you are seen as a traitor. Now I ask you how such a country hopes to progress even with loads of oil wealth. Would the US, for instance, expect President Obama to develop only Illinois at the detriment of the other states in the union? That would be ridiculous. It is a problem when people look at political appointments on the basis of ethnic affiliation, not in terms of merit and experience. There are very few technocrats working in the Nigerian government. And they are hoping to achieve the millennium development goals? I call bullshit on that one.

The same discussion could apply to religion in my country. Nigeria is statistically almost 50% Christian and 50% Muslim. As a young kid from a Christian family, I always wondered growing up why none of the Muslim kids would come and play with me. As I grew up and eventually made Muslim friends in places such as boarding school, it occurred to me that sometimes Muslim parents and Christian parents alike, depending on how fundamentalist or firebrand they are, often discourage their kids from playing with kids of the other religion. Now I wonder, if I had some Buddhist kids around, would my parents have let me play with them? I can speak for Christianity since I grew up in a Christian family. Christians in my country take religion more seriously than the damn colonialist missionaries who brought it to them. Nigerians are highly religious – it’s the only country I know where literally every street has a church or mosque on it. It doesn’t just stop there: in certain volatile parts of the country politicians often use religion to incite violence. The Christians often even argue amongst themselves, along the Catholic/Protestant line, each believing the other is wrong. It is a Nigerian Anglican archbishop that is spearheading the move by the African Church to leave the English Communion for appointing a gay bishop. I find it ironic that one of the most religious countries on earth is also one of the most corrupt. Now I wouldn’t want to make any inferences here on the role of religion in corruption because that’s a whole other discussion.

Now imagine a world rife with conflict, where each group is at another’s throat, where fighting between tribes and genocides are common place. Imagine a world where we murder anything that we perceive as different from us. I think it doesn’t take a genius to see that such a world needs progress. So my dear friends, what experiences in your life sometimes have you wishing for a world of equality and equal opportunity under the sun?

The song I had in mind as I was writing this was “If I ruled the world” by Nas featuring Lauryn Hill. I certainly miss Lauryn Hill, homegirl needs to get back pronto. Nas has always been one of my favorite rappers, dude speaks knowledge, if he listening, we need another “Illmatic” bruv.

A few weeks ago I was sitting smoking hookah in my room with a male acquaintance. Above my desk, I have photographs of my family, including a solo picture of my mother which, as the topic of family came up in conversation, I showed to him. He took a look and commented, “Wow, she looks like a strong African woman – I see where you get it from.”

Now, any other African woman would probably either not have given this a second thought, or would have taken it as a compliment. I, however, was steaming. Not because I have a problem with being told I resemble my mother – she’s absolutely beautiful – but because I thought I detected beneath the seemingly kind remark the lurking, negative undertone of “scary black girl” which the former term often seems to be a euphemism for.

I realise now that I reacted like a crazy person. But let me explain myself: first of all, in that photograph my mother looks, to quote another friend, like an O.G – but the kind that would have Frank Lucas running scared. In other words, like an intimidating figure – aka, the “scary black girl,” or woman. The moniker “scary black girl” has followed me around since I was nine years old, since when my family moved to England. Being tall, loud-voiced and opinionated hasn’t done much to make me come across as the sensitive, sweet and warm-hearted person that I am deep deep deep down (no, really, I am). But in a world where being an African woman doesn’t exactly endow you with all of the best opportunities the world has to offer, I don’t feel like I have a choice but to be tough. When I moved to England, my younger sister, another Nigerian and I were the only people of colour at my school. Hearing a white girl ask why our skin was the colour of poop, I felt like I had two options: cry, or punch her in the face (metaphorically speaking, of course). I chose the (metaphoric) latter option, and it became my way of dealing with all the adverse situations and general bullshit life has thrown my way. Fuck lemonade, I make kamikazes with my lemons.

So I fully understand why certain people, when they see me making my unsmiling, keffiyeh-ed up way across campus, may want to run in the opposite direction, or peg me as unfriendly or find me unapproachable. Shoot, I probably wouldn’t want to talk to me either sometimes, especially if I haven’t slept. But there’s more to this one image than meets the eye.

I told a male friend of mine about the comment that got me thinking about the phrase “strong African woman” to begin with. As I ranted on in self-righteous fury, he looked at me sideways and asked, “What is it about being called strong that you don’t like?” I paused. “Well,” I responded, “I think it comes with a particular stereotypical connotation when followed by “African woman.” It isn’t a bad thing on its own, but I don’t like people assuming I’m an emasculating, bossy person when they don’t know me.  I feel like that’s what people think of when they say that phrase.” He replied with something that made me stop and think: “I don’t think so. When I hear the words “strong African woman” I think of a person who is strong despite the limitations that come with being a woman and being an African.”

I’d never thought of myself that way. For me, my strong African womanhood was armour, something I used to protect myself from the world. It didn’t occur to me that it could also be a source of vulnerability. In many ways, I was buying into the very “stereotype” that I was offended by – because I believed that being vulnerable was a weakness I couldn’t afford, and one that my African mother hadn’t worked so hard for me to indulge in. My boy was suggesting something totally radical to me: that by letting your guard down, by not always being the tough one or the caretaker, you could still show strength.

Thinking back to my reaction that evening, and about the strong African women I know, his point totally makes sense. My very gangster mother, despite her fierceness, can also be very vulnerable. I’ve watched her sob, totally despondent over the loss of a relative with the kind of helplessness I associate with a small child. I’ve also watched her get herself up, wash her face and go on to make dinner for my father, putting her personal sadness aside for the wellbeing of those she loves. And that right there is the key – it’s the ability to be both “weak” and “strong,” to comfort and to be comforted in turn, that defines this strong African womanhood.

I asked Rational Chaos, and he too associates the phrase “strong African woman” with sacrifice as well as with taking no nonsense. It was interesting, though, because he also suggested that there was an antithesis to this woman, the “submissive African woman” for lack of a better term – one he imagined carrying a water bucket on her head, bowed by the weight of poverty and lack of opportunity. Interesting, because I’d never put the word submissive next to my idea of an African woman. Tradition and condition may require some of us to be poor dutiful wives, but even this requires a great deal of strength – to put aside your personal desires for someone else or for your culture. This is something I admire – and something I probably need to work on as I grow older.

As I type this I’m looking at the photograph of my mother that started this whole discourse. She’s wearing her Gucci shades, a red and silver gele (headtie) with matching wrapper, and striding purposefully forward, her eye catching something to her left. She’s powerful, she’s stunning – yet something about that sideways glance reminds me of the times I’ve seen her otherwise – mocking my niece’s dancing in her nightgown, tired from surgery, stressed out from work. But this image – the strong, beautiful African woman image – is what stays with me. I know I have her smile and her height… only time will tell if I have her strength too.

Thoughts in the comments section please.

P.S. The title is from Raheem DeVaughn’s “Woman” – love this track.

P.P.S. This piece is for two African men: the one who gently reminded me about writing on this blog, and the one who made me see how wonderful it is to be an African woman. I love you guys 🙂

“Get Money”

So, the other day I was watching “Boiler Room,” a movie about shady stockbrokers who sell people shares that don’t exist. In the current climate, that story sounds like a Madoff scheme. A quote from the movie boiler room got me and my friends pretty excited. The quote went like this:

“They say money can’t buy happiness? Look at the fucking smile on my face. Ear to ear, baby. Anybody who tells you money is the root of all evil doesn’t fucking have any.”

I am a lover of money. Who isn’t? If you are not, something is wrong with you. I digress. As a young lover of money you are definitely going to see kids with the latest cars who travel all over the world first class, who call Donald Trump Uncle Donnie and all that good (or not so good) stuff: enter the world of the Trust Fund Baby (TFB). While we’re trying to get money like the 50 Cent song says, they’ve got it, spent it, played with it and are bored of it.

Who is the TFB? We often have a love/hate relationship with them. On one side, the media paints the picture of a spoiled brat who has everything that the masses envy, and on the other side (weighing two thousand pounds and in red trunks) is the image of the kid who has all this money but is sad on the inside, and therefore does coke and all sorts of drugs to get the illusion of the happiness that money does not bring.

Because unhappiness is when you can say, “Ooh I’m sad because my dad bought me a Mercedes instead of a Maybach.”

Once again I’ll reiterate: don’t that sound like some crap spewed by some Freudian misfit who thinks everything is linked to a crappy childhood? That’s just my opinion. If you disagree, write yours below.

This is what I think of the TFB:

1) They are the kids at every party in college. They have fun, and all they need to do is get a passing grade to claim their wealth (A certain Yale graduate with the middle initial W comes to mind). It doesn’t matter if it is a frat party or a party they host at a club. They buy people drinks and come with a large entourage, even though everyone wonders how such an asshole has so many friends. I say this with no saltiness implied: some TFBs are indeed very nice people, but those are mostly the ones who aren’t too ostentatious. These are the kids that also think up of ideas like an all-naked party or a swingers party in college when clearly they could get into a lot of trouble if found out. No worries for them though: Daddy will pay for a new building to smooth things over with the administration.

2) The really really wealthy TFBs try to keep it on the down low. Yes, they might hang out with regular kids, but we all know that some of these kids might have their own islands and stuff. Believe me, they are purposefully trying to sell themselves short. This comes with the Freudian hullabaloo I was talking about earlier: the exceedingly wealthy kid who was wealthy from a younger age looking for genuine friends and validation. But then again, I might be making gross generalizations. Maybe the wealthiest dude at your school has the Rolex on, rides a big ass car with 32 inch rims that rotate counterclockwise and the sweet ass DVD players on the seats.

3) In most cases they have no comprehension of struggle and can have their parents bail them out of anything. This point though applies to any spoilt brat out there. In some sense, the Trust Fund Baby is dependent and independent at the same time: independent because they got all this money and they can experiment with ideas and can use their money and influence to get what they want, but dependent because this money is not theirs.

From my experience, I noticed that my parents interfered in my life a lot less when I started doing some work at school and didn’t ask them for money that much. Even though the difference was minimal, I was able to do what I wanted: take trips to Vegas if I wanted to without asking anyone because it was my money. In this sense, the TFB is dependent on the source of money because they do not – or cannot – typically do this.

So what gives me the right to write about the TFB when from all indications I am not one? Well, there is the right to free speech. AND I am of the inclination that my hustle as a young and upcoming person is for the sole purpose that my kids become TFBs in the future and have that dynastic wealth. Of course, many of my opinions are somewhat stereotypical, but every stereotype has an element of truth to it. You are partly a product of nurture. Some TFBs vary from this general outline: the above discussion doesn’t completely apply to them.

In my mind’s eye, the Trust Fund Baby is invincible. For all intents and purposes, I will say that for the young and disenchanted, money DOES buy happiness and if it is the root of evil, we all like evil and are naughty so its nothing but a g thang.

I am trying to get money and you know you are too.

Since I tried so hard to embed the youtube video to the 50 song but couldn’t, I will put the link. Not that I am a 50 cent fan – I think he is a schmuck and should have his minoris (balls) cut off. Hip Hop Murderer!

Here is the link:

PEACE, LOVE AND IGNORANCE

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