The Young and Disenchanted

Posts Tagged ‘Africa

Today I have my first interview for a potential post-grad job. I’m excited, a little scared – and a little thrown off cos it’s with an insurance firm (not usually the industry you see English/Poli Sci majors with a penchant for photography and obscene language going in to). I’m pulling out the power suit my sister gave me, the pearl earrings so I look extra classy with it… and of course, a pair of red pumps to represent the Red Pump Project, a media campaign that seeks to raise awareness about the impact HIV/AIDS have on women and girls.

I recently read a BBC article that said that HIV has become the number one cause of death and disease among women of reproductive age around the world. As a person who fits into this category, and especially as a sub-Saharan woman (in my part of the world 60% of people with HIV are women) who has personally seen the sorrow HIV/AIDS can cause, this fact has particular resonance with me.  Even more harrowing is the fact that 70% of women worldwide have been coerced into having unprotected sex. Grim as these statistics may be, it is important that we focus not on how women have been made victims, but how we can empower and educate one another and tackle this disease head-on, as well as the ignorance and stigmas that are attached to it. Building alliances, spreading the word… whatever small way each of us can help is in no way negligible. Many small acts combined together make for a force to be reckoned with.

I hope one day that the world will be free of HIV/AIDS . Even if I never see that in my lifetime, I hope that the work of organisations such as the Red Pump Project and the amazingly passionate people behind it will push that vision through. Check out their website here for more info: http://www.theredpumpproject.com/

K, time to get ready for my interview. Wish me and my red pumps luck!

I have another blog that I’m a collaborator on – a group of Columbia University students started up a magazine that focuses on African issues from a global perspective. We cover everything from politics and economics to music and literature. Check it out here: http://idayamagazine.blogspot.com/ – I’ll have a new post on here over the weekend 🙂

P.S. Just cos…

I have made my season of migration back to the heart of darkness. NYC is as cold as I left it – a sharp arse contrast to the balmy Harmattan heat of Lagos and Dakar. It hasn’t all been gloom and doom though – I’ve hung out with friends, touched Mos Def (yes I saw him – and it was amazing) and had that deliciously decadent molten chocolate brownie with ice cream from the diner across the street from me. However, it’s my last semester as a college student aka Knuckle Down Time. I have a thesis to write, a job to find and classes to ace so I can graduate with a decent GPA. This means that I will be spending the majority of my days locked down in the library – kind of depressing, but as I love pretty much everything I’m reading and writing, I’m actually very content about the whole life situation.

Except for this job business. Part of the issue is that I enjoy making life complicated for myself. When I first got to college, I thought I could be an econ major, enjoy the perks of investment banking upon graduation (aka wild money) and retire filthy rich at the age of 32 to pursue a life as a nomad photographer. Alas, I discovered that my brain was suited better to analysing literature than manipulating formulae, so I traded my calculator for a stack of novels (at last count, close to 200 of them) and chose to study English and Political Science. This made the past 2 years in particular incredibly fulfilling, but now the honeymoon period has worn off and reality has hit. I have to find a job – a good job – and generally try to figure out what the hell I want to do with my life. For a while now I’ve been fantasising about becoming an English professor… I could absolutely dedicate my life to the study of post-colonial African literature, get tenure someplace fabulous and school the yung’uns on Achebe and Senghor. Yes, it will take a long time to get there (and I will be pitifully destitute while getting there), but deep down I know that an intellectual/academic/creative path is for me. I need to be surrounded by mountains of books and papers, to have arguments over the smallest nuances of a sentence and most importantly, to continue to learn. This all sounds so incredibly perfect, and yet I am full of doubts.

You see, this little break for freedom I want to make hasn’t exactly come with precedent as far as my upbringing goes. My parents are both professionals, as are my older two sisters (although one is also trying to be a professor). While growing up I was given free rein to indulge my intellectual curiosity (something my father probably deeply regrets now), but it seems that as far as Nigerians go, I’m an exception in terms of the things that interest me. Most of us are taught to focus on what will provide the money to take care of your family: be a lawyer, be an engineer, work for an oil company. The glory days of Soyinka and Azikiwe are long gone – the leading Nigerian intellectuals are predominantly elderly men and in a country where civil society and intellectual debate have been decimated and restricted for so many years, it doesn’t surprise me. Being a professor at a Nigerian university doesn’t pay (literally) – working for a bank does. Why then, would anyone want to study African literature over Accounting? Ah – because they were unlucky enough to stumble across a comparative literature class their sophomore year, read A Season of Migration to the North and were unable to resist the germ of a deadly disease that assailed them a thousand years ago. I’m trying to make a life out of what most Nigerians would call a hobby. This means that if I really do want to go down this path, I may have to do so outside my home country.

However, this isn’t so simple. Although I love learning about other cultures, the problems that haunt Nigeria are tugging at me, forcing me to look closer at this place I call home and decipher just how much I know about it… which is actually pathetically little. I need to learn more about the complexities of Muslim-Christian relationships in the Middle Belt, where horrifically violent riots have been taking place, about the variations in rural and urban life in the North and South, about which societal structures survived colonialism and which ones are a product of it. But Nigeria hasn’t become a sexy topic for academia yet – as far as African countries go, Sudan is probably what’s hottest in the corridors of intellect, or countries like Senegal that have a rich legacy of scholarship. I’m not saying that there aren’t brilliant Nigerian scholars, but it saddens me that the vibrant academic communities that thrived at Nsukka and Ibadan (my parents’ alma maters) 40 years ago have falling victim to the systematic rot that plagues everything else in Nigeria.

But somewhere in the hot mess that is Nigeria, I sense opportunity. I see potential teachers and students on every street corner in Surulere. It’s not that we don’t have the resources to do better – to expand our horizons not only in terms of development, but also to rebuild our public forums, improve education and encourage political debate at the grassroots. It’s just that we don’t have leaders who have the inclination, bravery and balls to step up and actually improve the country. And that must change. We’re sometimes called the “sleeping giant” – maybe it’s time for us to wake the fuck up. And maybe, just maybe, with other people who feel the same, I could be the alarm clock… as long as I can get some decent moolah out of it (just keeping it 100). I think that would make for a pretty awesome life.

Now back to Mamdani and this chocolate muffin.

P.S. Not that it has a lot to do with this post, but I love this Erykah Badu jawn.

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.”

I’m finally home. And it’s fabulous. I’ve been back on the continent for 5 days now and I’ve been soaking up all the heat and family love and good food that I can. Obviously, this is Africa and it’s not perfect – as I’m writing this the generator that was providing our electricity has cut out and because there’s no mains supply at the moment, it’s dark as hell and hot in the house. The road leading to said house is paved only directly in front of us – otherwise it’s a sandy, pot-holed filled “adventure” ride to and from the rest of the city. And, of course, a fellow countryman just attempted to blow up a US aircraft meaning that the Nigerian global public image is going to be even more shat on than it is already (not only are we scammers and militants, now we’re terrorists on top? Walai talai!)With all that said and done though, I’m still so incredibly glad to be back, away from the cold and gloom and exams of NYC and enveloped in the dusty warmth of Lagos, watching the sun set through an open balcony door with a cool drink in hand and Fela on the speakers.

But yet, I am not completely content. Off that same balcony I can see families squatting in the compound next door, living in impromptu shacks while I am surrounded by cement and metal and granite. My parents tell me about the stresses of African city living: road building projects left unfinished for months, spawning 4 hours of go-slow for already overstressed workers; power problems that have made businesses fold up and which burn up the petrol that is my country’s economic lifeline in generator engines; the continuous poverty most people grapple with day-to-day that is only further exaggerated by the excesses of wealth shown in glossy magazines, shaded by tinted car windows and cushioned by the finest imported jacquard and Swiss lace. In summary: this shit is problematic. A couple days ago, I was in the car with my mother and my sisters listening to Original Sufferhead, a Fela album, as we drove to visit a family friend. My mother frustratedly remarked how the problems Fela sang about over 30 years ago – lack of water, food, house – are still present today. The same names Fela mentioned in the 1970s – Obasanjo, Buhari, Yar’Adua – are still enjoying the wealth of the nation today. The same colonial mentality that Fela warned against is still in control of the minds of so many Nigerians today. Despite all the “progress” that has been made, all the malls that have been built and all the oil that has been sold it’s still the same old shit. I guess it’s like Homer said: the homecoming is inevitably bittersweet.

I was incredibly fortunate to have been born into the position that I was. I have benefited from good nutrition, a supportive family and a quality education that means that I have the chance to go far in this life, to fulfil the name that was given to me at birth. I have far more than most of my fellow 1 billion Africans were given. But all of this protective padding isn’t enough to shield me from the reality of life for so many in my home city. Just because I live in a bubble of sorts doesn’t mean that its walls are too opaque for me to see out of and to observe how much injustice there is on this continent – injustice that could be so easily rectified if only enough people cared and were willing to do something tangible. I’ve been concerned about these issues for a long time, but the classes I took this semester at college (my “black fist” classes, as I like to refer to them) and reading Gandhi (not a fan, but still), Fanon, Achebe, Senghor, Lamming and Tully have me more fired up and critical than I’ve ever been. Things have fallen apart – they need to be put back together again, but better than before. This time there has to be real change.

Unfortunately, I feel limited by what I can achieve. After all, I’m only a college senior. As one individual I don’t have the resources or strength to challenge the forces of neo-imperialism in a meaningful way. I alone can’t solve world poverty. More importantly, I’m not even sure if I’m the person to do that: for two reasons.

One, I have other obligations. I owe certain things to my family, to my social position: getting a good job, marrying a good man, giving birth to good children. These are the things that all the support I have been given for so long are meant to culminate in. And these are things that I want for myself too. I do want to go into publishing, and maybe go back to grad school after a few years of working life and get that PhD in literature (as long as I’m surrounded by books, I’ll be happy). I do want to find someone to spend the rest of my life with. And I do want kids – especially after spending the past few days with my adorable and beautiful nieces. But I wonder if that will be enough for me – if I won’t find myself wishing that I could have done more, been more, seen more by choosing another path.

Another part of me wants to say, “Fuck it – you only get one life to live” and pack my bags and travel somewhere and do.  Forget Jeffrey Sachs-style pontificating from the comforts of the Upper West Side, I want to fight and build and save and live among the wretched of the earth, rising to reclaim it for their own. But then that second nagging thought creeps into my mind: “Who the hell are you to do that?” It seems so incredibly egotistical to think myself capable of being a campaigner, a warrior woman sans frontières, the kind of person who could change history. No seriously – I’m sitting here saying to myself, “Really though? You really think you could do all of that? C’mon son. Fuckouttaherewiththatshit.”  Not only do I have no semblance of a game plan, my cushy bougie life hasn’t exactly prepared me for the realities of the “real world,” especially not the African real world. My inner revolutionary was cultivated in classrooms and libraries, not on plantation fields and mountainous jungles. Who am I to speak for the masses?

But even though I’m not certain that abandoning everything that I’ve lived thus far wouldn’t smack of insincerity, deep down I feel like if I don’t try to make a difference, I’ll live regretting it from the comfort of my air-conditioned safety net.

Realistically speaking, I know that this dichotomy isn’t the only option: I can create a middle path for myself that balances out what I owe to the home and the world. I’m just one of those people who believes in going hard or going home, which is why I’ve presented it as so black and white… I don’t know. Like my sister said, I have more than enough time to figure this all out. So I’m going to take my time with it, enjoy the rest of my holiday and prepare for the challenges of the new decade.

P.S. The title is kind of random, but I remember loving this N.E.R.D. album so much way back when…

I’m in the middle of writing a paper for my Jazz and American culture – the last of the 5 papers that have defined my finals period (no exams, hamd’llah). I was flicking through Morrison’s novel “Jazz” for a quote to use to describe some concept I’m trying to articulate (I won’t bore you with details) but this quote stood out for me. Ponder, and enjoy. I’ll be writing more on the other side of the Atlantic:

“Black women were armed; black women were dangerous and the less money they had the deadlier the weapon they chose. Who were the unarmed ones? Those who found protection in church and the judging, angry God whose wrath in their behalf was too terrible to bear contemplation… Who else were the unarmed ones? The ones who thought they did not need folded blades, packets of lye, shards of glass taped to their hands. Those who bought houses and hoarded money as protection and the means to purchase it. Those attached to armed men. Those who did not carry pistols because they were pistols; did not carry switchblades because they were switchblades cutting through gatherings, shooting down statutes and pointing out the blood and abused flesh. Those who swelled their little unarmed strength into the reckoning one of leagues, clubs, societies, sisterhoods designed to hold or withhold, move or stay put, make a way, solicit, comfort and ease. Bail out, dress the dead, pay the rent, find new rooms, start a school, storm an office, take up collections, rout the block and keep their eyes on all the children.”

At some point during my sophomore year of college, I stumbled across the book Colonize This!, a collection of essays written by women-of-colour feminists. Each essay is written from a different perspective – Indian American, Chicana, Muslim – but many share a recurring theme: how to reconcile their cultural identity with their feminist views. One essay that struck me in particular was written by a Nigerian woman. She discussed how, as a child, the role of cook/cleaner/wife-in-training defined her position as the only girl in her family, and how she rebelled against this imposed identity as a result of her exposure to feminist literature while studying in the USA. Now, I 100% sympathise with home-girl on this tip. If I had brothers and I had to watch their lazy asses play Nintendo 64 (holla!) while I washed all the motherfucking dishes, I would have become an only child by virtue of the cutlass there would have been some problems. But even without brothers, it was definitely emphasised when I was growing up (slash still today) that I would have to ensure that my domestic skills were up to par in order for me to “make a good wife.” I used to resent this pressure and told anyone who would listen (all three of them) that I would make my husband cook when I was married. Now that I am older and wiser I see that the words of my youth were unduly rash. Why? Well, for one thing, I’ve learned how to cook. And I LOVE it. Seriously: cooking is one of the most fabulous, sexy, empowering activities that I engage in on a regular basis. I think Nigella Lawson was the catalyst for the unleashing of my inner domestic goddess: I once analysed her cookbook for an English class and fell in love somewhere between Coca-Cola Ham and Deep Fried Mars Bars (which, despite sounding absolutely revolting, hold a strange power of fascination over me). Plus, she’s a total hottie. Besides the point: I have now embraced the wonders of domestication – something I thought would be accepted with open arms and empty stomachs by all. But apparently not.

A recent offer to make a sick male friend some soothing ginger cola was met with the reply that he did not want to “domesticate an educated woman” by subjecting me to the indignities of the kitchen. Now, I know that this came from a place of kindness. However, my outer inner proud African woman felt somewhat affronted (inner dialogue: “What, you don’t think I can make it?? My ginger cola-making skills aren’t good enough for you??? What in the hell do you mean by this????” – P.S. I never said my inner proud African woman, despite her wonderfulness, was altogether rational). On the one hand, it was lovely to have a man not want to take advantage of my cooking skills (ahem, African men I attend college with). On the other, I’d never thought that doing something domestic would be somehow be seen as compromising my status as an educated woman. My mother, who holds two degrees, doesn’t play with her skills in the kitchen (and especially her cake – mmmmm, I hope she’s making cakes for Christmas this year so that I can grow fat and merry :)). Both her domestic nature and her intellect work together to make her the wonderful woman that she is – one doesn’t necessarily contradict the other. First of all, cooking isn’t easy – there are plenty of women who can hold their own in a philosophical debate who cannot cook for shit. Anyone who can wield a knife, whisk and chicken breast without causing grievous bodily harm to themselves or others is a real OG. Chuuuuuuch. Secondly, I’m not certain that domestication is such a bad thing. I mean, if a motherfucker can’t cook, how are you going to eat? What if you’re chilling in a warzone in East Africa with your mercenary army, AK-47 in hand, no Chinese takeout spot in sight and just some goats at hand? (I’ve thought this out a little too well…) I mean, don’t get it twisted – this applies to women and men. Even though I will cook for my future husband, he had damn well take some classes at the Culinary Institute and be prepared to get busy with the Magic Mixer. Motherfucker, what if I come home late from work?? What are you gonna do, stare at the cooker in hope? Pause. I’m not with it.

I’m also not sure how I feel about the idea of domestication being an imposable concept. I think that there is plenty of power in being able to cook and clean: just imagine if your mother decided to not cook any more. My mother did something like this once. It was not a good look. Being a position of serving others does not necessarily equate to being subservient, I’m slowly realising. Not only is it an expression of love, like my girl Bimala says, it’s also a way of showing strength. Take it from someone who is making a regular gig of cooking dinner for 10 people just because – that shit takes MIGHT.

All I’m saying is: I don’t believe that my strong African womanhood is depleted by my puff-puff making skills (shout out to the Burundi meatballs) – rather, I believe they enhance it in all of its intellectual, political and slightly crazy glory.

Let me know how you feel in the comments.

P.S. Went back to my girl Jilly from Philly for the title – LOVES this song.