The Young and Disenchanted

Posts Tagged ‘Culture

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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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.

To my strong, beautiful black brothers:

A few months ago, I met up with a few of my ignorant favourite African male friends for dinner, and our conversation wound its way from Kelis’ “golddigging” ways and Kenyan music to an ever-contentious subject: interracial dating. All except for one of them expressed the following sentiment: “I don’t see anything wrong with an African man dating a non-African woman, but I don’t like it when I see an African woman walking with a man who isn’t black.” Now I have heard countless claims about the saltiness of the average black woman and her feelings about seeing one of “OUR men” holding hands with a Becky, but the black man who takes a black woman dating a Dale personally  is a new phenomenon for me. Puzzled, I asked to clarify: “So, you guys see nothing wrong with a black man dating outside of his race, but you do see a problem with a black woman doing so?” Their response? “Yes.”

Now, my dear black brothers: you know that I love you more than anything else in this world except chocolate. Y’all raised me, taught me, love me and challenge me to do better all day, every day. But PAUSE: really though? You somehow think you’re justified in restricting my dating choices because you feel threatened? You know you’re fucked up for that. And that will lead to you someone getting cut.

 I asked a fellow Nigerian this question straight up and he simply shrugged and said, “I know it’s wrong, but life isn’t fair.” To him, it is a serious affront to black male pride to see a black woman walking with a man of a different race. But black female pride? Psssh. Irrelevant. I got the same sense of a lack of regard for black women’s feelings on the part of black men again when talking to a couple (again, Nigerian) male friends of mine. One of them was explaining that he broke up with his last girlfriend because he was tired of being in a long-distance relationship. Upon hearing this, the other one remarked, “Oh yeah I feel you – you know men have needs.” Again, PAUSE. Because women don’t??? What in the hell is going on, my African men?

Now, I understand that our life experiences may be very different. Many of you were raised in homes where your father’s word was bond, as the man of the house. Many of you grew up with women who allowed men to get away with some trifling ass behaviour because if society condoned it, who were they to argue back? And many of you are now enjoying life in the first world as students and workers with all of these golden opportunities open to you, including the option of dating outside of your race. And you know what? I’m totally cool with that being the context in which you came up and your embracing of that developed world freedom. Actually, just the last part. The first part is hella fucked up, did not fly when I was growing up and will NOT fly in my house when I’m married. But besides the point: I too, have had the opportunity to move abroad and be educated at an American university and meet people from all different backgrounds. And maybe back home you can feel like society gives you one up on me. But this is the land of the motherfucking free: I too, can date whomever, whenever and however I please. You have no kind of right or obligation to dictate to me who can take me out to dinner. You cannot get annoyed when you see me walking with Ahmed, Ravi or Lee Kwok. And you absolutely cannot expect me to treat you one way, yet treat me in a completely different manner.

Regarding my actual stance towards the phenomenon known as “the swirl”: the only real qualification I have regarding the men I date is that they feel me on that minority/third world/AK-47 toting militant tip. It’s not that I don’t find “Western” men attractive – it’s just when you start zoning out as I talk about pidgin English/oil money/my mother’s propensity to randomly cuss people out which I have definitely inherited, it’s pretty unlikely that it’s going to work out between us. Plus what if he makes some awkward comment about my “exotic” name or going on safari? This is why I love y’all, my African men – I know you feel me on that fresh banga soup with starch on the side, on my Wafi craze and my third-world politics. So how are you gonna get mad at me for wanting to be with someone I can relate to on that cous cous/Indian nationalism/tropical heat joint? As much as I love you guys, you’re not always checking for me. There’ve been too many times you’ve told me, “Oh, you’re so beautiful” yet left me hanging waiting for the “Do you want to have dinner sometime?” There’ve been too many times you’ve just wanted me for my body and none of the other wonders I have to offer. There’ve been too many times when you’ve straight up broken my heart and left me crushed. That doesn’t mean I’ve given up on you – but it does mean I want to diversify my bonds and shit, same as you. I’m not holding you back from dating whichever Hannah, Arusha or Ming Su you want to be with, so why won’t you let me be?

Signed,

A loving but heated confused African woman

P.S. Title is from the flyest girl group of all time, En Vogue. 15 years later and they’re still fabulous.  Free your minds fellas, free your minds.

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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