The Young and Disenchanted

Posts Tagged ‘Venting

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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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…

Nigeria, my Nigeria…

Anyone who knows me is probably sick and tired of the amount of times I’ve said “I cannot WAIT to go home” in the past month alone. But I can’t help it – it’s been almost ten months since I was last in Nigeria. Ten long months since that red earth/hot sun/blue sky/sea breeze/palm trees/roast corn/go-slow/fast talk that signifies home for me. If you haven’t been to Lagos, start saving your money for a plane ticket right now. Seriously. There is nowhere else on this planet that is the same combination of cool/crazy/dangerous/beautiful/intense as my home city. Not only that, but going home means that I’ll be reunited with my family again. I haven’t seen my mother since April, nor have I met my adorable new niece, Amina, who was born in August. We’ve also moved into a new house in a different part of the city and have acquired a new dog (who’s butt ugly, but still). In just over two weeks I’ll be eating beans and plantain, watching MNET and indulging in the feel of the scorching sun on my back, a welcome break from the miserable cold of New York City in December.

But as much as I am looking forward to going home, I am also very sceptical about returning. Reading 234Next, a Lagos-based newspaper, has made me very concerned about the current state of political affairs in Nigeria – and by “concerned” I mean furious. For those who aren’t up on Nigerian Politics 101, let me explain: my country’s current president is Umaru Yar’Adua, a former chemistry professor who is a member of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The PDP has been in charge of Nigeria for the past ten years of “democracy” following the death of the military dictator General Sani Abacha. President Yar’Adua has been ill for most of his presidency. He has been making regular trips out of the country for “medical check-ups,” is rarely seen in public and has been neglecting some of his presidential duties. When he ran for the presidency in 2007, there were persistent rumours that he was suffering from a kidney ailment, and his doctors have recently revealed that he has a “heart condition.” Many Nigerians are worried that he’s going to die before his term is over in 2011, and as a result there have been calls for his resignation. In any other country, this would seem perfectly logical, right? Not my people. This weekend, six of the politicians who had led calls for his resignation were threatened by members of the PDP who showed up at their homes with thugs, ready to assault them. And it will only get worse. You see, the PDP is not so much a political party as a crew of old army friends who have ruled Nigeria in some form – whether democratically or in authoritarian fashion – since the 1970s and who have no intention of letting go of power. They are drunk on the country’s oil and the money that it keeps flowing into official coffers, and which they believe they have free rein to siphon off for their multi-million dollar mansions in London and fleets of cars. And President Yar’Adua is their personal puppet – despite his probably good intentions, the power of the PDP is so deeply entrenched that efforts to prosecute the corrupt have been severely hindered by political wrangling. One example is the treatment of Nuhu Ribadu, the head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, who was dismissed from his position by the Inspector-General of Police for actually doing his job rather than stealing. The president was powerless to do anything to stop this move, a sign of his political weakness that his physical ailments are doing little to help.

So why doesn’t it make sense for him to step down and the vice-president to take over? Again, my dear people: politics. The current vice-president, Jonathan Goodluck, is from the oil-rich South-South region of Nigeria (the part of the country from which I also hail). The PDP, which is dominated by Northerners, instituted a “rotational policy” of sorts regarding the presidency: they unilaterally divided the country up into six zones between the north and south, which the president is to be elected from in turn. However, the ethnic group that dominates the North (the Hausa-Fulani) benefit from this arrangement the most: in 24 years they would hold the presidency for 12 years in total (their exclusion of smaller ethnic groups in the same geographic region make it unlikely that they would allow someone from a minority tribe to be nominated for president), while the other two large ethnic groups (the Yoruba and Igbo) and the mix of Itsekiri, Ijaw and others in the South-South would only rule for 4 years each. Not only is this a problematic power fixation, but it also does nothing to dismantle the artificial ethnic divides put in place by the British during colonial rule which split Nigeria between North and South.

A further complication is the current constitution and how it defines the role of the Vice-President. Goodluck’s powers, now that Yar’Adua is technically incapacitated, are fairly limited: he can only act as president if Yar’Adua writes a letter informing the Senate and House of Representatives that says he can – which Yar’Adua has not done.  This isn’t surprising – I highly doubt that the people that actually run Nigeria would let Yar’Adua cede his “power” to someone who may, quite possibly, want to do the job of president properly and prevent them from taking advantage of the political system for their own benefit. What frustrates me is the way that the game of politics in Nigeria is played out within the confines of such a small circle. There is zero political transparency and no true representation in government – our supposed leaders make no effort in hiding the fact that they seek power for their own benefit, not for the benefit of their constituents. No popular movement or revolution can take place if people aren’t aware of the political process and the ways that they are being excluded from it.

Or are they? The Western media has increasingly picked up on one particular anti-government group in Nigeria: the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). This is a group of “militants” (for lack of a better word) who are seeking greater resources for the people of the South-South, one of the most woefully under-developed areas of Nigeria. Their main tactics have involved kidnapping and disrupting the oil production process – not the most savoury methods, but nonetheless highly effective at putting the divide between the people of Nigeria and their government on the national stage. The government couldn’t just ignore or shut down the militants when the oil money was being threatened – they had to negotiate with the fighters and are now finally channelling money into the region (and bypassing the corrupt state governors in that area by giving it directly to local governments). There are still tensions in the region and the self-interest of many of the militants who feel hard done by the recent ceasefire (read: they didn’t get the money they were expecting) could lead to more violence at the expense of the ordinary people in the area. There is, of course, far more to the current political situation than my knowledge allows for, but from my perspective these are among the most crucial because of their potential to destabilise the country.

I remember reading the Odyssey my freshman year of college and discussing with my professor the inevitably bittersweet nature of returning home. Sitting in this miserable library with a ton of homework awaiting me, the thought of warm, sunny Lagos, good food and the love of my family seem so incredibly perfect. But then I read the news that leaves me increasingly fearful that my country could potentially plunge back into civil war and wonder about the place that I want to go back to so much. Despite the problems hanging over Nigeria, I know that being home will be good for me on some level, at least as I am right now. What exactly the future holds for me and my country… I suppose I’ll have to wait and see. Right now, everything seems as devoid of answers as the paper I have due tomorrow is of words =/

P.S. Had to bring back the main man Fela for the title.


November 2018
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