Why All the Fuss about Cultural Appropriation?

So a few weeks ago, I wrote about Afronesia and Afrotortion – the acts of erasing Africa and distorting her value. I suggested that the only way to end this toxic relationship between Africa and the rest of the world was for those of us who care to seek truth and speak out.  Damien Hirst then went to look for my trouble that I hid in a far away place. Oshisko! Alaparutu!! Atoole!!! So what did Damien actually do?

sculpture

On the left is an Ife terracotta head sculpted by artists from Ile-Ife in present day Osun State between the 12th and 14th century. On the right is Hirst’s ‘work’ titled, “Golden Heads (Female)”, displayed at his Venice show “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” at Palazzo Grassi, with no reference to Ife or Nigeria. (May 2017)

On 5th of May 2017, my fellow Nigerian and lawyer, Laolu Sebanjo (a renowned artist in his own right) wrote a blistering letter to Hirst. Please read it. Please. To quote Laolu

‘Who’s past should we believe?  Is it the German Anthropologist (Frobenius) who claims the Yorubas were far too primitive to create such beautiful things or is it we the descendants of the Yoruba people who know our own history and can recognize a counterfeit when we see it.  This body of work, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is an unbelievable pile of cheap knock offs.’

So let us talk about cultural appropriation. What is it and why is it so bad?

“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.” Susan Scafidi

Looking at this definition we see that the sticking point in cultural appropriation is ‘without permission’ or ‘unauthorised use’. Cultural appropriation is not just about the taking, it is about the stealing, it is about the exploitation of other people’s labour, it is about treating the ‘other’ with contempt. It is epistemic violence and actual violence. Two examples:

In 1897 the British, during a punitive military expedition looted an estimated 3,000 bronzes, ivory-works, carved tusks and oak chests from the Kingdom of Benin (present-day Nigeria). These were then sold in the private European art market. Today Benin Bronzes can be found in museums and collections worldwide. And, in 1990, one single Benin head was sold for US$2.3 million by a London-based auction house. None of this money has ever been given to any of the original art-workers or their descendants.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight, is a song written and recorded originally by Solomon Linda in 1939. It is a key piece of music in the beautiful Disney animated movie The Lion King. In 2000 Rian Malan wrote an article titled, In the Jungle: How American music legends made millions off the work of a Zulu tribesman who died a pauper.’ The article chronicles how the copyright of the song was essentially stolen from Linda and commercialised in the West, eventually generating about US$15 million. It was only when Malan’s article was published that Linda’s estate was eventually able to recover a comparably paltry sum in royalties.

And this is why cultural appropriation is bad, why it hurts, why it makes us rage and bleed. Because each act of theft takes us back. Back to slavery again. It reminds us that we are bound. Each appropriation re-appropriates our labour, our blood, our sweat. Cultural appropriation recolonises us. Each time things like this happen we remember the chains that bind us. We remember that our labour remains stolen. Our work of little value to us. Our work enriches those who treat us contemptibly, but not us.

This is why epistemic violence is violent, our culture is violently ripped away like a new born baby ripped from its mother, blood dripping, placenta popping. Our labour is re-purposed to put food in someone else’s mouth and we are bereft, powerless, hungry. Cultural appropriation means that someone’s ease is bought by someone else’s value. A world in which we can be condemned to hunger in this way, a world that so easily dehumanizes and deprives… this is a violent world. Remember we all die slowly. We are all human. But some die slowly and in pain, because some choose to wilfully ignore the fact that we are all human.

This is why we should talk endlessly and tirelessly about decolonisation in the 21st century. Victor Ehikhamenor (another Nigerian artist) said of Hirst’s ‘work’:

‘For the thousands of viewers seeing this for the first time, they won’t think Ife, they won’t think Nigeria. Their young ones will grow up to know this work as Damien Hirst’s. As time passes it will pass for a Damien Hirst, regardless of his small print caption. The narrative will shift and the young Ife or Nigerian contemporary artist will someday be told by a long nose critic, “Your work reminds me of Damien Hirst’s Golden Head.”‘

When SOAS students asked for the decolonisation of their curriculum, their request was treated with derision. But this is why decolonisation of knowledge is important. Putting history and all knowledge in its proper context. Telling both stories of grandeur and stories of greed. We cannot dream of freedom in a world of violent silence.

So Afronesia and Afrotortion only end when we end it. The chains must be broken by us. My people, we cannot and should not beg to be recognized, or to have our labour valued. Make no mistake, legal and legitimate theft only occur in a world that makes it possible. We also make it possible. And we can make it impossible. Learn. Speak out. Mobilise. Persist. Resist. We are the becoming. We are freedom.

What if the Sound of Music was Made in Nollywood?

One day, some of my friends and I, all lovers of the original Sound of Music movie, decided to brainstorm on what the plot of SOM would have looked like if given the Nollywood treatment. The following are some of our ideas for modifications and/or rewrites. What are yours?:

  1. Maria never marries the Captain. She is the strange woman that the Baroness sees as the interloper. The Baroness and her friend do naked fasting till Maria goes mad.
  2. The thunder and lightning on that first night is a sign from the gods that the Captain must not embark on that journey to Berlin to pursue the Baroness.
  3. The Captain agrees to fight alongside the Nazis (or the Nollywood political equivalent, probably party politics) because it means more power for him at the expense of common sense and in spite of his personal conviction. He crosses all the carpets many, many times and becomes immensely rich. Rolfe, the whistle-blower, is a whistle blower.
  4. The plot is essentially redundant as the children live with their ancient but loving grandma in some village and even if Maria is needed, she does not come into actual contact with the Captain. The cast and the audience applaud the captain for remembering to send money for the children’s upkeep.
  5. Related to the above suggestion, the Baroness does some juju to make the captain forget his children and they start suffering in the village. Cue that horrible instrumental they play when the children are fetching firewood and crying because they are starving and asking each other superfluous questions. To make matters worse, because that is how we roll,  a snake bites one of them on the leg on the way from fetching the firewood and then there will be an exaggerated make up depicting the deterioration of the leg. This is no ordinary snake, it is sent by Baroness to kill the children off one by one.
  6. The Baroness will attempt to poison Maria who will be saved because her mother appeared to her in a dream and tells her not to eat the food.
  7. Liesl is pregnant, bringing shame on the family. Maria discovers her vomiting somewhere – the only tried and true Nollywood pregnancy test. Rolfe is the obvious suspect as fetal father. Turns out to be Franz the butler.
  8. When the Nazis pursue the von Trapps to the abbey, the Reverend Mother speaks in tongues, casts and binds until the Nazis are visited by a mysterious fire that lasts long enough for the family to escape.
  9. The Baroness ‘succeeds’ in killing all the children but 1 of them. That one will be paralyzed but prayerful, after interminable prayer sessions the Baroness confesses to wanting the children out of the way so that her own child would inherit the captain’s wealth. The captain weeps and wails in regret. The backing music to his tears is the ghosts of the children singing in mournful harmony. Then To God be the Glory. The end.
  10. Alternative ending:  Maria marries the Captain, but only after visiting babalawo for charms. Captain thinks he married a ‘good girl’ from the ‘Shursh’. One of the eldest children catches Maria in the night using said charms and tells the Captain. The Captain says many proverbs to himself and decides to keep quiet and goes to his own babalawo. In the process, two or three children die in the cross fire and Captain runs mad. The Baroness then comes, supposedly to take care of the children, but sells them as house girls when the Captain does not get better after all her ‘efforts’. At the end, we see random soldiers shooting and a caption that says, “war is fighting” – [This is not a typo]. Just like that. In the midst of random people throwing bangers at each other, the children escape and miraculously find each other. Then all you see is, ‘To God be the glory’…. The end.

Authored by:

Tayo Akanmode

Tolulope Majebi

Chidinma Ogbonnaya

Kofoworola Ogunnaike

Tsema Okoye

and Yours Truly

But there is only one original Sound of Music!

xumssixxbqyx

 

Ending Afronesia and Afrotortion

A few weeks ago I wrote about Afronesia and Afrotortion – the interrelated acts of forgetting Africa and distorting the ideological remnants of her image. In the weeks following that post, I have tried to direct my mind to how these two epistemically violent acts can be ended. For seekers, epistemic violence is the violence of knowledge production, the discourse involved in the practice of ‘othering’, using language to differentiate, demarcate, demean and ultimately dehumanise, thus inevitably creating the conditions for physical violence. When we think about it in this way, we see that Africa’s symbolisation as other, as less than human, as incompetent, has always framed African interaction with the rest of the world, whether it be on the continent or the diaspora. The practice of slavery is thus linked to colonialism and inexorably linked to social-engineering that masquerades as developmental measures. Thus we see that the goal of speaking of a new Africa is a serious, necessary and collective work. It is work directed to freedom; it is work for ending violence. How do we do this work?

Seek truth, read, listen, think, ask: I have lamented over and over again about the fact that African education systems seems designed to distort knowledge and not produce it. I make bold to say that no education system in the world is designed to seek the truth about Africa. NONE IN THE WORLD. So the imperative about learning African history and philosophy and science and reality is one which we have to take up as an individual responsibility. It has taken me a while to come to grips with political blackness and how it affects Africa and I am still learning everyday. Read books, articles, form discussion groups, go to conferences, network… piercing the darkness takes persistence and sacrifice.

Insist, resist, dismantle: The purpose of educating ourselves is to unveil the system of epistemic violence. The social construction of the world does not make this easy. Our schools do not teach the existence of anti-blackness as a global reality. By the time we graduate/start job hunting, we have been inculcated into the anti-Black system, such that we try to conform in a way that negatives our African consciousness. Anti-Blackness is a system which can be evidenced in many forms including Afrotortion and Afronesia, also individual acts of racism or misogynoir. But like most systems of negative socialisation and repression, it is insidious and unseen; it also requires the complicity of its victims. Basically, we uphold this system because we do not see it. We need to unveil the system to we can dismantle it, because we cannot dismantle what we cannot see. So that is the first task – unveiling anti-Blackness in what we do, what we read, being able to recognise it. Only then can we dream of dismantling it. Dismantling Afrotortion and Afronesia requires persistence, speaking up when no-one else does. Ignoring the eye-rolls from those who think we are being oversensitive. As Sara Ahmed says, refusing to be over, what we are not yet over. Pointing to the brick walls again and again and again saying ‘there they stand, those walls of oppression.’ And someday someone else will see and join. And then, and only then are we able to dismantle together, brick by brick, the walls that have caged us in.

Reach out, connect, pass on the flame: A lot of people can recognise anti-Blackness, but no one can dismantle it alone. Think of Obama, as president of a whole USA, he was unable to dismantle anti-Blackness. Kofi Annan as Secretary-General of the UN could not dismantle anti-Blackness. Furthermore, many times we argue different parts of the movement as if they are in opposition to each other – race and gender; empire and race; class and race; gender and class etc. We fail to realise that our arguments exist in the anti-Blackness movement but in different parts of its house. Dismantling Anti-Blackness is the job of a persistent and passionate, connected and concerted movement. The problem with the creation of a neoliberal, capitalist post-structural world is that we have become increasingly individualistic. We do not realise that we have been pushed off into silos. But we should be lighthouses. A silo operates in isolation from others; a lighthouse shines a light into the darkness of Anti-Blackness, illuminating the unseen, providing a powerful light that continuously signals to others the possibility of freedom. Which is why I speak Pan-Africanism. It is OUR collective and together work that will end Anti-Blackness. Pan-Africanism is now. Freedom is now.

Afro-nesia and Afro-tortion

There are two interrelated and false ways in which the image of Africa is presented to the world. In this post I explain what they are and how they connect.

Afronesia: Look closely at most global narratives, media coverage, fiction, films, non-fictional writing etc. When the topic is of global relevance and significance, Africa is often left out or forgotten. For example when we look for something superlative, or say something is the best in the world, (unless we are talking poverty, corruption, disease, strife or conflict) there is usually no data or record from Africa. For some of these lists, it is clear that Africa has not even been taken into consideration. The best science and maths students in the world – no Africans, best drummers no Africans (!!); only one African dish shows up in two best foods lists (the only thing we eat is sand, you know); no African ever told a joke (how can we when we are constantly at war?). On a ranking of national anthems, the only African country to place above 40 is South Africa. When you consider that the Zambia and South African national anthem are very, very similar, that is just weird. Apparently Africans can’t sing either. This list of lists could go on, but I think we have established one thing – I hate global lists (See previous post on ranking of universities). They cause Afronesia – forgetting that Africa exists as a valid separate continent of people.

Afrotortion: On the occasions the existence of Africa is remembered, ‘Africa’ becomes a synecdoche (a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa), or the subject of such distortion of narrative that belief is not only suspended but literally obliterated, or ‘Africa’ is used as a false adjective steeped in negativity. (See previous blog on Hearts of Darknesses). Someone will go to a remote village in Kenya and write an entire thesis on how ‘Africa’ is coping with malaria. See for example the following:

Fortune 500 companies are still hesitant about settling in Africa

Italy’s prime minister: Don’t let Africa become ‘second Chinese continent’

Girl guide leader fundraising to go to Africa (She is going to Zambia!)

Africa’s example: How democracy begets democracy (A story about the 2017 Gambian election)

Africans wary of US travel after series of border denials (Ostensibly a story about Nigerians travelling, but a short paragraph of alludes to other countries)

Afrotortion: stereotyping Africa, misrepresenting Africa, creating a false image of Africa and then portraying that as all that she is and all that she can be.

Afrotortion and Afronesia are closely linked. If you believe that Africa is only dust, hunger and war, you will not go looking for the best in her. And if you do not know of Africa’s best you are more likely to believe that Africa’s worst is all she is and all she can be.

 

We Must Always Remember That Time in April

I can never forget the Rwandan genocide. April 1994. I was in secondary school. Still wearing the chequered frock of Junior Secondary and not yet the elegant pinafore of the Senior set. On April 6, 1994, an aircraft carrying Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down. That barely registered on my radar. The African Cup of Nations was going on in Tunisia and Nigeria would eventually go on to win it. We had also qualified for the World Cup in the USA. All-4-One’s greatest hit ‘I Swear’ was on the lips of every schoolboy. Sonny Okosuns had brought his distinct style of singing to Gospel. The Rich Also Cry was on television and we were still enthralled by Living in Bondage.

At the time I could not identify Rwanda on the map. Rashidi Yekini had more resonance for me than Kigali. Hutu and Tutsi were words I had never heard. All cockroaches meant to me was the scourge of our kitchen, those creatures that insisted on defecating in our gaari. But soon the news from Rwanda brought the horror into our television sets. 800,000 Rwandan people were killed in 100 days. (Read that sentence again, let it register.) This was not aerial bombardment. This was not a case where weapons of mass destruction were used. Most of the killing was done with machetes, done by neighbours and family members… ‘friends.’ One seemingly little known fact is that the Hutus and Tutsis have the same language; the same religion; the same culture. The physiological differences between the communities were greatly emphasised by the European invaders of Rwanda and Burundi, first the Germans then the Belgians, as an instrument of colonial rule.

So I listened to the news. Every day. And the horrific truth was that the whole world had seen it coming. And we were silent. Colonialism enabled it, neo-colonialism let it happen. 800,000 people tortured and killed. 800,000. There are currently about 70 countries in the world whose population is less than that. 800,000 people.

Years later, I would watch the film Hotel Rwanda and weep uncontrollably at the main character standing in the middle of a sea of bodies hacked down as they fled to safety. I watched Sometimes in April at end of my second Term at Enugu Law School, the very last day of term. I watched it twice, I could not sleep for months. I can still taste the horror I felt. Miles and years removed from the violence.

In 2003, the United Nations General Assembly designated April 7 the International Day of Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda. One of my professors at Lancaster told me that her students do not remember Rwanda because it happened so long ago, before most of them were born. But we should always remember. How can we learn the lessons of the past if we always forget the past? How can we learn that looking away will almost certainly result in destruction? We forget so easily. How do we learn that difference should be celebrated and not obliterated? How do we remember that the path to destruction starts with dehumanisation? HOW?

As I write this, gas attacks are happening in Syria, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, bodies drowning in the Mediterranean, for the first time in history 4 man-made famines are endangering lives across the African continent. So many more horrors than there is time and space for. And we see these coming, we are turning away from people who are different. We need to remember, so we can change.

I hope and pray that never again will human life be taken for granted, never again will we see human skulls as the raw materials of an interior decor display, never again will our backs be turned as a world descends into hell, because if we do again as a world we will lose more of our humanity… and truthfully, we do not have much left to lose.

Today is the 7th of April.

Today we remember.

Tomorrow we must change,

So we do not stand here ever again.

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Global University Rankings & Toilets

Global University Rankings are like comparing potatoes to coco-yam or peaches to agbalumo (White Star Apple)

I remember arriving at Lancaster University to start my Master’s Degree. Everywhere I turned, there was a toilet, running water in the toilet, toilets supplied with tissues, doors that closed and all the works. I am sure that I was never 5 yards away from a functioning toilet. If I was not careful, I was more likely to end up in a toilet than in my seminar room. Bowland North probably has as many toilets as it has seminar rooms. This was far removed from my undergraduate experience in Nigeria. On our very massive campus, there were about 8 functioning toilets for the whole student body. 4 for the guys, 4 for the gals. Never let it be said that OAU Ife did not promote gender equality. These toilets were only functioning when there was running water. That was about twice a day. At about 9am in the morning, and 2pm in the afternoon. At other times, you had to be the master of your body. Woe betide you if your body won that contest. We had a beautiful campus (in my humble and unbiased opinion, the most beautiful campus in the world), absolutely brilliant academic staff (for the most part), a ingenious, entertaining and inexhaustible student union, but no toilets. So we learnt a skill that is taught in very few places. We learnt to keep in what nature suggests should be expelled. For days or even weeks, we would resist nature. With a lot of discomfort, admittedly. But we succeeded, for the most part, at this endeavour.

This got me thinking about the various skills we learnt across the many, many years (story for another day) we spent in Ile-Ife. I began thinking about how world university rankings forget that our universities should be made for us and not for the rest of the world. I thought of how the measures used to rank universities worldwide are obtuse. Like using cutlass to shave hair. Essentially they look at whether universities in the global South are as good as those in the global North, but never do the rankings go the other way. They do not rank how good the students are at surviving without toilets. Because we learnt to live without toilets. We learnt that skill. And who is to judge whether or not it is of value?

We learnt many skills, and these should be recorded against our names.

We learnt to resolutely return to rigorous studies in the aftermath of a bloodbath. We learnt to live on blood-soaked land. After July 12, 1999, life was always tinged with the images of broken bodies, the sounds of gunshots, always at the back of your mind, always threatening. But we learnt to live with the shadow of death. We survived.

We learnt the fortitude required to finish our degrees in the face of lecturers who take personal possession of marks and reserve others for divinity (i.e. A is for God and B is for me). Even when the graduation gown seemed like a distant impossible possibility, a dream at the end of a path strewn with barbwire and landmines, we forged ahead. We learnt that impossibility and possibility are variables. We survived.

We learnt the ability to attend funerals and candlelit processions and hospital bedsides and still smile into the following day. We lost classmates to sicknesses that should not kill, to roads supposedly built. We lost them to death, that seemed to dwell more with us than anywhere else. We learnt to live with death. We survived.

We lived in the middle of a war zone, and still passed our exams. Mostly. Heaven knows how long the conflict between Ife and Modakeke has been waged. We were caught in the middle of historical disputes, between ancients who have long ago shaken the dust of this craven earth from their feet. Battles over land and pride, broke into our classrooms and our dwellings with Molotov cocktails and the stench of hate and war. We survived this too.

We had some of our lectures under the hot sun, some in the rain. Most in the midst of thousands of other students. No public address system. If you wanted one, you had to buy it and risk it being stolen. We had classes from 7am till 7pm. I once fell asleep in class and continued taking dictation. Don’t ask me. I don’t know how that happened either. We survived that too.

We  survived teargas and bullets, student rampage and disease-ridden water. We faced closure after closure, we were everyone’s pawns – the government’s, the students’ union’s and the university management’s. And we learnt to be brilliant. We learnt to be absolutely, unquestionably, unconditionally, irrevocably brilliant! We studied by candle light and moonlight and lamplight and sunlight and every kind of light known to man and some as yet unrecorded. We lived on so little sleep our beds disowned us. We found weird and unexpected solutions to problems that were very unique.

We learnt to smile into the fire.

I am not saying that Nigerian universities are in an acceptable state. Not in the least! However, the assessment of whether or not the agbalumo is fit to eat, should be based on whether or not it is a good agbalumo, and not how different the peach is. Many a person has sucked on a maggot-filled agbalumo. However, we cannot say that an agbalumo is bad because it is not a peach. Not matter what we do we cannot turn an agbalumo into a peach.

It is not the first person to get to the finish line who is the better runner, but the one who has come the furthest. We have run through unbelievable obstacles, we have scaled walls designed to defeat us, hurdles placed specifically to trip us up.

You enter into the Nigerian educational system at one end, a questing child, unsure, uncertain, trepidatious – you emerge at the other end (God willing you escape with your life) you emerge a lioness. Nigerian students are people of deep resolution who learn to adapt to unimaginable situations. We learn to pick ourselves up again and again and again. We should be feared. Because ultimately, we are the ones who learnt to live without toilets.

Sara Ahmed – ‘Brick Walls: Racism and Other Hard Histories’

In this video, Dr. Sara Ahmed talks about the brick walls of racism and the experiences of people of colour doing equity and inclusion work. I have transcribed some of the most inspiring statements below the video. I think everyone should watch it really. I have watched it more than once. I was inspired. She is brilliant!

 

‘A decision made in the present about the future gets overridden by the momentum of the past.’

‘An institutional wall is a will that does not bring something about, a yes that conceals, not bringing under the appearance of having brought’

‘To those who do not come against it, the wall does not become apparent, the institution is experienced… as open, committed and diverse’

‘Agreeing to something is one of the best ways of stopping something from happening, because organisations also avoid the costs of disagreement.’

‘Those who identify the problem become the location of the problem’

‘A wall is how a wall is not revealed. Those who do not come up against walls then experience those who do as wall-makers.’

‘What is the hardest for some, does not even exist for others.’

‘Racism is a blunt instrument… the blunter the instrument the more bodies are stopped’

‘Privilege is an energy-saving device, less effort is required to see or to do,… sometimes if you do not appear as you are expected to appear you do not appear’

‘Complaint is seen as a failure to integrate.’

‘A book tends to fall open on the pages that have been most read…things fall that way almost of their own accord.’

‘It takes conscious willed effort not to reproduce an inheritance.’

‘When you can see a problem, your perception becomes the problem.’

‘A wall is a catalogue, a history of what comes up.’

‘And that is one of the most successful techniques for deflecting attention from race – seeing racism as an accusation’

‘As if getting over it will make it over…don’t get over it, if you are not over it.’

‘Once upon a time there was a child who was willful and did not do what her mother wanted. For this reason God was displeased with her and caused her to become ill, and no doctor could help her, and in a short time she lay on her deathbed. She was lowered into a grave and covered with earth, but her little arm suddenly came forth and reached up, and it didn’t help when they put it back in and put fresh earth over it, for the little arm always came out again. So the mother herself had to go to the grave and beat the little arm with a switch, and as soon as she had done that, it withdrew, and the child finally came to rest beneath the earth.’

‘It is the story of an arm but also the story of a rod.’

‘It is a story that insists on violence as moral correction.’

‘The enslaved and colonised were positioned as children.’

‘It is an imperial story…It is out there.’

‘The arm remembers… the arm is speaking to us.’

‘we have to find a way of holding each other up’

‘some of us are only here now because the arms keep on coming up’

Finding My Africa, Finding Myself

I have had a fractious relationship with my African identity. I spent a part of my early childhood in the UK. My parents were among that crop of Nigerians who travelled out into the world to get further qualifications after their first degrees. As children in the UK, we experienced the exclusions that come from being a Black African in a world not constructed with us in mind. Classmates asked questions about huts in Africa, and wondered aloud about the correlation between not bathing and dark pigmentations, teachers made assumptions and associations about melanin and aptitude for sports and mathematics. Unlike many Nigerians, I never had the luxury of never knowing I was black.

My parents were really eager for us to return to Nigeria after their degrees. I know they had friends who stayed on in the UK, even though they had been sponsored by the Nigerian government and were meant to return to Nigeria. It was the 80s, we had no idea where Nigeria was headed, but there was still hope in those days. My parents wanted to go home. Home. Home is a dangerous spirit. Home is a restless soul. I had been taken to the UK as a baby and had no concept of this ‘home’. But on my parent lips, the word ‘home’ was seductive, like dark and luscious chocolate after a fast. We had a countdown and we were going home! The excitement was palpable, even if I could not understand it. We were going home. Home had to be better than here.

The first thing I remember was the heat. When we landed at MMA in Lagos, the heat wrapped us up in its humid embrace and threatened to suffocate the life from us. Ilorin, a short flight northwards, was a bit cooler. Though not by much. After wading through snow in Southampton, the sun in the Southern hemisphere was striking. For a long while, we could only walk in the shade. The trees were different, big leafy giants. Not the spindly mid-height trees, we had left behind. Everything was loud, cars, music, people. The people were all black. Different shades of black, different types of people. All black. After a while you stop noticing.

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So I learnt to be African. I learnt malaria. I learnt the fortnightly chills that were the gift of the mosquito. The malaria medication that slowly drove you mad.

I learnt family. Family in Nigeria is not an antiseptic relationship reserved only for parents and children. It is a chaotic kaleidoscope culminating in a maelstrom of emotion. It is anger and hatred and need and love and bitterness and codependency. It is everything. It encapsulates towns, and cities and villages, it destroys nations and disrespects borders.

I found Africa in the thunder and the lightning and the rain. When the skies release the floods, you had better seek shelter or risk drowning. The earth drinks in the bounty of the heaven and brings forth seed. The smell of the soil after a tropical rain is more intoxicating than palmwine on an empty stomach.

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I found Africa in the music. The 80s was the time of Apartheid and SAP and Pan Africanism, a time of elevated shoulder pads and pouffy Jerri-curls. We danced to Shina Peters, Majek Fashek, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Mariam Makeba, Bob Marley, Ras Kimono, Sonny Okosuns, IK Dairo, King Sunny Ade…

I found  Nigeria in my journeys. I travelled smooth roads and bounced over deep gullies pretending to be potholes. I bought gala and Agege bread through half opened windows. Between Egbe and Obajana, I was covered with enough dust  to build a dozen huts. I travelled from savanna north to forest south. I visited motor parks from Akure to Gariki, from Zuba to Ojota. I climbed Mount Pati and Erin Ijesha falls, crossed the Rivers Niger and Benue, I have driven over the Atlantic. I got lost in Ila Orangun. I have seen hamlets like Isapa Tuntun, villages like my own Olle-Bunu, towns like sleepy Idofian and cities as dynamic as Enugu.

I found Africa in the struggle. The struggle to be a good student – as teachers tried to marry tradition with education, sometimes the combination became volatile and exploded, sometimes they married well and exuded a sweet fragrance that wafted into our hearts and stayed there. The struggle for relevance in a world obsessed with power. A Nigeria where to be young and female is to strip you of autonomy.

I found Africa in protest. At university, we were always protesting something, it was as if we had to prove to ourselves and each other, prove to each other that despite the stench of deprivation, we still had some power, that we were still alive, that we meant something. I found Africa in the spontaneous songs of struggle, the irrepressible spirit, that kept getting back up after being knocked down. The creative causes that found us blocking roads with billiard tables and quoting Socrates and Aristotle to market women and bus drivers.

I found Africa in the pain. Because no matter how deep it burned, how hot the wounds seared, there was always someone there. Always. Someone who looked at you and saw you. You. Not some stereotypical image of deprived black humanity, but you. As you were. Black. And beautiful. And human.

Africa may not be a country. But it is more than a continent. Africa is its people, all those on the continent and those flung across the earth like so many specks of oloyin beans across the floor. I learnt Africa. And found myself. African. Woman. Me.

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I am a Black Woman by Mari Evans (1923-2017)

I am a black woman
the music of my song
some sweet arpeggio of tears
is written in a minor key
and I
can be heard humming in the night
Can be heard
humming
in the night

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I saw my mate leap screaming to the sea
and I

with these hands

cupped the lifebreath
from my issue in the canebrake
I lost Nat’s swinging body in a rain of tears
and heard my son scream all the way from Anzio
for Peace he never knew….I
learned Da Nang and Pork Chop Hill
in anguish
Now my nostrils know the gas
and these trigger tired fingers
seek the softness in my warrior’s beard

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I am a black woman
tall as a cypress
strong
beyond all definition still
defying place
and time
and circumstance
assailed
impervious
indestructible
Look
on me and be
renewed

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A Tribute to My Grandmother: #IWD2017

When my grandmother was about 13 years old, she was introduced to the man that had been chosen by her parents, for her to marry. Even now, my grandma is nowhere near 5 feet, and then this man towered above her. As she told the tale to me, she was bending over some washing during the introduction, she looked up, and his head was in the rafters, AND he was exceedingly old. (He was probably in his late 30s though!) What do you do? She was extremely intimidated by the thought of marrying this old giant, so she told her parents that times were a-changing and a good wife should at least learn to read and write. So, they sent her to school to learn to be a good wife. That is where she met my grandfather, and married him. Nigerian men often complain about how devious Nigerian women are, but often do not consider that deceit is the only way of escape from the unnatural evil cages of societal oppression and deprivation that we have been forced into. But this is not about Nigerian men. This is my grandmother’s story.

My grandmother probably did not have an easier life with my grandfather than she would have had with the man chosen for her. Apparently, he (her chosen intended) was quite well-off. My grandfather on the other hand, was a poor schoolteacher, in a time when cocoa farmers were the big moneybags. As the wife of a school teacher, my grandma trekked more miles across Nigeria than you could ever imagine. Carrying all her belongings on her head, and her children on her back. My grandfather was always being posted somewhere. Mention a town in present day Okunland and my grandfather has probably taught there. My grandmother buried three children. One died as she carried him on her back and raced to the hospital at Egbe to get him treated. He died before they got there. Trekking. She became the arbiter of family quarrels, the mother to all my grandfather’s students/pupils. The rock he relied on for sustenance. No, she has not had an easy life. But she had the life she chose. This is her story.

When we talk about women’s rights, or equality, this is what we mean. Ensuring that girls and women can choose their destiny. That they are not hindered by the irrational expectations of social mores that are nothing more that the fruits of the tree of dominator culture. We hope that we live our lives as the fulfilment of our grandmother’s dreams. And this is why I write. This is my grandmother’s story. This is my story. I am my grandmother’s dreams. Being fulfilled. Daily.

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My Grandmother

Picture taken August 2016.