Browse Category: Diaspora Diaries

Define Culture

So… despite my tumultuous relationship with poetry, I recently committed to participating in ‪#‎NaPoWriMo‬ (National Poetry Writing Month), during which the challenge is to write a poem a day. I wrote something earlier this week that I’d like to share.

I’ve been a recluse about my writing lately so posting this publicly is part of my attempt to get back into the practice of sharing (rather than spend so much time lamenting all my writing’s imperfections). I hope to return to the practice the self-love I preach so often, and more regularly celebrate even the smallest of victories, like the fact that this piece of work didn’t need to be perfect to be done.

Note: I’d like to say a special thank you to one of my favorite poets, Idalia, for gently yet firmly nudging me to finish it and to the amazing friends I have who sent me the affirmation I needed to amass the courage to share it. 

Define “Culture.”

Attempt #1:
a simple roll of the tongue;
salt in the wound of history’s affair
with Spanish conquerors
that didn’t burn fast enough in the sun
to save nations from genocide,
or mothers from marrying
their daughters to the wrong ones;
if we define culture to be
a simple roll of the tongue
then I guess the murder of
a millenia of bloodlines
is justified as language preservation.

Attempt #2:
Culture is a cautionary tale;
If superstition were a weapon
then Africa would be considered
a nuclear bomb;
we would never have welcomed strangers
with cocoa beans and open arms
the way our government still does
to D-List celebrities and modern day missionaries, while
rich white housewives on the verge of a nervous breakdown
search for salvation in the smiles of orphans on sale.
If we defined culture as a cautionary tale
told by pale narrators who lack introspection,
perhaps we would have paid attention
when our grandmas told us
they could feel their left eyelids twitching
at the expectation of visitors upon our shores;
perhaps we never would have wished the mermen
who called us moors, “safe passage”
in our native tongues
as they staked their claim
and carved their names
into our homes.

To define culture…

Attempt #3:
A synonym for “Home”
Neither a place or person,
these days, home is a political position
– the privilege of passing through
unrecognized as
an intruder on lands built on the backs of your forefathers.
But to the generation whose parents
cast us across the Atlantic,
raised captive in colonizer lands as cultural orphans
who never learned
to speak their native languages,
– home offers compromise
and forgiveness
to those with even less familiar roots.
A synonym for home…
only ever understood
in absence or disenfranchisement,
in dearth or gentrification,
in silence,
in loss,
in ostracization,
like a place that could never exist
for two queer brown women
and their extended family members
to settle down,
raise a kid,
or join a yacht club.

Attempt #4:
To claim culture
– to testify survival
of a massacre,
a genocide,
a raping of nations.
to dispute discontent,
or belonging
to feign knowing despite
the frenzy of stabilizing
a leaking boat
Culture is a usurper,
a lost turn
adrift from harbor
as fleeting as seagulls
in ocean light
and as slippery
as oysters
in search of
an anchor.

Do you know where you’ve come from?
Or how far you’ve sailed from harbor?
What glass containers of sea water keep your memories of belonging afloat?

 

Love Was My Revolution in 2013, But So Was Resilience.

I know it’s been a while. I’ve had a lot going on. 2013 was quite a year – one that I’m not likely to miss but will always remember for how much it grew me.

Why am I writing now? Well, I don’t really have much else to do. I’ve sung through about 4 musicals (Les Mis, Rent, Chicago and Wicket, in case you were curious), played my computer game (The Sims 3) for over three hours, and I’ve run out of credit on my phone to make any more international phone calls.

In Nigeria, it’s a few hours to 2014 and, admittedly, I’m depressed. I’m alone in a city with no friends or community, no furniture in my apartment, save for a very hard mattress, and feeling overwhelmed with sadness at having to spend yet another festive season away from my family (who – as usual, due to geopolitical circumstance – is separated across several continents). I would say that I’m used to it, and it’s probably true; but it doesn’t make it any less difficult, especially with all the music, laughter, and raucous I can hear happening outside my window.

So, yeah, I’m not in the highest of spirits. But I’m determined over the next 90 minutes to work my way back to the optimism and positivity that propelled me so far ahead of where I was just a year ago, that I now have the luxury of complaining that I’m alone in a brand new city, doing work that nourishes me, and with really bright prospects for 2014.

I’m choosing, right now, at this very moment, to not let my ambitions, my personal drive, my impatience at achieving the goals I’ve laid out for myself, diminish my gratitude for all the positive things that have transpired in my life this year. I’m choosing to remain the positive spirit that believes things are what you believe they will be, that I am in control of my thoughts, my outlook, my destiny.

It was about two years ago, I looked at my partner and told her that I wanted – no, needed, to move back home. I missed warm weather, dark soil, tactless conversations, and loud parties. I was tired of people asking me where my accent was from, or thinking that I’d been named after a character on Cartoon Network (yeah, “Dora the Explorer”, don’t get me started).

I missed greeting people in different languages, having fellow Nigerians laugh at my bad pidgin, being made fun of for being the first daughter – a fact they could tell instantly from my name. I missed fried plantain, african music, annoying aunties that poked you in the ribs, and called you fat while hugging you. And, most importantly, I missed being able to be close to my parents, who I’d watched age so fast over the years via the occasional low resolution photo. I was tired of the weight of the Unite States’ xenophobia and racism crushing me, my family, my dreams.

The day I told my partner it was time for me to go home, I knew I would be choosing to swallow the poison of Nigeria’s thick sexism and homophobia for the sake of experiencing the  affirmation of being with my own people: women whose curves looked like mine, who didn’t “eew” at food I liked, who walked with the same grace – as though we each balanced pails of water, golden crowns on our heads, masculinity whose gyrating hips to afrobeat I recognised, however entitled, domineering, flawed.

I don’t regret moving home. Not even for a second. But it hasn’t been easy.

I have no idea how I’ve actually survived in Nigeria as a ‘single’ woman (who isn’t the daughter of a governor, or the wife-to-be of a rich suitor) and managed to position myself for professional success in an environment in which over 70% of women don’t even own a bank account, and men think it’s improper for a woman to travel alone.

I have no idea how I still find the courage to correct strangers when they erroneously refer to the fiance who “put a ring on it” with male pronouns. “She… she’s in Boston,” I say, each time, before holding my breath for either backlash or a barrage of questions at having “met a real one.”

I have no idea how I’ve experienced the amount of blatant exploitation, devalue-ing, and frustration from leadership in the development sector in which I work (which resulted in my near homelessness for over 2 months, waning mental and physical health, and personal finances – but I can’t even get into it), and still come out, relatively okay.

I mean, there was one night I stayed up, out on the street, till 5 in the morning, because I had no place to sleep, and no one to call. I remember crying to my sister on the phone, stating over and over again that I couldn’t do this anymore. I couldn’t. I remember she kept saying to me, “You can. You can. You have. You already have.”

A dear mentor recently said to me, “If there’s one theme I feel that describes your year it’s Resilience.” And you know, sitting here, thinking about everything that has happened to me – so much I can’t even write about – I’m encouraged by her observation, and the fact that she’s absolutely right. Yes, the Love from people in my life was encouraging. But, at the end of the day, “I” had to get up in the morning; “I” had to face Nigeria on my own; “I” had to go home alone, with no one’s shoulder to cry on; I had to learn to comfort myself and. just. keep. going.

Resilience. That’s how I got through the year. That’s how I’ve made it this far. Resilience. That’s how I left my home country at the age of 17 and moved to a physically and politically cold place that could never learn to pronounce my name, let alone recognise the pain of having needed to leave your family to make life better for them in the long run, maybe.

Resilience. And perhaps a bit of stubbornness. That’s how each of us continues, persists, even through the worst of circumstances.

And on that note… when I take a step back, my ‘circumstances’ aren’t all that bad. In fact, they’re pretty great. I’m sitting on my own bed, in my own apartment. Yeah, it’s empty. Yeah, mosquitoes are biting away because the landlord still hasn’t fixed a broken window and they’ve decided to have a party on my legs (cause, oh, I also have no blanket lol), but! After being homeless for so long, I finally have a place that’s mine. And what’s more…

I said I would move to Nigeria, continue to hone my craft as a storyteller, media, and communications professional, and I am doing just that.

I said I would find a way to be closer to my parents (who still aren’t in the same city, but now a 45-min vs. 8-hour flight away), and I did.

I said I would always take big leaps, I would always live out loud in love, and in hope, and I have. I have. I really have.

I’ve been kicking myself for not having the emotional capacity to write about my experiences in Nigeria so far (aside from my cockroach post, which was just so necessary given how many sleepless nights those critters cost me!); I’ve been hard on myself for not being ‘stronger’, maintaining high spirits while adjusting to a completely new terrain, all by myself; but I’ve been ridiculous – I’m human! And we all deserve to experience the full spectrum of our emotions. That is the only way to honour our individual journeys, by being honest about where we are. It doesn’t matter what things we didn’t accomplish along the way; all that matters is that we’ve kept on.

Love was my revolution in 2013, but so was resilience. Love kept me hoping, reaching, but Resilience kept me going.

So tonight, I celebrate my accomplishments against all odds, and my will to continue even when things get hard. I celebrate my courage to persist on a path that is NOT easy, because I know I’m doing what I’m meant to do. I celebrate the LOVE I received from everyone that cheered me on from afar – friends in the US, UK, fans and followers of my work. It is in part because of you that I’ve been able to stand my ground in the face of an environment that has many times attempted to silence me, force me into submission and conformity. I celebrate my rebel, my non-conformity, my humanity, and my convictions. And I celebrate my audacity to strive for more than just surviving, despite all the media propaganda that suggests queer Africans like me are simply lucky to be alive.

Nigeria, I love you. But come the morning, I will conquer you. You’re not even ready.

Nevertheless, till then, the seasons best wishes to everyone, and a very Happy New Year to all.

Queer Afrofeminist Reflections on October 1st: Nigeria’s Independence Day and a Diaspora Homecoming

Today is Nigeria’s Independence Day!

The internet is already being flooded by a cadence of articles questioning why a country with such bad governance should be celebrating at all, a position which, of course, is being countered by just as forceful a digital stream of idealist sentiment: “We’ve come so far, Africa is rising, let’s focus on the positives!”

To be honest, it’s challenging to keep the positive in focus, especially in the face of landlords who refuse to rent to you because “you’re a single woman who could potentially use the place for prostitution”, or men who literally grab you by the neck and pull you closer to them just so they can say they find you attractive. But on the up side, hey, there’s no “street” harassment in Nigeria – oh no, we’re way more advanced in our unapologetic display of chauvinism. Women can be sexually harassed anytime, anyplace, anywhere: grocery stores, hotel elevators (yes), in taxis, churches…everywhere.

But let’s talk about how prosperous Nigeria is when woman can be raped in broad daylight and them shamed for reporting it. After all, it’s Independence Day.

Thankfully, Nigerian women have always been outspoken about both the country’s failures and successes in achieving gender equality, balancing out oft male dominated political governance commentary with poignant social context, and painting a more authentic picture of Naija year round.  I can always look forward to commentary from some of my favourite progressive bloggers and thought leaders: afropolitan feminist scholar, Minna Salami (of MsAfropolitan) a staunch advocate of African women’s history, Nigerian feminist lawyer, Lesley Agams, whose personal storytelling grounds privileged theorists in reality, and one of my favourite self-identified “proactivists” Omojuwa, who speaks on and about everything, and recently challenged religious institutions to redirect congregation giving to social justice initiatives.

I’m proud of Nigerians, as people. But my perception of the country’s progress is coloured by my own reality.

My partner visited me for my birthday recently and we had to spend most of our ‘long walks’ fending off men who invited themselves to accompany us, much less “hold hands.” My job involves using media and communications to equip and inspire audiences to see adolescent girls as critical drivers of social change, and I have to do all of this from the discomfort of a professional closet. And I’m not alone in this.

It usually takes about a half day or so for the customary ‘gay Nigerian’ narrative to emerge: “torn between two worlds, two identities, what being a gay Nigerian on independence day means to me.” Or something like that. (Hey, no judgement here. I’m totally guilty of this, too.) Despite safe spaces being created by LGBT activists all across the country, Nigeria remains largely intolerant of gays and lesbians. Shoot, a few weeks ago, my favourite artists, P-Square (who I had dreams about inviting to perform *this song* at my wedding!) just – out of nowhere – decided to go on a rant against the LGBT community. The sad thing is I love their music so much it’ll hurt me more to boycott them :( #chrisbrowndilemma

Incidentally, coming out as queer here isn’t half as bad as being perceived as a gender nonconforming person. The other day, a coworker decided to go in for 20 minutes about the way I dress – “Why do you try so hard to not be pretty? You are a woman, but you’re always wearing trousers, shirts… *laughing*” – that my boss had to intervene, diplomatically, boiling down my gender expression to a matter of personal choice. It is. But many Nigerian women I’ve met don’t see it that way. In their mind, I could be “getting so many men to fall for me” that they’re puzzled – even if I already have a partner and I’m not looking to get married (to a man anyway)- that I wouldn’t dress to attract the male gaze. “Wear some lipstick now… Or some light makeup… Buy these shoes, they’re nice.” Oy vey.

Today is October 1st, but I can’t focus on my country’s progress — I still haven’t landed my feelings yet. However, despite the challenges I’ve experienced adjusting back to life in Nigeria, I am grateful for many things, including that after 5 months of living in a hotel, I finally get to check out and move into my new permanent home.

After months of praying for my safety in street taxis tasked with delivering me to addresses I could never locate on Google maps, years of living away from my country, subsisting on nostalgia – Afropop music, Iroko.tv, makeshift Nigerian restaurants, and old photographs — all the while ducking and weaving through racism and xenophobia in the US, Nigeria with all its complexities is finally beginning to feel like home again.

A creator, arbiter, and advocate of online support systems, my world shrank almost instantly the minute I arrived to an unsteady (and at times, completely absent) internet connection. It has taken almost 3 months for me to open a bank account (don’t even ask), even longer to rent an apartment, I’m still trying to learn how friendships (with predominantly straight women – a new one for me) work here, and I can barely eat traditional Nigerian soups because no one gives a rip about my seafood allergy. 

But this week… I attended TEDxLagos, where I met so many Nigerian women in tech and media, fellow entrepreneurs boostrapping their way to their dreams, passionate and politically-minded Diaspora returnees, and folks from my parents generation who are mentoring so many rogue young people like me with loving non-judgement. 

I woke up this morning intent on commemorating Nigeria’s Independence Day, yet I found myself wanting to finally celebrate this… this unexpectedly warm homecoming. The past 5 months has been complicated: challenging, surprising, wonderful, crazy, and inspirational all at once. Yet, despite all Nigeria’s governance issues, the homophobia, the gender policing, etc., I’ve emerged with a renewed, more mature, realistic love of the place in which I grew up, insensitive to my food allergies as it may be.

As Nigeria is still coming of age, so am I, which connects me to all its struggles and successes; Nigeria’s struggles and successs are mine as well.

Independence, personal growth, and a diaspora homecoming: Nigeria, you and me are still taking this journey together, even after so many years apart. That love, that commitment, that courage against all odds. Now that’s worth celebrating.

To Nigerians Who Don’t Speak Any Native Nigerian Languages, And Their Bullies

A Conversation at the Airport (Which Represents 99% of the Initial Exchanges I Have with Nigerians) 

— Begin Scene —

Me: Good Afternoon

(I hand over my passport to security check and brace myself for the interrogation that’s sure to follow…)

Officer: Mmm. (Doesn’t look up. He studies my passport seriously for a moment, then…) Where are you from?

(He can see it. It’s on my passport. But he asks anyway, because he wants us to bond over our ethnic groups.)

Me: Delta State.

Officer: Ehhh? I am also from Delta.

Me: (feigning surprise) Really? So you are my brother.

Officer: (Finally looks up, his face warmer, a small smile breaking out across his face.) Yes, my sister. You are from Agbor?

Me: Yes, my father. My mother is from Abia state.

Officer: (He lights up even more, cocks his head to the side for dramatic emphasis.) Na true? My wife is from Abia state oh.

Me: Great… (I smile politely.)

Officer: You know Abia women are very beautiful.

Me: (I laugh nervously. This is beginning to get awkward. I just want my passport back before…)

Officer: I’m from [insert name of town I don’t know, here]. You should know it. It’s not far from Agbor now.

Me: Oh okay, is it [insert name of town I don’t know, here]? By….

Officer: Just one hour, not even up to, by road.

Me: Eh, I know it now. (A lie.)

Officer: Eh hen! So you see we are relatives. Kedu? (“How are you?” in Igbo)

Me: O di mma (“Fine” Please don’t ask me to say anything else.)

Officer: (Speaking more Igbo)

Me: (I shake my head, smiling) My brother, I don’t understand oh.

Officer: (exaggerated look of horror) Ah, you no hear Igbo? How come? Your said your mother is Igbo now. Your father is from Agbor!

Me: I knooow! My parents didn’t speak the same language growing up. (A half lie – it’s proven efficient at evoking sympathy vs. a full on lecture)

Officer: Ohhhh. So you don’t speak? Not at all? (It worked. He pities me.) That is not right!

Me: (feigning disappointment) I know, I know. (Please just give me my passport so I can be on my way.)

Officer: Ah, but your parents should not have done that. (More pity.) So, okay, what about you? (Now comes the challenge: are you really Nigerian or not?) English is not your language now. You should have learned to speak Igbo by yourself now. Why haven’t you learnt it?

Me: (Deploy damsel in distress followed by light does of flattery) No one has taught me oohhh. I’m always asking people but nobody wants to teach me. Also, I wasn’t living in Nigeria. But now that I’m back and you are my brother, you will now teach me, abi?

Officer: Ah but of cooourse! Anytime. Because you must speak. You can’t say you are a Nigerian if you don’t speak. You should be speaking Igbo by the next time I see you. You hear?

Me: (laughing, subtly, as I gesture to my passport.) Yes, yes. I really want to learn. (That part is true, though. I want to learn Igbo, for myself, not for the benefit of appeasing cultural gatekeepers at the airport, bank, in taxis etc.)

Officer: And you must learn. Ah ah. You are a daughter of Delta State, Iboland. You must hear Igbo. This is not America. You must speak your language! Or how will you find your husband? No, you must speak Igbo, and you must teach your children to speak Igbo. (He hands back my passport, laughing).

Me: (I swallow the response I would have loved to give him for that last diatribe…) Thank you.

Officer: So when I see you next time, I will greet you in Igbo. Only in Igbo!

Me: (I go for the conversation-ender as I turn my back to him, walking away from the counter.) By God’s grace!

— End Scene — 

For the Nigerian Who Doesn’t Speak Any Nigerian Languages, I Feel Your Pain

I’m anticipating two major responses to the scene above: 1) vigorous nodding in shared understanding about how native language fluency is policed in Nigeria (or anywhere really), or 2) *blank face* from folks who don’t get it, and agree whole-heartedly with the officer. To the latter category, this post is really for you. 

Earlier this year, I wrote an article titled, “What Kind of African Doesn’t Speak Any African Languages? Me.“, in which I proposed people stop using indigenous language fluency as the yardstick by which to decide one’s cultural belonging, or at the very least, refrain from using it as a way to invalidate people’s identities, given that culture comprises many elements, not just language. The article was published in the Diaspora Debate section of Royal African Society’s African Arguments, news aggregator site AllAfrica.com, and ended up sparking quite a bit of online debate. Seems language as is pertains to cultural assimilation is quite the conversation starter.

I reference this article because a few points stood out to me from the conversations inspired by the piece and now, also, from having to navigate Nigeria as someone who doesn’t speak any native Nigerian languages:

  • I am not alone; based on the outpour of comments that affirmed my own experiences and shared similar, there are so many people who’ve experienced social exclusion due to not being fluent in their mother tongues.
  • This is not a Diaspora issue; per my article, even Africans who grew up and live on the continent aren’t learning their languages due to various factors such as globalisation, migration, and intra-country socio-political history.
  • Contrary to popular assumptions, not many people actively choose not to learn their native languages; this decision is often made for them at a young age, by schools and parents, perhaps pushing for assimilation into the dominant culture in which they live, or due to other factors. (See previous point.)
  • When people can choose to learn their native languages, usually in adulthood,, the tension between indigenous languages and the language of business and cultural access in an increasingly globalised world — dominated by English, French, Spanish, now Japanese and Mandarin — is in part responsible for people choosing to learn other languages over their own.

A Few Barriers Worth Noting to Learning Nigerian Languages as an Adult

Following from that last point, and in response to the skeptics who commented on my last post who insist that the only reason one does not attain language fluency in adulthood is strictly a matter of personal choice (sigh), I think it’s important we all consider the challenges to learning African languages post-childhood learning from parents/relatives at home or after one no longer lives in an environment. So, do consider the following:

1) Language Immersion Isn’t the Most Practical in Diaspora Communities

Unlike some other immigrant communities, the presence of Nigerian/Diaspora communities across the US doesn’t translate to pockets of America in which only Nigerian languages are spoken. To the best of my knowledge, our versions of say, “Chinatown” will contain everything we need – clothes, food, travel agencies, hole-in-the-wall restaurants etc, except a universally spoken Nigerian language. Why? I’m guessing it’s because we’re not a monolithic culture. Nigeria comprises well over 300 ethnic groups, and just as many languages. We wouldn’t be able to communicate across all those dialects without English. So, given that even in the most isolated of Nigerian communities outside of the country, you’ll always run into people speaking English, finding opportunities to practice a single Nigerian language using mass media (TV, Radio, even street signs), or every day communication, etc., would be challenging.

2) Language Immersion Isn’t the Most Practical in Major Nigerian Cities, Either

The best language teachers will tell you that immersion is the way to go: visit the country where the language is spoken, spend some time there, consume copious amounts of their media, make local friends, and you’ll surely pick it up. Except, part of why immersion works is that you’ve given little to no choice but to learn to communicate in the local language. The immersion strategy would work well in countries in which the local language is the language of trade, commerce, media. That is not the case in Nigeria, a former English colony, in which English is spoken in all major cities. Moving back to / living in a major city in Nigeria (after having not learned your mother tongue growing up) wouldn’t necessarily guarantee language immersion either, unless of course you quit your day job or take time off and relocate to a remote village, which brings me to the next point…

3) The Costs – In Both Time and Money – of Learning a Language Can’t Be Ignored

Not everyone can afford to take time off long enough to move into a city, town, remote village for language immersion. I remember when I started schooling in the states and met Americans who understood at least one other foreign language. Most of them had learned it at school, and then spent some time (either via a study abroad program or volunteer gap year) in their specific country practicing via cultural immersion. (Oh, and by the way, it’s not like there were “Learn Igbo Abroad” programs when I was at school in the states.) This approach to learning languages can cost quite a bit of money; there’s a reason why study abroad programs and the voluntourism industry are primarily sustained by white westerners with class privilege. Nevertheless, while I was in college,  I would often have conversations with my parents about moving back home after I was done, and going to stay with my grandfather in the village for 6 months to a year, for the purpose of immersing myself in my culture and picking up the language. It seemed like a great idea, but with over 30K in student loans, day to day financial responsibilities, and of course, my own career ambitions, finding that chunk of time (and financial support) to do nothing seemed impossible, and honestly, didn’t make much sense.

4) (Good) Nigerian/African Language Learning Resources Are Few and Far Between

African countries haven’t really invested in language cultural preservation the way some other nations have. So naturally, the pool of resources for learning indigenous African languages isn’t as large as say, for Spanish. Nigerians, for instance, have rarely said to me, “Hey Spectra, if you wanna learn Igbo, go to this website.” Or “Check out this software on Amazon.com – it’s like the Rosetta Stone of African languages!” Or even, “There’s a school near you that offers Igbo and Yoruba, and I hear they’re really good.” What’s more, is that if one lives outside of Nigeria, where distribution of local media is minimal/non-existent, don’t bank on finding any children’s books or cartoons to learn the basics. (No, Barnes and Nobles doesn’t carry Nigerian children’s books. Don’t pretend to be surprised…). Mind you, it’s not because these resources don’t exist at all; in comparison to e-learning tools available for other languages, sure, African language learning e-tools and software are few and far between, but even that’s changing. So it would best serve advocates of African languages to spend less time criticising people for not learning their languages, and more time learning about which resources already exist so that they can share them.

People Like Me Want to Learn Our Languages; We Need Support, Not Criticism

And here come the look on people’s faces when I explain why I haven’t been able to learn either of my parents’ native languages till now. They’re thinking, “She’s making excuses. If she really wanted to, she would have. She just doesn’t take pride in her culture.” And I’m not being paranoid. These very words have been said to me time and time again, and especially after the post I wrote about speaking African languages. But they piss me off, not because I care so much about what people think, but because such singular opinions are riddled with uninformed assumptions that reduce such a complex issue to trivial polarities: “Who’s really African and who isn’t? Who’s really proud to be African and who isn’t?”

Rather than reduce this conversation to cliche criticise of Africans who never learned their mother tongues, wouldn’t it be more productive – and in better service of African cultural preservation — to frame our conversations about language around solutions to the diminishing fluency of African languages i.e. what we could do to increase interest AND access to learning? Not just for Africans, but for everyone?

Digital Media and Technology Could Spawn the Next Generation of African Language Resources

When I think about the popularity of the Rosetta Stone series, I can’t help but crave an entire suite dedicated to African languages. Even focusing on Nigeria alone could lead to at least four product lines, for Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, and Fulani. But why wait for the Language Learning industry to pay attention to the demand for products that promote Nigerian/African languages? It seems Nigerians (including in the Diaspora) are taking matters into their own hands.

Incidentally, when I google “Learn Igbo Online” there are actually a surprising number of online resources, including a software coaching tool (with an accompanying manual), an e-portal for connecting with Igbo teachers, an entire site dedicated to Igbo culture, history, and language, and even a YouTube channel. I swear, none of these resources were around when I was younger, but with globalisation and the development of so many different e-learning platforms and tools, clearly, things are changing. For instance, I recently “met” (online) a young woman – Nigerian Diaspora – in the US, who’s developed an iPhone app to each toddlers Yoruba. (I’ll be publishing my interview with her early next week, so stay tuned.)

Technology alone won’t be able to solve the problem of diminishing fluency in African languages. Africans themselves must demonstrate through their actions a commitment to ensuring that our history and traditions, embedded in our indigenous languages, are safe guarded. And more importantly, our commitment to seeing this through must move beyond the admonishment of those who are not fluent, to ensuring that we support and encourage each other to strive towards Africa’s cultural preservation, together.

Have you experienced the kind of language policing I described above? People make fun of you because you don’t speak your native language? Have you yourself done the poking? I’d love to hear from you. Meanwhile, if you know any good Nigerian / African language learning resources — books, DVDs, computer software and/or digital platforms — please share them in the comments section! 

What Kind of African Doesn’t Speak Any African Languages? Me.

AfropolitansLast year, I attended a conference that brought together African thought leaders. In a session about African identity, we explored the question of whether one could claim to be African without being fluent in any African languages. A passionate, and near disruptive debate ensued almost instantly.

What Language Do You Speak? (aka Do You Speak “Us”?)
I’ve had this conversation about language and identity time and again with Africans I meet on my travels. My afropolitan (i.e. world citizen) accent throws them off – a mix of American, Nigerian, and what’s often mistaken for British diction, simply because I enunciate my Ts.  (Perhaps it’s the remnants of attending a British-run primary school; not likely though.). Bread-breaking usually comes to a halt until the matter of my accent (origin) is cleared up. They simply must know which language I speak so that they can place me in one of two boxes: one of us, or one of them.

When I tell the cultural gatekeepers that I’m from Nigeria, and my accent is the result of living in the states for the past 12 years, they’re still not satisfied. “Are you sure you weren’t just born there?” they ask, “You don’t sound like you grew up in Nigeria.” I usually respond by asking them what a Nigerian who grew up in Nigeria sounds like, then hear some variation of “Like the people in Nollywood movies.” And when I tell them, I’m sorry to disappoint, I’m not an actress but an activist, I’m Nigerian through and through–I just went to the states for university, they deliver the kicker, “Well, prove it. What language do you speak?” The minute I respond with English (“Oh…”), it’s all downhill from there.

To Speak or Not to Speak: Assimilation vs. Accents
African ImmigrantsFrom tensions in Spain over mandating Spanish (versus indigenous languages like Catalan) to U.S. debates over bilingual education and attempts to ban speaking Spanish at school, the issue of language is a sore spot for many communities. Such language restrictions are often seen as direct attacks on minority cultures, especially for black immigrants who struggle to affirm their cultural heritage in the absence of their native language. Yet, ironically, immigrant parents in the U.S. are less likely to teach their children their native languages, for the purpose – or rather, the sake – of easing their assimilation into English-speaking culture.

The latter scenario resonates deeply with me. I grew up with a father who wasn’t fluent in his mother tongue, Agbor (a region-specific dialect of Ika), because his father had outlawed the language being spoken in the house. My grandfather–who worked as a civil servant during Nigeria’s colonial era–had valid reasons for doing so. In those days, speaking “proper” English meant you got the “good jobs,” which meant increased access to resources, and an improved livelihood for one’s family. Sadly, even though my father openly resents never having learned his family’s language, his wife–my mother–refused to teach me her native tongue, Igbo, for a similar reason.

nigeria educationColonialism did a number on Nigeria’s education system; as I was growing up, public schools were plagued with lack of resources, frequent strikes, cult violence, sexual harassment, and prostitution. Hence, my mother’s desire to see me succeed meant equipping me with tools to ensure I could thrive outside of the country I called my home. For instance, I would attend an international British-run private school, where white teachers would single out the only other black kid in the class for not pronouncing “stomach” correctly ( “stuh-muck”, not “stoh-mack” apparently); only an American or British university would do; I would not learn my native tongue until I spoke English “perfectly” and no longer risked picking up a “bad, Nigerian accent” that would make it harder for me “over there.”

You see, both my parents studied in Los Angeles in the 70s; on top of the (incomprehensible to me) racism of the time, they also faced American imperialist views and discrimination against “foreigners.” My mother was repeatedly rejected by employers for speaking too “harshly”, eventually forcing her to give up pursuing her dream career in television. It’s no wonder that every morning in my early childhood, my parents would wake up at 5 am to tape Satellite episodes of Sesame Street…They believed (or hoped) that watching British and American English programming would teach their children to speak “properly,” so they wouldn’t have to give up on their dreams.

The Blame Game: Colonialism, Forced Migration, and “Bad African Parents”
The Warmth of Other Suns - Black MigrationFor a long time, I resented my parents for robbing me of learning both my native languages. Later, I resented Nigeria for being so poorly-run that my parents couldn’t see me thriving anywhere but outside of it. Now, as I think about the players who created the environment I was raised to escape–who concocted a system so cruel it culturally orphans children for its own purposes, it’s become much harder to keep directing anger at my own family, and my own people.

My parents shouldn’t be crucified for acting in full awareness of the unjust systems that police indigenous cultures: the colonialist rubble left behind in Nigeria by the British Empire, and the resentment of Britain’s imperialist younger brother, the US of A, towards foreigners. Their fears were rational. Even today, my Puerto Rican partner, who manages a Spanish-speaking client support team at work, comes home at least once a week to vent about some caller’s rude reaction to a supervisee’s accent, dismissing them as un-educated, or ill-equipped to perform their jobs because they perceivably don’t speak “proper English.”

Still, while many immigrants are forced to sacrifice native language fluency, it’s important to note that similar negotiations around language, identity, and yes, accents, don’t just play out within the context of the migrant Diaspora. Many Africans living on the continent don’t speak their native languages, either. And, their reasons aren’t so different from their estranged brethren.

Black Immigrants in the US | Source: AP

In Nigeria, for instance, as a Delta-Igbo person living in a state dominated by Yorubas, I experienced much discrimination at school: regular tribalist diatribes from Social Studies teachers, punctuated by stereotypical Igbo impersonations from classmates.

The ethnic tensions that permeated my school dated back to when Igbo people had attempted to gain independence from the political mess the British left in Nigeria post-independence. These attempts, the result of colonial powers leaving certain ethnic groups in power over others, led to the Biafran war and genocide. The war had a lasting legacy: many Igbo students at my school didn’t speak their language (openly) for fear of being socially ostracized. Speaking, or at least understanding even broken Yoruba was a way of appearing more socially acceptable, to assimilate and survive.

Policing Africanness: Language, Globalization, and Cultural Access
African Colonialism

As is the case with many other colonized African countries, in South Africa, for example, the 12 official languages are the result of white men sitting down at a table, drawing squiggly lines around the region they wished to claim. They didn’t care about the diversity of peoples living there: not when they declared Afrikaans the official language of schools during apartheid, and not now when discussing the “under-achievement” of black youth while ignoring the impact apartheid’s indifference to Africa’s diverse cultures and languages has had on the struggle to reform education.

By the way: Afrikaans is not an indigenous African language, its origins date back to Europe settlers who spoke Dutch. Yet, there are South Africans (coloreds and blacks) who only speak Afrikaans or English due to similar circumstance e.g. migration, globalization, interracial adoption, etc.  Are they “less African” than the Black South Africans who speak indigenous languages such as Xhosa? Or Zulu? What about white people who migrate to Africa and learn to speak local languages? Are they now “more African” than Africans who do not, yet have been living in Africa  since birth?

Chill Out: Language is Just One Aspect of Culture

Contemporary Africans and African Diaspora in Design and Culture

My purpose isn’t to debate who is more African than whom based on language fluency (or even geopolitical circumstance). On the contrary: I don’t understand how anyone can cherry pick a single aspect of our culture as the arbiter of “authentic” African identity: Language. For sure, it’s important. But so is indigenous spirituality, traditional garb, family values, the arts. Culture comprises many elements, thus it makes no sense to police cultural belonging– cling to such a divisive hierarchy, based on the single factor of language, especially considering the lasting effects of our colonial history, and the impact of globalization on contemporary African culture.

I am also not using colonialism as an excuse to lessen the importance of learning our native tongues; language offers us a very obvious, easily detectable signal that someone is either part of our community, or not. You know this if you’ve ever walked into a Dominican bodega and had to ask for something in English, then watched as the eyes computed, instantly: “not one of us.” Furthermore, in many African cultures, the parts of our history that haven’t yet been erased or revised are passed down to younger generations, orally. In political protest, Fela Kuti, father of “Afrobeat”, and one of Africa’s most celebrated music icons, wrote most of his songs in pidgin in order to connect with the lay man who didn’t speak “proper English.” His son, Femi Kuti, has carried that tradition forward, and with that, Fela Kuti’s legacyIndigenous languages safeguard our stories in their hidden meanings and subtext, so much so that the mis-translation of a single word can create a completely different interpretation of history as we know it, and we’d literally lose ourselves.

Rise of the Afropolitans: NNEKA

Perhaps that’s why we stubbornly stick to fluency in “our mother tongues” as the yardstick for measuring “Africanness,” “our-ness,” “us-ness.” Perhaps the tune about real Africans being able to speak their mother tongues is only sung in protest against the hegemony of our colonizers’ languages. But is spiting them reason enough to spite each other? By perpetuating the use of a single cultural marker to create an hierarchy of Africanness, aren’t we simply deploying the same tools colonizers used to divide and conquer? Aren’t we essentially continuing the work the British Empire started?

We can do better.

There are a myriad of other identity markers that reveal the extent of both our sameness and uniqueness and make up the diverse African cultures that span the globe. Africa is complex–Africans, even moreso. Let’s not trade in our shared heritage for the exclusivity of an unjust social hierarchy. Let’s not , as our colonizers did, draw borders around poorly constructed monoliths. Our just protest for an Africa with linguistic agency must not turn us into the same masters of imperialist dogma we’re still yet to hold accountable.

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Update: Line which initially said there exist South Africans who only speak English or Afrikaans has been updated to contextualize loss of indigenous/mother tongue language fluency happening due to globalization, migration, cross-cultural adoption, and other factors so as not to perpetuate that as the norm. (Thanks MR for helping me clarify!)


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