Tag Archives: Africa

#9 ~ Americanah & Being a (rootless) British African


I really didn’t want to like Adichie’s new book, Americanah. Despite the fact that I got one of the first copies, and a signed one at that, I didn’t read it for almost two years. It sat, hardback cover and confident signature on my many university-room bookshelves, it’s large spine taking up pride of place, it’s crisp jacket (now oil stained) speaking of a newness, a freshness that should have been inciting, intoxicating even in its desirability. It blended cleanly into my pretence at a literary knowledge along with other ‘must-read’ African or African-American books, swilling from prose, to poetry, drama to criticism. Yet, for every month it went un-opnened, even throughout the summer when I couldn’t blame essays or supervisions, it reminded me of a fraudulence, a veneer of fakery that I had knowingly pasted over my face, its scent cloying, speaking of a knowingness, an intelligence, an awareness about the African experience which really wasn’t skin deep.

As Adichie has grown in the affections of white-educated-liberal society, the clamour for her work has, in a way, become cloying. I remember reading Purple Hibiscus when I was still a pre-pubescent teen and loving it (my own well thumbed copy has gone on a long loan/walk to a friend). I had always preferred it to Half of a Yellow Sun. There was a simplicity about the novel, a freshness and a pain in the characters – but never pity. Adichie didn’t (and still doesn’t) try too hard to breathe life into her world. Whilst my own attempts at any kind of creative writing have always been lugubrious, heavy handed and verbose, hers was stark, naked, clear and in that cleanliness it was seering, pernicious almost, unflinching. Whilst Half of a Yellow Sun became the literary love-child of all those politically-conscious white folks who were just so keen to ‘get’ the Post-Colonial experience, I didn’t love the book. I loved the meta-narrative that ran throughout, I loved learning about my matrilineal heritage. I loved a book that featured twins, but the narrative was detached from me – something to observe but not to feel. I felt the same when I dutifully ploughed through her collection of short stories (The Thing Around Your Neck) for A-levels. Her style effortless as though she doesn’t try she just tells. But I couldn’t help but fall into the romance of her craft when I analysed the stories, wrote essays about them – essays that got me my place at University, I learnt to admire her, yet still felt my heart ached as I saw glimpses, shadows of myself in her syntax, shadows that I recognised but did not fully understand.

So, when it came to reading Americanah, egged on by the girlfriends and soul sistas who kept plugging the book, the whispered comments of a smugness that surrounded Adichie now she was an established figure in the ‘African canon’, gave me a weak, immature excuse not to open it. I wanted to find a reason to resent her, to find fault with her, or at least her work. I wanted to struggle, I wanted her to be novel, unique, and not as celebrated as she was – as known. I wanted her to be mine, the way I had thought of her when I read the still unknown Purple Hibiscus. So instead I returned to her literary father and discovered that Achebe’s prose is indeed like palm wine, his criticism sharp, his fiction…beautiful. I devoured Things Fall Apart,reading the whole novel out loud in a 2-day sitting during my exam term last year. It’s one of the only times I ever sat in the armchairs of my lavish room. I don’t speak Igbo, but speaking Okonkwo’s name out loud, attempting to intone the proverbs I imagined my Grandfather would let slip from his lips as he sat on his verandah in Onitsha, gave me a degree of firmness, like a long lost child returning home after a long time, discovering the dusty memories of old rooms and forgotten wallpaper that had always been there, but one hadn’t had the clarity of mind to see. The last few sentences stilled my heart, and even speaking of it to a friend only a week ago, I felt my body plunge again into the wretched pool of pain and awe at his craftsmanship, at the reality that he described so unflinchingly, so un-ironically. I devoured A Man of the People, and began No Longer at Ease, and all the while my mind was pulled back to Adichie, and I saw just how well her form matched her forefather, just how talented her written sculptures were.

So, at the start of this term, I decided to cut the pages of Americanah at last and begin reading. I laughed, I was intrigued, but I grew bored and it sat on my bedside table for weeks on-end as the mania of term swept me away (or rather I turned on the fan and said – Micahelmas – Take me Now!). But then today, having passed out from sheer exhaustion after working till 5am and waking up at 1.30pm causally missing my 10am lecture, I thought – screw it – i’m going to indulge myself. And I read, and read, and read, and only just finished.

Americanah is exquisite. Painfully, beautifully, exquisite. People throw slogans like – best thing ever written – around too easily. But it was bloody brilliant. And I could launch into a wonderful critique of its arcs and curves, but that would spoil your own journey of it (because you will read it). But reading it made me understand more why I so wanted to dislike it.

There is a certainty in Adichie that is both compelling and unsettling. She knows who she is. Like Ifemelu, she might be buffeted by transition but she is not overblown. She might ‘code-switch’ but her tongue is not loose, not flaccid, it is not confused, it can always return to its original nuances and intonations. Though Adichie primarily writes in English (her work is littered, like Achebe, with Igbo sayings), she is not confined to speak in a language that is not her own. Hers is a choice, not an expressive requirement.

In the first half of the book, Ifemelu, our striking, forthright yet at times vulnerable protagonist attends the African Society of her university, where she is told, laughingly (but not mockingly) that African Americans who seek to be part of the society are those who ‘write poems about Mother Africa and think every black woman is a Nubian Queen’. I laughed wistfully when I read it, because I realised that was me.

For those of us born and raised in, and here i’m specifically talking about the UK diaspora, we are not rootless, like African Americans. Many of us know ‘where we come from’, whether we are Caribbean or African – and will say (now with pride, when we were in primary school the question either confused or mortified us) – I’m from Nigeria, Jamaica, Grenada, Ghana etc. Even if we are not that attached to those countries of ‘ethnic origin’ (as if 2nd generation Polish, German or Spanish people don’t also have a country of ‘ethnic origin’), we will at least state – my parents are from XYZ. So we are not rootless. But we, or at least I, have still suffered a trauma, a blow to that fragile process anthropology will call the constitution of self. Because though we are not rootless, we are also not rooted.

I wasn’t raised to think of England as my home, neither was I raised to think of Nigeria as my home. Home was something that existed in the present, where I was right now, it didn’t extend into the future and it didn’t link into an ancestral past, at least not in daily life. On applying to University my father emphatically challenged me about saying I was British Nigerian, insisting I was British but cited the fact that I had never lived in Nigeria and carried a red passport as the reason. My mother agreed, but only because she feared my CV could be rejected on account of 419s and other shitty prejudice. But aside from that, whenever we did something bad, they would remind us that we were not from England, therefore we dare not act like these oyinbo people with no home training. Sometimes it would even resort to – Do you know who your people are, where you come from – by which they referred to our tribal people group or home village – a culture we barely understood, a language we didn’t speak, a place we had never been to (or if we had, we’d been too young to formulate concrete memories). Sometimes my mother would say, why do you want to claim Nigerian, when I went through my ‘Mother-Africa-down-with-Colonisalism-BS phase’ – what has Nigeria ever done for you?! But then we rarely spoke about what England had done for me. It was taken as a given: education, amenities, healthcare, safety – but in terms of culture, values, history, I was never taught to be grateful to England for those things. So we (I) existed in a liminal space – a non-space, having to carve out Rushdie’s imaginary homeland. A space where people who looked like me and carried, as Adichie beautifully typed, the fine stamp of culture, existed. A space where people who had taught themselves to code switch spoke loudly and over-confidently. Reading Americanah, I wondered when that had happened. My ability to at best mimic at worst parody a Nigerian accent. In primary school I was as English as they came, in fact I remember actively learning long complex words to make sure by Englishness was permanent. And then, towards the end of year 6 this weird craving for America arose.

Fresh on the wave of TLC and Destiny’s Child, being African American wasn’t just sexy (as If 11 year old me even knew what sexy was, though in a way we did) it was acceptable. So I walked into secondry with the fakest Californian accent ever straight out of Saved by the Bell, My Wife and Kids and all that Disney crap. I remember feeling so proud when two year 10 girls asked me curiously if I was from the States one break time. But then the softness of the accent got to me, and I found myself switching from my Shepherds Bush accent into a weird cockney mockery, into faux American into Received Standard English, until I got to Uni. I got to Uni and met real Nigerians, the one’s that actually knew what to say in pidgin’ and not just how to intone it. They humoured me, and my tonal flexibilities increased, but always hollow. I made my voice. I don’t actually know what it should sound like, but today it’s a beautiful pan-world mishmash that is simultaneously ugly, phoney and lifeless.

The diaspora is a trauma, and not just the trauma of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. Even when we moved by choice, moved for a better life, for safety, for whatever London streets promised or required, trauma was inflicted. And not just on the parents, safe in their knowledge of ‘home’, safe in the knowledge that they even have place to call ‘home’, where they don’t have to explain why their English is so good even if their name is ‘foreign’, where they don’t have to straddle a place that gave them culture and a place that gave the rudiments of basic survival of human nurture.  Where they are not limited to expressing themselves in one medium even when they are surrounded by a multiplicity of other languages which teaches them to create parts of themselves that can only be expressed in non-English sounding words (when i’m angry, or impassioned I want to reach for Yoruba like my parents, but just end up with an exasperated Ahn-Ahn, You know, Ha! Because I can’t say anything, I can just sound things).

I hate being rootless. I hate being rooted in that rootlessness. I hate having multiple homes that are more like rented apartments rather than deeply dug foundations. But I acknowledge that it is an emerging existence, and it is something Americanah pulls out so teasingly, so exquisitely. I loved it. I loved Americanah and I mourned when it ended because, some small part of me, wanted the security Ifemelu has at the end, wanted someone to say to me ‘Come In’, and to take my hand, and lead me home. But I am glad Adichie wrote it, and I know that now, those of us that are the Non-African (but perhaps still Afrcan) Blacks, need to write for our own – for we are an ‘our’ now, as much so as we’ve ever been.

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Grandmother’s Hands

For Colored Girls London was a wonderful success and if you really want to know all the stories that surrounded its conception, production and performance just do a google search and you’ll find it all there ( can you believe, we can now be googled, so much for anonymity!). It’s been nigh on 6 months since I last posted, which means FAR too much has happened and it’d be awful for me to attempt to explain and write and describe and muse in retrospect. Moreover, where I once was able to write as a musing voice with no intended audience, since i’ve begun publishing my poetry and therefore having to put a name to my work, I now know I have (may have) an audience and moreover they know me – which changes the game entirely. However, for those who still once in a while pass through this former haven of my thoughts, I have a surprise in store for you in the New Year! (only a few days to go, stay excited).

In the meantime, one (amongst many wonderful things) that happened to me in November is I did a TEDx talk. Below is the link. I won’t say any more but do give it a watch, a listen, and if it touches you in a positive or challenging way, do share.

Wishing you seasons greetings. Till 2014

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#251 ~ Ithemba Projects : Day 18

If music be the food of love, play on. 

If I’m honest, at the beginning of my time working for Ithemba Projects, there was no love lost between myself and the children of the Drop in Centre. My inability to communicate with them effectively, meant they pushed all the boundaries that one could push. If it wasn’t that they were screaming, then they were pulling the guitar strings, taking each others food, jumping up, eating crayons, trying to hug you – you name it, they crossed it. So this morning, whilst the African Rain was still pelting Hilton hard, I was mildly concerned when my colleague explained I would once again have the privilege of going solo to the crèche. She had a meeting, I took the guitar.

As Sweetwaters and Hilton are located on an escarpment, they are often covered in a dense mist, when the rest of Martizburg is enjoying sunshine which will happily tip 40 degrees. I had effectively deceived myself before I left – an African winter was more or less a UK summer. Therefore, I failed to pack both a rain coat and a jacket. With one real jumper, and a thin excuse of a jumper, two Primark cardigans and lots of t-shirts, I thought I was prepared.

Swaddled then, in seven top layers, long socks and jeans, I bravely entered the crèche, gingerly hopping over the spooling mud pool that had transformed into the welcome mat; having only one pair of trainers and two sandals, I could literally not afford to get my feet wet. The poor weather had created a poor turnout in the usual bursting crowd of children that I am normally confronted with. Yet the cries were still as loud as ever. So breathing, I said to myself – although you can’t speak isiZulu, they say music is a universal language – so play on.

Guitar out, capo on, loud voice at the ready, hacking cough kept to a minimum, I began. It is incredible, the power music has to captivate children’s attention. How creative you can be. With pretty much the chords, Em, C, G, D, Am and F in my repertoire (once in a while dropping a dodgy strummed C#m for luck), basic children’s songs and worship songs mutated into new chants. Throw in some dead chords and a regular tap on the body of the guitar and you have a drum beat, which means rhythm, which means dancing.

Although the children didn’t take part in their usual activities of painting and puzzles, and considering the appalling weather, the outside wasn’t even a near possibility, they got themselves into a neat train (stimela) so we could sing ‘Shoshloza’, before switching into Ageko o Fana no Jesu. And when my voice caught that didn’t stop them. Every song in my repertoire and then some was used, and the children came alive inside of it. Dancing, clapping, involving their teachers, playing games, eating quietly, talking quietly. Where cacophony normally shrouds the crèche, a serene peace was being spooled out at the strum of a few metal strings.

All children need is a but of stimulation, something exciting, creative, something new, and it opens up the world of possibilities that waits outside their wire fence, for them.

Prayer for Day 18: That as the Drop in Centre crèche grows and the teachers excel in their teaching skills, new and innovative ways of inspiring the children would be revealed. That the world of possibilities would enter the crèche and brighten their lives. That more music would find a way into education systems the world the over.

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#211 ~ Kenneth

There is an elderly gentleman who lives in Bristol. His name is Kenneth. He is an excellent gardener, baker and most importantly story-teller. He can trace his family line back to the foundations of England – they haven’t moved far from the West Country and he has a memory that puts any genetic historian to shame. As English as April Showers in May is Kenneth. As white as the fabled snow that lined the postcards sent across Britannia’s former colonies is Kenneth. As remarkable as the adjective can be, is Kenneth. And today, this pure-blooded Bristolian’s only surviving family members are all black. Not even black. But as black as the image of deepest darkest Africa can be. As coloured as the shores of Western Africa, as slick as the oil that spills over Nigerian fields, as coconut brown as the fruits that sway in between mother’s baskets, as yellow as the gold that laced the necks of their ancient Obas are Kenneth’s relatives.

Sixty years ago Kenneth’s cousin Joan decided to get on a boat and take a bit of the West Country to Western Africa. That’s called globalisation.

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#136 ~ A Silent Circumcision

(A work in progress: Initial draft)

You think you know me?

You think you understand

what it feels like to feel rusty iron shoved up between your thighs

at the age of nine, crying until your eyes

turned rheumy red, mimicking the blindness that endorsed this

abomination masked as

enforced chastity.

You think you hear me?

You hear my cry, my voice, my silent holla

as I wave good-bye to you

standing under dappled streetlights, the pavement creaking under the weight

of my souls bereavement

the face that glares back at me from those sealed windows

tightly bolted doors

the curtains screwed together  – except i’m the better whore

That’s right. I thought you knew me? Or didn’t I give you my name?

Oh, you want to come up all inside me

Get to know  me, as if what counts is on the inside?

Well let me tell you what’s up in here. Twisted fallopian tubes, bruised intestines

pools of congealing blood mixing, mixing

choking, beating

sealed shut with stitches wound tight

dark skin, once soft and fleshy

drawn taut like a stretched leather hide

a tiny hole, not like the orifice you described

Just enough to let the trickle of urine strike the insides

of these interlocked thighs

But shhh – why you laughin’?

Don’t you know silence is the sign of a purified life

As we sit, separated by styrofoam walls

each crouched over porcelain bowls, holes in the creaking, cracking, fecal stained floors

Silence is the sound of my worth. So silently I scream giving birth to Ibrahim, Joseph, what ever it’s called

Silence is the sound of my worth. So silently I piss, not groaning in pain as though my uterus has compacted into a spiked ball, as UTI’s sear through my crouched and quivering form

Silence is the sound of my worth. So silently is how i sit, giving you blank stares as i sit in the clinic for African Mutilation, found in the Elizabeth Garret Anderson Ward off Tottenham Court

road, dumb to your question, oblivious to your silent gestures.

I wanted to cry when they thrust that rusted iron deep into my soul

Seared the pointed needles, kept me drunk on alcohol

I wanted to protest at what they thought was best for me and my chastity

But i didn’t have the words, didn’t have the voice to say, no, this isn’t for me

When you do it, it’s a sign of worth. A symbol of your status as a man of the cloth, a man of honor, virtue, clean and pure,

That scaly foreskin that slips off hardly leaves a dent in your, male principle

Hardly leaves a scar on your manly stature

But when you do it to me…

I am not emasculated – in fact there is no word

I simply cease to exist

I am no more – just a silently screaming hole with a botched up cover holding me together

Till you come to claim me, pin me down, impregnate me

and ignore, this silently screaming horror, like a toothless jaw, wrenched open to envelope your – to envelope you.

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#133 ~ Belong

When you look out into the World, you desperately try and see your own reflection. Seeing it stare back at you, one you can define/associate with – it brings a gentle touch of comfort. It reminds you that loneliness has yet to swamp your being, that you belong to something.

That sense of belonging can stem from the music pumping through your earphones that makes someone sitting next to you smile: they like that tune as well. It’s when you put in a movie suggestion and get a round of fist pumps for a reply. Or when you tie a brightly coloured headscarf as a crown for your head, slip some Mozambican cow-horn hoops through your earlobes and walk with pride through a traditional English town: the few ethnic people break out into beaming smiles of recognition and affiliation.

These episodes work to affirm you, build in a sense of security, a grounding foundation of identity. Yet they are always challenged. You’re not really  a fan of Lauryn Hill because you haven’t heard her second album, don’t know how many children she has and didn’t realise that she’s the same person in Sister Act 2. You only want to watch The Avengers because it has some fit actors in it – stop pretending it’s because you actually grew up reading Marvel comics and watching Cartoon Network with the ‘mandem’. You aren’t really ‘African’ because you don’t know why there was a civil war in Liberia, don’t speak your native tongue and your skin hasn’t been  burnished by the sun.

It can be like a horse-kick in the chest. Being brutally excluded from your self defining group, that sense of affiliation, of belonging that is ripped to shreds like an unwanted bank statement: into tiny, infinitesimal pieces that can never be put back together again, let alone recognised for what they once were.

Sitting beside all the other pieces of rubbish that didn’t quite make the grade, that feeling of loneliness you tried to avoid comes over to say Hi. It wants to be your friend, but you shun it as well, turning that once proud back into a ‘LEAVE ME ALONE’ sign, curled over, broken, resigned.

Yet, I say, embrace it. Turn back around, stretch your face from a frown into a timid smile that will burst into a sunshine beam and say HI. HOW ARE YOU? WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE MY FRIEND?

Because Loneliness is a lie the World tells you. It tells you it is wrong to be alone, to walk alone, to enjoy being alone. But that is because the World is afraid: it’s afraid that you will wake up and realise, your identity does not depend on other people. On other people defining you and saying you’re good enough, that you’ve made the grade and then welcoming you to take a place in their ‘prized group.’ The World doesn’t want to let you know that actually, how you view yourself and what you affiliate yourself to is your choice. There is no quota you have to fill before you claim to like an artist. It doesn’t matter if no one knows how you were soooo obsessed with Spiderman you broke your arm pretending to be him. It doesn’t matter if your skin hasn’t been burnt by the sun, the pigment that is there, your melanin count, is itself a testament of your origins.

But most importantly – your identity is rooted in the Creator of Creation. You were formed as a unique individual to stand alone as part of the body of humanity, as part of the wonder of Creation. You are who you are because you are who you are – and you, and you alone, are loved for that because of that. Yes, this potentially anastrophic construction may seem contrived, naive, only applicable on the shiny, pure surface of an LCD screen. But we feel that way because we have been conditioned to turn a truth into a lie, a friend into an unrecognisable foe, love and acceptance into things to be revoked.

Stand tall, be not afraid to be different, be not afraid to BE YOURSELF. Even if that means having to put up with people’s quasi-acceptance which is as durable as evaporating water, here today gone this second. Learn to look in your own mirror and say HELLO, and identify yourself, then BE. With that confidence, you will be surprised how attractive, inspiring, evocative it is to the world that tells you, you don’t fit in, you didn’t quite make the grade. As that confidence oozes from your very being, it liberates others to STOP CARING about what the WORLD HAS TO SAY, and enables you to START BEING who YOU are.

Take yourself out on a date. Seriously, go to Nandos (or if you don’t have a full stamp card some other place that will give you decent quality food at a decent price). Ask for a table for one. Repeat it when they smile jokingly. Sit down. Order your food, order your free tap water, consider the desert menu then check your wallet. As you say grace and begin to tuck in, have a conversation with yourself (this can be internalised or externalised, it’s your choice). Get to know yourself. Get to know the exquisite creation that is you. Pay your bill, smile, get up, and step back into the World liberated, illuminated, and shining the beautiful light that is a part of creation who has realised just that. That it is and belongs to Creation – and that is enough.

BE yourself

KNOW yourself

SEEK self improvement

To BECOME selfless

To become YOU

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#131 ~ Somewhere in Africa

There is something potent about that continent. The patchwork of countries, roughly hewn into a unifying, shimmering quilt of colours. In its ebony blackness, impenetrable as the night sky, the glowing mahogany that glistens in the burnished sun, in the deep wrinkles of wisdom, the lithe bodies of the weatherbeaten leather that hangs, stretched, tough and durable, there is something there. In its living flesh, the porous skin of its earth that breathes, in the resounding song imbibing the first fruits, the parched ground, the thunderstorms of rain clouds, with vibrancy, agency, vivacity there is something to be found, somewhere in Africa.

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