Jul 20, 2010

(Untitled) 'cuz the 1st & 2nd titles I came up with suck

If there's one thing living with a foreigner has taught me, it is how to get along with people who are different.


My husband and I have been having the same argument off and on for 16 years. When it comes to Africa, we hold diametrically opposed worldviews. He is a tribalist. I am nationalist.

We met when I was at the height of my pro-Black racial identity development. I had been mentored in college by a Black Activist named Mudavanha with a PhD from UC Berkeley who had kicked it with the Black Panthers in the Bay Area during the height of the racially tense 60s. He evolved into a Pan Africanist who lived part-time in Ghana, wore bata karis adorned with Adinkra symbols every day, and was fond of giving African American students Ashanti names.

I was so down with my peeps back then. It was all about Africa - its glorious history, its unrecognized & untapped potential, its shinning future. Black Americans & Africans - we were all the same. Africans. Some never left the Continent, others - like me - were victims of an African Diaspora brought on by the TransAtlantic Slave Trade.

Believe me I was shocked to my toes to see my African husband argue any American (including me) into the ground who dared to claim Africa and Africans were - should - or could ever be one.

Historically, Americans subordinate allegiance to ethnic heritage in favor of a national identity. Irish-American, African-American, Korean-American, Mexican-American... "American" unites us all. E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one.

To my American mind, unity is strength.

On the other hand, we have tribalism. Tribe is the center, the source, the guide, the organizing system of my husband's African mind. Europeans who carved up Africa during the 1885 Berlin Conference grouped together people who had "no business" being united under a single anything. The people groups referred to as "Nigerians" today were separate nations, like Italian city-states, each with its own ruler.

Nigeria's dominant ethnic groups have tried to work together & "get along" - it has been a failed experiment. (Read Uwem Akpan's excellent short story "Luxurious Hearses" for a snapshot of all the elements that must be combined for Nigeria to become united.) Today, my husband is convinced that splitting Nigeria into 5 parts can solve all its problems. Corruption magically disappears. Disorganization & chaos disappears. Why? Because fighting disappears. Tribes are each unified by their tribe's vision to advance the tribe as a whole. Everyone lives happily... ever... after.

If I grew up as he did, I'd probably believe as he does. But I'm extremely wary of this brand of tribalism because in the negative extreme, tribalism is the seed that can give rise to ethnic rivalry, tribal hatred & ethnic cleansing. I do not - maybe even cannot - believe fragmentation & division can ever trump unity & wholeness.

Many Nigerians are convinced Nigeria could change Africa if it ever got its sh*t together. If Nigeria is to ever become the world power it longs to be, it better learn how to live & work with people who are different. Learn how to build consensus despite differences. Start with the tribe next door.

Jul 13, 2010

I Don't Wanna Go To Africa No More More More...

I've done Nigeria. I've done it twice. And I've slept next to it for 16 years. After my 2nd trip, I decided I didn't want to do Nigeria anymore. In fact, its fair to say I don't want any part of Black sub-Saharan Africa. Not anymore.

I went to find a place where I belonged. I was infatuated. Eager to melt into a culture where I would be welcomed & embraced.

I arrived & found how alien I was.

Lagosians chanted the Yoruba word for a white person as I walked down the street. It irked me to no end that my Nigerian husband was so tickled by it. In my husband's home town, the children peered goggle eyed at me in church & in my car window. By their expressions (what is that?), it was as if they were looking @ an abomination. Yes, I expected stares... but not to that degree.

By Nigerian standards I guess I'm not really Black. I'm something else. I guess. I'm clearly not white - my skin isn't even particularly light. Some people tan within only a few shades of their natural color. Not me. My arms I can go from Beyonce bright to Biggie Smalls black in days. Yet my hair texture & a few features reveals mixed heritage.

It has been 14 years since I stepped foot in Lagos. At the end of this month, I will return. God help me.

My children are visiting their father's home for the 1st time. I'm eager for that reason alone to co-navigate their brief immersion into Nigerian society & Yoruba culture. There's a lot I want them to understand & experience first hand.

The people are lovely.
The food delicious.
The traffic aggravating.
The infrastructure Third World.
The toilets traumatizing.

Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa.
Lagos is a hive. Cacophanous commotion. Actively chaotic. Grimy with smog.
The people are intensely proud. Loud. Aggressive. Ambitious. Opinionated.
The country is world-renowned for scams & corruption.
The culture gave birth to voodoo.

It's my 3rd visit. I don't want to go with my defenses up but... they're up. Way up. Can't help it. How many times can I expect to be told how fat I am? At least once for person who comes to greet & welcome me. And I'll probably meet lots of those.

So I guess I better brace myself. Nigerians are are what they are. Judgmental & not shy about telling you what you should be doing. But I can't turn off my American sensibilities in Africa any more than they can turn off their Nigerian ones in America.

I have a few weeks to practice the fine art of politely telling someone I'm beginning to be insulted, you can shut the hell up now...


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