We had to sound civilized in public, he told us; we had to speak English.
— Adichie, Purple Hibiscus
I was the third seed planted that sprouted one February Sunday evening in a giant hospital at the heart of Ibadan, the largest city in Old Oyo, a restless and unplanned place where life is rushed, growing up is fast and easy, and wounds are unmasked; everything is in the open–from the street-side, open-roof stores that sell your groceries, to the hustlers hawking burnt tapes, CDs and knock-off brands, to the black markets that hide in the day and shine at night, to the girls who flock like disciples, bundle together and talk in professional English mixed with pidgin, on any given street at the right time of the day, some in front of their college dorms, others a half mile from your neighborhood, waiting the next Big Man [= Politician] who can buy them out for the semester; Ibadan is the sort of town that carries dust in the eyes of strangers: you have to know people to get around and you have to know yourself to survive; you should know yourself by now if you’re old enough to be tear gassed by officers whose duty is to quell the monthly riots that take place on the main streets connecting home to school: this is primary school and most parents know those days ahead: the ones usually summoned by university unions and students to protest everything from low salaries to unpaid labor to hikes in school fees to faculty strikes that help stretch out a bachelor’s into a 6-yr project; but the violence is indiscriminate, and should hit anyone, and the young thugs flashing palm tree leaves and banging on cars, burning others, smashing windows with driving mothers and nervous children are just as passionate about education as the chancellor; somehow, of course, and maybe out of necessity, their disposition is tolerated and respected, enough to send an early morning school rush into a near-death experience involving riot-gear police, holdups and U-turns once the action starts heating up; the aim is not to surround the reader with malady and madness, although that was custom, as with the bare woman who roamed the streets endlessly, baby strapped to her back, and could walk into any store with the guarantee of not having to pay; Ibadan is also the land that birthed Sade, so we have a deeper sense of beauty yet unexplored with the decency it deserves, as pioneer of some of Africa’s leading technological advances; we still carry the memories of old, in a land hot 11 months of the year, simmering the sand with desire; in truth, it is known more for its people than its places: sightseeing is rare here; maybe the unimpressive gaze of a cramped oversized parlor puts the red dot over the city: land is lush with gardens, botanical and wild, forests and evergreen bushes and trees that cast a glance over the neighborhoods, tempering the canvass of an otherwise sandy, dusty, tidy and cluttered geography; death is as sudden as a Danfo conductor refusing to pay a policeman, and politics is a sport only the skilled and powerful are allowed to play; I arrived into a world of humans and animals, spirits walking and talking between belches of Yoruba, a land close to rivers and lakes that stream energy, vibrant life, into this Alexander of African towns.
My birth, they say, was a harrowing one involving blood loss, prayer, patience, a Jehovah’s Witness moment and the threat of death to mother and fetus. Somehow the stars willed it and we made it through.
Our story is simple, we know what we want of life: nuclear families that extend into the wilderness, procreate like machines and spread out, creating forests and adding back to the source of creation. The Yoruba culture swivels between past and present like a pendulum, acquiring codes, messages and wisdom from its origin, which is believed divine, a contract between deity and man, to further destiny with community. What we don’t know we ask –through divination or prayer; what we’re told we hold on to as Mother’s Milk to a baby’s mouth. Whether out of practice or tradition we are consoled into believing a sovereign watcher guards over our affairs, is aware of our deepest concerns and can intervene when called upon. This belief is strong enough to send everyday men and women into fits of terror or hysteria if the sought out answer isn’t confirmed. The people are dangerous in love with their God, whatever the name given, and are swift to defend his honor: as gods go, gender is still a far walk from perfection; Patriarchy is King, male sons are prized, and daughters are crafted gems jealously controlled to protect their innocence.
The truths we hold to be self-evident confirm purpose and destiny as keys to the good life, the path all must walk to keep the divine connection alive; disobedience is often an unforgivable affront, easily adopted into Patriarchal infallibility: what the Father wants he gets, and children, as with worshippers before a short-tempered God, must comply to keep blessings flowing and stave off promises of unchained suffering. The home is structured in apocalyptic grace that can only serve those under its will: this is why parents are able to wave the flag of disownment over the heads of wayward or Western-minded children who think they’ve seen the light and can confirm existence of other norms beyond the preferred and prescribed domains of official thought. Culture, we know, moves with time and like tides rolls through changing current, swapping movement and form, pushing people and places into new frontiers; we know, too, that tradition walks holding its cane tight, checking for deviants along the way.
Pressure builds and busts pipes, taking into its hands the souls of those unsure of their place in life — a child born is believed predestined and should be nurtured into the light of its purpose to allay the devices of an Evil One, who we are told, as with the Sovereign God, lurks close seeking recruitment into a path of no return. This Evil One, Esu (Satan), has a defined purpose for the child, helping delineate right from wrong, Good from Bad; the binary paradigm is a microcosmic understanding of the world beyond, defining discipline as the bar code for salvation, itself an amalgamation of authority: the saved soul belongs to, is judged by, and acquires authentication from, the divine order, or its designate in the home: unruly kids need more discipline and the good ones protection from the snatching hands of a cunning trickster who with a treasure bag hopes to ensnare the imagination into possibilities unrevealed by a stifling God.
If your parents are Christian, the story of Adam and Eve takes on supreme meaning: beyond an allegorical or anecdotal rendering of creation, becomes the epicenter of a polarized world; Eve bit the apple given by an alluring snake who hoped to open her eyes to the unseen, and Adam shared in the sin, angered the Patriarch God, forcing banishment from a good, promised, unknown existence: it’s a sort of razorblade salvation that cuts off the curious or the unfaithful. God said what was good and human intelligence should bow down to divine instruction. Adam, a straight, traditional man, fell to temptation at the lustful demands of his wife, and was punished with revelations of his nakedness, his wife’s sexuality, a hard-working life, and the unplanned gift of childbirth.
While our stories have their distinct tints and shades we share one common with all Africans, that of erasal, reversal and uprootment. When the Europeans came with their God, Bible and teachings, they came too with a plan for the people, one which deviated from would spell, well, as with the Patriach God, a vastless unknown. The first stage of dehumanization is to convince the people they have no culture; the second is to strip them of their right to know; the third stage that of offering an alternative, inferior to that of the colonizers but symmetrical enough to convey similarity; the fourth is a genuine guarantee that the entire process is one of good, righteous even, divinely destined. The intelligence of the conquered peoples is never called into question, it is simply discarded. Their knowledge of self is a forgiven error: that, of course, they think they know what they’re doing but really all effort to reclaim memory and language is the meandering and confused strivings of a primitive people.
The British, in Nigeria’s story, believed their language, governing structure, and social systems were not only fit for the colonized people — a given with the logic that language is the heart of a society and conditions culture — but should prevail way into the future, with each new generation supplanted into a foreign matrix: this is how you own a land and its people for thousands of years. Music was of lesser priority, as it might stir up spiritual wells calling for revolution but would fall largely on the diluted ears of the captured.
The story of Africa and its colonization seems simple enough: that a people who’d been learned from, traded with, and had traveled extensively had to be schooled on the rules of modernity. The same people with established empires in Mali, dynasties in Egypt, and Kingdoms in Old Oyo, needed to be brought into the New World through force, inspection and coercion. To think Africans accepted their inferiority seamlessly is to dismiss the countless revolts, bloody and boundless, that swept the continent once its people realized the game being played on them. The fight, we now know, had less to do with resistance and more with protecting the last vestiges of indigenous wealth under attack. Missionaries were proxy to a larger enterprise whose sole mission was extraction: whether of bodies, cultures or resources. In this sense it is clear what they came for: not the souls of the sinners but the life they had; in some cases, then, death was the inevitable transaction. Convincing Africans to believe in and pray to a different God had to involve a feat of construction and reconstruction, specifically determining capital distribution based on acceptance. This is why many, even after conversion, retained their indigenous rituals and spiritual systems, masking what they could with worship and praise the foreigners found strange. You could call on Shango and Ogun in your own way, or offer to Osun without the flourishes of old. What was lost was never recovered but simply evolved into the existing structure — divination became prophecy and praise offering testimony.
We all kno say Africa na the richest continent
We all come kno say we come be one of the poorest people as well…
Na we get the gold, the diamond, cocoa and rubber
We come kno say na we get the oil and many other resources too…
You better ask yourself how the richest continent get the poorest people
You better ask yourself why everybody dey rush for the resources of Africa
You better ask yourself how many more years we go wait before the savior go come save us
You better ask yourself why as we dey wait other nations dey get richer…
— Femi Kuti
They came for wealth, they came for culture, they came to learn — in a word they came to steal. Who would really think, and truly believe, that a people for thousands of years well-advanced in technological fronts, textiles, stone and wood carvings, metal wielding, agriculture, education, infrastructure and cultural institutions were all of a sudden hapless and helpless, unable to breathe right without European handling? This is, of course, the arrogance and ignorance of the colonizer, who has to believe his own lies before the conquered people can.
Before the lies we knew the truth of our founding, told and passed on through generations, oracles that scripted the paths to destiny, tales of ropes handed from the sky, dribbling into the earth, new life for man. The conquering of a continent, like the breaking of Okonkwo, had to dissolve the power of these narratives, enough to hazard their legitimacy: priests were punished, diviners destroyed, women worshippers denounced as witches, and so went the tale… like that of the lion and the hunter.
When written about, here is the sort of arrogance that wields the pen, far back as 1894:
Although as we know from Dalzel’s History, Oyo, or Yoruba, was a powerful kingdom at least as early as 1724, Yoruba traditional history carries us back no further than the end of the eighteenth century, a fact which shows what little reliance can be placed upon the traditions of nations who are unacquainted with the art of – writing.1
You can smell the frustrations of ancestors wondering why an elaborate narrative had to be generated of a benevolent God, his Son and Holy Spirit in the name of genocide and plunder. Might as well have been upfront: we want your land, people and culture and we don’t have to buy them. There seemed even no need to impose a foreign culture: history shows those with the bigger guns holding their share of treasure. We can blitz the sole claim of White Supremacy with the line tracing Greece to Jersey Shore. And still, the transplanting of culture, purely a marketing move, is the magic that bewilders every generation post-colonization: the unquestioned assumptions that paralyze indigenous understanding into acceptance of the default dominant frame: in our case, growing up, that of the Europeans. There’s a hint in Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus when the White priest, Father Benedict, “had changed things in the parish such as insisting that the Credo and kyrie be recited only in Latin; Igbo was not acceptable. Also hand clapping was to be kept at a minimum, lest the solemnity of Mass be compromised.”
Through nursery, primary and secondary school, we lived our days believing our own inferiority, measured against Standard English and civilized cultures, hardly questioning the barbarity that confounded this thought. Having a dictator as president, with multiple coups and mandatory post-election riots helped confirm our unyielding aspirations toward democracy with the hope that perhaps with more time, education and prayer we can someday grow up into the light of our founding father, Lord Lugard. We never had the encouragement to see beyond the smokescreen of tribal war, supposedly innate, genetically coded through the divide and confused scripts played out upon once-compatible societies. The restlessness of life was blamed upon an unfruitful distinction between rural and urban ways: the people have yet to come out of it; give them time though.
So we grew up boy-men, charged with rage at any perceived injustice, comfortable in blaming ourselves and distrustful of our own wisdom: Nigeria is like this because of Nigerians. We imitated the gangs that ruled our cities — some clothed officers, others fringe political mobs. We became the monsters we hated and, now grown up, could stage our own riots when we wanted, which sometimes became the daily bread: the one release from a force so furious, yet unsourced, that in turn confirmed our beastliness. We were angry, always angry and always fighting, puritanized and hyper-sexualized, an unarousing contradiction. For most of us, therapy was found in the urban scapes of N. American, Caribbean and S. American music that brought context to the suffering.
We walked a lot, in groups like troops, thinking we were cliques, naming ourselves after famous brands like Harlem’s World and Y2k Boyz. Everyone was part of a clique, some of us more than one. Naturally I crossed borders, here and there, always secure.
When we parked ourselves, it was parliament. Usually at the seat of a tree not too far from the class block. It became the giant Iroko-like tree that nursed our adolescence. It must have been a tree so old: its roots stood above the red-dusty ground, wrapped and spread spherical – rough, angular, timber-strong. This was one of our many makeshift classrooms, where conversation was curriculum.
It was where body met body in heated solidarity against everything we hated about classroom time. It was where you could escape into endless debates, knockout fights, petty conspiracies, and shelter from the Soul Death Sessions of a droning teacher who hates his job, you, but you more than his job. You are his job, and he hates you more. Because of this he hates himself, you know it: so you don’t bother building bridges over still waters: there are none. You wait till he turns his back to the blackboard and you dash out the door. He might see you, throw a chalk in your direction, curse you and confirm you’ll never make it in life. But you keep running and don’t look back.
It was where cultural studies could take place, unannounced, like the Monday afternoon before a decisive Arsenal v. Manchester United game — Superbowl to Nigerians. As with all major games, we’d lay out the scenarios, pick apart strikers and defenders, reroute formation, contest knowledge, and basically bullshit to keep the juice going like a rising tide that would climax right before the game starts, peak through the night and only resolve the next morning when we got back to school and the same tree. And then let loose. Between all the jostling, yelling, spitting, the sweaty and veiny foreheads, Ibrahim, a muslim friend, asked why Dikio, an Abuja boy who was down (he liked everything normal: girls, music, fights and brands), kept shifting away from the conversation. I’d noticed him too, tilting off the more we talked about it.
“What, wetin u dey front for?”
“I no be wit all dat soccer yan” [Yan = Talk]
“I say I no dey with all dat soccer yan.”
“Oh u kno support Man U or Arsenal, which team u dey support?”
“I no support any team.”
“Wetin u mean?”
“I’m Nas’ fan.” (emphasis on the s’)
While everyone moved on without pause, like a sacrilegious comment forgiven but not forgotten, the cultural significance of that moment weighed strong on me.
I knew even then as an early teen we– as a collective, 150 million strong inter-tribal community — loved colonial teams, symbols and people (more than ourselves). A love that was painful, as we had no control, let alone ownership, over it. Taught and trained to appeal to the lightest and whitest of our character, we adored and defended them passionately: their teams, styles, tones and textures was paradigm (dark-skinned girls had to look like Vanessa Williams); I’d been to enough vendors selling stockpiles of bleach and seen enough eczema scars on necks and watched that whiteface ritual up close enough times in open markets to know what we thought of their skin color vis-a-vis ours. Whether or not serious, his pun seemed to me subversion or salvation — a reclaiming of passions coveted by young Naija boys who’d never come to question why their allegiance seemed tied, intractably, with the cultural derivatives of their former colonizers.
The music that inspired us was sponsored by Ronald Reagan and the crack epidemic, itself a well-constructed version of what the colonized people of America had been taught to believe of themselves. The greatest lie told, of course, is that the descendants of slaves, those who built the capital of this country, were lazy, good for nothing, satisfied with wasting their lives in needles and vials, unproductive and content with welfare cheques. This is a good lie, but as with any other must be believed to be effective. Nas moved me growing up because he was intelligent, also because he moved between worlds I was comfortable in. He explained social struggle within the context of a nightmare we were living.
I’d stopped going to class at 9, skipping the majority of the terms, working my time between blocks kids were chased from, territories controlled by stick-up kids who really did it and frat boys who mentored us, most with a seasoned temperament that embodied cool.
I was ultimately held back at 13 for a year, for academic reasons, after 4 narrow escapes by the grace of crib notes smuggled into exam halls: the penalty was repeating a school year, a risk most of us willingly took, and when friends were caught we cried with them too.
What we saw in Urban American culture was validation, what we didn’t was the context that produced it. We missed the pain that made the music possible and glorified the attractive lure of a lifestyle we didn’t fully understand. We overlooked the horror every Black kid growing up in America is subjected to: one of being traced to roots that are unfair and untrue. This is what the Afro-futurism movement is all about: one that says, the more you try to drag us to an impure past, the more we bring the future to you. It is a nuanced, complex strategy of liberation and redemption only the careful eye can detect. Growing up boogie man is hard, like the Mos Def song says:
The most beautiful boogie man
The most beautiful boogie man
Let me be your
Close your eyes and
I’ll be right there
As young people in society we were denied our own history, taught to hate and fear each other, and reveled only in the sonic jolt of the culture and its musical forms. What we lacked in understanding we made for in interpretation and moved on. Most aspired to leave home and find freedom in the land of milk and honey only to arrive and face the same questions their brothers, sisters and cousins have had to answer for decades: Do you have cars where you come from? I have a South African friend, do you know him? Who taught you how to speak English? Do you still live on trees? When did you start wearing clothes? How easy was it adjusting to Our culture?
You can see the nostrils flaring when they say “our culture,” proud of what they have, wallowing in the ignorance of their stand in history, and happy to teach you about pizza and the NFL. We were taught, we soon realize, to chase a dream that never was, to gravitate to useless ideals and believe in false gods. We would have to peel back all the layers of memory to remember who we were and, for the future work, were called to be.
- A. B. Ellis. Yoruba-Speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa: Their Religion, Manners, Customs, Laws, Language, Etc. 1894. [↩]