Dedicated to Nigeria's socio-political issues
October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007
How To Become An Ethnic Africana
Farouk Martins, Omo Aresa
April 19, 2006
Ethnicity is the word we used today to delineate ourselves into local groups, regions, tribes, sometimes into countries and races with little meaning, just that others can be grouped as aliens from space for immigration purposes. But then, if you go into space, you will find Nigerians. They adapt to everywhere! Whether we like it or not, ethnicity is a reality today in the different environments we find ourselves. How we assimilate depends on our approach to the host community in most cases.
It becomes more difficult if you are white trying to pass for black or vice versa. There is that one drop of black blood rule among whites and behavior rule among Africans even when you are African. The amount of tolerance among Africans is unprecedented compared to anywhere else, which has been blamed for the ease by which we were taken slaves. Those who know how to adapt sincerely to local African culture gain their reward by their assimilation. Whites, who submitted themselves to African culture, were accorded African hospitality than Africans in Diaspora who have taken acceptance for granted. Is that the case for spouses?
Hastily, I have to add that this is not the same as economic advantages in Africa where foreigners are not there with their hearts but for their pockets to make money in a jiffy. If Africans are so generous in accepting others into their local culture, we may ask, how come we have all these Ethnic conflicts all over the Continent? Greed.
In this day of ethnic patriotism, it is not unseemly for an American President to visit his ancestral home in Ireland or wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, for Mexican President to visit Spain or Canadian Prime Minister to visit France. In Nigeria, we call for Ibibio, Ijaw, Igbo, Hausa and Nupe Presidents too. This visceral magnet can be combustible to a point. It was only yesterday that the father of President Kennedy wondered aloud why an Irishman and a Catholic was not American enough to become the President of United States. This ethnic pull can be so strong; it may deprive us of being a Roman in Rome.
Yet, there are many Nigerians who are lost in Europe and America. As hard as it is to become French, some Nigerians find their way into their bosoms. I read a story about Africans trying to pass for Black Americans in Japan because of the respect anticipated. Believe it or not, in spite of the riots in Nigeria, there are Southerners that are not seen as such in the North because no one can tell the difference. The same is true in the South and between the localities where their ethnicity melts into the host culture.
This is an impossible feat for the rest of us. Even when we want to, that ethnic magnet resists. There were cases where someone that had just submitted to being a Roman, would ask those there, generations before him, where he came from. In the States, it is not unlikely for a new European immigrant in his heavy accent, to ask an African who had been there before Columbus, where he came from.
The first time I brought my son home, he was about nine years old. I made the mistake of not getting him a visa, do not try it these days. (A friend of mine who did witnessed the dollar dance.) As we got to the Airport we ran into problems. While we were arguing about deportation, one of the immigration Officers asked him what he is. He exclaimed – I am an African! A few days later, I took him to Bar Beach for the first time, he asked me what those many white people were doing there. I was surprised because some of those whites were Africans and he just got into Africa, claiming the place to himself.
Nevertheless, there are so much ethnic conflicts about turf in Africa. If we know what to do and how to fit into foreign lands, it takes less effort to fit into our host communities in Nigeria or Africa. That will mean respecting host culture and custom to become part of them but retaining the story of our sojourn for our children. There is a lesson in the recent demonstrations in the US. By carrying the flag of Mexico in your face, as it seemed, the silent majority was repulsed. As the tactic changed to white tee shirts and American flags, all colors joined. We noticed a change of minds in public opinions. It is called submission and inclusion of the host community. It is not, who had the land then, but who has it now!
There is that fear in us as we grow older about who would inherit our primordial culture if we give it up completely for that of host community or if we can perpetuate it on the host community. The balance between the two or how far one should swing is the problem we have in Nigeria. The extreme solution would make us indistinguishable from Kanuri in Kano, Igbo in Oweri or Yoruba in Ibadan. That may kill diversity and secular beliefs but some habits have to give way to gain the confidence of the host community.
During the Back to Africa days of Marcus Garvey, many blacks developed a sense of worthiness and gained enough confidence to establish their own businesses including a shipping line. This flowed into the days of Macauley, Nkruma, Azikiwe, Awolowo, Kenyatta etc influencing many blacks back to Africa. Those were the latest waves of Africans that came home and they were assimilated into the local cultures as a result of which, one can hardly distinguished them today apart from history from their children. That their parents were West Indians or Americans did not retard their progress. Stockley Carmichaels went from a Trinidadian to American Civil Rights worker to New Guinean.
Before them were the freed slaves returning home from Americas and Europe. Some of them eventually returned to their local homelands while others settled anywhere as in Liberia which was the cause of another conflict still ranging today. It started between the indigenes and the returned slaves who see themselves as Americans back to wrestle away leadership, but were actually arrogant Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa that missed road. Others did not need DNA to come back to their localities. They spoke the language or dialect and remember their names with their European or Arabic names given to them. Their assimilation into the culture they left behind was not as incongruent as in Liberia. Those that never made it back knew for sure what localities they came from. They spoke, wrote and invoke their culture in their struggle abroad.
One of them was Mohammad Ali Ben Nicholas Said, a Kanuri from Bornu in Nigeria. He traveled to many European and American Countries as a free man speaking and writing in different languages. He was a Sergeant in the Abolitionist Army in Boston, a Professor who established schools of learning for blacks in Alabama. He wrote his autobiography in 1873 that has now been resurrected by Rasheeda Muhammad and Allan Austin’s book.
Gustav Vassa Olaudah Equiano was a well known Igbo slave who gained his freedom in1766. He was a writer of many books. He wrote a vivid description of his Africa home,
and the way slaves were maltreated. He was a war hero who petitioned the Queen of England in 1788 and published his popular autobiography a year later. From his days as slave going through the tribulations, ups and down of living and making it outside his continent to his prosperous days, he encountered obstacles that would destroy many of us today. He was briefly part of the Igboland in Virginia. He died before he could complete his mission to Sierra Leone or made his way back home.
Samuel Ajayi Crowder was captured in Osogun, Oyo State in 1821. He made his way back to Sierra Leone and later returned to Abeokuta where he became the first African Bishop. Like the other two Abolitionists above, he spoke many languages. Furthermore he taught in Hausa, Igbo and other “Native” languages. He translated the Bible into Yoruba, wrote the first primer in Igbo in 1857and Nupe in1860.
Lady Phyllis Wheatley from Gambia was the first black poet whose writing became a big deal in Boston in the 1760s. In 1791 an escaped slave Boukman invoked Voodoo in the name of Ogun, the god of iron and war among his followers to liberate his people in Haiti from oppression of slavery. There are so many African survivals stories in all localities.
These Abolitionists, despite all odds were able to fit into each of their local communities and rose above injustice, hatred and love of their hosts teaching the rest of us lessons of life. We can learn a great deal from others in Nigeria, in Africa today on how to adapt to and excel in any community we find ourselves. So why can’t we respect our hosts' customs, culture and adapt in friendly localities that spread welcome mats?
I entered a Cuban store in the US some years ago and noticed that the music was in a deep Yoruba dialect. Then a Cuban Babalawo was invited to give a lecture I attended. I was moved that Yoruba, Igbo, Ibibio and Hausa languages are still spoken by those who had not been to Africa for some generations. Without DNA, they know exactly their own localities. Those who do not are tracing their family trees back.
I always say that my name hardly identify me as an African. That is why my oriki, Omo Aresa is used after my name. It is an indelible mark like an ethnic mark on the face that most Yoruba recognize as the son of the soil originating from Ife to Oyo to Isale Eko. The Awori, Saro, Brazilian and American slave descendants in my family have married and succumbed into Yoruba culture of Lagos. If most Africans embrace their local communities as many of us did, the amount of conflict we have in our Country and in Africa in general will be greatly reduced.
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This page was last updated on 10/27/07.