Day in the Life: Wole Soyinka Meets The Woyingi Blogger
About two years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Wole Soyinka, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, author of the novel The Interpreters (1965) and the memoir Ake (1981), speak at Ottawa’s Carleton University.
During the talk, Soyinka stated that “Hijab Sucks.” I think he was quoting Salman Rushdie. As I was the only one wearing hijab in the room, I was determined at that moment to go up to the mike during question period and ask a question. Sadly, sometimes I feel obligated to prove to large crowds of people that women who wear hijab are intelligent and articulate. Obviously, I was trying to be impressive but things didn’t turn out as planned, although I did manage to capture the audience’s attention, but for all the wrong reasons.
I asked him a question and he made me repeat it about four times. After all that, he still couldn’t understand what I was saying so he asked a white Canadian to translate my words for him.
Soyinka: (gasping in exasperation and shaking his head) You…you have a very thick Canadian accent. I cannot understand a word you are saying.
The Woyingi Blogger: (straight into the mike with a very high-pitched Valley Girl voice) I have an accent?!
Soyinka: Yes, yes… you have an accent. A very thick Canadian accent.
Random Nigerians in the audience: (shouting and clapping) You tell her! You tell her she has an accent! Not only Africans have accents!
The Woyingi Blogger: Oh, sorry, my bad. I know I talk too fast.
Random Nigerians in the audience: No! You have an accent!
But when he finally understood my question after it had been translated to him in less accented English he thought it was a good one.
What was my question? I ask him if he felt that much of the religious conflict currently happening in Nigeria was due to an overall identity crisis in Nigerian society as communities try to define themselves as purely Muslim, purely Christian, or purely animist. In the end, people are always hybrids and never purely anything. I felt that it seemed that older Nigerians, from my father’s generation, were more comfortable with this hybrid identity. My father is a Lutheran Christian but he celebrates Muslim Eids with his Muslim friends and he consults with the priests of the Ijaw spirit of justice and retribution Egebesu. He is navigating these contradictions and in the end, it helps him be a better Nigerian because he can live with and respect the diversity of all Nigerians. He doesn’t feel it makes him any less of a believer in God.
Soyinka agreed with me and discussed how his parents, despite being Christians, would always expect to get food offered to them during Eid and they would always offer food to their Muslim friends and neighbors during Christmas and other Christian feast days. To not accept food offered during other communities’ religious holidays would have been considered really rude and to not offer one’s food to other religious communities during one’s own religious holidays would have been considered really rude.
After the lecture, during the reception, many Nigerians came up to me to tell me how awful my Canadian accent was and how I needed to go to Nigeria to learn how to speak proper English. This was said with that discomforting mixture of contempt and affection which I have come to accept from my Nigerian elders.
Occasionally, at different cultural events or while idly walking the streets of Ottawa minding my own business I will be spotted by Nigerians who had attended the lecture. Sometimes they shout: “Hey You! You are the girl with the thick Canadian accent!” Laughter ensues.
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