The Woyingi Blog

Play Review: Burned to Nothing by Rex Obano

Recently, I got to listen to BBC Radio 4’s Afternoon Play entitled Burned to Nothing by Rex Obano. The BBC Radio 4’s synopsis of the play states:

Matthew returns to Nigeria, the land of his birth. He has come to secure the release of his son who has become caught up in the politics of a land in turmoil; a land he has fallen in love with.

The cast of the play is as follows:

Matthew …. Lucian Msamati

The General …. Jude Akuwudike

Medina …. Lorraine Burroughs

Keith …. David Ajala

Sunday …. Obi Abili

Inenevwerha …. Gbemisola Ikumelo

Director: Femi Elufowoju Jr.

The story begins in Britain with couple Matthew and Medina being interrupted by a telephone call from Nigeria. The scene changes rapidly to an airport in Port Harcourt in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. Medina is upset because thieves have run off with her bag and the houseboy, Sunday, did nothing to stop them. Matthew doesn’t seem to really care; he is more concerned with why he and Medina have come to Nigeria-to find his teenage son who is missing after reportedly been involved in an oil fire that has killed many people. He speaks with local Area Boys in order to find someone who can help him locate his son and they direct him to The General. From the General, Matthew learns that his son has become an activist for the rights of the people negatively affected by oil drilling and has joined the group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). He demands that Matthew bring money in order to continue the search for his son and bribe the police who are also searching for his son because of his involvement in the fire. 

As the story progresses, we learn that Matthew, a British Nigerian widower and engineer who grew up in Warri but left when he was 10, sent his then 13 year old son, Keith, to live with his aunt in Warri after his son shot him. His son Keith was getting involved with local gangs in Peckham and also was very unhappy about his father’s relationship with British Jamaican Medina. Five years later, and Keith has gone missing.

Medina is very uncomfortable in Nigeria and looks for comfort and advice from her father who used to work in the Jamaican Embassy in Nigeria. Matthew asks Medina for the money to give to the General, some $20,000, and her father helps her get it into the country. After reading a news article about the devastation of the oil fire which is blamed on Keith, Medina concludes that Keith is dead but Matthew doesn’t believe her. According to the article, Keith, as well as other Niger Delta militants, was involved in illegal oil bunkering, basically stealing oil from oil pipelines. As many of the local people can’t get access to or afford fuel, they often try to come and collect some of this oil as well, although most of the oil is collected by militants in order to pay for supplies and arms in their struggle. Fires often break out at these pipelines, as had happened in this case, and many people died. Matthew and Medina go to visit the site of the oil fire with Sunday and they meet Inenevwerha, who lives in abject poverty and whose brother died in the fire. Matthew was told that she had seen his son but she doesn’t speak of him and instead breaks down after talking about the devastation of the oil fire which burned people down to their bones. Medina is deeply moved by Inenevwerha’s story.

Matthew is still convince that his son did not die in the fire. He confronts the General who admits that Keith is not dead and that he is actually hiding him from the police. It is the General who indoctrinated Keith into the resistance movement of the Niger Delta. The General considers Keith to be like his son, as he and his wife have been unable to have children due to infertility produced by oil pollution. Matthew gets to see Keith, who now wants to be called by his Nigerian name Keefay. Keith tells his father how abandoned he felt when he was sent to Nigeria but he is also happy because it is in Nigeria that he learned to be a man. Matthew learns that Keith is actually in a relationship with Inenevwerha and they are expecting a child. Matthew asks for Keith’s forgiveness and the father and son are reconciled. Matthew leaves the money with Keith and says that he will stay in Port Harcourt as he wishes to see the birth of his grandchild.

Personal Reflections:

The play explores identity as we see through out that Matthew is trying to assert his “Nigerianness” but constantly fails because he is out of touch with the political situation and can’t even really understand the local language anymore, apart from pidgin English. When he finally meets his son, he has to demand that he speak to him in English. Medina and Matthew’s relationship seems to fracture also because of identity. Medina, although Black, isn’t African or Nigerian and feels very out of place in the Niger Delta. Matthew doesn’t seem to appreciate the situation he’s put her in and goes on to demand to borrow a large sum of money from her. At the end of the play, he dismisses Keith’s concerns that Medina might not be happy to learn that Matthew wants to stay in Nigeria. Matthew’s lack of consideration for Medina upset me and seemed completely disrespectful, particularly after he borrowed the money from her. It’s as if in reclaiming his Nigerian identity and thus being able to connect with his son, he feels he must reject Medina and her Black British identity. It seems that Matthew is asked to choose between Medina and what she represents and his son, the choice which Keith had demanded his father make five years earlier when he shot him. Medina’s character is not played or written to be unlikable, quite the opposite, which makes Matthew’s treatment of her even more troubling.

The injustices facing the peoples of the Niger Delta are very clearly laid out in the play and will hopefully draw Westerners’ attention to the ever worsening situation in the area.

Further Reading:

Interview (2009) with Rex Obano available online

Interview (2010) with Rex Obano available online

Interview with Lorraine Burroughs available online

Interview (2010) with Lorraine Burroughs available online

Interview with Gbemisola Ikumelo available online

Interview (2003) with Femi Elufowoju Jr.available online

Interview (2009) with Femi Elufowoju Jr. available online

Interview (2010) with Femi Elufowouju Jr. avaialble online

Blood Oil dripping from Nigeria by A. Walker (BBC article available online)

Black Firsts: Rotimi Adebari, Ireland’s First Black Mayor

Posted in African Diaspora in Ireland, Black Firsts, Countries: Ireland, Nigerian Diaspora by the woyingi blogger on December 29, 2010

Rotimi Adebari

On June 28th, 2007, Rotimi Adebari , a Nigerian-born father of four, made history when he became Ireland’s first Black mayor. Adebari was elected mayor of the town of Port Laoise, in County Laois, in the province of Leinster, in the midlands of  the Republic of Ireland.  Adebari ran as an independent. Adebari came to Ireland as an asylum seeker in 2000 from Nigeria.

Before I go on to discuss Rotimi Adebari, I want to take a closer look at the Republic of Ireland in general and the town of Port Laoise in particular. 

One can find parallels between the history of the Irish people and other colonized indigenous peoples. Ireland was literally colonized by the English. Even before the religious division that further divided English Anglicans from Irish Roman Catholics, the Irish (Gaelic) were viewed by their colonizers (Normans and the English) as uncivilized savages and barbarians. In reaction to the fact that many of Ireland’s colonizers were beginning to intermarry with and take on the culture and language of the indigenous Gaelic population, England enacted The Statutes of Kilkenny in 1367. The statutes forbade the English settlers from marrying the Irish, adopting Irish children, and using Irish names and dress because English authorities were concerned that the English settlers were becoming more Irish than the Irish themselves. The expression “beyond the pale“, which means unacceptable behaviour (His behaviour was really beyond the pale) actually refers to this time period. The Pale was the demarcation line between territory in Ireland that was directly under English control and therefore “civilized”. It is clear that the English really perceived the Irish as a different race. Even as recently as the 1950s, English landlords actually put out “No Irish need apply” signs while renting out houses and apartments.

The Republic of Ireland has long had the reputation of being one of the most ethnically and religiously homogeneous countries in Western Europe. Since its independence from Britain, the Republic of Ireland has also been considered Western Europe’s poorest country. It’s been known more for its emigrants than its immigrants. So many Irish have fled Ireland over the last two centuries that the Republic still has a population less than it had before the Potato Famine of the 1840s (As a bizarre example of positive Muslim-Christian relations, The Ottoman Sultan actually donated money and three shiploads of food to support those starving in Ireland) The Irish abroad faced a great deal of discrimination based on religion and culture. Although many found success in their newfound lands, many also faced gruelling poverty becoming part of North America’s exploited working classes. As we can see here in Canada, many Irish settled in the Maritimes, worked in horrendous conditions in mines, and still haven’t escaped cycles of poverty. However, beginning in the mid 90s, the Republic of Ireland went through an economic boom, sometimes being called “the Celtic Tiger” in comparison with the economic growth of Asian countries. This led to an influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe, South Asia and Africa attracted by jobs and some of Europe’s most generous immigration laws. Several of these migrants came as asylum seekers (some 30,000), most from Nigeria. As you can imagine, integrating into a society like that of the Irish hasn’t been easy. The Irish government has recognized this and actually created a Minister of State for Integration! I would think that the recent crash of Ireland’s economy and rising unemployment (currently 14%) is only going to escalate anti-immigrant sentiment.

The town of Port Laoise is about an hour’s ride outside of Dublin. As of 2006, Port Laoise had a population of 14, 613. That’s quite small I would think.  The major employers in the town are the Irish Department of Agriculture and Port Laoise Prison, a maximum security prison which housed the majority of Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners sentenced in the Republic of Ireland. But the majority of prisoners are in there on drug-related convictions. The town is also the base of the international charity organization Self Help Africa, which promotes and implements long-term rural development projects in Africa. It’s the first Anglo-Irish development agency. It appears that Port Laoise is mostly a commuter town for people who work in Dublin but can’t or don’t want to live there.

So how did this small Irish town make history?

Rotimi Adebari was born in 1964 in Oke Odan, Ogun State, Nigeria. Ogun State borders the Republic of  Benin. Its capital is Abeokuta. Although I haven’t discovered it in my research, I would assume that Adebari is ethnically Yoruba. He studied Economics in University. He was never involved in politics in Nigeria, however he did take on leadership roles at school and he was a chief of a local Palmwine Drinkards’ Club, otherwise known as a Kegite among Nigerians. He also worked in the marketing division of a television station.

He is a Christian and his interest in Ireland developed out of his relationship with an inspirational Irish missionary in Nigeria. When Adebari arrived in 2000 in the Republic of Ireland he claimed asylum based on religious persecution. When he made headlines in 2007, many Nigerians were elated but his claim that he fled from Oke Odan due to religious persecution didn’t hold water and the newspaper THIS DAY investigated his claims and found them to be wanting. There is no doubt there is religious persecution of Christians in Nigeria but this occurs mainly in the Middle Belt and Nigeria’s North, not in the South-Western Yoruba heartland! Actually, according to THIS DAY, Oke Odan is a majority Christian town, with a minority of adherents of traditional African religions! Also, although there were no interreligious clashes in the town in 2000, there was a serious flood that left many of the town’s residents homeless. It also appears that some Oke Odan residents want him to return to Nigeria and run for Governor of Ogun State in 2011. The controversy over the legitimacy of Adebari’s asylum claim has helped fuel racist and anti-immigrant reactions to Adebari’s election. On Youtube, I was rather shocked to find comments demanding that Adebari be deported for coming into the country on a false claim. However, they should know that according to The Associated Press Adebari wasn’t granted asylum due to insufficient evidence of direct religious persecution. His family’s citizenship was established because his third child was born in Ireland. However, in 2003, Ireland stopped granting automatic citizenship to immigrants whose children were born in the Republic and in 2004 it stopped granting automatic citizenship to children born in Ireland whose parents were not citizens Actually, Adebari’s asylum claim hampered him because asylum seekers are not permitted to work in Ireland. Instead, Adebari began volunteering and helped to found the organization Suil (Supporting the Unemployed in Laois) that lobbies for the interests of the unemployed. As Adebari puts it: “I got involved in the community and I volunteered. It gave me the opportunity to meet people firsthand and they got to know me.”

Whatever the circumstances of his coming to Ireland, Adebari soon went to work making a name for himself, and as Port Laoise is a small town, you can’t say that he got the “immigrant vote”. In 2004, Adebari, by then a citizen, was elected to the Port Laoise town council, as a councillor. Adebari earned a Master’s Degree in Intercultural Studies from Dublic City University. In 2005, he won an award from Social Entrepreneurs Ireland. On their site, they give the following description of Adebari’s accomplishments:

Rotimi hosts a local community radio programme, called “Respecting Difference” on Midlands 103. The programme draws on the presenter’s experience and his election into Portlaoise Town Council to serve as an inspiration to the socially disadvantaged in the community, by engaging in discussions that motivate and offer a lift to people currently experiencing social exclusion.

Originally from Nigeria, Rotimi Adebari has lived in Portlaoise for the last 5 years. He is an elected member of Portlaoise Town Council, and has a Masters degree in Intercultural studies at Dublin City University.

He works with Dublin City University on the European Intercultural Workplace Project (EIW). He delivers training in intercultural awareness and anti-racism issues and works in association with local, regional and national groups to achieve an integrated society where everyone has a sense of belonging

He is an elected member of the National Executive Committee of INOU – Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed, and is a director on the board of Portlaoise Community Action Project (PCAP).

Rotimi is also a founding member of Suil – An organisation that provides support for the unemployed in Laois, and a member of Laois Ethnic Minority Support Group.

Adebari also set up a consultancy firm, “Optimum Point”, which trains companies and educational institutions on cross-cultural awareness.

What those who aren’t familiar with Irish regional politics need to understand is that the town did not elect Rotimi Adebari as mayor. The town council did. The Port Laoise Town Council is made up for 9 town councillors. Six of the nine town councillors voted for Adebari to be mayor. Again, those who are outspokenly against a “non-national” being a mayor have blamed “political correctness” for Adebari’s election. I somehow doubt this. I think it had a lot more to do with him being an independent candidate while many of the other town councillors were party affiliated. Adebari was actually supported by two rival parties, the “left-wing” Sinn Fein and the “right-wing”  Fine Gael. So, Adebari’s real accomplishment, and one not to be underestimated, was getting elected as a town councillor in the first place. Adebari has said that he owes the success of his campaign for town councillor to this campaign team. He explains:

It was one team, but in the team we had Africans, Irish and non-Irish as well. But when I went out knocking on doors I went with Irish members of the team. The reason is because I understand the society. This is a society that some people are yet to come to terms with their changing world. In November 2001, a man approached me on the street and said he had never seen a black man before. So you can imagine, if two black people then went knocking on the doors, the sort of reception they would probably get. And I thought that won’t be a good idea. I did go knocking on doors with Irish members of my team, and we were well received. That is not to say that there were no instances where people slammed their doors in our faces. But it was not because I am black. They slammed their doors probably because they were disillusioned with politics.

But why did people vote for him? According to Adebari, his manifesto (in Canada we would call it a platform) related to people’s concerns and his experience volunteering in the community and setting up an organization representing the interests of the unemployed helped him to really understand these concerns. As he says:

I understand the issues. I was only four years in the country then, but my antecedent over those four years, what I have been involved in. I set up a support group for the unemployed. I was in the board of community organization in Portlaoise that caters for the lone-parents, the travellers, etc. So I understand the issues of each and everyone. And it was all these issues that I brought together, in putting my manifestoes. What is there for the unemployed in the country and what is not there for them? What aspect of education do I want an improvement on? Services to the youths and the elderly. Is there anything in the town for them? All these and more were the things I put together.

According to Adebari, the secret of his success was just getting involved in his community. As he says: “I want to encourage immigrants to be a force in their communities, to engage with their communities. People will get to know you. Their perception of you will change just like that. That’s what happened to me.”

But why did Adebari decide to go into politics? In an interview in Xclusive, an magazine for the African Diaspora in Ireland, Adebari explains:

When I arrived here in 2000, if anyone had said to me that I would be going into politics, I would have said to that person that he was joking. I felt I was not cut out for politics. I was looking at politics the way it is played back home in Africa. We all perceive politics like dirty water: if you don’t want to get stained, don’t get involved. I remember during my college days in Nigeria my Political Science lecturer used to say to us that, if you want to know the name that people call you at your back go into politics: they will no longer call you that name at your back, they will say it to your face. I would have arrived here with that mindset as well. But I see those of us who are here as the first generation of immigrants in Ireland. That is not to say that immigrants have not been coming here before we arrived, but it wasn’t as evident as it is in the last ten years. So we are like the first generation, and we know we have to really put something in place for generations coming behind. It got to a point that I had to say to myself what legacy do I have to leave for generation coming behind? Maybe one of those legacies would be to get involved in politics. One other thing that might have led me into politics was the image of Nigeria in Ireland at that time. They associated anything with Nigeria with fraud, criminality and all that. So it was like something has to be done. And I thought maybe politics was one of the ways to go: if I got elected people would begin to see that we are not all criminals.

There is no doubt that Adebari is a pioneer and the immigrants of Ireland will need him because I foresee that times will be tough for them now that Ireland’s economy has crashed, and not only will they face discrimination at work and school, but actual physical violence. Frankly, I’m afraid for them. And they include one of my Nigerian cousins and her family who live in Limerick.  But I am also hopeful. Many immigrants in Ireland, particularly Africans, are making names for themselves and showing that African immigrants are not all criminals. Maybe someday, they too will be accused of being more Irish than the Irish themselves.

Further Reading:

Rotimi Adebari’s Website

Rotimi Adebari’s 2007 Interview with Xclusive Magazine

Ireland Gets Its First Black Mayor by Shawn Pogatchnik (2007 article available online)

Ireland elects first Black Mayor (BBC article available online)

Laois County Council Article about Rotimi Adebari (article available online)

‘New’ Ireland’s changes go more than skin deep: Country long known as a land of emigrants is transformed by migrants (article available online)

Life in the land of a thousand welcomes by Crispin Rodwell (TIME article available online)

The African Voice Ireland’s No. 1 African Community Newspaper Website

Xclusive Magazine: Ireland’s African only lifestyle monthly and the first and only African magazine to break into the mainstream Irish media market

Akina Dada wa Africa (AkiDwA; Swahili for sisterhood) is an authoritative, minority ethnic-led national network of African and migrant women living in Ireland. The non-governmental organisation with charitable status was established in August 2001 by a group of African women to address the needs of an expanding population of African and migrant women resident in Ireland. The organisation is a recognised authoritative and representative body for migrant women, irrespective of their national/ethnic background, tradition, religious beliefs, socio-economic or legal status. AkiDwA’s advocacy approach is based on a gender perspective and the organisation promotes an equal society, free of racism, discrimination and stereotyping. AkiDwA’s advocacy approach is based on strengthening migrant women’s voice, applying a gender perspective to policies and practices and the promotion of equality of migrant women in Irish society, free of gender and racial stereotyping.

Irish Aid’s Africa Day Website

Africa Centre Dublin Website

A Short History of Ireland: A BBC Radio Series that tells the story of Ireland from the Ice Age to the present over 240 episodes. Transcripts of each episode are available on this site.

Book Review: Second Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta

Second-Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta, Flamingo 1989

Buchi Emecheta is one of Nigeria’s most well-known writers. She managed to raise her five children on her own, go to university, eventually achieving a Ph.D from the University of London, and write over 20 novels, plays, and short stories. She was honoured with the Order of the British Empire in 2005.

Emecheta was born on July 21, 1944 in Lagos, Nigeria. Her parents were Ibos who had left the Ibo town of Ibusa (Igbuzo in Ibo) located in what is now called Delta State. She moved to London, England to join her husband in 1962. Second-Class Citizen (1974), her first published novel, is semi-autobiographical, based on her childhood in Lagos and early life in London with her husband before she divorced him.

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Buchi Emecheta

Adah, the character based on Buchi, is smart and determined to study despite the fact that there is not much means or will to have her educated particularly after her father dies. Adah eventually marries Francis and together they move to London, England in the early sixties. Life is hard. Not only is there racism which makes it difficult to find accommodations, but Francis himself becomes Adah’s greatest obstacle.

Adah is the primary breadwinner for the young and growing family with her job as a librarian. Francis becomes physically abusive towards Adah and cheats on her. Although Francis is definitely portrayed to be an obnoxious bully it is clear that Adah doesn’t entirely hate him. She understands why he’s ended up this way: “Francis was not a bad man, just a man who could no longer cope with the over-demanding society he found himself in. (p. 110)” This is sadly probably true for many immigrant men or any man who does not have the ability to cope with failure and the setbacks and challenges of life. But why do men often need to feel power over someone in order to feel better about themselves? Where does this need come from?

Adah is a survivor and this novel is the story of her survival. It is also a fascinating portrait of Black immigrant life in sixties London. Despite what could be quite depressing subject matter, Second Class Citizen is actually an easy read and more often than not quite funny. I have actually reread Second Class Citizen several times and I never stop finding great character portraits and home truths.

Interesting Passages from the novel:

Adah is a Christian but her husband is a Jehovah’s Witness. But he wasn’t always a Jehovah’s Witness. While at the maternity ward Adah meets a women who waited 17 years to have her first child. Adah wonders what Francis would have done if it had taken 17 years for her to give him a son:

Suppose she had had to wait seventeen years for all that? She would have either died of psychological pressures or another wife would have been bought for Francis. He would have declared himself a Moslem, for he was once a Moslem when he was younger. Francis was like the Vicar of Bray. He changed his religion to suit his whims. When he realized that equipping Adah with birth-control gear would release her from the bondage of child-bearing, Francis went Catholic. When he started failing his examinations and was feeling very inferior to his fellow Nigerians, he became a Jehovah’s Witness. (p. 122)

Adah befriends Janet, a young Cockney girl who is the wife of a Muslim Nigerian, Mr. Babalola. He is hardly an endearing character. In the following passage, one of the sources of the conflict between Southerners (predominantly Christian) and Northerners (predominantly Muslim) is outlined, of course with a Southern Ibo bias.

Mr. Babalola had come to England, just like Francis and Adah, to study. But, unlike Adah and Francis, he had been single, and had a Northern Nigerian Scholarship. This meant that he had more money to spend, because the Northerners, unlike the over-educated Southerners, would do anything to encourage the men to really get educated so that they could come home and obtain the jobs in the North which were then going to the Southerners. Mr. Babalola was, therefore, a very rich student.
Rumour had it that he had a glossy flat and was always entertaining. This was no surprise to anyone who knew the Northerners. They liked to spend their money, to really enjoy what they had, and to them what they had was theirs only today, not tomorrow or the day after. Allah would take care of the future. That was certainly Babalola’s philosophy of life. (p. 52-53)

Janet, who gets pregnant at sixteen by a West Indian, gets kicked out by her parents because she refuses to give up her baby. Babalola ends up taking her in and using her as a party favour for his friends. As Emecheta writes: “…Janet was being offered to any black man who wanted to know how a white woman looked undressed. Most of Adah’s neighbours had had their sexual adventures with Janet.”

However, this all changes when a broke Babalola (His Northern Nigerian Scholarship is inexplicably revoked) realizes that Janet can receive enough social assistance for herself and her baby to pay his rent. Babalola decides to keep Janet all to himself and she bears him a child. Babalola, like Francis, seems content to depend on women financially, while still treating these women like servants.

Adah reflects on being the child of Ibos from Ibuza living in Lagos:

Well, Adah thought she was eight at the time when her mother and all the other society women were busying themselves to welcome the very first lawyer to their town Ibuza. Whenever Adah was told that Ibuza was her own, she found it difficult to understand. Her parents, she was told, came from Ibuza, and so did many of her aunts and uncles. Ibuza, she was told, was a beautiful town. She had been taught at an early age that the people of Ibuza were friendly, that the food there was fresh, the spring water was pure and the air was clean. The virtues of Ibuza were praised so much that Adah came to regard being born in a God=forsaken place like Lagos as a misfortune. Her parents said that Lagos was a bad place, bad for bringing up children because here they picked up the Yoruba-Ngbati accent.(p 7-8)

Adah reflects on her social isolation in England and how this relates to domestic abuse:

In England, she couldn’t go to her neighbour and babble out troubles as she would have done in Lagos, she had learned not to talk about her unhappiness to those with whom she worked, for this was a society where nobody was interested in the problems of others. If you could not bear your problems any more, you could always do away with yourself. That was allowed, too. Attempted suicide was not regarded as a sin. It was a way of attracting attention to one’s unfortunate situation. And whose attention do you attract? The attention of paid listeners. Listeners who make you feel that you are an object to be studied, diagnosed, charted and tabulated. Listeners who refer to you as ‘a case’. You don’t have the old woman next door who, on hearing an argument going on between a wife and husband, would come in to slap the husband, telling him off and all that, knowing that her words would be respected because she was old and experienced. (p. 72-73)

Adah reflects on the role of religion in her life in England:

There was no time to go to church and pray. Not in England. It took her years to erase the image of the Nigerian church which usually had a festive air. In England, especially in London, ‘church’ was a big grey building with stained-glass windows, high ornamental ceilings, very cold, full of rows and rows of empty chairs, with the voice of the vicar droning from the distant pulpit, crying like the voice of John the Baptist lost in the wilderness. In London, churches were cheerless.
She could not go to any of them because it made her cry to see such beautiful places of worship empty when, in Nigeria, you could hardly get a seat if you came late. You had to stand outside and follow the service through a microphone. But you were happy through it all, you were encouraged to bellow out the songs-that bellowing took away some of your sorrows. Because most of the hymns seem to be written by psychologists. One was always sure of singing or hearing something that would come near to the problem you had in mind before coming to church. In England you were robbed of such comfort.
London, having thus killed Adah’s congregational God, created instead a personal God who loomed large and really alive. She did not have to go to church to see this One
. (p. 164-165)

Being Muslim and Trying to Connect to My Nigerian Heritage: No Easy Task

I became Muslim a couple of years before I found my Nigerian father. I am grateful to members of the Nigerian community here in Ottawa for making it possible for me to reconnect with him. However, during those years of searching, I discovered that being Muslim and trying to connect with the Nigerian diaspora is no easy task.

Religious conflicts have been a constant in Nigeria’s history. Most Nigerians in diaspora are not Muslims but Christians. Many Nigerian Muslims have actually converted to Christianity while in diaspora. Islam is generally concentrated within certain ethnic communities in Nigeria, such as the Hausa. But the majority of Nigerians in diaspora are either Igbos or Yorubas. Southern Nigerians, who are predominantly Christian, are more highly educated than Northern Nigerians which has led to a great deal of class resentment. Because corruption and nepotism in Nigeria is widespread many educated Nigerians leave and settle abroad, often doing quite well for themselves.

Often when I attend Nigerian community functions or just end up somewhere where there is a lot of Nigerians, I get asked about my conversion to Islam. Almost all of the time, the conversation ends up leading to my interlocutor trying to get me to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour and abandon the “demonic” religion that has destroyed Nigeria. I politely refuse. I know many Muslims reading this will think: “How Islamophobic of those Nigerians to do that to you sister!” Well, the truth is, I get where they are coming from. I don’t think Islam has “ruined” Nigeria (Oh dear, now some Nigerian is going to write me a comment elucidating in great detail about just how Islam has ruined Nigeria…I’ve totally given them an opening.) However, I do believe that Islam has been used as a tool to manipulate people into committing acts of aggression against non-Muslim communities. It’s far more convenient for the Muslim religious and political leadership (remember the North of Nigeria is a caliphate) to distract their people from challenging their corruption and bad governance by blaming Christians for why they have no jobs and their region is so underdevelopped. If it wasn’t Islam being used to do this it would have been something else, like ethnicity or language. This is an old story.

Interreligious dialogue between Muslims and Nigerian Christians in diaspora would be really useful but unfortunately, most Muslims involved in this work really just want to talk to White Christians (I’m discussing the Canadian context, things might be different in the US…hopefully). Also, often it is only between such Christian denominations as Roman Catholic, United or Anglican. Pentecostals and other evangelicals are, it almost seems, purposely avoided. However, it’s these denominations that Nigerians and many other Africans often belong to. Also, if there is to be real interreligious dialogue between Muslims and African Christians, Muslims are going to have to leave off this whole triumphalist approach many of us seem to take when discussing our history. We often describe Islam’s spread from the point of view of the conquerors, not the conquered. That’s pretty imperialist. Yes, I said it…Imperialist! Certain Muslim communities have a history of imperialism and seem almost “put out” that the rest of the world refuses to recognize that they are the supreme rulers of the universe. To these Muslims I say: Get Over Yourselves!

Historically speaking, Muslims have not always been the “underdog”, sometimes we were the oppressors. This history has created a legacy of resentment and distrust between Muslims and many other communities. If we hope for reconciliation we need to get off our high camels. We need to be willing to look at our history and current politics as frankly as we demand that White Westerners look at their history and current politics. We will have to learn to speak about the slave trade carried out by Muslims in Africa frankly. We will have to learn to talk about the destruction of indigeneous African religions in the name of Islam frankly. Muslims always emphasize our respect for Christianity and Judaism but those aren’t the only two religions in the world!!! We will have to develop strategies for reconciliation, particularly if we are having a dialogue with people who have actually directly experienced violence in the name of Islam.

Sadly, I don’t know how many Muslims are ready to do this. I find that whatever religious violence happens in Black Africa is brushed off by Muslims who aren’t African as just a sign that Africans are barbaric animals and need to be taught Islam properly by their ethnic superiours. Thanks for the Racism! You are of course totally ignoring the brutal history of violence committed against Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Bahai and other non-Muslim communities by Arab, South Asian, Turkish, Malay, and Persian Muslims. When you actually look at that history it’s pretty clear that we Africans don’t have a monopoly on barbarism. So put that myth to rest right now people!

Nigerian Christians, as well as other African Christians need to learn too that Muslims don’t have a monopoly on barbarism either. I understand that for many Africans Christianity has represented many positive things like the abolition of the slave trade, education, respect for human dignity, and democracy. But that hasn’t been true throughout the history or even present practice of Christianity either in Africa or in the world. It’s all about context. Most violence and oppression happens because people want something the other has: land, food, money, natural resources, women, livestock, access to the sea or a waterway, etc. People will use whatever reason to justify their right to take this stuff from others…religion (ie: Sunni Islam in Afghanistan during the attacks against the Shia Hazara, Christianity during the conquest of the Americas, Protestants versus Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland, Hinduism during the Gujarat Riots), ethnicity, language, level of development, political system (ie: Bush’s “Democracy”).

Attacking Islam as inherently evil isn’t going to help there be reconciliation. Muslims aren’t going anywhere. We are all going to have to learn how to live together on this planet and Muslim and Christian Nigerians are going to have to learn how to live together in Nigeria without one community claiming supremacy over the other or desiring to erase the other’s existence. I’m committed to seeing this reconciliation happen. Are you?

Documentary Review: Where I Belong by Arinze Eze

I watched the documentary Where I Belong by Arinze Eze. The documentary was funded by the Reel  Diversity Program of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), which gives young Canadian filmmakers the opportunity to make a film that reflects on Canada’s ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity. (The documentary Me and the Mosque  by Little Mosque on the Prairie creator Zarqa Nawaz was funded by this program).

Check out a promo for Eze’s  film.

Arinze Eze is a young Nigerian of Ibo descent who has been living in Winnipeg, Manitoba for the last nine years since leaving his family in Nigeria in order to work in Canada. He’s lucky because he was born in Canada (It appears that his parents lived in Edmonton, Alberta for some time) and so is legally a Canadian citizen although he was mostly raised in Nigeria. The film, “Where I Belong”, focuses on Eze’s worries that his parents won’t accept the life he has made for himself in Canada, particularly his Jewish girlfriend of 5 years, Tina. During his visits to Nigeria, he’s kept most of his personal life a secret. His parents will be coming to visit him for the first time and he will have to finally be honest with them about what he’s really been up to the last nine years. Arinze hasn’t told his parents that he’s given up engineering to be an artist (music, painting, theatre, and filmmaking). This is a real worry because he knows his father worked hard to put him through school so that he could eventually make a good living in the West and support the family. He is not going to be able to do that as an artist. Also, Arinze’s mother wants him to marry someone the family has chosen for him. She is also a born-again Christian so he doesn’t think she will be very accepting of his Jewish girlfriend.

Arinze and his girlfriend Tina end up breaking up just before his mother comes to stay with him. It appears that Arinze believes they are just too different. He is very concerned about what identity conflicts his children with Tina would have: Would they be Nigerian? Canadian? Both? Neither? He also mentions that he might want to retire to Nigeria.

Arinze has difficulty getting his parents to Canada because their visas are rejected. This is pretty common for Africans wanting to bring their family members here to Canada just to visit. The fear is that they will never want to leave.

Arinze's parents at a hockey game

Arinze's parents at a hockey game

Eventually, Arinze’s parents’ visas are approved. His mother comes first. I really liked Arinze’s mother. She was so elegant, almost regal in her bearing. Although she began by saying that she didn’t approve of mixed race marriages because the children would end up being confused, after learning about how much Tina has taken care of her son while he’s been living in Canada, she decides she wants to meet her. Tina and Arinze’s mother meet and Arinze’s mother thanks Tina for taking care of her son. She admits that she didn’t know white people could be so nice given her past experiences with racism while living in Edmonton. Tina ends up crying during much of this meeting while Arinze’s mother remains coldy composed (but I think that’s just the way she is).

Arinze’s dad proves to me more emotional, even something of a romantic. He has no problem that his son is an artist. Actually, he says he always knew Arinze would become an artist. He also thinks Arinze should get back with Tina because “everyone needs someone to love”. It’s pretty obvious that Arinze’s own parents are still very fond of each other. When Arinze asks his father if it is too late for him to so dramatically change his career path (from engineering to arts) his father reassures him with an Ibo proverb: “When you wake up, that’s your morning”. I’m definitely going to be using that one.

So, in the end, most of Arinze’s concerns were in his own head. He gets back with Tina and feels more grounded now that his parents know the truth about his life in Canada.

I enjoyed watching the documentary particularly as I am a “confused” half-Nigerian child of a mixed race couple…the kind of creature Arinze’s mother dreads he will produce. The truth is it is a confusing experience to be of mixed race but probably not any more confusing than being second generation. Acceptance, both by your parents, and the world outside is what we all long for. Having to live a lie isn’t good for anyone but far too often second-generation children do this because they feel they have to. Sometimes they really do have to and sometimes their worries are really of their own creation, because they have misjudged their parents.

Check out a music video by Arinze Eze