How To Be An African

by Folasayo Dele-Ogunrinde

I went to a Japanese restaurant with a group of non-Asian friends the other day, and almost everyone knew how to use a chopstick. I give kudos to the Asians and the way they’ve held on protectively to their culture and also exported it to the rest of the world. The world is a more interesting place because we can learn from other people how they do things differently from us. Tourism and technology has also facilitated these types of exchanges, and it is a good thing.

It seems to me though that while everyone is trying to hold on to whatever they have, we as Africans are doing the exact opposite. We are importing the “McDonald’s” culture and throwing away some very essential aspects of who we are and replacing it with something we will never be. We all want to be 100% “oyinbo” by any means necessary. True, there will always be some western aspects of ourselves we will never be able to get rid of because of colonization. Some of these habits may even be good. They may even be edifying, but should we adopt everything that is good and bad at the expense of our own uniqueness?

The African culture should never be seen as being mutually exclusive to the western culture or any other culture for that matter. So while we are busy defining ourselves as “aje butters” we really need to start looking inwards and redefining our self worth by appreciating our own culture. For the most part, some people are not even aware that we are gradually eroding their own value as a people when we denounce our heritage or even why we are doing so. A friend pointed out the other day that the white man no longer needs to work hard at making us feel inferior, we have been conditioned to do the jobs ourselves, and we are doing a much better job! This is a very sad commentary on the state of our psychological makeup. Someone who defines himself entirely by another will never really be a fully functioning person. Maybe we need to start looking at the problems plaguing Africa from this perspective. We are seriously in need of a paradigm shift.

It is deep psychosis to completely dissociate ourselves from who we are. For instance, when you speak good English, and maybe even with a little foreign accent (real or fake), combine that with the fact that you speak a few other European languages then you are seen to belong to the elite class. But God forbid you speak any of the local Nigerian languages fluently! How dare you speak vernacular so fluently! You must be “bush”. We are all guilty of this. I only started listening to Lagbaja’s music recently and something struck me in one of his lyrics – “Vernacular”. He asks “how many “Oyinbo” speak your mother tongue”? And why do we look down degradingly on another person because they “blow” grammar? If a white man learns to speak any of our local languages and he “blows” do we look down on him because of that? I’m sure we’ll even praise his attempts, so why is it the reverse then with our brothers and sisters who can’t seem to speak their adopted language perfectly?

Don’t get me wrong, I think it is very appropriate to be articulate in whatever language you speak especially if you’ve paid good money to be educated. And I think it is also important in the world we live in today to be multilingual. But why should you be ashamed to speak your own language just as well or even better? If you are one of those who think we should discourage the propagation of our Nigerian languages either consciously or otherwise, have you ever considered how stupid you will appear if a Frenchman whose language you speak very fluently asks you (because he is interested in your culture) how to translate a certain phrase in French to your language, and you draw a blank?

You speak a foreign language well, and you’ve adopted a foreign culture as your own, but you look down on yours. So what differentiates you? .We deny not only ourselves but also the future generation of something so beautiful and rich. And how unfortunate! Completely eliminating our own culture in Africa while assimilating other cultures is not progress, we are regressing. I am very embracing of other cultures, I love languages, and I have dated across cultural and racial lines. But I have always maintained my “Africanness”. Yes, my hair is permed, and yes, I wear “oyinbo” clothes and eat “oyinbo” food, and live a contemporary lifestyle, but my heritage always comes through.

And while I may not practice the traditional African religion because I have adopted the “oyinbo” Catholic faith by choice. I have never been ashamed to speak of the sociological aspects of my culture or portray it in the most positive ways. It is true that in some instances that it may be difficult to maintain a multicultural or multiethnic home because situations are different. But personally, I have always maintained that if I happen to marry a Slavic, American, Russian or a Nigerian man of a different ethnic background, my kids will not be denied of what is part of their heritage and I will encourage my spouse to share his culture with the family too. What I fail to understand though is when parents who are both of Nigerian heritage force their children to speak only English or German or whatever else even within the confines of Nigeria, some of these kids who have never even been out of the country before, are denied the beauty of their own language and culture. If that is not a symptom of an oversized inferiority complex, I don’t know what is, and it makes me cringe to think of the future of our continent.

The white man is happy however that he can take over the world technologically, morally and now culturally. And we are very much part of the blame. Are we thinking yet? We may rationalize, that how does speaking Nigerian languages or preserving the culture develop or serve Nigeria or the world at large, and where does it fit in a world that is getting smaller and more buoyant economically? Well I ask too, how does phasing out Nigerian languages or culture benefit the world or the future generation? It is a well known fact that archeologists excavate ancient civilizations to learn about how they once lived to better understand the world we live in today and how we have evolved as human beings. Now, most of these cultures were wiped out either by normal evolutionary processes or by natural disasters. As Africans, we are actually facilitating the evolutionary process and speeding things up by consciously eliminating our past and present. It is happening even as we speak. I ran into an American ethnomusicologist a short while ago, who has in his music collection, works by a popular Nigerian Artist that dates back several decades. He knew this artist way back before the artist became world famous. Most of this collection he told me the artist himself probably no longer has in his possession. Now when this artist dies, this collection would probably go into a western library collection as every artifact we own is or this will be repackaged and sold to us. Meanwhile, I know of friends who will not listen to Nigerian music at all talk less of being interested in an archived music collection of some “juju” musician.

My point here is that every culture in the world has something to offer, but we are consciously throwing ours away. Our culture is one of the things we have that has not been tarnished by our “419” image abroad. Yet, this lack of appreciation for “our own thing” starts very early on in life. I remember very clearly as a young girl of about 7 or 8, I had a group of friends in school, and most of us who attended that school were from upper-middle class families, and most were born or had been abroad. On this certain day, the parent of one of the girls in our group came to pick her up from school, and we noticed that her mom spoke to her in Yoruba. We thought, how could her mom disgrace her in school like that by speaking to her in Yoruba and in front of her friends! I remember we completely ostracized this poor girl because she was from a “bush” family. Meanwhile, in my own home, we spoke, (and still speak) Yoruba, English and even my local dialect Ondo, but I would rather die back then than let my friends in school onto this. Now that is some serious conditioning.

This type of thinking in a child is very insidious, usually passed on from parents and the society, and it is eating up the self esteem of our kids. Even as adults, this inferiority complex persists. You would think that some of us should have outgrown this. I have a friend who migrated to England a year before I moved to the States in the early 90’s. When I got here, I was very excited to call her since we had not spoken in about a year. And you know, as Nigerians, when we get very excited and want to get down to the basics, there is no better medium than pidgin English. So here I was reeling off for old times’ sake in pidgin, and my friend coolly answering me back in perfect Queens English that even the queen mother would envy! Not once did she “condescend to my level” to “parlez” in pidgin. My friend…that attended UI with me?, who lived and dined on pidgin in our Queens Hall dorm?!

There are certain things that don’t sound quite right in Queens English! I couldn’t resist being blunt, so I asked if she had just graduated from some finishing school as a requirement for dating a member of the royal family because she sounded just like one of those uppity debutantes! On the flip side, I know of a girl who has been in America for over 20 years, had most of her schooling here and has a white mother. It was in conversation that I found out these things. She’s “half-cast”, so technically, she has claims to be as “oyinbo” as she “wanna” be, and she can “front” that she doesn’t speak vernacular. But she sounds just as Nigerian as anyone can be. And why does that impress me? Well, I have called some Nigerian friends’ home phone and listened to messages on answering machines and sometimes almost hung up, because I was certain I had called the wrong number. This couldn’t be my friend Tope or Ngozi, gosh, with messages that sounded like I’d accidentally dialed into the home of an American! They speak through their noses that even I as a Nigerian can no longer understand them!

The sad thing is that this “accents” are so fake and people know it! The worst cases are when you go into some of the larger cities where there is a bigger pool of every type of Nigerian. And you meet the occasional Oyo, Efik or Ibo man who despite years in America has tried to unsuccessfully shake off his ethnic twang, now on top of that he is attempting to Americanize his English. Now things become very complicated here if you get my drift. We should of course try to enunciate words so as to be understood by all. And if you live in America you will need to pronounce certain words like “appreciate” or “lieutenant” the way the American does, but please brothers and sisters, let’s go easy on the “phonee”. As a lot of us now live in foreign lands, so by osmosis we have adopted other tastes, which is okay. But do we have to completely forgo ours? Our music, theater, dances, proverbs…these are very beautiful things. And by the way, just because you eat reconstituted pounded yam doesn’t count! Keeping our culture alive goes much deeper than that.

There are of course certain aspects of our culture that I don’t appreciate. I even get impatient with people who employ the mantra “it’s our culture” when it is just a means to be manipulative or controlling. The way we think about women in society and in marriage is still very unproductive. Infidelity is an acceptable part of our culture – these are areas we need to address. And there are aspects of other cultures I would rather not bring home with me. But I would never completely immerse myself in another man’s ways to the total elimination of mine. For instance, let us make good use of the technological advancement of the west to educate and develop our society. Let’s replace “African time” and mediocrity with positive things like punctuality and work ethics and stop importing things like lack of respect for self or others, individualism and moral decadence that abound here in the west. (There is a Nigerian guy I know of in the UK who has had a sex change to become a woman!).

The American constitution asserts the “individual pursuit of happiness” – which a friend of mine -Toyin points out is an oxymoron. How can you individually be pursuing happiness? We as Africans know that family and friends are the essence of life. Increasingly, I observe more Africans behaving like Americans, working very hard, earning good income, yet living miserably lonely and boring lives, sometimes one may not have a choice in these matters by virtue of where you live or who you are (-I know that by nature, most artists are loners), but it’s another thing to choose to be such an individualist because the society whose culture you are adopting says it is the way to be. When we do so, we become consumed in our own self importance and lose compassion for our neighbors or humanity. That is when we begin to relate to our pets and other inanimate material things better than living breathing human beings like ourselves. Is that the culture we really want to adopt?

While Americans are trying to figure ways to get out of their social rut, we are busy cloning ourselves to be more like the American. We attempt to “drink like Mike”, “Eat like Mike”, “Sleep like Mike” and do whatever else we are told “Mike” does even after “Mike ” himself has stopped doing these things. We even attempt to copy our own products that have been recycled through the western cultural mill. We are a social people, and it is that which makes Nigeria (or any of the so called “third world” countries) interesting places to live despite all the suffering that abound. We need to stop squandering our affluent heritage and stop exchanging our cultural currency at the rate of 100 units to 1. We are exchanging much for very little or nothing at all! We are replicating exactly what our ancestors did when they traded human beings as slaves for whisky and fake jewelry. The white man thought that was ridiculous, he couldn’t believe his luck. He was laughing back then, and he’s still laughing at the folly of the African man today.

I tell people I would rather give my child a Nigerian name or a name from any other culture that has meaning and content before I name him Sheldon or Travis. I would want my children to have some identity. My Nigerian name which I insist people call me fully has benefited me in many ways – I believe strongly that your name is one of the things that define your path in life. If you reference the holy bible, names like Abraham, Isaac, John (the Baptist), Jesus and Emmanuel were chosen for their meanings and for the life that that child has been destined to live. When others have tried to nickname me flo, and I politely explain to them that my name -Folasayo has a meaning, and means a lot to me, flo doesn’t, so please don’t call me flo. They are curious to know what my name means, and I usually oblige. At the end of the day, there is a better appreciation for the culture I come from which carefully picks the name of a child based on family history or circumstances surrounding a child’s birth. An American friend pointed out an anomaly to me the other day, he was with a group of exchange students, and every one in that multicultural group had local names from their country except the two Africans who had western names. He wanted to know if there is still a colonial law in parts of Africa that requires Africans to have English names. I told him no such law exists today, but the “colonial mentality” and conditioning has remained with us – which is worse. My cousin cracked me up the other day too, he said at the time of his baptism at age 12, he asked his dad if he could pick the name Rudolf as his baptismal name. His dad gave him the dirtiest look and said when you have your own child, you can go ahead and name him Rudolf. Son, I’m naming you Oluwaseun! It is not that there is anything essentially wrong with having an English name, at least some of them have meaning. But Coco Channel? Can you believe there is a Nigerian guy who actually named his daughter Coco Channel? Beats me!

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Anonymous February 18, 2006 - 12:08 pm

True as can be. This person held nothing back!! "Kudos" to you.

Anonymous February 17, 2006 - 1:48 pm

Naijamerican here. this rings very true

Anonymous June 21, 2005 - 9:48 am

This article encapsulates how I feel about africans abroad and neo-colonialism. A brilliant piece of writing.

Molokwu January 1, 1970 - 12:00 am

Ms. Folasayo Dele-Ogunrinde I found that to be very true, accurate and encouraging. As an American born Nigerian (no pun intended) I found what you said to be amazingly refreshing, and the thoughts put forward frequented often!


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