Wednesday, April 16, 2014

My little sister's beautiful depiction of Africa

Monday, April 7, 2014

News Brief: Nigeria becomes Africa's largest economy, overtakes South Africa

‪#‎Nigeria‬ surpases ‪#‎SouthAfrica‬ to become Africa's biggest economy after  it overhauled its gross domestic product data for the first time in more than two decades (Guardian) 
But most Nigerians are not impressed:

"I'm not really impressed. I don't feel it in my pocket... It's not the masses who are rich," said Richard Babs-Jonah, 47, a small farmer, expressing the common view that Nigeria's economy is rigged in favour of a handful of well-connected oligarchs.

"Those controlling the economy, those with government contracts, get all the money." 

Despite its consistent growth in recent years and now a bigger GDP, Nigeria still trails South Africa in basic infrastructure - power and roads - necessary to lift its people out of poverty. However, Nigeria's new position is expected to enliven competition for investor capital at a time when South Africa faces challenges such as striking workers and high current account and budget deficits.

Interesting fact: As cheesy as its movies are, Nollywood, Nigeria's film industry makes up 1.4% of the country's GDP

Monday, March 24, 2014

Understanding the Tension between African Immigrants and African Americans:

Martin Luther King Jr. and Kwame Nkruma 

I watched 12-Years-A-Slave with a Kenyan friend of mine the other day and was genuinely impressed with the cinematography and overall performance of the cast. Brad Pitt was a bit random but I guess he wanted to be part of a "Socially Conscious" movie for once.

My impressions aside, I want to briefly discuss the African diaspora experience and how it relates to this movie. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o, the two leading actors in this film are of what I call the new diaspora; Africans who immigrated to the United States willingly. Thier immigrant status have lead some to question the legitimacy of their roles in this movie; the central Question being "Can an African immigrant understand the African American experience?"

In 2008 this was a major question many African Americans were asking of Barack Obama.

My answer to this question is yes, but not completely.

It is very true that African immigrants, including myself, cannot really fully understand the African-American experience. In Africa, the history of the transatlantic slave trade is not taught beyond the assertion that Africans were responsible for selling their brothers and sisters. This is attributable to the fact that, for the most part, African education systems are based on the colonial system which, of course, had no interest in teaching black solidarity or the truth, for that matter.

This is of course no different than how African Americans learn next to nothing about African history.

So, I spent a great deal of time explaining to my Kenyan friend how the institution of slavery operated and how it has metamorphosed into Jim-crow laws and the prison industrial complex over the years. I only know these things after spending 14 years in the United States and being an African and African American studies major as an undergraduate. Like many Africans, I came to this country completely ignorant of the African-American experience.

 In fact, I didn't even know there were black people in the United States!

This "lack of awerness" resulted in prejudice against African Americans. Prejudice that was only solidified by the fact that the people who picked on me the most in elementary and middle school for being an "African-booty-scratcher" were African Americans.

Looking back, it was silly but when you are a poor, illiterate, African, refugee, adolescent trying desperately to be normal, anyone pointing out how "different" you were instantly became your mortal enemy. Naturally.

But my prejudice against African Americans was not solely attributable to my ignorance of their history or to the fact that they called me an African-booty-scratcher in school.

When we (African immigrants) arrive in this country, we are socialized through various mediums to believe that in order for us to assimilate to American society, we must do our best  not be "like them."  Them, the "others",  being African Americans. The media does a great job of portraying African Americans as lazy, uneducated and only concerned with instant gratification. Images of inner city gun violence, so called welfare queens, gangsters etc are presented as exclusively and characteristically African American issues resulting from generations of poor individual choices.

Nowhere do we hear any serious discussion about how African American communities came to be plagued by these issues. Nowhere are  there any mention of the very real presence of institutional racism: the kind of racism that makes it possible for African Americans to have higher incidents of death from any disease imaginable than the rest of the American population. The kind of racism that makes it possible for African Americans to make up 13% of the population but 40% of the people in Prison. But these facts are not a part of the national rhetoric that characterizes the united States as a land of endless opportunity for immigrants that are willing to work hard.

Like all immigrants, Africans pride themselves in their ability to work hard and thus are reluctant to accept the notion that no matter how hard they work, they may never fully attain the American dream because of the color of their skin. Racism is something that is incomprehensible to many Africans (excluding South Africans) because we don't come from societies  that discriminate against people because of the color of their skin.

Additionally, institutions that have historically upheld racism are dodging their social responsibility to African Americans by replacing them with Africans. The perfect place to see this in action is on University campuses. Many Universities are actively recruiting African students and professors to meet their diversity quotas instead of African-Americans.

So, I believe there are four main factors contributing to the tensions between Africans and African Americans in the United States; 1) Mutual ignorance of each others histories, 2) African immigrants strong held belief in the American dream 3) Socialization by the media 4) Preferential treatment in certain institutions

However, no matter how much we try to disassociate from each other, our genetic predisposition to producing melanin in large quantities leaves us vulnerable to the same attitudes, judicial failures and institutional prejudices the characterizes the black experience in America.

Africans and African Americans are of course different. We are separated by hundreds of years of  history and an gigantic ocean. We can not and should not pretend that we are the same.Yet, in the American context our race unites us in how tragically it shapes our lives. We must recognize and embrace that fact and use it as a force to build solidarity. We may have our differences but we really do need each other.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

How I Navigate being Black and American in Kenya

Many people tell me that I look like a Luo or a Luyah, which are two of the main ethnic groups in the part of Kenya where I currently live. This has its challenges and benefits.

A few weeks ago, I was looking for a new hairstyle in the supermarket when a woman walked up to me and started to speaking Swahili and I (politely) informed her that I didn't understand what she was saying. Upon hearing this she sucked her teeth, rolled her eyes, and left me standing there in a state of complete confusion. This was not the first time this happened to me, usually, when I tell people that I can't speak Swahili, they normally reply with intense curiosity but sometimes with intense disgust as well. I am happy to say that the latter is rare. After discussing these incidents with some friends I realized that some people genuinely believe that I am pretending not to speak Swahili because, apparently, it hard for some people to understand that a black person like myself who looks so "local" would be incapable of speaking perfect Swahili.

But I only know enough to get me through basic interactions. Which, sometimes, is a great conversation starter. I often tell people to guess when they ask me where I am from (in response to my "exotic" accent). Thier first guess is usually Nigeria, unless I am wearing sneakers then they usually ask; "Are you a black American"?

Now, how do I answer that question? Technically, if I say yes, I would not be lying. I am in fact black and I am an American. But that is not the whole story. How does a girl, born in Togo, raised in Benin and educated and naturalized in the United States answer that question?

Initially, I use to tell people that I am from Togo but then I realized how much leverage being American carries sometimes. So for example, when I go shopping, I try my best not to speak too much lest someone picks up on my accent and starts charging me mazungu (Foreigner synonymous with White) prices. Which are always higher. Being an American in commercial spaces has zero advantages, in my experience. When I am in spaces where I want to be treated with some level of decency, however, I tend to play up my "Americanness" because otherwise I will get trashy service. This is of course not a guarantee but I have noticed that I get much better service in places where people know I am an American, perhaps because they expect a good tip. Since the prices are normally fixed in these spaces, I have nothing to lose from "being American"

At the end of the day, I find it fascinating how I switch identities on account of how I look and how I speak. These identities also allow me to relate to people in different ways but at the end of the day, this ability to switch identities really illustrates how "different" and foreign I am. A difference that I actually appreciate because it allows me to engage with people on my own terms. 

African Imports