Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Exiled lives, complicated lives, Minneapolis, 2011

By Okechukwu Nwafor

This is my first trip to the United States. Having spent almost three years as a PhD student in History Department at the University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, I moved to the University of Minnesota as an Associate Researcher at ICGC. This prestigious post comes from the collaboration of ICGC with Center for Humanities Research at UWC where I was a doctoral fellow. I was one of the three fellows that went for the programme. The rest are Steve Akoth from Kenya and Vilho Shigwedha from Namibia.

Just the next day in Minneapolis I had gotten a sim for my phone through the help of Sara. Sara did not know much about international calls so she took me to a Somali shop where I bought a sim and the Somali shop owner taught me how to make international calls. I called my younger sister who lives in Dallas, Texas with her husband and children. She was happy that I arrived safely. I was also happy to hear from her and my mum, who has come to visit them since December 2010.  This is the first time I spoke with my sister after about a period of 5 years. I heard her voice and the long stretch of silence was broken. We connected back. For five years, distance, imposed by exile, has severed all communications with her. She was also disconnected from many others at home (Nigeria). Hearing my sister’s voice after five years reminds me of how unpleasant exile can be at times. Exile disconnects you. It makes you invisible. Not only that, it makes you ambiguous, and your personality, your life, becomes complicated and open to multiple interpretations.

Mind you my use of exile here is not as simplistic as the ordinary meaning of exile. For me exile could be a communication disconnection for those in the diaspora.  While it might not matter whether one is at home or in the diaspora, I concentrate on those in the diaspora for a particular reason. If you migrate from a hinterland in Nigeria into a self-imposed exile in Lagos, people at home wouldn't regard you as living in exile. They will not bother you much. To  them you are still with them. But as soon as you migrate from Lagos and head towards the 'West,' exile hovers over your image like a halo. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben and Liisa  Malkki may have taught us a lot on exile. You may refer to  Agamben's Homo Sacer or Malkki's  Purity and Exile for more on the theoretical  and conceptual readings on exile.For now let me talk to my popular folks. 

Exile was the case of few Igbo people I met in Minneapolis in just two weeks. My sister called her friend who lives in Minneapolis and she came with her husband over the weekend to see me. She and her husband were good people and they were happy to see me. We exchanged pleasantries.  We discussed about home (Nigeria) and then briefly about Cape Town where I have been studying for about 4 years. Our discussions about home (Nigeria) cut across a range of subjects including failure of governance, the challenges of Nigeria as a nation state, kidnappings, Boko Haram bombings, Niger Delta, power failure, insecurity, among other issues.

Reminiscing on the above discussions, it was obvious to me that Nigeria is really an unresolved conundrum.  I thought that Nigeria is a behemoth that scared and terrified her own children.  I thought that Nigeria drove her children into exile. It was from my interactions with some Nigerians in exile here in Minneapolis that I draw the conclusions of my text on exile. As my text will show, exiled lives are complicated. Speaking to someone in exile from home always sounded like reading a book in esoteric language. There was always a communication gap.  And no middle ground was ever established. The question remains why exiled lives are complicated.

Larry, the husband to my sister’s friend came on Saturday to take me to meet some Igbo people in Minneapolis. We went specifically to Anambra State Association Meeting in Minneapolis. Larry drove in a beautiful, posh Toyota jeep. After about 20 minutes drive we arrived at the venue of the meeting. The neighbourhood looks quite dignified: well cut lawns, beautifully planned estate, and exquisite apartments made up of duplexes and well fed dogs. The dogs backed and jumped around with confidence. The sight of this neighbourhood immediately reminded me of an idealized image of paradise in the book, My Book of Bible Stories which I read as a child. In that book, paradise was constructed as a place of grand pleasure where calmness, exotic beauty and scenic wonders converged. Paradise was produced as a place where the wild engaged humans in a gesture of harmless and innocent embrace. Peace, harmony and tranquillity were the threads that bound humans and the wild together in this paradise. And this is just a place you would want to retire permanently.

This neighbourhood of the Anambra Association meeting in Minneapolis is similar to the above image of paradise. The only difference is that, unlike the beatific naiveté and harmless charge of the wild in the paradise of My Book of Bible Stories, in the paradise of the Anambra Association neighbourhood, dogs violently ‘roared’ at us, with menacing aggression, like lions. ‘Roaring’ dogs in this neighbourhood made me ponder one thing: could it be true that beneath the picture of beauty and peace that this apartment and its neighbourhood portrayed lie some feelings of inadequacy, nostalgia, and loss. I wondered. I shall discover subsequently.

I saw Anambra Igbos as they converged in the small living room where one of their own was hosting the meeting. Their meeting was organized with Chairman, Secretary, Provost, Financial secretary, and other officials important in any organized meeting. Larry, who brought me happened to be the financial secretary. The agenda of the meeting cut across many issues including developmental initiatives and how to forge ahead as a people in the diaspora.  Surprisingly to me, the level of organization I found in this meeting belied the chaos I found in similar meetings back home. People behaved in mature ways here. Everyone was respectful. Back home such meetings would only end in fisticuffs, swearing, accusations and bragging. My question again is why the organization in exile. That collective chaos at home did suddenly transform to collective unison in exile is still a question whose answer may appear sooner or later.

I attended so many other meetings and parties including Umunne meeting. ‘Umunne’ in Igbo means ‘brethren’. It was an umbrella of all Igbos in Minneapolis or even Minnesota. It was much organized like the Anambra Association meeting. Anambra is only a state of the five states that make up Igbos in Nigeria. So Umunne is thus a collective of the other five Igbo states.

I eventually came to the conclusion on why the Igbos are organized in exile. They have been driven out of Nigeria by a common goal. Their goal was to come to the United States and make it, to achieve and then go back home with proofs of their achievements. The biggest reason why the Igbos are well mannered here in exile, I think, is because the system is also well mannered. They attempt to emulate the system in language, in lifestyle, in the struggle for survival. However there is one reason which helps in bringing them together. The reason is a terrible feeling of lack and loss. They need to chart a common cause. They need to seek the face of their brethren. Their shock, on getting to the United States is the sudden realization of the non-existence of African styled neighbourhood. They realized that there is a failure of brotherhood in the African sense here in exile. To invoke this brotherhood, they form Associations where they meet regularly to commune. In the process they hope that their children would interact, know themselves and then look forward to possible life-time networking and relationships that may end in marriage. The Igbos are faced with a terrible dilemma of losing their children to the system. The dilemma lies in escaping the ugly scenario at home to face another ugly scenario in exile. There is the dilemma of the Devil’s alternative. There is a game of chance: choosing between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Of course one knows the best choice: living with the Devil in hell fire or dilly-dallying with Sharks inside the Deep Blue Sea.

The risk is that Igbo children would get swallowed by the system.  If you understand what it means for your child as a Black African to get swallowed by the American system then you would become terrified. It means that your male child would wear his trouser half way between his buttocks and his legs, and walk in a crazy way, as though his legs are flying off his trousers. It is called sagging. It means that your son would always mime one radical tune in the name of music every time you admonish him into studying. It means that your teenage son can say to you ‘Dad F*** off.’ It means that your daughter can elope with an “AKATA” to God-knows-where, among many others. Don’t ask me the meaning of AKATA because I don’t know. This is because if you were at home, you may have the ‘privilege’ of giving your son or daughter six strokes of the whip, or a sound and dirty slap, when you think he or she is misbehaving without the risk of getting suspended like the judge who did same to her daughter and was caught by the camera. You know the judge’s fate more than I do. So you lose all the privileges of ‘African’ styled moral upbringing. You lose your power as a parent. You lose your voice and your head would swell like a tabula rasa.   Now I am sure you know the reasons why exiled lives are complicated. 

Chilling out under the cold winter

Clearing the snow to sit down 
Sitting down
Make the what???
Chilling out with some Igbo men 
You see what I was telling you. I saw this on the wall of a corporate organization on my way to downtown Minneapolis to pay for my TV and internet bills
At the ASA Conference in Washington DC, November 2011. L-R Helena Porlandt-McCormick, Leslie Witz, Okechukwu Nwafor


The Longest elevator in Dupont Center, Washington DC. 
Photo: Okechukwu Nwafor.

With Prof. Obiora Udechukwu at the Late Prof. Ivan Karp lecture at the ASA Conference in Washington DC, November 2011.