Sunday 7 November 2021

Signs of Diaspora

African Global Migration 

Embarking on studies and a career abroad was to expand my understanding of the world. But not everyone is able to fully appreciate African diversity.

With a sense of comforting calm, I got up from my seat in the staffroom, my teaching bag filled with lesson materials. Ever a diligent lecturer, I'd already come into college over the weekend to do the bulk of my prep for the week’s impending classes, making online quizzes, creating supplementary visuals, etc. All that remained that morning was the final pre-lesson prep of photocopying worksheets, cutting out pelmanism cards, and grabbing my small gift bag filled with reward sweets for extra plucky learners. (Hey, university students deserve chocolate too!) So I stepped out of my cubicle, waltzed into the corridor and entered my classroom, shoulders loose and ready to go. As usual, the well-prepared class was going well with the 20+ students at this all female college nicely engaged in the activities. The floor length windows bathing us in glowing sunlight undoubtedly added to the lucidity of the learning process as well as the positive vibes from the views of green foliage dotting the campus grounds outside. The icing on the top though was hearing the afternoon call to prayer from the nearby local mosque.

The Ahdan: a sign of serene rejuvenation.

Mosque with minarets calling people to prayer

As a pious person myself, I loved hearing the muadhan’s passion-filled voice inviting all to replenish their spiritual devotion, adjust their moral recalibration and encourage wisdom-filled reflection. Each day, I loved the variety of changing voices too; young, old, high, low, fast, slow. It was a diversity missing in church bells ringing on Sundays also inviting people to prayer; either in Nigeria where I started school or the UK where I continued my schooling. But my Emirati surroundings in the Arabian Gulf gave me more in that heavenly respect, as well as unrelenting sunshine. The latter therefore merited my Nigerian àǹkàrá work clothes being airy enough to let my skin breathe as required per the local desert-heat at the same time as covering my body as required per the local etiquette. Come the end of class, I was an island of bold colour prints, marine blue, bright orange, sunny yellow, regal purple in the sea of black habaya cloaks and shayla headscarves adorned by the youthful ladies filling the bright white corridor. Some had their own little splashes of colour with embroidery, sequences or beads popping on the black backdrop of their flowing fabric, showing a little diversity of style. I’d barely taken two steps towards the staffroom when quite suddenly a group of four unknown students stopped in front of me, smiling.

Wide, toothy grins: a sign of welcoming warmth.

Happy, smiley abaya ladies

I smiled back at these friendly students wanting to say ‘Hi’ to the teacher who I guessed they had heard gave out reward sweets during the start of week lesson games.
‘As-salamu alaykum teacher, how are you?’ said the student on the far left.
‘Wa ʿalaykumu s-salam, I’m fine, thank you,’ I responded, followed by…
‘How were your lessons today?’
‘Who was your teacher?’
‘What did you learn about?’
‘Do you now have another lesson?’

Whilst the far left student was the most vocally engaged, I still turned my head frequently to address my words to all of them. As I did this, I saw from the corner of my eye the girl standing second to the right beaming enthusiastically at me. I turned to meet her gaze when, saying nothing, she suddenly leaned back, raised both hands towards me with fingers slightly bent, index and thumb sticking out at right angles, all whilst keeping the same enthusiastic smile. The second time I panned over the group, she did it again when we made eye-contact…and yet again during my third sweep. She was just in her happy place, standing quietly throwing ‘cool’ Tupac Shakur-esque gestures my way as she was apparently ‘communicating in my language.’

Angular hand gestures: a sign of being ‘down’ and ‘with it’(?)

Tupaq & Snoop throwing up hand signs

And right there in the college corridor, I’d encountered yet another example of a phenomenon that had followed me throughout my life across the world. Whilst I was finishing my schooling in Japan as a 17-year-old Yorùbá-Nigerian exchange student, the Japanese secondary school students in the boys basketball team insisted on a ‘Black American slam dunk’ from me, even though I was shorter than them! Whilst finishing university in France as a 21-year-old Yorùbá-Nigerian language student, the Swedish language students insisted on dancing to ‘Black American songs’ with me. And now as a 30-something-year-old Yorùbá-Nigerian higher education lecturer, this Emirati foundation year student insisted on throwing up ‘Black American hand signs’ at me. Upon seeing my melanated face, she was unable to discern any form of distinct diversity like I’d done hearing the different mosque muadhans’ voices or even seeing the slight variations in black habaya designs. Yes, she and all the other people across the world I’d encountered seemingly had no substantive idea of the African diaspora.

Narrow understanding: a sign of limited world exposure.

Slamdunking Black Americans

Didn't 'too cool for school' corridor girl know that all of humanity originally emerged from East Africa, home to ethnic groups like the Sandawe and Hadza people (circa 200,000 years ago)? Hadn't she heard that from there began a natural/unforced migration across the continent, including to West Africa producing the Nok and then Yorùbá civilisations amongst many others (circa 70,000 years ago)? Was she unaware further migration occurred out of the continent with many passing through the Arabian Peninsula, where we were both standing, on their way to South Asia (circa 50,000 years ago)? Had she no idea some settled in the Andaman Islands, forming the Onge and Jarawa ethnic groups? Didn't she get others continued on their way to Southeast Asia like the Semang and Aeta people? Hadn't she learned some then headed off to Oceania like the iTaukei community, all still distinctively featuring the African phenotype in skin colour, hair texture and facial features? Was she uninformed others still branched off to East Asia to form the Jōmon, Ainu and Ryukyuan ethnic groups (circa 30,000 years ago)? All of these people and cultures are still thriving today…and would most probably look at corridor girl’s weird ‘sign language’ trying to work out what she was doing.

But then again, had she no inclination that there was also an unnatural/forced migration from the continent through mass abduction and human trafficking? Wasn't she clued up that their undesired destination again included our current location of the Arabian Gulf as well as South Asia over the course of 14 centuries (between the 500s-1900s) where a minimum of 28 million abducted Africans were trafficked? (Accounting for those who died on route, the actual number is estimated at higher than 140 million.) Couldn't she perceive that other undesired destinations included Western Europe and the Americas over the course of 4 centuries (between the 1400s-1800s). Didn't she comprehend that in total, around 11-13 million abducted Africans were trafficked to the Americas with 95% going to South and Central America/the Caribbean and only 5% to North America? Hadn't she clocked that, for this reason, after Nigeria, Portuguese-speaking Brazil is now the second most populous Black country in the world versus the comparatively much smaller number of Black people in English-speaking Canada and the USA? Regardless, couldn't she grasp that, riding atop the wave of neo-American imperialism, the fashion, music, dance and film culture of this relatively small group of people originating from the African continent is beamed throughout the world’s cinemas, televisions, radios and magazines…becoming the skewed ‘face’ of Blackness far and wide?

Overarching global recognition: a sign of cultural visibility.

iTaukei ladies in Fuji, Oceania

This is what had led over the course of my life to Japanese slam-dunking assumptions, Swedish dancing suppositions (okay, I'm not going to lie, that one's true!), and Emirati hand sign expectations…except I am a Yorùbá-Nigerian. I am melodic àmì ohùn words and poetic afiwe sentences. I am studious ọmọwe diligence and unwavering agbalágba respect. I am spicy òkèlè food and merry ẹmu drinks. I am exciting abula sports and cognitive àyò games. I am engaging ìpè atí ìdáhun interaction, joyous ówàmbẹ̀ music and expressive àlùjó & ijó-ìtàgé dances. I am winding irun bíba, dídì & kíkó hairstyles and cute ólékú fashions. What’s more, I am protruding etè gestures! Who needs hands anyway when you have plump, ample, luscious lips to point with? It’s very efficient for your lips to point as your mouth talks: instant visual indication accompanying audio explanation of your desired focus.

Beyond my Yorùbá sistren & brethren, melanated Africans are the most genetically and ethnically diverse and dispersed people on the planet. We are so very culturally rich on the continent, with many more cultural branches developed across the diaspora from natural and indeed forced migration. But for the ‘cool’ corridor girl, my Nigerian àǹkàrá stylings did not detract her engrained imagery of Blackness. I was a Black entity, which for her only embodied a young Black American persona. I mean seriously, with my visible whisps of grey hair, I was twice her age; why would I be throwing up youthful hand gestures? In a burst of celebration after completing my weekend lesson preparation?? Regardless, neither my mature years nor my academic position as a possible lecturer for one of her classes next term mattered, all obscured by my Blackness and related ‘coolness’ for this handsy student throwing up signs after getting all the wrong signals.

Youthful misconception: a sign of innocence vs ignorance(?)

Yorùbá ladies living it up!

In any case, it was a fleeting thought and I really had to start preparing for my next lesson. So I opened my gift bag of goodies and told the girls to help themselves. They all enthusiastically reached inside and even the gesturing girl stopped leaning back, instead leaning forward as her hands now having more important things to do like acquiring chocolate. It was the perfect way to close out our interaction before continuing to navigate through the ever-present habaya-cloaked crowd back to the staffroom. My thoughts then went to my Black American colleagues also on the teaching staff, wondering if they too had had random young ladies coming up to them smiling, throwing up hand signs, trying to get some ‘street cred’ right there in the college corridors. Either way, it was a clear indication that more education was/is needed worldwide in recognising signs of diaspora.

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