Femke writes one of the four last articles on the series as she rounds off in March.
She was having a cold Star the first time we met. Since then, Yemisi and I have shared many a beer together. This middle-aged manager and well respected wife of a military officer—and also a Lagosian to the core—has appointed herself my mentor in this city and every once in a while we go out for drinks to catch up. Never have I noticed any eyebrows being raised around us over two women having lager in public.
Which is why I am startled by the reaction I get one evening in a Victoria Island nightclub from the woman sitting next to me in her electric blue tube dress. She acts like she is used to having an audience. All her gestures and outcries seem to be playing to the gallery: she exaggerates slight surprise into a near heart attack. When the waiter puts a napkin in front of me and places a bottle of Star on it, she literally falls off her chair. ‘You drink beer? Out of the bottle?’
‘What’s so strange about that?’ I ask her.
‘My darling’, she replies, sipping her Smirnoff Ice, making the ice cubes in her glass tinkle. ‘Women don’t drink beer. It’s not our culture.’
Years earlier. I am in Ibadan researching the effect of urbanisation on culture and tradition. A gray-haired baale is showing me around his family palace in Bere. The murals of crowns and of warriors guarding the oba have almost been erased by years of filth covering the walls, and the sun shines through the cracked roof under which the area’s notables once convened. No, the baale does not live on the family compound–he built himself a villa in Bodjia. He boasts about his other house in Lekki and his apartment in London’s Notting Hill. All the while I was with him I felt there was a question he wanted to ask me, but he doesn’t raise it until he drops me off at Mokola roundabout where I’ll board a danfo to UI.
Can’t I help his family find funding to renovate the palace? Surely there must be some European organisation willing to invest in such indispensable cultural heritage.
In the packed minibus I wonder how the chief expects strangers to value his culture when he himself does not seem to be prepared to invest a kobo in it. It is such a contrast with the passionate graduate I meet at the UI Institute of African Studies, who confesses to me that his parents would have preferred him to read Law or Medicine. His future salary might have been better, he admits, but he is keeping a promise to his grandfather:
‘I used to hate going to the village, until my granddad started telling me stories. I listened to his tales for hours, and promised him I would not forget them. I chose this study because I want my children to understand where they are coming from.’
Not much later, still in Ibadan, a young man called Ifa Seyi tells me he is thinking of changing his name. He recently graduated top of his class from Ibadan Polytechnic–the first in his family to finish tertiary education. I met him in front of UI gate, where he sells padlocks. His father is an Ifa priest, all his family are worshippers of the Yoruba religion, and he and his siblings bear a name with ‘Ifa’ in it, referring to their traditional belief. Ifa Seyi has sent out hundreds of job applications, but while his classmates are getting hired, he’s never heard back from any of the companies he’s applied to. With the boldness that results from despair he finally goes to one of the companies to ask what was wrong with his application and an assistant in the human resources department gives him an uncharacteristically straightforward answer. It isn’t his diploma, he is told. The problem is his name.
‘Change your name to Joshua, Mohammed, or Olumide. Nobody will take you seriously when you keep using that your backward name.’
In the Netherlands, some people of Moroccan descent do not use their given names on applications because their obvious North African background seems to be obstructing their job hunt–a phenomenon I am ashamed of. That an indigenous Nigerian, one of the custodians of traditional culture and belief, feels he has to do the same thing in his own country . . . this baffles me.
Culture is a patient concept. In the Nigerian context, I have heard the word used to explain the flowery way people speak at official occasions and to justify why one does not eat moinmoin with amala, to condemn homosexuality, to defend polygamy, to defend monogamy, to make clear why bathing suits should not show a woman’s belly, to denounce hip-wriggling dances and to clarify one’s position on subjects as varied as the proper colour to paint one’s house to how the boss should be addressed by the staff (who incidentally have not received wages for months). The speaker might be referring to a religious belief, his forefather’s traditions, the accepted norm in middle-class society, or something his mother whispered in his ears as a child.
Culture is not a static given. It does not mean the same to everyone in every perspective at all times. Too often, ‘culture’ is brought into the equation when it suits personal convictions, and is just as easily discarded when it does not. Moreover, the culture card tends to be played when other arguments have run out: it is used as a way to silence the conversation partner.
But the excuse of culture cannot be the end of an argument. At most, it is the beginning of a conversation.