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Chika Unigwe



Chika Unigwe

Unigwe lives and works in Turnhout, Belgium. Her novel, On Black Sisters Street was published by Jonathan Cape in 2009. It will be published by Random House , NY in 2011


photocredit: Roccio Ferrero


 How to be an African

with thanks to Binyavanga Wainaina for his brilliant How to Write about Africa

First of all, get rid of any hang-ups you might have about Africa being a continent. It is a country, and so when people ask if you speak African, or eat African, do not get all worked up trying to explain how a homogenous Africa only exists in a lazy imagination.  And certainly do not go the complicated route of explaining about how a country like Nigeria has over three hundred different languages. (Languages‌ Not dialects‌ Are you sure‌) Do everyone a favour and smile and say Yes or No as the spirit moves you.  It will save you some frustration.  Believe me, I know. It will also save your interrogator some bafflement. If you want to be humorous though, you can ask your interrogator if they speak European.  Be prepared for some lessons on history though. Europe is a continent of history.  Unlike that country, Africa, which is too dark for any sense of history to permeate.

When you are asked - as you invariably will - if the freedom of the West does not please you, if you are not amazed by its wealth, if you do not feel lucky to be sitting in this lap of luxury, be sure to react appropriately. Lead the discussion on the dictatorship of African leaders, on the poverty of its people, on HIV AIDS killing off an entire continent. Mention a few times how indeed you are lucky to be away from all that. Talk about family and friends you know who have been incarcerated, or about to be, for defending their freedom, this very freedom that you now take for granted. Talk about the big issues: gay bashing; corpses abandoned by the road side; genocide and ethnic cleansing; wars; and the almighty FGM. The more gruesome the better. If you’ve never personally experienced any of these, use your imagination: everyone has some of it. Success stories are not interesting.

They are not African.

Also, do not forget to talk about patriarchy, the oppression of women by big bad men who hit their wives and refuse to educate their daughters. If you are a woman, it is advisable to talk about the opportunities you are lucky to have since being in Europe. 

If you are a writer, never forget to acknowledge the fact that your writing style derives from the great story-telling traditions of your people. Talk about being inspired by hearing a wise ancient tell stories under the perfect moonlight of a village night. Fill your memories of such nights with the sounds of chirping crickets; of animals living in complete harmony with humans. Such nights must be cool and dry. The story teller must have a deep, serenading voice.  Have little children run around chasing lizards and the like.  Your interrogator would usually ask you at this point if you don’t think that Africa’s race towards modernity is a huge loss. You should agree with him and expound on the corrupting evils of TV and computer games. And of your nostalgia for the African nights of your childhood.

Never ever admit to an inability to dance. That would compromise your Africaness. Even if you dance like a three-legged-duck, always agree that yes, Africans are born dancing. Tell stories of how when you were in your mother’s womb, you tapped and jiggled around whenever you heard the sound of distant drums. You might indulge your interrogator by showing off some moves, some of that rhythm you have in your genes. 

Finally, (remember the old adage, while in Rome, do like the Romans‌) integration is the key word for African migrants. You must not compare yourself to western expatriates in Africa who mainly stick to their kind, occasionally talking to the native gardener, maid and gateman to give instructions; who often driving long distances to get the perfect cheese, or other familiar fare they consider essential for survival in Africa. They might have packages of peanut butter and chocolate spread sent from home by nervous family keen to aid their survival.  Do not get the idea that you are equal to them, and start stinking out your neighbours with the smell of the food issuing from your kitchen. If you live in an apartment, please see that the food you cook does not irritate the sensitive nostrils of your neighbours.  You might be reminded that an essential part of integration is learning to adapt to the food of your host country.  And the only way to truly show your gratitude to your host country is by your willingness to completely subsume your old identity (eating habits included) and take on the new, civilized one.

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