“How is it that you don’t speak Yoruba?”- A Day’s Struggles with Long Queues, ID and Identity

lots of passports

The line snaked all the way around the building. This eternal queue and the small talk I inevitably would have to endure were the main reasons why I dreaded this trip. It took a stolen wallet and the realization that my Consular ID Card was within it to initiate one of my rare trips to the embassy. In these days of heightened security, being caught without ID was not a particularly good idea. I needed to have it replaced immediately.

I stood in line with several chatty people. Short and stocky, tall and wiry, they all seemed to be business men though they never wished to get into any great detail about what sort of business they were in exactly. ‘If you’re not going to reveal anything about yourself, then why be so chatty?’ I wondered. I traded banter with those immediately in front and behind me while listening to others chat among themselves in Yoruba, Ibo, French and even in Wolof- the main tongue of our host nation Senegal.

It was an interesting experience taking all of that in. I wanted very much to feel at home, to feel as though I was among my people. I wanted to believe that we did in fact have something connecting us besides our common passport.

When I finally made it to the front of the line, I breathed a sigh of relief. I would be heading home soon, I hoped. A woman in her early fifties sat behind the counter with a pained look on her face. It had been a long morning and I had no doubt she had enjoyed this morning’s queue as little as I had.

“Good morning Ma,” I said, slowly nodding my head and slightly lowering myself to show respect as I learned to do growing up in Nigeria. I handed her the form that I had filled up and explained to her that I was there because I had lost my ID.

“Ogun State.” She said, reading out loud what I had listed as my state of origin. Though I was born in Lagos and had never actually stepped foot in neighboring Ogun State, in Nigeria when asked what state one is from, one usually answers by stating where their parents are from.

“Yes Ma, my parents are both from Ogun State,” I said sheepishly. I wasn’t expecting to be quizzed about my responses in the form. I immediately began to wonder if I had taken enough time to fill it up carefully. Perhaps this trip to the embassy might take a little longer that I thought. My brow furrowed worrying about this and I even considered asking her to return the form to me so that I could take a second look.

“Where in Ogun State is your father from?” she asked.  She seemed to brighten and if I wasn’t mistaken I could trace a light smile on her face as she asked me the question.

“Ijebu-Ode,” I replied. I felt nervous, still unsure where this line of questioning was going. That was about all I knew about my father’s city. He himself had moved to Lagos as early as when he was in secondary school. If she had any more questions about this I simply wouldn’t have any answers.

“I am also from Ijebu-Ode,” she said excitedly before switching to Yoruba. I could make out enough of what she was saying to know that she had just asked me a question. I saw in this woman immense excitement to meet someone from her corner of the world. I knew that my next words would deeply disappoint her.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Yoruba” I said.

Her face fell as she switched back to English. “I recognize your last name, you come from a well-known family in Ijebu-Ode” she said clearly peeved. “How is it that you do not speak Yoruba?”

The profoundness of the question hit me as soon as the words left her mouth. I was in line to replace my lost ID and in the process I was being interrogated about how I had managed to lose my identity.

This was by no means the first time that I had been chided for not being able to speak Yoruba. I had been criticized for it before with criticism that was at times subtle and other times not so much. Each time however, I understood that I wasn’t being judged simply for my failure to grasp the linguistic and grammatical intricacies of a particular language, but for something much deeper. Not knowing Yoruba was interpreted as confirmation of my lost roots, proof that I had lost hold of the intangible thread tying me to centuries of shared culture and knowledge.

I could tell from the disapproving gaze of this woman sitting across from me, fittingly garbed in traditional Yoruba attire, that any attempt at an explanation would ultimately not suffice. I had let her down on a deep level and explaining to her that I didn’t grow up in Nigeria was not going to let me off the hook. My failure to communicate with her in our local language was inexcusable. I had deprived her of a chance perhaps to reconnect with memories of her hometown. A chance to reaffirm her own identity.

I smiled apologetically. Others behind me were peeking their heads over my shoulder to figure out what was taking so long.

“My parents didn’t speak to me in Yoruba growing up,” I said, conveniently throwing my parents under the bus to cut short the awkward conversation. Of course the truth was more nuanced than that and the fault was ultimately mine and not theirs, but I didn’t feel comfortable holding the queue up any longer than I already had and I felt this answer would be enough to move things along.

“Ah… of course” she replied curtly. No more smiles, no more excitement. She shuffled some papers and asked me to pay the fee to replace the lost ID card. “You can pick up your new card anytime this afternoon,” she said.

From her new tone I ascertained condescension, which I didn’t mind and was even used to, but I could also sense something else- pity. I felt she pitied me for losing my identity and I suddenly felt defensive. I wanted her to know that though I may have failed to learn Yoruba, I never lost my identity. I wanted to tell her that although I may not know all the ins and outs of the proud culture of my ancestors, I am nevertheless fiercely proud of the particular nook of the world I was born in, the colorful traditions and the beautifully expressive language of my parents. I needed her to know though, that my identity was never hinged solely on these factors. My identity has always been more complex, influenced as much by my place of birth and ethnicity as by the fact that I have lived on three continents, have called five cities home and a thousand other factors.

All of this would have to go unsaid. I was happy to finally be on my way

“Thank you Ma,” I said respectfully as she handed me my receipt. I wasn’t going to wait around until the afternoon to pick up my new identity card. I would head home and come back the following day to pick it up.

My my new ID card being forged will be plastic and small. It will be easily breakable if put under enough pressure. It will be possible for it to get stolen or to simply get lost. Thankfully my identity is exactly the opposite. It is broad, malleable and impossible to lose nor misplace. And no matter how many languages I may or may not be able to speak, and no matter how many condescending comments and pitying looks I may receive in the future about this, I know my identity will be just fine.

Momentary Embers

blog love pic

It’s true when they say you’ll never see it coming,
But even if you could,
you would never be able to brace yourself
For the full force with which the gusts of this perfect storm will hit you.

And herein lies one of life’s most beautiful ironies
You can spend years waiting for this feeling you aren’t even sure you will recognize.
Impatiently aching to finally ride the roller coaster of emotions that come
When you simply know that your heart has fallen.

And the moment you stop yearning,
There you find it.
This feeling of bliss,
Undeniably standing right in front of you.
Like a wild flame drawing you deep within its crimson glow,
Each fiber of your being pulled towards its mesmerizing warmth.

You can try to keep yourself from it,
To run and hide from the third degree burns that might scar your heart for years.
But if only you knew of the rarity of this fire
And understood its worth,
You would plunge in headfirst and let it consume you completely.
Offering your whole body on its lofty pyre.
You would allow its heat to seep into your pores and flow through your veins
Replacing the blood within with life itself,
Transforming your DNA till you have wings to fly,
Lungs to breathe underwater and the strength to take over the world.

But you must know that the nature of these flames is that they may last a life time
Or may flicker out and die within the span of a heartbeat.
And because you will fear the cold darkness that settles in
After the final embers are quenched,
You may strive to make it last longer than is natural.
Heaping effort like dry twigs onto the flame to keep it alive.
But if you do you will learn the hard way just how grave your folly is,
Because to do so is to smother this flame and to snuff it out even before its time.

Because this fire cannot be forced to bend to your will.
You can neither spark it into life, nor can you sustain its blaze.
In the light of its power
All you can do, indeed all you must do
Is to fill your heart with gratitude as you allow it to take you to new peaks,
Fully exploring the depths of this joy.
Be aware that it exists only in the moment,
And that the next moment is never guaranteed.
But be content in knowing
That a moment of this ecstasy is more than all you’ll ever need.

 

One Breath at a Time

Whenever you find yourself anxious or stressed about something you need to do in the future, practice taking things

one day at a time,
one hour at a time,
one moment at a time,
one BREATH at a time.

Things always have a way of working themselves out when you do this.

And if ever you need reassurance that this is the case, ask yourself,

‘Am I still breathing?’

And if your answer to this question is yes, congratulations!

You’re officially an  expert at taking things one breath at a time. That’s at least one task you’ve been able to complete succesfully. And if you remember to keep things this simple, life’s bigger tasks tend to seem less threatening.

3 Steps to Help You Get Through Your Quarter-Life Crisis

depressed-black-man

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

It can be quite torturous to transition from adolescence to adulthood. When the time comes, like an unwilling snake shedding its skin, we find ourselves forced to shed the aura of invincibility we wore during the carefree period of our teens/early twenties as we enter the adult world of uncertainty, self-doubt and endless responsibilities. When I was younger, I saw my adolescence as a large ramp that would launch me into an epic and world-altering future filled with creative opportunities and excitement. The world was nothing if not my oyster and I was bound to conquer it in time. Now I often look at my life and wonder when exactly all of this awesomeness is finally going to kick into effect. Surely it should have taken place by now. The stress of coming to terms with the disillusionment that is typical of this transition period has led to the coining of the term ‘quarter-life crisis.’

What follows are 3 tips that can help you through your quarter-life crisis based on the lessons I’ve learned from dealing with mine.

1. Rediscover the Beauty in the Ordinary

I suppose all generations have had to deal with difficult transitions to adulthood in their own ways but ours was the generation that was told we were special and this has perhaps screwed with our minds and led to our dissatisfaction more than anything else. We grew up believing that the universe itself owed us magical lives and careers and that there is something inherently wrong with the simple and the mundane. The biggest lesson I have learned so far is to appreciate simplicity in my life and to be thankful for the mundane. Rather than pining after lofty goals of perfection I make an effort now to appreciate where I am and how far I have already come. I’m not saying that big dreams and ambition are overrated but I’ve learned not to let my dreams of achieving something legendary with my life block me from seeing the beauty in what I am already doing with my life, no matter how simple or ordinary it may be.

2. Ignore the Lie that is Social Media

Our generation is also the most connected generation ever and our addiction to social media provides new pressure on all of us to be established, successful and fulfilled twenty-somethings. Though we are smart (or cynical) enough to know that the rosy images of perfection we see on our five-inch phone screens are probably fake or embellished, we scroll through our friends profiles, resentful that what we see isn’t our reality. Learning not to compare one’s life to what we see on these screens is a key factor to conquering this quarter-life slump.

Social media is so toxic that in the rare cases where we actually do feel accomplished and perhaps a bit content with our lives, all it takes is one of twitter’s ‘goals’ hashtags to remind us about just how much more we need to be doing to achieve our #relationshipgoals or #fitnessgoals. We pursue these in a constant march towards an ideal we know isn’t real and we wonder why we are miserable. Sometimes we simply need to switch off our phones or at least learn to ignore these lies.

3. Talk about how things aren’t how you want them to be

The idea of trying to measure up to what we know is false is pretty ridiculous but it isn’t what is most absurd about all of this. What is even worse is how reluctant we are to simply admit our disenchantment and talk honestly about it. Instead we would rather continue to pretend that things are perfect in our lives by posting staged and heavily edited Instagram photos or lying to our friends at reunions. For a generation that prides itself in its authenticity we miss the mark terribly here. When was the last time you saw an honest Facebook status update about frustrated dreams, or an Instagram photo capturing the heartbreak of a breakup? Imagine for a second how different things could be if we were all this honest and our newsfeeds and timelines were venues where people could freely express their low moments as often as their highs. Not only would this cause the unnecessary pressure to be perfect to fade away but we would also be more likely to receive the much needed comfort and encouragement from friends and loved ones that can pull us out of this quarter-life crisis.

So friends if things aren’t how you imagined they would be at this point in your life, you aren’t alone. Most of us are just figuring this out as we go along. Acknowledge the disappointment you’re feeling but take a second to appreciate the beauty in the little things that are working for you. Don’t try to measure up to any unreal fantasies and most importantly don’t be afraid to talk about it.

I for one will be here to listen.

 

A Drowned Hope-The Plight of Europe’s Refugees

We live in a small world where budget airlines and satellite television have helped turn our world into a global village. However to many of us, the daily explosions that rock Syria and Iraq might as well be taking place on a far-away planet. We know the horrors of every-day life in Syria are but a few hours away from the economic centers of London and Paris or the bustling markets of Dakar and Nairobi. But somehow these problems, because they are happening over there, remain for the most part ignored as we go about our lives relatively unperturbed.

We live in a world where Facebook and Face-Time render border checkpoints and visa requirements obsolete as they connect people from different corners of the Earth. But apparently only when it is convenient. When it isn’t so convenient we would like to pretend that Damascus and Berlin are a million miles away. Businessmen turned politicians lay out their plans to literally build walls to separate ‘our’ country from others in order to keep the problems out. And we are able to continue believing the fantasy that the problems in one part of the world are only their problems and not ours.

But for a brief spell I felt hope that recent events might be forcing us to think differently. Last September, the shocking image of a three year old child lying lifeless on a Greek beach drew our collective attention to the influx of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe from the Middle East and other parts of the world. In a very short amount of time, tens of thousands of refugees and migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan arrived in Europe, passing freely through several European borders on their journey. Some European citizens trudged out to train stations to welcome them as they arrived, offering them food, drink and a warm smile. Others less graceful, shook their heads and took to social media to complain about the beginning of the end of European identity. But either way, whether these refugees were greeted with a smile or with scorn, Syria’s troubles were no longer a world away. The casualties of Assad’s regime and Daesh’s brutality had arrived at Europe’s doorstep.

I hoped that the increased news coverage and social media chatter that this brought about would translate into an increase in solidarity and empathy for the plight of these refugees. And the initial response I saw was encouraging. In September 2015 Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel committed to welcome 800,000 refugees and migrants in 2015 alone. Articles appeared on the internet about ordinary citizens opening up their homes to asylum seekers and websites were set up to match those willing to share their homes with refugees needing a place to stay. When I saw so many people passing freely through the borders on their way to Germany and Austria and heard these heartwarming stories of how they were being welcomed, I allowed myself to believe that we might just be witnessing the beginning of something special. That perhaps the façade of a divided world was stripping away to reveal the truth that all of our walls, borders and differences do nothing to negate the fact that we are one humanity- no matter where in the world we may be from.

But it didn’t take too long for all of this optimism to fade. Right wing leaders soon pounced on the opportunity to demonize and vilify the refugees in order to score cheap political points. Fences went up and border checks points were reinstated. The public mood towards the refugees soured over the New Year’s Eve festivities as reports arose that the perpetrators of the Cologne sex assaults were of North African and Middle Eastern origin. And finally a few days ago the Danish parliament voted to approve a plan to confiscate assets from arriving refugees following similar legislation in Switzerland. The fact that these two nations with such strong humanitarian legacies would approve this unfair legislation demonstrates better than any other incident the shift in public sentiment towards refugees and migrants.

The hope that arose at the peak of the crisis drowned as quickly as the thousands who lost their lives at sea trying to get to Europe. It appears that the artificial barriers that exist in people’s hearts and minds separating ‘us’ from ‘them’ remain even more impermeable than the walls, fences and borders that divide nations. And it remains unclear what it would take to change this.

 

boat drown

An Ode to Dakar- Africa’s Best Kept Secret

 

When I learned that I would be coming to Dakar for a six-month internship, I expected to land in a dry city with a harsh desert climate and endure a miserable time. Now well into the third year of my stay, I am fascinated by the many ways this city continues to captivate me. Looking back, the misperceptions I had of the city I now fondly call home seem ridiculous but I only had them because of how little of Senegal and its gorgeous capital Dakar is known outside of Senegal. In fact I am convinced that Dakar must be Africa’s best kept secret.

Before coming here, no one ever told me about the stable democracy that shines as an example to the rest of Africa, and the fact that the country has never once had a coup d’état in its history. No one told me of the peaceful and religious tolerance that reigns here or of the fact that in a region of heightened insecurity, Senegal has never experienced a single terrorist attack.

No one prepared me for the warmth of the Senegalese welcome- Teranga, they call it, and the intimacy of eating Thiebou Diene in a shared dish with four strangers turned friends.  Coming from a country where this Teranga is not the norm and where one has to assert one’s self to survive I found this Senegalese spirit more than endearing and I can happily say that I have gotten used to it.

No one spoke to me about Dakar’s bustling night life, and salsa soirées. Or of the young and hip mix of Dakarois and Dakar expats that faithfully attend So Nandité’s Sunday brunches and events. I have come to discover that Dakar is a haven of young talent, with many artists regularly showing off their skills at open-mic nights, slam poetry evenings or back-yard fashion shows.

No one told me about Seoul 2- a restaurant that has very little to do with Korea- with Lamb Dibi so delicious that inspite of the incredibly slow service, no matter how many times you silently swear to never return, the delicious food brings you back like a magic trick that never gets old.

No one could have possibly described Dakar’s Corniche to me- miles and miles of winding roads dotted with palm trees overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the city’s wonderful shores. Dakar’s beaches are probably its finest asset and the fact that there are so many in the city and not hours away adds an unquestionable charm to this sea side city. No one also told me how obsessed Senegalese are with fitness as I’ve seen countless runners and athletes turn the beach into their gym as they tirelessly pursue their fitness goals.

As I write this I am sitting on a bench overlooking the cliffs that surround the Mosquée de la Divinité. These steep cliffs break sharply into the crystal blue Atlantic Ocean and never fail to take my breath away each time I pass them. The benches peppered along this prime section of ocean side real estate are my favorite places to sit and reflect and whenever I do, I never take for granted how lucky I am to have gotten to know this city as well as I do.

I realize that I may of course be seeing what I want to see through rose colored glasses. I can’t tell the story of my love for Dakar without also speaking about the thousands of street children- ‘talibés’ that wander the city’s streets begging for money and the complexities of the social arrangement that allows and encourages this. And I don’t want to gloss over the natural frustrations that can be found in any developing country. You’ll find them here, the inequality, the poverty, and corruption- they exist and Senegal must work on tackling these. But I feel as though those stories have already been told.

I want to tell another story, one I feel hasn’t been told enough. A story of pride, genuine hospitality, gorgeous beaches and timeless sunsets.

Hopefully this story will get out and spread because Dakar is Africa’s best kept secret and I want to share it with everyone.

 

 

 

Clarity

On the edge of a thousand cliffs

Staring down at the depths,

At the crests of a thousand waves.

Is it fear, indifference or hope,

That reigns in the moment?

Feet frozen, heart pounding, thoughts racing.

Clarity

Wake Me UP

Wake me up,
…But not quite yet.
This strange dream overwhelms my conscience and I’m
Drifting, slipping, sliding,
Stirred along by calming qualms,
pulled along by striking contradictions
As I struggle to see past the clear fog.

Break.

But only until the silence crushes my ear drums,
Drums beating to a solemn tune … somewhat subdued yet ringing of hope?
Wake me up,
…But not yet,

At least not before I decide whether this is a nightmare or not,
And find out where this idyllic fading, waning leads to.
Thick sweat drips from my brow
As the droplets morph into deep inviting pools

Pools that that carry me until I land on the shores of a thick jungle,
Thick vines become headrests, thorny stalks comfy pillows,
Overwhelmed I lay down my head and I…

…Wake up.

Not a break this time, it’s over for real.
And as I lay drenched in confusion over what it all could mean
I find myself drawn back to the calming uncertainty of that
Dense, vivid, clear and pure realm.

And I ask myself,
Was that the dream? Or has my dream only just begun?

Dance Till It Feels OK

Dance in the embrace of the moonlit night,
to the tune of the twilight’s promises and dreams.
Spin to the rhythm of the ocean’s heavy tides
knowing that nothing is ever what it seems
Fade into all the harmonies that greet the rising dawn,
Fall into the hope of the new day that is born.