The Unlikely Cartographers of Turnhout

Two weeks ago, I had dinner with a friend of mine, M at my favourite Greek restaurant. At some point during the meal , we spied a black guy who peered in at us every time he passed by (rather too often). Although we thought it strange, we thought very little of it.
After dinner, full of energy and reluctant to return to our homes, we decided to go for drinks at a café near by. After about half an hour, the same black guy entered , ordered a glass of coca-cola and sat across from us. He did not say a word to either M or me. We ignored him, and he had two glasses of coca-cola and left. M let out a sigh of relief and said, I thought we were being stalked. We continued to enjoy our evening out without much thought of the man.
When the café closed, we went over to Franco’s, a really cosy wine bar across the road with an ebullient Italian host. An hour later the same black guy entered! He still did not talk to us. He sat down at a table near ours and ordered coca-cola again. Somehow whenever my friends and I arrive, Franco feels obliged to play “black music”. Rhianna. Alexander Burke. Beyonce. You get the drift. Mercifully he also plays- especially for us- a lot of Marley. As soon as he started to play Marley, the guy got up and started dancing. It looked as if Redemption Song was being played especially for him, as if it meant a lot more to him than we could ever imagine. He closed his eyes and danced around in a state of euphoria that could not have been brought about by the glass after glass of coca cola he had been drinking. It was obvious he was enjoying himself. That was when it hit me. He wasn’t stalking us, at least not in the way we had thought he was. He was simply using us as his cartographers to map out Turnhout Night life, even though it was obvious he was not visiting the city, but lived here.
My friends and I have always been the only black people at every café, every wine bar, every restaurant we’ve been to in Turnhout. It used to bother me before, but I have to admit that I got so used to it that I stopped noticing. Until that one night when we became the unlikely cartographers of the city to one probably lonely man. It must say something about the city though that its black population is locked out (for whatever reason) of its night life, but whatever it is it says , I haven’t got a single clue.
Last week we were at a tapas bar and the same black guy passed by again, and peered in. He caught my eye. I bet that tapas bar has gained a new client.

Upstairs. Downstairs

I am a bit late with wishing you all a happy new year, but it is well meant etcetcetc
I’ve made a few resolutions this year, some of which I’ve already broken (and it is so early in the year too!) , but there is in particular I’m glad I’ve already begun work on. No, it’s not getting in more exercise ( I am useless at that), or being more patient (unfortunately), but it is to do more cultural stuff. On Sunday , I went to our cultural centre, CC De Warande and sat through “Overlezen” . “Overlezen” is a monthly event, with a guest writer to talk about his/her latest offering with a host. There are also verbal mini-reviews by two well known critics, some music , and a book of the month. It is almost like a book club, but much more. Apparently, the same bunch of book lovers turn up every month (they all seemed to know each other): well dressed, mostly middle aged men and women. I spotted a few young men ( poetic looking types with tousled hair) and a young woman (the guest writer’s girlfriend, I think she was).
The book of the month discussed was To Kill a Mocking Bird, that American classic that everyone should read at least once before they die. I tell you, there was something slightly surreal hearing TKAMB discussed in a room where one is the only black person present, but not the only black person in the building. Two floors below, a church service was in full swing. There were about fifty black men and women (many of them young) singing, and dancing, and praying in tongues at whom I ‘d taken a quick peek at when I walked in.
I was glad I was upstairs though (not because I dislike church services), but because there is an absence of African/black presence in cultural events here. And like the Flemish proverb says, Wie niet aan tafel zit is vergeten (he who does not sit at the table, is forgotten).

Where Getting a Job as a Cleaner is More Difficult than a Camel Going through the Eye of a Needle

A few weeks ago I had lunch with Funmi, a recent immigrant from Nigeria. Funmi moved from Lagos to Antwerp at the beginning of the year to join her business man husband. With a degree in communications and a few years of work experience , she was sure that finding an appropriate job was only a matter of time. Quite logical to think that, right?

Well, almost a year down the line , not only has Funmi not got any job close to what she had hoped to get, she has failed to get a job in a sector she had never thought she would apply to work in.
Desperate to get a job and escqpe the claustrophobia of staying inside the house, Funmi had begun soliciting for cleaning jobs. Any job was better than nothing and she was not afraid of getting her hands dirty washing toilets and dusting counters (plus she had given up hopes of ever getting a job commensurate with her qualifications). Much to her dismay however, jobs in that sector proved as elusive to her as jobs in the communications industry. A “kindly” job placement official to whom she had gone about a job cleaning an office told her that her inability to speak fluent Dutch made her unqualified for the job. Funmi has enough Dutch language skills to hold a conversation but no, she had to be fluent. to clean “ Go and register at a language school and apply again when your Dutch has improved!” Presumably kitchen counters and office floors do not take kindly to cleaners who do not speak to them fluently in their own language. Never knew that, but hey, we live and learn.

Being somewhat inclined to thinking (sometimes), after I left Funmi, I thought , in what sort of world is it close to impossible for a university graduate to get a job cleaning? And what sort of government wastes talent by underutilizing it and making a cleaning job abroad a viable option for its young graduates? (I have the latter thought very frequently, and it is not only cleaning jobs. It’s prostitution, it’s wiping octogenarian butts, it’s working as factory hands ) These are the questions that still harass me even as I write this. And perhaps the longer I stay here and hear stories of different migrant experiences, I am doomed to being hounded by variations of the same questions. Well we’ve all got our crosses to bear, right?

But Where are you Really From?

A few weeks ago, I went to see a one man show staged by the brilliant Bode Owa at the Zuiderpers Huis in Antwerp.

Bode is a fireball. On stage he jumps, he hops, he hums, he strums. He does not keep still. He is one of our success stories, the only Nigerian actor on Belgian TV. To watch Bode on stage is an experience that never fails to move one. Depending on which side of the fence you are sitting on, it either burns you or it warms you.

Bode uses his shows to poke at the society’s conscience. One of his earliest shows I watched was a monologue in which his character, a Nigerian student who has just moved to Belgium from Lagos, sends a letter home to tell his parents about the “wonders” of “abroad.” He writes to them of how when he travels on buses and trams, he has an entire seat to himself, like a prince, even when the bus or tram is crowded. Unlike in Lagos, he writes, where he always had to share, where nobody would stand if there was the slightest chance of sitting, no matter how uncomfortably. It is obvious to the audience what he is alluding to; there is hardly any black person in his audience who has not experienced it: white commuters avoiding sitting next to you, and perhaps some white people in the audience who have gone out of their way to avoid sitting next to a black passenger.

Anyway, so the show I went to see a few weeks ago examines race and identity in a community where nationality is tied to colour. The protagonist is the black adopted child of white Belgian parents. He feels Belgian, speaks unaccented Flemish, has never been to Africa but still gets the, But where are you really from? Question from fellow Belgians. His “I am Belgian and proud of it” is met with laughter and ridicule. The older he gets, the more frustrated he becomes with a society that insists on imposing a foreign identity on him. He sinks into a depression and kills himself. The strength of this piece is not the issues it addresses, but the manner in which they are addressed: with humour and irony, yet capturing all the pathos of anyone who has ever felt rootless.

It was Bode’s birthday recently and my wish for him is that he stays with us for a very long time, creating these works that kick out and question, yet remaining tender like a mother’s love.

I Can’t Even Draw a Straight Line

I have known Lawrence for over ten years: certainly enough time to claim to know him well. Before last week I would have claimed to know enough about Lawrence to call him a friend.  Lawrence works in a chocolate factory (and sometimes brings me some chocolates from work.)  He has four children. He is Nigerian.  He is not loud. He is clean shaven. He looks like Two Face Idibia. It never occurred to me that I knew nothing of Lawrence’s past. My knowledge of him began and ended with his life in Belgium.

Last week when I moderated a panel discussion/debate with the Ambassador of Nigeria and two other Nigerians, I invited Lawrence to sit in the audience, because I thought he might enjoy it. It was a lively discussion especially as one of the panelists , a former professor of engineering, a passionate but disillusioned Nigerian decided to make it interactive and asked the audience, “If you stood before your maker today and He asked, what would you tell him that your country did for you?” When Lawrence spoke, his voice carried his frustrations and the weight of dead dreams. He said, I am very disappointed in Nigeria. I’ll tell my maker that. As I stand before you I am an architect. But my profession is dead to me here. I can’t even draw a straight line because since I left Nigeria almost twenty years ago, I’ve never worked as an architect.

Lawrence’s story is sad, but it is the story, tragically of many Nigerian migrants here. They have university degrees, but are forced to become economic migrants in a society where nothing they know matters anymore. They staff bread factories and chicken farms, watching their dreams die so that they can put bread on the table for their families. Lawrence knows that the longer he stays here, the lower the chances that he’d ever be able to draw a a straight line again, but Nigeria is a not a home he is willing to return to right now. That is also the tragedy of Nigeria

Happy Birthday, Nigeria

Tomorrow is October 1 when Nigeria turns fifty! I have been of the mind that there isn’t much to celebrate, and the news from home does very little to cheer one up: fifteen nursery school pupils kidnapped in Aba; billions of naira earmarked for the anniversary celebrations in Nigeria; cholera outbreak in the north of Nigeria.

Yet, the BBC World Service persists in running series of programmes around Nigeria. I have been too distressed to listen to them but today, driving one of my sons to his piano lessons, I caught Alhaji Maitama Sule on ‘Memories’. There was so much joy in his voice when he spoke of the day Nigeria gained her independence. He was thirty years old, the youngest member of the new cabinet. He spoke of the dreams and the hopes those who were witness to the hoisting of the Nigerian falg that day in Lagos, had for the newly independent country. I envied him hi sjoy. I envied him his memories of acountry which was as close to perfection as ny country could be. More than that, Ienvied him his optiimism – despite having seen Nigerian go through coups and countercoups; a civil war, military dictatorships, keptomaniac regimes – that Nigeria will one day fulfil its lost promise. Perhaps one needed to have been witness to a great Nigeria to have the capacity to harbour such ambitious dreams for the Nigeria of today.

God bless Nigeria. God bless us all.

The Unlikely Cartographers of Turnhout

Two weeks ago, I had dinner with a friend of mine, M at my favourite Greek restaurant. At some point during the meal , we spied a black guy who peered in at us every time he passed by (rather too often). Although we thought it strange, we thought very little of it.
After dinner, full of energy and reluctant to return to our homes, we decided to go for drinks at a café near by. After about half an hour, the same black guy entered , ordered a glass of coca-cola and sat across from us. He did not say a word to either M or me. We ignored him, and he had two glasses of coca-cola and left. M let out a sigh of relief and said, I thought we were being stalked. We continued to enjoy our evening out without much thought of the man.
When the café closed, we went over to Franco’s, a really cosy wine bar across the road with an ebullient Italian host. An hour later the same black guy entered! He still did not talk to us. He sat down at a table near ours and ordered coca-cola again. Somehow whenever my friends and I arrive, Franco feels obliged to play “black music”. Rhianna. Alexander Burke. Beyonce. You get the drift. Mercifully he also plays- especially for us- a lot of Marley. As soon as he started to play Marley, the guy got up and started dancing. It looked as if Redemption Song was being played especially for him, as if it meant a lot more to him than we could ever imagine. He closed his eyes and danced around in a state of euphoria that could not have been brought about by the glass after glass of coca cola he had been drinking. It was obvious he was enjoying himself. That was when it hit me. He wasn’t stalking us, at least not in the way we had thought he was. He was simply using us as his cartographers to map out Turnhout Night life, even though it was obvious he was not visiting the city, but lived here.
My friends and I have always been the only black people at every café, every wine bar, every restaurant we’ve been to in Turnhout. It used to bother me before, but I have to admit that I got so used to it that I stopped noticing. Until that one night when we became the unlikely cartographers of the city to one probably lonely man. It must say something about the city though that its black population is locked out (for whatever reason) of its night life, but whatever it is it says , I haven’t got a single clue.
Last week we were at a tapas bar and the same black guy passed by again, and peered in. He caught my eye. I bet that tapas bar has gained a new client.

Upstairs. Downstairs

I am a bit late with wishing you all a happy new year, but it is well meant etcetcetc
I’ve made a few resolutions this year, some of which I’ve already broken (and it is so early in the year too!) , but there is in particular I’m glad I’ve already begun work on. No, it’s not getting in more exercise ( I am useless at that), or being more patient (unfortunately), but it is to do more cultural stuff. On Sunday , I went to our cultural centre, CC De Warande and sat through “Overlezen” . “Overlezen” is a monthly event, with a guest writer to talk about his/her latest offering with a host. There are also verbal mini-reviews by two well known critics, some music , and a book of the month. It is almost like a book club, but much more. Apparently, the same bunch of book lovers turn up every month (they all seemed to know each other): well dressed, mostly middle aged men and women. I spotted a few young men ( poetic looking types with tousled hair) and a young woman (the guest writer’s girlfriend, I think she was).
The book of the month discussed was To Kill a Mocking Bird, that American classic that everyone should read at least once before they die. I tell you, there was something slightly surreal hearing TKAMB discussed in a room where one is the only black person present, but not the only black person in the building. Two floors below, a church service was in full swing. There were about fifty black men and women (many of them young) singing, and dancing, and praying in tongues at whom I ‘d taken a quick peek at when I walked in.
I was glad I was upstairs though (not because I dislike church services), but because there is an absence of African/black presence in cultural events here. And like the Flemish proverb says, Wie niet aan tafel zit is vergeten (he who does not sit at the table, is forgotten).

Where Getting a Job as a Cleaner is More Difficult than a Camel Going through the Eye of a Needle

A few weeks ago I had lunch with Funmi, a recent immigrant from Nigeria. Funmi moved from Lagos to Antwerp at the beginning of the year to join her business man husband. With a degree in communications and a few years of work experience , she was sure that finding an appropriate job was only a matter of time. Quite logical to think that, right?

Well, almost a year down the line , not only has Funmi not got any job close to what she had hoped to get, she has failed to get a job in a sector she had never thought she would apply to work in.
Desperate to get a job and escqpe the claustrophobia of staying inside the house, Funmi had begun soliciting for cleaning jobs. Any job was better than nothing and she was not afraid of getting her hands dirty washing toilets and dusting counters (plus she had given up hopes of ever getting a job commensurate with her qualifications). Much to her dismay however, jobs in that sector proved as elusive to her as jobs in the communications industry. A “kindly” job placement official to whom she had gone about a job cleaning an office told her that her inability to speak fluent Dutch made her unqualified for the job. Funmi has enough Dutch language skills to hold a conversation but no, she had to be fluent. to clean “ Go and register at a language school and apply again when your Dutch has improved!” Presumably kitchen counters and office floors do not take kindly to cleaners who do not speak to them fluently in their own language. Never knew that, but hey, we live and learn.

Being somewhat inclined to thinking (sometimes), after I left Funmi, I thought , in what sort of world is it close to impossible for a university graduate to get a job cleaning? And what sort of government wastes talent by underutilizing it and making a cleaning job abroad a viable option for its young graduates? (I have the latter thought very frequently, and it is not only cleaning jobs. It’s prostitution, it’s wiping octogenarian butts, it’s working as factory hands ) These are the questions that still harass me even as I write this. And perhaps the longer I stay here and hear stories of different migrant experiences, I am doomed to being hounded by variations of the same questions. Well we’ve all got our crosses to bear, right?

But Where are you Really From?

A few weeks ago, I went to see a one man show staged by the brilliant Bode Owa at the Zuiderpers Huis in Antwerp.

Bode is a fireball. On stage he jumps, he hops, he hums, he strums. He does not keep still. He is one of our success stories, the only Nigerian actor on Belgian TV. To watch Bode on stage is an experience that never fails to move one. Depending on which side of the fence you are sitting on, it either burns you or it warms you.

Bode uses his shows to poke at the society’s conscience. One of his earliest shows I watched was a monologue in which his character, a Nigerian student who has just moved to Belgium from Lagos, sends a letter home to tell his parents about the “wonders” of “abroad.” He writes to them of how when he travels on buses and trams, he has an entire seat to himself, like a prince, even when the bus or tram is crowded. Unlike in Lagos, he writes, where he always had to share, where nobody would stand if there was the slightest chance of sitting, no matter how uncomfortably. It is obvious to the audience what he is alluding to; there is hardly any black person in his audience who has not experienced it: white commuters avoiding sitting next to you, and perhaps some white people in the audience who have gone out of their way to avoid sitting next to a black passenger.

Anyway, so the show I went to see a few weeks ago examines race and identity in a community where nationality is tied to colour. The protagonist is the black adopted child of white Belgian parents. He feels Belgian, speaks unaccented Flemish, has never been to Africa but still gets the, But where are you really from? Question from fellow Belgians. His “I am Belgian and proud of it” is met with laughter and ridicule. The older he gets, the more frustrated he becomes with a society that insists on imposing a foreign identity on him. He sinks into a depression and kills himself. The strength of this piece is not the issues it addresses, but the manner in which they are addressed: with humour and irony, yet capturing all the pathos of anyone who has ever felt rootless.

It was Bode’s birthday recently and my wish for him is that he stays with us for a very long time, creating these works that kick out and question, yet remaining tender like a mother’s love.

I Can’t Even Draw a Straight Line

I have known Lawrence for over ten years: certainly enough time to claim to know him well. Before last week I would have claimed to know enough about Lawrence to call him a friend.  Lawrence works in a chocolate factory (and sometimes brings me some chocolates from work.)  He has four children. He is Nigerian.  He is not loud. He is clean shaven. He looks like Two Face Idibia. It never occurred to me that I knew nothing of Lawrence’s past. My knowledge of him began and ended with his life in Belgium.

Last week when I moderated a panel discussion/debate with the Ambassador of Nigeria and two other Nigerians, I invited Lawrence to sit in the audience, because I thought he might enjoy it. It was a lively discussion especially as one of the panelists , a former professor of engineering, a passionate but disillusioned Nigerian decided to make it interactive and asked the audience, “If you stood before your maker today and He asked, what would you tell him that your country did for you?” When Lawrence spoke, his voice carried his frustrations and the weight of dead dreams. He said, I am very disappointed in Nigeria. I’ll tell my maker that. As I stand before you I am an architect. But my profession is dead to me here. I can’t even draw a straight line because since I left Nigeria almost twenty years ago, I’ve never worked as an architect.

Lawrence’s story is sad, but it is the story, tragically of many Nigerian migrants here. They have university degrees, but are forced to become economic migrants in a society where nothing they know matters anymore. They staff bread factories and chicken farms, watching their dreams die so that they can put bread on the table for their families. Lawrence knows that the longer he stays here, the lower the chances that he’d ever be able to draw a a straight line again, but Nigeria is a not a home he is willing to return to right now. That is also the tragedy of Nigeria

Happy Birthday, Nigeria

Tomorrow is October 1 when Nigeria turns fifty! I have been of the mind that there isn’t much to celebrate, and the news from home does very little to cheer one up: fifteen nursery school pupils kidnapped in Aba; billions of naira earmarked for the anniversary celebrations in Nigeria; cholera outbreak in the north of Nigeria.

Yet, the BBC World Service persists in running series of programmes around Nigeria. I have been too distressed to listen to them but today, driving one of my sons to his piano lessons, I caught Alhaji Maitama Sule on ‘Memories’. There was so much joy in his voice when he spoke of the day Nigeria gained her independence. He was thirty years old, the youngest member of the new cabinet. He spoke of the dreams and the hopes those who were witness to the hoisting of the Nigerian falg that day in Lagos, had for the newly independent country. I envied him hi sjoy. I envied him his memories of acountry which was as close to perfection as ny country could be. More than that, Ienvied him his optiimism – despite having seen Nigerian go through coups and countercoups; a civil war, military dictatorships, keptomaniac regimes – that Nigeria will one day fulfil its lost promise. Perhaps one needed to have been witness to a great Nigeria to have the capacity to harbour such ambitious dreams for the Nigeria of today.

God bless Nigeria. God bless us all.