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.