From an Ethnic to an African Island
I first discovered Africa by way of islands.
I was a college student on exchange to University of Lagos and lived nearly a year on an island of colonial buildings, lazy beaches, and swaying coconut palms – that is, if you could see them through the haze of exhaust fumes, charcoal cooking fires, and crowded highways.
This at the time was the capital of Nigeria — a dirty, exciting, bustling, hustling, overgrown city centered on Lagos Island and extending to the mainland beyond. Lagos is Portuguese for “lakes,” though the island is actually surrounded by freshwater lagoons.
My journey to this place began years earlier. I grew up along the coastline of one of the Great Lakes, not on a physical but a political island. Chicago calls itself “a city of neighborhoods,” but the flip side of the coin is ethnic isolation. Rigidly defined by distinct boundaries, communities of Blacks, Mexicans, Poles, Lithuanians, Italians, and Irish met but did not mingle. Yet I always wondered what lay beyond those borders.
I became interested in African islands somewhere around the age of nine. That was when I first learned of Haiti, which is an island but not African although I didn’t know it then.
Though I’d never seen anything like it, there was something vaguely familiar about the performance of Haitians dancing in the Assembly Hall of Daniel Webster Elementary School. The syncopated drum rhythms were not altogether unknown to us. We’d heard echoes in Motown hits, the gospel music blasting from storefront churches, even in the tempos boys beat with pencils against their wooden school desks in moments of boredom.
The Haitians didn’t just dance and sing. They burst onstage in a syncopated fury of drums and limbs and voice. Athletic brown limbs bent and swayed. Gaily colored prints unfurled like tropical flags. Even their slip-ups seemed stylish.
One woman’s bright head-wrap unraveled, falling to the stage floor. The assembly heaved a collective gasp of dismay. Girl, did you see that? Ooh, what she going to do now? Why, she took an elegant foot and kicked it aside, shaking the braided forest of her uncovered head. As if to say, “look upon my African hair and behold the real me!” How could we even think it had been a mistake? Obviously this was some fancy dance move.
But just who were these people and where did they come from? A group of fourth grade girls debated the issue in hushed whispers on the single file march back to class. “Haiti.” I wondered from my place in line. “Is that someplace in Africa?”
Africa was a place we knew of, if only from the Tarzan movies we saw Saturday afternoons at the Reno Theater. The people we saw hefting spears and shouting “bwana” as Tarzan swung from vines played such long wooden drums, wore such tropical costumes, did such wild dances.
A little Pentecostal girl named Queen Esther detected a discernible difference between our Haitian dancers and the Hollywood Africans. I don’t know what the giveaway was. Maybe she sensed a difference in language, the French accent that flavored their spoken English as they explained that: “Eye-TEA is a land that is very-very hot.”
“No, they ain’t no Africans,” Queen Esther declared authoritatively. “They come from someplace else. Someplace evil.”
Queen Esther was a regular know-it-all, a Sanctified “holy roller.” Everyone thought her decidedly strange — the hair she wasn’t able to have straightened, not even on Sundays, the playground games she wouldn’t join in, the severe dark dresses that dipped well below the knee, her Bible-peppered speech set her apart from the Baptist majority in our school. So did my Catholic background, but that’s another story.
“If Haiti isn’t in Africa,” I insisted, “then where is it?”
“If you knew your Bible then you wouldn’t need to ask. That’s where people like you going who ain’t saved.”
“That’s Hades,” I corrected. “Not Haiti.”
I’m sure that if Queen Esther had known anything about the voudun (the original name for voodoo) many Haitians practiced, she would have felt even more justified in condemning those dancers as heathens from Hades, “a land that is (also) very-very hot.”
More ironic was that we lived a city settled some 200 years back by Black Haitian trader Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, though we didn’t know it. Schoolbooks had brainwashed us into thinking of George Kinsey as the great, white “Father of Chicago.”
That fourth grade experience was way back in 1962, yet the memory remains vivid. It was my first exposure to what would eventually become a lifetime pursuit — exploring the African Diaspora. Hearing the sounds and tasting the flavors. Learning to recognize the similarities and appreciate the differences among us.
Whatever shreds of Tarzan remaining in my consciousness had blown away by then, replaced by a romanticized view of Africa I developed as a 1970’s Black Power advocate. Lagos would lay that to rest. It was an exhilarating blur of urban sprawl, softened only slightly by the campus sanctuary I would retreat to at the end of each venture into the urban center.
I was no stranger to poverty but here I saw a different face of it — open sewers, lepers begging for alms on the street, nightsoil men carrying buckets of human waste atop their heads. I glimpsed obscene wealth, too — oil barons with Mercedes Benzes and offshore bank accounts, government officials who sent chauffeured limos to campus to collect their college girlfriends. Yet I also came to witness the proud, unselfconscious heritage that people wore as their birthright.
The moment I entered Lagos from the airport at Ikeja, the culture came leaping out at me. It was in the melodious tones of the Yoruba language that sounded almost like singing. It was in the candle-lit streets — yes, candle-lit! In the absence of streetlights, enterprising merchants had set up tables by the roadside, displaying miscellaneous items like candy and cigarettes. And everybody seemed dressed for a party.
To me African clothing was something kept pressed between plastic to bring out on special occasions. Here, people wore their heritage as an everyday affair — to sweep the floor, to braid their hair, to go to work. The news anchors on TV were clad in ashoke and agbadas. Even the beggars and nightsoil men and streetwalkers plied their trade in their national dress.
Lagos always seemed larger than life with its bustling markets and highways, its far-flung sections like Yaba, Surulere, and the old Brazilian Quarter. Then there were the terrible traffic jams Lagosians called “go-slow.” The difficulty getting from one end to another made it easy to forget that Lagos was an island – that is, until you tried to leave it. The city was connected to the mainland by a series of bridges that always seemed to be backed up for miles. Leaving Lagos could literally take hours.
Sometimes we braved the Carter Bridge “go-slow” for a getaway at Badagari Beach. A wealthy schoolmate’s family had a beachhouse that he would sneak us into when his parents were away. We needn’t have traveled that far. There was actually a small beach right there on campus, tucked away behind a marketplace that had sprung up on university grounds.
I remember the first time we discovered it. My roommate Khandi, an African American like myself and two Cameroonian exchange students went walking along the outskirts of campus one twilight evening. We passed through a clearing of palm trees and came upon a grainy beige beach fronted by a freshwater lagoon.
The night was hot and the water inviting. I wanted to waded in but Ngali said it wasn’t a good idea. He pointed to a bunch of transparent corpses piling up at the shoreline. Jellyfish he warned, could deliver quite a painful sting.
So we relaxed and watched the sunset. A fisherman drifted by in his craft, tossed out his nets like a lowflung constellation. The full moon and setting sun seemed to share the same sky. We began to frolic, two young couples with an excess of energy.
I did an impromptu backbend – I was much more flexible in those days — and Ikomi, my naughty Cameroonian boyfriend leaned over to cover my body with his. We then collapsed, laughing into the sand. Magic moments like this almost erased the more difficult memories.
Not all my experiences on Lagos Island were idyllic. I encountered prejudice and chauvinism, ethnic rivalries and tribalism. Some Nigerians welcomed us as Africa’s longlost children. Others pelted us with slurs like akata, a word that roughly translated means “wild animal.” I remember walking the streets of Lagos with Khandi one day, when two uniformed schoolboys came behind us, hurling insults.
“Akata!” one of them sneered. “You are neither white man nor black man.”
“And what are you, little boy?” I turned around and asked.
A frightened Khandi hustled me along as one of the enraged boys yelled “shit, baby!” at our backs. When I look back now it was a rather comical encounter. My question hadn’t been that off the mark, though. Many Lagosians had roots in other places.
I’d met people with names like Yinka de Jesus and Olufemi Farsnworth. Nineteenth century Lagos was a crown jewel of British West Africa, attracting migrants from as far away as Sierra Leone, Brazil, America, and the Caribbean. There were even mixed-race Lebanese and Syrians whose families had been there for nearly a century.
Journal entries that I recorded during my year-long sojourn were eventually stitched together with fiction and travel writings to form a story that would become my first novel, The River Where Blood Is Born. African islands continued to haunt my imagination and inhabit my stories – Mombassa, Kenya … St. Helena, South Atlantic… Goreé Island, Senegal.