Je vous remercie mon Dieu de m’avoir créé Africaine
The question of identity is one humanity has examined and re-examined over the ages. Socrates posited “the unexamined life is not worth living,” setting the foundation of Greek thought, and eventually wider Western culture, on introspection. In certain respects the art of navel-gazing, of self-examination, that has brought out the best and worst of the West never had a chance to develop a stronghold in Africa. Why? A naive examination would consider “self-examination” a luxury within persistently poor economic conditions across the continent. This would ignore the work of (pre-)colonial era African philosophers like Cheik Anta Diop, Bernard Dadié, Wole Soyinka, Camra Laye and co. who, through activism and writing, shaped the landscape of African thought and African identity through the transition to independence and the embrace of pan-Africanism.
But then, of course, things fell apart and tend to shatter: the period of sustained ruminations (and all those cool photos of our parents looking seriously dapper in their Africanized take on Mad-Men fashion in the 60s) gave way to the harsh economic realities of the 80s. Structural adjustment, military coups and economic stagnation shifted the focus from the definition of the African identity to survival. Decades seemingly went fallow and the reigns guiding the definition of what it means to be African were handed over to the West: photos of suffering, of wars, famine and destruction crystallized the African identity on the world’s stage.
Now its 2012 and while Africa remains on the economic back foot there are green shoots, as it were, suggesting the possibility of more. Ranking countries across the globe by real GDP growth in 2011, 10 of the top 30 are African. According to management consultancy firm McKinsey, real GDP across the continent grew by 4.9% per year from 2000 to 2008: this resurgence of Africa has been a long time coming. Africa seems to have entered a period of change similar to the early days of the Italian renaissance: growth of industry, increasing prosperity, societal change and a need to expand personal identity in a way that captures all of these new dynamics. Now is the right time for Bobo Omotayo‘s collection of short stories on young African identity: London Life, Lagos Living (self-published in 2011).
A New African Identity
What does it mean to be African today? There has been a wholesale embrace of Afropolitanism by young Africa who have grown up experiencing a blend of African and Western cultures and the diversity of choice that comes with increased economic freedom. Cherchez la Curl is one such Afropolitan, having been born in the US and having swapped home-life between Nigeria and various parts of America until moving to Europe for school and work. I am as happy chowing down on a plate of pounded yam and egusi as I am eating at Noma*. For the many folks out there like me considerable thought is being put into expressing a new African identity.
Enter, stage left, Bobo Omotayo (who grew up swapping home-life between the UK and Nigeria) and his collection of short stories on life in Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos after moving ‘home’ from the UK. The book comprises a collection of his hilarious Bella Naija columns, providing a mirror into Lagos life, of champagne wishes and caviar dreams and the Lagosian obsession with bigger, better and faster (than my neighbours’). I wouldn’t go as far as to say the book provides a holistic portrayal of the modern African identity: a lot of Lagos’ hustle is specific to Lagos. However, the book’s focus on the balance between tradition and modernity is key to this new African identity.
I quite enjoyed this short documentary, a sort of supplement released following the London Life’s success following Mr. Omotayo give various radio interviews and speak about the book. Having written for various Nigerian publications, we finally hear Mr. Omotayo’s voice! Whatever quibbles I have with the book editorially are well compensated by the content: the stories by Mr. Omotayo supported by photography from Folarin Shasnaya, graphic art by Karo Akpokiere and illustrations by Gbolahan Adams.
* One of the highlights of my 2011 was a crazy weekend trip to Copenhagen to eat at Noma with one of my best buddies (Rene Redzepi himself served us and I was frozen with fan-girldom, unable to speak when he came to our table). After describing my 20+ course meal of foraged deliciousness to my family, I was informed I will likely be the first and last African to ever eat at Noma. I refuse to believe this. If you are African and have eaten at Noma, please comment below!
** House keeping: Cherchez la Curl was pleased to find that our article on Nigerian traffic app Traffic.com.ng was quoted by United Nations publication Southern Innovator!