Black Panther: Lessons for the Diaspora

 At this point I’m not even sure if there is a need to put any spoiler alerts in this post – we’ve all seen the epicness that is Black Panther by now (if you haven’t on a serious note, look away now).

Since it’s release, Black Panther has initiated a number of conversations about race, culture and identity and I am honestly so here for it. Why? Because amongst all the Twitter rants and threads, thought pieces and articles what we are doing is having conversations amongst ourselves.  I believe engagement amongst Africans and the African diaspora (Afro-Latinos, Caribbeans, African Americans, African Europeans) is so important for our development and with the help of social media, it is becoming more and more of an occurrence. The Black Panther movie is just one of the most powerful catalysts for this type of engagement so far.

The purpose of this post is really just to put my thoughts and feelings on some of the debate I’ve seen online in writing. Overall, I believe the feelings of pride and empowerment in its many forms that the Black Panther movie has brought about are justified, positive and something to be embraced.

African traditional wear as ‘cosplay’

One of the main features of the Black Panther phenomenon has been the wave of African pride, particularly amongst African Americans. This has seen cinema-goers across the globe dawning African traditional wear. Plainly the Black Panther movie has become synonymous with African pride. We’ve all seen the images of cinema-goers doing the absolute MOST – from Dashikis and African drums to Coming to America costumes and Egusi Soup in the cinema (the MOST).

Opinions about this trend have been divisive. On one side many people (Africans in particular) are not impressed and feel the wearing of their traditional cultural wear has been reduced to nothing but ‘cosplay’ and that such trends are similar to the scenes of any other Marvel movie. This is understandable. The narrative around Africa and its cultures have not always been this complimentary. In fact, many first-generation Africans who grew up in the West often recall being bullied for their backgrounds and it is common knowledge that amongst the African diaspora embracing one’s connection to Africa has historically been met with reluctance, to say the least, and even straight up denial of one’s African roots. So for it to take a fictional African country created by Hollywood to ignite one’s pride I can see why this would be problematic…

 

Firstly though, in my opinion, any film with a mostly black cast (and black director) that is not about slavery, struggle or gang violence is something to get hyped about! Representation of the kind displayed in Black Panther is something to get hyped about!  I think this is particularly relevant within the African American context. Living in the world that we do,  every one of us as Africans will continually take a journey of enlightenment about one’s identity and self-worth. It is important that we understand that this journey will be different for everyone depending on the context of one’s environment. It’s great if you are an individual that has held African pride from a young age but this will not be the case for many. For many African American’s, for example, African pride has been ignited recently by racial tensions and issues surrounding police brutality and indeed the Black Panther movie.

Black Panther
Black Panther

Sharing and learning 

My next point is this: if you are truly for the genuine portrayal of your culture and cultural wear, what are you doing to ensure this? I’m of the belief that making Twitter rants about your dislike for traditional wear at Black Panther screenings on its own no matter how valid your opinion is plainly redundant if we are not doing our part in the sharing and creation of positive narratives about our African identities.

I particularly loved this thread by @thediasporicblues on African tribes and cultures featured in Black Panther. That thread has received millions of hits and has been shared across all social media platforms – that’s millions of people possibly learning something new about the nuances of African cultures and traditional wear (I certainly did).

Part of the reason I created this platform was to share knowledge about the continent. After the UK, my largest audience is from the USA. I’d like to think there is an audience of African Americans who read my content and are learning about African cultures and opportunities from the perspective of a British Ghanaian. I think it’s important to make the most of the variety of perspectives and rich culture within the African diaspora which is ripe for sharing and learning. 

Black Panther
Black Panther

Even as first generation Africans with strong ties to our countries and tribes and even villages – what we know and understand about our cultures and the cultures of our fellow Africans is nothing but a drop in the ocean. We have still so much to learn about ourselves and about each other. Therefore who are we to look down on others with limited knowledge?

The evolution of culture 

When I was discussing this debate with a good friend of mine she raised a very interesting point about our use of traditional African wear as young Africans. For example, as second generation Africans living in the UK when we decide to wear ‘traditional’ clothing, we adopt modern and arguably ‘westernised’ styles to fit our dual identities. By the same argument, older Africans could attest that our portrayal of traditional wear is wrong since it does not fit their standard of what traditional wear is.

I think Black panther and particularly Killmonger’s character is a lesson for us all as Africans – our culture is our wealth and keeping that in our pockets only stifles our development and leads to division. #WAKANDAFOREVER

What are your thoughts? Comment below!

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An Interview with Okwu ID

Okwu Ndi Igbo na Ala Beke

(Igbo Diaspora Media)

 

Okwu ID is an independent platform of young Africans, telling their own stories and documenting their culture. Earlier this month I joined Okwu ID for the filming of a panel on sexism within the Igbo culture. On the agenda was:

How much to blame are women for enabling sexism within Igbo culture?

How much do you personally identify with your Mother’s/ Father’s view of manhood/ womanhood?

 Okwu ID lady’s panel 

These hard-hitting questions made for fascinating, passionate and often heated discussion which was amazing to observe from young Africans in London. As a non-Igbo (and non-Nigerian for that matter) learning about the Igbo culture in its own right in the organic form that is presented by Okwu ID has been incredibly interesting. So far it has been valuable to discover the nuances of Igbo culture as well as it’s similarities with my own.

 

My only exposure to the Igbo culture had been from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s depiction of the Igbo language and history in her novels. I also remember listening to a BBC World Service podcast entitled ‘Forgetting Igbo’ which was a fascinating account of one man’s exploration of the Igbo language and the idea that it is effectively ‘dying out’. I feel as though Okwu ID has tied all these themes together in a consistent platform.

 www.okwuid.com

Birthed Out Of Frustration

After the panel, I caught up with brother and sister Chukudubem (Chids) and Chinye, who form the sibling duo that makes up the founding members of Okwu ID. They discussed with me their motivations for creating the platform and what they see its purpose as. Chids who works in psychiatry and Chinye who works in the construction industry both run Okwu ID alongside their day jobs. However, the concept was the birth child of Chinye whose return from studying abroad ignited a frustration with the African community. “I studied and worked abroad for about 6 years and one of the things I learnt (especially in Denmark) was how societies work together to create a cohesive unit, and how having a unified identity and support system could change the face of a nation. When implemented this can allow them to direct their narrative.”

Thinking about her own cultural identity, Chinye realised that this was not a concept that was being applied within African/ Igbo communities worldwide. “When I returned from Denmark I came back to London wanting to know what Africans were doing across the board. I attended various events of different cultural groups trying to figure out what we were doing as a community. And to be honest I was quite disheartened as I felt like there were so many issues in our community that were not being addressed, and that if we do not act to direct our own narrative and to control our self-determination as people, looking into the future – where does the African stand?

Having a good cultural brand is important – it is important what people think of Nigerian people because it affects whether we get visas, our ability to travel and do business it is important that people respect your country and that’s what I learnt from living in a Nordic country. They have a fantastic PR system and we don’t and it affects the everyday lives of Nigerian people inside and outside of the diaspora and back home. Plainly, no matter where you go and whoever you are, you will always be African, so it is important that our image and narrative is a positive one. I think all that frustration just lead to a feeling that we had to do something.

 

Chinnye decided to take matters into her own hands and create her own initiative. But after trying a few things that did not really work especially as she was going it alone she created a poster which called for African creatives to get in touch. This is where her brother, Chids who, with a significant Twitter following and social media presence came in. He shared the poster and it was met with great interest. “We then specified that we needed people to take part in a discussion especially after seeing loads of discussion panels out there. Once we started getting responses from social media we thought ok wow, people are actually responding to this let’s do a pilot and see how it goes.” The pilot went well and after its success, they along with their brother Ike began to build the Okwu ID platform.

 

Okwu ID
Okwu ID
Okwu ID

Chids’ motivations for getting on board were aligned with Chineye’s, “Similar to my sister the project was birthed out of frustration from the lack of access to information and available networks within the Igbo and West African community. I also think Igbo culture can be quite individualistic and hyper-ambitious, so you have a lot of people that are not particularly concerned with group identity.” Chids also has a strong passion for dispelling misinformation about the Igbo culture, “there are a lot of things that you find online about our culture which is plainly incorrect. So part of the reason why we wanted to set up Okwu ID was to express a pro-Igbo and African narrative because we knew there was a lot of misinformation out there and a lot of people narrating the culture in a way that is detrimental to our people in general.

 

The siblings have since created a team behind Okwu ID with their complementary skills sets, “My sister came up with the concept and then it was lightning in a bottle: Chinnye who came up with the initial idea, my brother Ike who is quite tech savvy and myself who has a good network of people and a social media following so together we have consolidated our strengths and it has gone well from the first pilot.

Challenges

Okwu ID is currently a platform encompassing a Youtube Channel and Blogsite as well as the main social media platforms which currently each produce consistent content. This would be no easy feat for any content creator, but particularly for young people juggling full-time careers and education.

One of the main challenges I’ve encountered running Okwu ID is a constant conflict between the desire to do everything – keeping it in-house, within one small team of like-minded individuals, and not ‘burning out’” says Chids. “If all the major decisions are made between 2-3 people including organising and creating content, it’s easy to burn out and effectively create an ‘echo chamber’. In the future, it would be ideal to form a wider network of people who are truly interested so that we can delegate roles and have established roles but at the moment it makes the most sense to keep it in-house as we figure things out.”

Another challenge the siblings have encountered interestingly centres around the nature of the Igbo culture itself, Chinye mentions “an issue we’ve encountered is that certain people feel threatened by what we’re doing and it is quite disappointing as it is something that has plagued our community. Igbo people have historically democratic systems (i.e there are no Kings) and a lot of the cultural narrative is that you are your own King and that individualism can turn negative and can create unnecessary competitiveness. It would be better if we could come together. There is also a strange subculture amongst the older generation of Igbo people that want to keep Igbo culture in their pockets which is completely opposite to the premise of Okwu ID as we are about sharing, teaching and creating a network around our culture.”

Okwu ID on Youtube

 

Learning Points

I asked Chids and Chinnye what they have personally learnt about their own culture and history since launching Okwu ID.

Chids: “Getting an insight into different narratives. When you bring together different people across the Igboland you discover the impact of things beyond your immediate family or network e.g. when we discuss things like religion, patriarchy and gender dynamics I think – wow, these things have affected an entire nation of people in so many different ways

“From observing our analytics it has also been fascinating to see what culturally, people are drawn to i.e. men and women, British and US audiences. We can almost anticipate which subjects are going to resonate with who.”

 

Chinnye: “Learning more about the Biafran war. How it’s trickle-down effect has impacted people like our parents. Additionally, I have learnt more Igbo and since launching Okwu ID my Igbo has improved greatly from often doing infographics and language learning content and simply creating an environment where we can ask questions and practise.

 

There are also many misconceptions about Igbo people, culture and history. To Chinnye one of the most poignant to her is the idea that, “we are all light skinned. This narrative annoys me as often my Igboness is questioned as a dark-skinned Igbo woman” To Chids it is about the history of Nigerian Civil war and the view that “’Biafranism’ (the cessation of Igbo people from the rest of Nigeria to establish their own country) is something to fear.  One of the biggest misconceptions is that Igbo people are causing trouble and antagonising with the country, but Igbo people are just at the forefront of airing their grievances but all the grievances that Igbo people are airing are universal. I do not think there is any ethnic group that is particularly happy with Nigeria. We are speaking for the majority of Nigerians who are unhappy with the system.”

Goals and Takeaways

So what do the siblings hope that it’s audience take away from Okwu ID?

If there is one thing that I would like people who consume our content to know is that we (Igbo people) are African and we have been African since the dawn of humanity. There is another common misconception that we are descendants of Jews but we are not related to any semantic culture and our accomplishments have nothing to do with Palestine/ or Jews. This rhetoric is plainly anti-African.”

Through the Okwu ID platform, the siblings hope to encourage a pro-African narrative, the development of Igbo culture and language and create a network of young African people within the diaspora.

www.okwuid.com

Instagram: @okwuid

Twitter: @okwu_id

Contact

Are you Igbo? What is the most interesting thing about your culture? Okwu ID and I would love to hear from you, comment below!

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Eluo Festival 2017

This month I travelled back home to Ghana to witness a traditional Akan festival – The Eluo (el-wu-wo) (Yam) Festival in Sefwi (Seh-wi) in the Western Region of Ghana, which historically celebrates the beginning of Harvest. This year marked the first time the festival has been celebrated in 15 years.

Last year, my Dad became a Chief in our hometown of Sefwi Ahwiam – I wrote all about it in my post “The Role of Traditional Governance in Africa Today” and considered how traditional leaders may successfully lobby the interests of rural populations.

Sefwi-Wiawso, Western Ghana

(The view behind my Dad’s childhood home in Sefwi Wiawso.)

Firstly though, a bit about the region of Sefwi itself. Sefwi (Seh-wi) is one of many traditional areas located in the Western Region of Ghana. There are in fact about 48 languages spoken in Ghana, with Sefwi being the common dialect spoken in the area, although most people can speak the Asante language of Twi.

Traditional councils and customary laws are upheld under Ghanaian Constitutional law*. Sefwi-Wiawso (Seh-wi Your-su) is one of many of Ghana’s traditional councils operating alongside the democratic government and is made up of over 100 towns and villages.

Sefwi is said to be home to some of the country’s best cocoa farmers. Due to its large green landscapes and fertile soils (the Western Region has the highest rainfall in the country), the land serves as a food basket for Ghana. As well as cocoa, produce ranging from plantain to cashew nuts and coconuts to yam grow in abundance which also makes for some amazing views!

 

wiawso
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(Family cocoa farm in Sefwi-Wiawso)
An interesting fact about Sefwi is that it is home to Ghana’s only Jewish Community!

Eluo Festival 2017

The Eluo (el-wu-wo) Festival itself is celebrated by the Sefwi-Wiawso Traditional Council and consists of 3 parts over 3 days. The festival was historically celebrated to mark the beginning of harvest and the way that traditional leaders would manage and distribute produce amongst the people in order to prevent hunger, (traditionally no one is permitted to eat yam before the festival begins.)

In modern times the festival represents more of a symbol and celebration of tradition. Under King Katakyie Kwasi Bumagama II – the current Omanhene (King) of the Sefwi Wiawso Traditional Area, the theme for this year’s festival was “Fostering unity among Sefwis for accelerated socio-economic development.” It brought together both traditional and contemporary elements of Ghanaian culture.

Day One – Odwira 

Akan tradition is incredibly symbolic with much homage paid to the Ancestors. Once harvested, some of the yam is offered up to the Ancestors to show appreciation for a good harvest before being shared amongst the people.

 (Black and red attire as homage to the dead and warrior mars of clay representing victory)

The first day of the festival is dedicated to the Ancestors. It begins in the morning with a symbolic ceremony where a Chief goes to the river to catch a crab. Only once a crab is caught can the festival begin. It is then presented to the King as a symbol of victory and hung around his neck which marks the official start of the festival. Customary rites then begin at the palace with all attendees in mourning cloth (black and red) with some painting their faces black, in memory of the dead. Other symbols such as clay marks faces symbolise victory at war.

 

(Offering symbols of the harvest to the ancestors in the palace)

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 (Traditional dances form part of the customary rites. Queen Mothers performing the ‘Adowa’)
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 (Heralding the royal umbrellas used to shade the King and his Chiefs.)

After completion of the customary rites inside the palace, all attendees took their seats outside to pay homage to the King.


Day Two – Palanquin Celebration

The second day of the Festival marked the main part of the celebration.

It began with the King going back to the same river where the crab was caught the previous day to wash – this symbolises the washing of bad spirits. He was then placed in a palanquin (a box) to be carried through the principal streets 3 times. All chiefs followed, carried in their own palanquins and paraded by their people. Thousands gathered on the streets to witness the parade and cheer on their respective Chiefs and King to drumming, trumpets and traditional songs/ chants.

 Each Chief is shaded by an umbrella that represents their respective stools (area of governance). These umbrellas are usually adorned with Adinkra symbols – visual symbols that represent sayings/proverbs.

Celebrations including traditional dance, drumming and horns lasted throughout the day. After completing the parade the King and his Chiefs retired to the palace and offered yam to the ancestors.

Ghanaian Traditional dance “Adowa”

 

 

Day 3 – The Grand Durbar 

On this day, the King, Chiefs and people came together to meet and discuss issues and concerns.  Invited guests included President Nana Akufo-Addo, President of the Republic of Ghana whose representatives attended on his behalf. This was a chance for the Chiefs as representatives of people in their traditional rural areas to put their requests to the President and central government. It was also an opportunity to showcase our tradition to visitors.

 ‘Stool carriers’ carrying the stools each representing Kings that occupied them. Stools in Ghanaian tradition symbolises royalty.

Contemporary Elements 

Although the traditional part of the festival consisted of three days, celebrations lasted for about seven days and included modern activities and festivities. For instance, the day I arrived the ‘Miss Eluo’ pageant was underway, which showcased the talents of local girls and brought together hundreds of young people. Celebrations also included an Inter Schools Quiz Competition, an inter-town football gala and other sports as well as street parties (with a performance from Ghanaian artist/ comedian Kwaw Kese) and ended with a Thanksgiving Service in the local Church on Sunday.

These elements were a great way to engage the young in ancient traditional celebrations and to foster a sense of local pride and unity.

Plans for the future 

As well as celebrating cultural tradition the Festival marked a new era of development for the area. As discussed in my previous article, generally, traditional leaders work to support democratic governments particularly in the realm of development where they may lobby for the needs of the rural population. In the current Ghanaian government’s manifesto, it was promised that focus would be placed on the development of rural areas such as Sefwi in order to curtail increasing centralisation in the country which has been said to have left rural areas behind. One of the hopes of many people in Sefwi is for the government to approve the splitting up of the Western region and for Sefwi-Wiawso to become the regional capital of a new region: Western- North.

Currently many believe the region is too large, consisting of a vast number of tribes (including Fante and Nzema) and a total of 22 districts with not much decentralisation from the current capital of Sekondi-Takoradi. This has made it difficult to liaise with the central government due to distance and cultural differences. The hope is that the Festival sparks this conversation and the impetus for development in the area.

The king hopes that with sufficient funding, the festival may be celebrated every 2 years and that development in the area will be championed.

*According to the 1992 Constitution of Ghana, “The institution of chieftaincy, together with its traditional councils as established by customary law and usage, is…guaranteed”.

Videos:

Palanquin Celebration Part 1:

 

Palanquin Celebration Part 2:

It was such an amazing and fulfilling experience for me to witness this beautiful display of my culture…

Share your thoughts – comment below!

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