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I Am Not Just an African Woman

By Bunmi Fatoye-Matory / July 1, 1996



Before my emigration to the United States five years ago, I was known as a Nigerian of the Yoruba ethnic group. I was also a Western-educated woman with certain privileges and high expectations.

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Since coming here, though, my identity has changed. I am now an "African woman." My culture, attitude, and experience are presumed to reflect all of Africa, a continent of 55 countries, 400 million people, and thousands of ethnic and linguistic groups. By definition, I am supposed to be poor, uneducated, and ridden with disease.

My first jolt came one evening in 1991, when I was a new immigrant. I was watching a public-television documentary about little children's first day at school in such countries as Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and, of course, "Africa."

"Africa is not a country," was my first thought. But what followed was even more distressing. While parents in other countries were shown engaging in different rituals of sending children to school, in "Africa," children were seen climbing trees in the forest. This, the narrator said, is something they learn from older children. I could not believe my eyes.

I grew up in a rural town in Nigeria. We had five primary schools and a high school. There was a post office and a small clinic. All these facilities have since expanded as Nigeria grew rich from its oil.

I remember my first day at school. My father took me, and I was so proud to be wearing a school uniform, carrying my black slate and chalk. I recall the elegance of my teacher: I wanted to dress and walk just like her. I persuaded my father to buy hair ornaments for me, even though my hair was closely cropped, as is the hair of all little children.

My primary school, run by the Anglican mission, had many flower gardens that were carefully cultivated and tended by the pupils under the supervision of the teachers.

In high school, we studied Shakespeare, George Eliot, Jonathan Swift, the Bront sisters, and Charles Dickens. Under British colonial rule, generations of Nigerians studied such writers to the exclusion of African authors.

My teenage idol was Nancy Drew, an American teenage detective I discovered in my father's library one vacation. I read the books many times over.

The TV documentary didn't show any of this. I can understand such misconceptions from the average person. But in December 1993, Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina, returning from trade talks in Switzerland, jokingly implied that African leaders were cannibals.

I was shocked to read this, not only because of the insult, but also because of what it implied about the great ignorance of the realities of our lives.

Some of the worst riots in Nigeria have their roots in the disparity between the opulent lifestyles of the elite - the privileged diplomats who traveled to Geneva - and the austere lives forced on the rest of the population by the government. While a large percentage of the population is suffering, the elites are driving BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, and Alfa Romeos. Their opulent houses are built with tall fences and staffed with servants, guards, and dogs.

Since the supply of electricity and water is erratic, the elites have generators and water pumps. Their children go to schools and colleges abroad. Their conspicuous consumption generates so much anger and resentment among the underprivileged that they sometimes take to the streets to vent their anger.

These rulers were the same ones characterized as starving cannibals. This could be said with impunity, because this is what being an African seems to mean in America.

It does not matter that some of these "cannibals" are products of the world's best universities; neither does it seem to matter that they belong to the class that controls and distributes the resources of their countries.

I am beginning to understand the differences between the myth of the African that I am in America and the Nigerian I consider myself to be. I spoke to my first Kenyan and tasted my first dish from Sierra Leone in this country. It was at a dinner given by an American friend who worried all evening that she had not prepared it the authentic way. I doubt I convinced her that I wouldn't know an authentic Sierra Leonean dish from her version. Both were as foreign to my palate as pizza.

EVEN as I become accustomed to what Americans expect from me - do I know their friend in Mombasa, Kenya? or perhaps an acquaintance in Ghana? - their stereotype of the silent and voiceless African woman remains alien to me. The women I grew up with were anything but silent.

Yoruba women of southwestern Nigeria have a long history of organization and prosperity. Many of our grandmothers put our parents through college. Many own real estate and farms. They employ workers and commute home at the end of the day in luxury cars after they've closed their shops. In fact, women dominate the retail segment in southern Nigeria.

And in 1939, the disturbances known later as the Aba riots began when women in southeastern Nigeria organized a peaceful protest against taxes levied by the British rulers. Women were killed as the demonstrations were violently put down. That was many decades before the current tide of Western feminism. This is a part of my history.

To become an African woman is to struggle against the myths and misconceptions of African womanhood. Yes, I am an African, but I am a Nigerian first. That is the only honest claim I can make. I cannot speak for a continent.

Call me Nigerian, and I won't tell you any tall African tales.