BENJA MUST GO: Dunkwa-on-Offin, where I’m local

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I left Ghana at the age of 8 and little I knew about the world out there. Now I’m almost 22. I’ve longed to return to Ghana for the longest time, but the thought was never strong enough. But great friends came my way, maturity did its part and I finally took the step to come to Ghana. It’s Friday afternoon, and I’m sitting right here, in Ghana; I’m in my mother’s ancestral hometown, ready to celebrate the life of my aunt, Margaret, who passed two months ago. Aunt Maggie raise me between the ages of 2 and 8, and the last time I saw her I was 8, on 14th August 2002. I should have been here earlier.

When I left my ancestral hometown of Dunkwa-on-Offin I was 8, aware of my being but not of the world around me. I grew up under the protection of strong and loving matriarchs, and my household was (is) known by people who were near and far. I played with every child in this town and every mother and father knew me.

When I moved to Italy I entered a new space, a place where new memories, languages and traditions were formed. I did not let go the memories I had from my hometown, but they faded slowly, leaving fragments of stories. My parents held the fragments together.

On Wednesday I made my return to Dunkwa, where I grew up. I don’t hold memories of people, just some few uncles who I’ve been talking to all this while. I’ve been to the market several times, I’ve been walking through the streets of downtown Dunkwa and people never fail to recognise me and say my full name. Yesterday I was stopped by some elders who told me the jokes I would share with them when I was a little girl; I told them I don’t remember, and they proceeded to lament how time flies and changes people. They told me not to worry, that I’m home now and that’s all that matters.

These days I’m reminded of Taiye Selasi’s “Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From, Ask Me Where I’m Local” through my story of encountering my hometown after 14 years. Thinking about the place of origin of a person, one can have two notions -whether by choice or by circumstances, of locality. I’m local (1) where I am recognised as such, (2) where I recognise the place as such. I’m reminded that it’s not where one is born nor where one lives that gives one locality and a sense of belonging, but a shared system of memories from the person toward the place and/or viceversa.

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MY HAIR AND I: on negotiating the idea of beauty standard

I was born in Ghana, and at the age of eight I moved to Italy. In Ghana I was living in a fairly big town, where everyone would dress the way that please their soul, and wear their hair in many, sometimes fascinating, styles. I never knew, nor realised, I was Black until I went to Italy; until I was made aware of my different shade of brown. I never knew I had to conform, until I went to Italy.

I have two sisters, and my mother always took care of our appearance, whether it was the hair, the clothes or otherwise. My mother is a typical West African woman: black, loud, and proud of all things African, especially Ghanaian.

Every morning, from Monday to Saturday, she would wake me up, help me get my school uniform together, and then do my hair. My mother is a typical West African woman: black, loud, and proud of her culture and her ways. She would often braid my hair with the Ghanaian black thread, and send me to school; but she would often not notice the mockery I would receive from my classmates, my White classmates. My relaxed but not that straight threaded hair became my worst nightmare. I wished I could one day wake up and have this smooth and long blood hair I would see on the TV, but that would not happen.

So as a child I grew up hating what I had on my head; hating it so much that I would not go to school. I started dreaming of having long straight hair, the kind of hair you would find in magazines and on the cover of relaxer creams, but that didn’t do what they promised to do. I grew up accepting an unconscious discrimination of who I was and of my appearance, a discrimination I never questioned because I never saw the problem with it; because straight, smooth and long hair was the norm, the beauty standard.

I did have big dreams of having locs, but that was not possible, because they looked untidy, smelly and all round not an appropriate way to wear the hair on your head. (I am glad to say that this is not true! As you can witness, my hair smells of strawberries coated with honey and confidence)

I have been out of Italy for about two and half years now, and it took me a couple of countries, a sea, a different language and a multi-faceted shades of brown, to understand that it was not my hair, and the colour of my skin, but the ignorance of people who are too absorbed in their self-righteous being and doing.

Not long ago I decided, after getting to know a world that I’ve never asked to know, to leave my hair alone, to try to love it the way one loves its own self. I failed and went back to the relaxers, because I was lacking in confidence and support.

Now I’ve found the courage to go back to that decision and to embrace it with all my will, even if it’s hard and “different”, the kind of different I would normally avoid. Now, there’s no greater joy than to experience this crown of hair grow heavy and heavier, like the crown of queen Nefertiti.

The danger of portraying a beauty standard that does not embrace diversity and intersectionality (economically, socially and politically), lies in the discrimination and segregation of a portion of the society, a discrimination that is not only physically harmful, but psychologically damaging (like it was for that eight years old me).

This is the transcript of a talk I gave at the Women of Colour Forum event on “White Beauty Standards” at the University of Manchester Students’ Union on December 11th, 2015. During the speech, I made reference to identity and Blackness in Italy through this article I wrote a while ago. For more information on the talk, or comments, please share in the comments section below or email me at benjamina@theafricanitalianproject.com.

‘Migrant’ and ‘Refugee’ are not synonyms

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I have been following news regarding the Syrian Civil War, and how it is catastrophically affecting people’s life. The most tragic side of it all is the amount of civilians who have been made homeless, who have been torn apart by a war they did not ask for.

Although I am concerned about the whole situation, what has been catching my attention is the system of ideologies behind the movement of people caused by this War.

A lot of people, including journalists and ‘experts’ of the matter, have been using, without too much concern, the words migrant and refugee interchangeably, as if the two had the same meaning. At first glance, one may think ‘what is the big deal, after all?’, or one may not necessarily notice any problem with these terms. However, there is a lot to worry about. It’s not just the incorrect use of a word to describe a status that demands a different name; but what is disturbing, is the underlining ideology associated with the use of the word migrant instead of refugee.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Advanced English, a migrant is “a person who moves from one place to another, especially in order to find work”; whereas a refugee is “a person who has been forced to leave their country or home, because there is a war or for political, social or religious reasons”.

By defining a refugee a migrant, there is an intentional deconstruction of the status of the former, a clear design to make the public believe the refugee is making a voluntary choice to re-locate, which is not the case. See, clarity of language is everything; it is the means by which the oppressed is understood to have an oppressor, the means by which a status is clearly identified. Surely the expulsion of Jews from Spain in the 15th century was not a migration, nor the eviction of Jews from Nazist Germany and Austria in the 1930s was a migration. Was the exodus of the 1 million Armenians who had to leave Turkish Asia Minor between 1914 and 1923 a migration?

Think about it.

A migrant, regardless of their conditions, is a person who has made a conscious and voluntary decision; is a person who is aware of what the future may or may not bring; is a person who is not being violently forced to make a move. A migrant has a choice, regardless of the quality of that choice.

A refugee is a person made homeless, a person who has been uprooted from their home against their will; a person that has been traumatised by the conditions of their present situation. A refugee does not have a choice.

Migrant and Refugee are not synonyms.