Thursday 26 February 2009

In community in diaspora

Of family and presence

I was out in London last weekend on an important familial mission to celebrate a landmark birthday – the party was fun and we quite pleasantly enjoyed ourselves but it presented an unusual snapshot of Diaspora that I had not observed before.

A school hall had been booked for the event and it was commendable to see that the organiser had engaged the services of a functions arranger rather than take on the extraneous duties of doing this as we had done some 10 years before.

According to the invitation, the function was to start at 4:00PM and last till 11:00PM, obviously, I did not want to be first at the party and I also wanted to be inconspicuous if I could help it – by the time I was ready to leave for the party I thought I was running quite late.

I could never be late

Coming out of my hotel I flagged down a black cab for a 15 mile ride out to Essex without batting an eye lid, with my companion, the time was usefully occupied with watching the Cabvision in-cab television system as I tried to ignore the meter reading – in the end, it was less than what I had estimated it would be.

It was just before 5:00PM and we found that apart from the few guests, the party had not started at all, we should have known, even after all these years of Westernisation, African time still looms as a context of indeterminate meeting times rather than the fastidiousness of punctuality.

Dressed out of scope

People just make it in their own time, which meant things did not get into full swing till much later. In discussions before, I had asked about dress codes required for the party, I was of the opinion that traditional dress in London in February would have been paying homage to the god of ice – so I plumbed for the suit, new shirt, new tie and new shoes – I had been doing some shopping for the latter earlier in the day.

I quipped then about members of the Celestial Church of Christ who went unshod when in their soutanas - religious robes worn by all members - and wondered what they did in winter.

Well, I was wrong, the weather was quite mild and many arrived in their full flowing gowns, the ladies in their tops called buba and wrappers called iro, these being overlaid in toga-like fashion with a netting sort of material that is also used for the head tie known as gele.

In place of the iro, some wore a long shirt-like mermaid-tail bottom, all quite fashionable, I must say I am behind the times on the in-things. Very few were in Western attire though the men who wore suits or jackets all seemed to forget to undo the last button – sloppy dressing in my view but they all seemed to be in good company.

Time waits for all men

The event eventually started 210 minutes late and no apologies were given for that lateness as each reference to the starting time was jokingly considered 4 ‘o clock when in fact there were people who had arrived well before the time on the invitation – suffice it to say that for Nigerians, time is still not of the essence.

The agenda was full, prayers, exhortations and songs – in fact, I was amazed that the English praise and worship songs were no different from the ones I did sing some 20 years ago, there might have been a variation in the music but the lyrics remained ancient rather than modern.

The Yoruba songs sounded new and were quite predicable, it made one wonder if musical inspiration was lacking for congregational gospel singing.

Diaspora in divergence

More poignantly was the fact that a good 80% of the attendants might have spent 20 years in the United Kingdom and being successful and well-to-do did not necessarily reflect an element of the integration that should have had some indigenous looking guest amongst us.

It is probably not just peculiar to this gathering but likeness seems to engender communities and the safety of sameness means people seek out similarity rather than difference – this might well be a damning indictment of multiculturalism, but I was at pains to even find a non-South Western Nigerian amongst us.

A little mixed-race girl did reveal the odd miscegenation but her father was not amongst us, we might well have been back in Nigeria having this party and it would have made no difference.

The sames of change

The children all in the late teens or early twenties all spoke English, might well understand the lingua franca of their parents but their pronunciations drew great laughter; the question then becomes what really constitutes their roots and identity.

Apart from the songs, the odd proverb and the greetings – kneeling for the women and mock prostration for the men, we were Diaspora almost plucked out from our roots and left adrift.

We might all have changed but many things remain the same – aspiration is a good thing, academic excellence is still priced – the celebrant holds a PhD, responsibility is a badge of honour, the family is the centre of existence, integrity really matters, and people recognise that in others without dissimulation, the accents are still as strong as they have ever been and when it comes to partying we are still in the running.

The music came from a drummer with a talking drum and a keyboardist who had rigged up his system to produce our traditional music and two microphones where one projected his singular voice and the other gave the impression of many singing – I thought that was quite smart.

Order! Order!

God pervades the atmosphere to suffocation everything punctuated with Praise God as a call to order rather than an active exercise in praise, but we are seriously religious people.

When we had a prayer session, I could well have been in a traditional African initiated church only that the commands to prayer were said in English.

An overdue update

By the time the celebrant cut the cake and we all gathered round for photographs it was ready for the dance, enterprising business men around with dollar notes to be exchanged for pounds allowing for us to spray the celebrant and his wife – something I found myself compelled to do by reason of association.

It was an interesting update for me on how Diaspora has both changed and remained the same despite the number of years that have passed – it might be a reflection of me being a less than community person seeking to be more world citizen than a reflection of the peculiarities of close knit communities that are as integrated as they want to be in other aspects of life but retain a modicum of segregation in their social lives.

It was a beautiful evening.

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