This next collaboration is a modern day love story indeed. Modern day in that Maya and I struck up our friendship over Instagram and we haven’t met in person. Yet. But I can sense that we are like-minded kindred spirits and I look forward to calling her my friend for reals for reals. And it’s a love story simply because I’ve long been looking (and dreaming and visualising) for yoga wear that appeals to my African soul. Something that can cheer things up when the grey Nordic landscape lays it on a little too thick. Something with the color and celebration for life in a way that’s so unique and special to the mother continent (teeny, tiny plug: our Kenya Ashtanga yoga retreat starts oh so soon!) That down to earth swagger. That joy and happiness and art of living. And any chance I get to combine not just the things I feel passionate about, but those which are integral to my identity, feels not only like my duty and purpose, but part of my destiny to share it. With you, yes you, dear reader, the very one who’s reading this 🙂
Happy Monday morning friends. This is a day late. I was on single-parenting duty all weekend and decided not to stress out with getting the blog out yesterday and enjoy time with Sesam instead. Now the kid is at daycare and I am at Good Life Coffee in Kallio and yes, at this very moment in time, life does feel pretty good. My reward for being patient I suppose 🙂
This past week I had a bit of writer’s block and felt this post only begin to come alive at the playground on Saturday evening. I was pulled out of bed at the lonely, early hours on Sunday morning, the witching hour, it seems. 3 am and I was aflame with spirit and energy. I got quiet enough to be led through all that my guide in my dreamscape wished me to write about. It’s a long one and touches upon a range of subjects so settle in and, as the indomitable Fela says in Shuffering and Shmiling,”You Africans please listen to me as Africans and you non-Africans, listen to me with open mind…”
I wish to write about black girl melancholy. I wish to talk about the profound sense of homesickness and heartache I feel not so much for a geographic place or home, for I have had many, but for a sense of being rooted in deep soil. I wish to write about how I felt like I did a Vipassana meditation course in the daily routine of life itself. At first I thrashed and resisted and hated my situation. I searched for any kind of distraction away from myself. I searched for a way to escape this emptiness so full, so alarmingly all-encompassing because, after going down the rabbit-hole of my own mental trip, what can be at the bottom of all this discontent? Then, by and by, as my mind began to drop away, release its vice grip on the yesterdays and the tomorrows conjured in the “in a few hours, days, weeks, months, it’ll be like this”; in the “I need to be doing something anything else besides this,” a deep, gentle peace began to pervade. A moment to moment nowness and I owed to to myself to give it my full attention.
I kept social media and others distractions to a minimum. Social media is the portal to much inspiration and a diversity of voices that’s so desperately needed in this one-world, single narrative view portrayed in mainstream media: However, as a regular participant myself, both in consumption and production of social media, I find that simply because of what it is, it distorts life. It cleans up and glamourises and beautifies life in a way that is just not true and while I appreciate the number of folk who’re trying to live their social media lives and tell their stories with as much authenticity as possible, by default, social media can never really escape its own distorting self. And so, instead of seeking escape through my phone, I made full eye contact with my single parenting task and single-handedly managed that mofo as best I could. Not perfectly, not even successfully. I ditched the potty-training chart, gold stickers and all, because my kid is not yet about it. I bought some potato chips as a way to bribe my way back into his good graces and guess what? It worked! So, you know not perfect, but fun and good-enough. And if by good enough it meant I had a happy toddler who had Monday morning blues about going back to kindergarten after the nice weekend, then, actually, I really do mean successfully.
And all along, this black girl melancholy had me feeling some kinda way. It’s a special kind of longing and heartache, this craving for sisterhood and true, sustaining friendship with other women of color. I’m not saying you can’t experience it with other women. You can and I have and I do. I cherish my friendships with my women friends. But right now I’m talking about that alchemical moment when you meet a like-minded woman of color…that this may be a friendship for life kind of meeting. It’s rare and so terribly precious. Right now, I’m talking about that forcoloredgirlswhohaveconsideredsuicidewhentherainbowisenuf kinda way. It’s that WaitingToExhale… that Nina Simone dish-water-giving-off-no-reflection sorta thing. It’s that sense of recognition that hey, here is someone who resembles me, there are more of us than I knew.
Now, I came of age in late-90s America, where, for better or worse (but I would say for better) the concept and the experience of race was thrust upon my wide-eyed, impressionable self. It confused me and frightened me, grappling to terms with my intersectional identity of black and woman and not-fully American in my black- woman-mostly-Bantu African body. But ultimately, there were answers to be found amidst the difficult questions I was living. I found my community and felt my little pocket of Black America welcome me into her Boston Collegiate, Chicago house, Afro-Brazilian capoeira and samba arms. I almost never left, so entrenched was I in that part of my life story, but somehow the world abroad wasn’t finished with me yet and I felt the ache, the pull to uproot and understand life elsewhere. Now, close to ten years away from the US and I wonder if I am homesick for those specific places where I felt such a true sense of community? For people and friends that I’ve fallen out of touch with and who surely have not remained as I remember them ? Or am I longing more abstractly for a certain time in my life, which memory paints in such pleasing, nostalgic watercolours? I cannot say, but what I can say is that this need to be represented in the place in which I live grows more than ever. I actively seek out channels where I can hear my voice and see people who look like me. And while, there are so many quality podcasts and youtube videos and web series created by intelligent, conscious and creative people of color, at the end of the day, they are there, out there, and I am here, here only. Nothing beats a real live community, a face-to-face talk, a live collaboration. Shared lived experiences.
I started to find my homesickness for black America getting bigger rather than smaller after immersing myself in the online community of color creatives. I felt my dissatisfaction with Finland and Europe grow and wished myself away. I still feel myself hovering around other Diaspora stories clamouring to get in. I would say that after the highly visible African American diaspora narratives, the closest ones I can relate to over on this side of the pond are black British narratives. Up to a point thought because I’m not from London or Brixton at the end of the day and the good people there have their own stories to tell. They have their own storytellers weaving tales of marginalisation and gentrification; invisibility and black millennial identity with complete and utter nuance. It’s been really informative to steep myself in some Cecile Emeke, Michelle Tiwo, Shola Amoo and Warsan Shire. Or in the photography of the Afropean, out to prove that Europe is more than just a single voice and colour. Or in the music of Dizzy Rascal who, in my opinion is a bit asleep on certain concepts but whatevs, his experience is his alone and I can still vibe with his infectious energy in small doses.
So all this research into more diverse, global diaspora stories was great and all but what was up with this aversion to being in Finland? What was up with not wanting to speak Finnish as I convinced myself that I am not really even that good at it. Why bother? And it’s true, my Finnish language has stalled of late since I’m Sesam’s appointed god mother of English, but guess whaaat? It’s all in the attitude and man, I’ll be damned if I didn’t put my blood, sweat and grit into attempting a crack at the well-encrypted code of that language in my early Finland years. I cajoled native speakers of Finnish to speak with me and some did, most patiently and graciously, and some didn’t, most understandably. I struggled and kicked and screamed and worked hard and gained enough self-confidence to open my mouth from time to time. My Finnish is not fluent and not grammatically correct. Not even close. I don’t practice it actively enough since I work and write in English. What’s more, I’m not physically in Finland consistently enough to really sink my teeth in linguistically and get my hands dirty. I know, I know, where there’s a will there’s a way, but you know what, my Finnish is good enough for my simple purposes. I can rattle off a few pleasantries at the playground with other mums and grandmothers. I can follow the plot of a children’s TV show with relative success. I can get along in most basic transactions of commerce. It’s like, completely basic and totally good enough. It’s enough. I can gain an entry point on some level. The tyranny of perfection comes to an end now. I stop apologising for, underestimating and diminishing my linguistic accomplishments. I will take my basic ass, good-enough, scrappy, tatty Finnish by the hand as I hold it in the highest esteem. It represents my best foot forward attempts, hopes and wishes for myself here in this land. I’m going to keep code-switching as a legitimate form of verbal communication, a veritable patois and I’ll no longer feel guilty or defeated at needing to use English. My sucky Finnish, I’m proud of you and I love you!
Besides, I’m doing my son a grand favour for life, this gift of bilingualism, and while it comes at a personal cost, a sacrifice, golly, well, I consider this yet another initiation by fire into the embodiment of motherhood. The woman is hibernating and in her place stands a mother. Mothers are the one group where, for better or worse, sacrifice is considered paramount. I find this assumption to be problematic, leaving many women and mothers at risk for wearing a martyr hat that they didn’t particularly want or ask for. However, my truth on this is that sacrifice is inherent in most experiences of motherhood. Some sacrifices are more urgent and unrelenting than others, it’s true, but the element of sacrifice, I feel, is there, be it through the biological processes of pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding, to the more psychological assumptions of sacrifice down to the day-to-day division of time and tasks. This is not to ask for sympathy or invoke any sort of feeling one way or another. It is what it is. That’s all. What’s more, Nordic and Scandinavian dads are, culturally-speaking, some of the most involved and proactive when it comes to rearing children. What I’m referring to here is the struggle and pull of conflicting choices that many mothers feel themselves needing to make: to work or to stay at home or to try juggling with both? To feel guilty about putting your career first over your family or to suffer career-wise when you decide to put your family first? I feel it’s taken for granted as a shared worldview, this assumption that in order to be a good mum, women will and should sacrifice more of themselves for their children and families oftentimes at the expense of other areas of their lives. Cross-cultural and linguistic limitations aside, I do feel that, more often than not, fatherhood and career is encouraged and facilitated in a way that motherhood and career isn’t. This often means putting a particular sort of nurturing feminine energy on a pedestal while shunning and even vilifying other types of the feminine mystic that don’t fit within the patriarchal ideal of femininity. And this stunted, distorted sense of masculinity and femininity serves only to bind and constrain our inherent humanity.
But now back to being a black girl abroad. I wrote this blog piece in an effort to create my own narrative of blackness and non-Finnishness here in Helsinki itself. Surely, as I watch these groups of children coming and going about their day (specifically referring to that one child of color amongst a group of white Finns) I cannot help but think that it must feel some kind of way, even with native-speaker Finnish and all? Surely I’m not making up some sense of black pride and expression of consciousness raising when I see a trendy and hip guy with an pick in his afro at the metro stop? I’ve stopped smiling at random black folk in public spaces. Actually, that’s not true. I don’t think I can ever stop smiling at black folk, especially in such a homogeneous environment like Finland. However, I’m more cautious now and will suss out the situation before jubilantly striking up contact because I did that once and gave out the wrong message: this black dude’s girlfriend thought I was making a pass at her guy. I was like, “Na girl, not even. It’s a culture thing. Look it up.” But old dude wasn’t hip to the game either and so I took this as a learning lesson: when in Finland, do as the Finns do, at least most of the time and don’t smile at strangers. It makes me feel a little colder but I suppose this is just par for the course in a reserved society that values its private space. I guess black Finns have their unique code of conduct and culture and identity amongst themselves that is both informed by and distinct from the mighty cultural and musical behemoth of black America. On the one hand, I don’t miss the annoying cat-calling, sexual harassment on the streets and weird comments like, “Smile girl, you should smile more.” I do, however, miss those genuine moments of connection and community that you can so freely and spontaneously witness and participate in, in the US. I miss the impromptu dance circle at a New York subway station, when busy New Yorkers appreciated the street musicians enough to set up a circle and take turns laughing and dancing in the middle before disbanding and continuing on their commute, happier and lighter from the joy of the shared moment. I miss that. I miss that solidarity and shared sense of, “I see you. We’re in this together; living and experiencing this black life in this white lens together.”
And yet, within the questions often lie the answers, or a partial one at that. Next week, I’ll be writing about how I transformed the beauty found in melancholy into something uplifting and creative. I hope you’ll join me to find out how!
I have long been a fan of Fela Kuti. I remember being first introduced to him during my quest for self and identity during my heady and exciting but confusing and lonely college days. I remember dancing to his music with my unborn son five months in my womb and I think I owe it to Fela when the little foetus started fluttering and kicking around, keeping me company as I lost myself in Fela’s tragic, honest, painful lyrics wrapped in the sweet, sweet sound of his sax and around aaall those intricate layered rhythms. And that beat. Man, that beat. That Afro (heart) Beat.
Fela was the son of a Protestant minister father and a Feminist activist mother (in the anti-colonial movement). Like most respectable Nigerian families of means, he was sent off to London to study medicine and become a doctor like his two older brothers. A rebel from pretty early on, he enrolled in Trinity College of Music instead and, cutting to the chase, essentially pioneered a new genre of music called Afro-Beat.
Fela was baad. After the completed his studies in London, he moved back to Nigeria and set up a commune for himself, his band and musicians, his dancers and singers and called it Kalakuta Republic. He also set up a nightclub, which became known as the Shrine, where he performed his music regularly and officiated traditional Yoruba ceremonies in honour of Nigeria’s ancestral practices of worship. He also changed his middle name to Anikulapo (meaning “He who carries death in his pouch”, with the interpretation: “I will be the master of my own destiny and will decide when it is time for death to take me”), stating that his original middle name of Ransome was a slave name.
He sang in pidgin English so his music could be enjoyed widely over Africa and as his music became more and more popular, his unpopularity with the Nigerian government grew and there were frequent raids at the Kalakuta Republic. In 1977, after the release of his immensely popular album called Zombie, in reference to the Nigerian military, his home was raided by 1,000 soldiers and Fela was severly beaten.
He was a fascinating, deeply charismatic and talented musician. You know what? Better you just read the book…
One last thing though, to mark the one year-anniversary of the raid on Kalakuta Republic , he married, in one fell swoop, 27 women, most of which were his dancers, composers and singers! Anyway, much as I admire Fela’s spirit and music, all this was basically a preamble leading to the next topic… Fela’s Wives…
I mean, these women were bad bitches. Check these out…
Wowza! I mean, breathtaking, right?!
Dig a little deeper and a little more research led me to Mami Wata…
Mami Wata is a water spirit venerated in West, Central and Southern Africa, as well as the African diaspora in the Americas. She, alongside Fela and Fela’s Wives, were the inspiration for my latest photo art project. Whether she be called Ma Ganga in India, Yemanja along the shores of Bahia in Brazil; whether she be the trickster siren which lures sailors to meet their maker with her shape shifting melody or an alluring mermaid with silver-green fins, may the ambiguous, two-spirited energy of water (at times destructive and dangerous; at other times, healing, cleansing and life-sustaining ) be properly worshipped and revered. Om! Axé!
Big ❤ and thanks to…
Photography: Lars Kastilan
Africa Pride Mala Beads: Heart of Joy Mala Beads
Eco Yoga Pants: Kismet Yoga-Style
Hair: Saloon Two Sisters (Sörnäinen, Helsinki)