For the past two weeks I have had an impossible itinerary (a word I have used a tad too often lately). I have been criss-crossing continents and cities to an extent that I am oblivious to the components and intricacies of space and time. Now I am in Paris. I always think of Paris in a love-hate manner, never conclusive of what I make of the city. At most, I am constantly aware of my affection for this city. It was the first city I visited and lived in when I came to Europe. It formed my first impressions of Europe, of the West, of the white race. And if one would go by the adage that “First impressions matter most”, then one might as well summarise any expression of disdain or scepticism for this city as a mere secret admiration. But “matters most” does not necessarily imply “loving most”. I would say that Paris was where my consciousness and insecurities of being regarded as the “other” became tangible and for that it will always remain the city that matters most.
So whenever I am in Paris, it feels like a second skin, as if I have been walking the streets all my life, riding the underground for eternity. The smell in the air is distinct and outrightly familiar. My French immediately jumps out of the box of my vocabularies unannounced and no matter how long since I last spoke French, it comes all rushing back with no décalage between thoughts and words.
I wonder if I would love to live in the city again or maybe it holds something more precious than the practicality of being grounded in a particular place. Perhaps it embodies an experience I would rather associate with in an abstract manner than through the day-to-day routines of living in a place. This same reason makes it ever more sublime when I connect with friends and colleagues with whom I shared impacting times. For me meeting them again is usually more than what it implies. It carries within it that tenderness and sensitivity tied to the experiences of having lived in Paris. I do not think I could say the same for any other city – not even Lagos. If I should digress a bit to reflect on Lagos: Lagos is a place like no other in the sense that it renders the feeling of being at home. It is definite in its function. I do not for once doubt my place in it, no matter the circumstance. I feel grounded in it, even if my stay was only fleeting (which is usually the case). This tendency towards permanence brings about the non-relativity of space and time as regards to my affinity with Lagos. It does not matter how much or little I spend there, this sense of permanence grounds me.
I am tempted to bring Amsterdam into the stream of comparable cities. Amsterdam is another city where I have tangible ties, in straight terms, a family. But there is something about the city that constantly purges me of all connectivity to it. I have many times tried to understand this, and the furthest I have been to conclusion is that I find it difficult to fit into a place where there are too many lines intended only to put people in line. I strongly believe that it is against free will. In everything, there are usually thin lines between opposites and this thin line is where the ingenuity of a person’s freedom ought to flourish. It is in negotiating these thin lines in order to find balance and harmony within a given context that the creativity of spirit is unleashed. When there is a desperate struggle to make this thin line stark, bold and literally discernible by common sense usually based on economic undertones, then it is a recipe for the bondage of the soul. When everything is ordered to the letter, what then is left to intuition? It might seem in the surface that all is well and smooth, living a safe life. But is “safety” not as indulging as “fear”? This incompatibility with synthesised mode of existence and the constant search for the true purpose of being is what leaves me in a perpetual state disconnection with Amsterdam. However my only anchor becomes my family, the only thing I cannot close my ears and wish away.
Back to Paris. I am now at St. Lazare station, a connection point for so many metro lines and suburban trains and currently a huge shopping mall project resembling that of Les Halles in the centre of Paris is on the way, what I found interesting is how the on-going construction has forced the people to navigate the spaces differently from how
I have always known it, there is a bit of an “incoherence” in movement and more likelihood of intersections, bumping into things and each other – at least if only it could lead people to look around rather than look ahead as they walk.
I have come down to meet Qudus Onikeku, the Nigerian contemporary dancer, and a very good friend. My years in paris were scattered with impressive moments shared with this young man. He comes with a defiant energy, always at a boiling point. Over the years, as he matured, he learnt how to choreograph this energy to a successful end. Did I mention he is a choreographer of contemporary dance? As is always the case, whenever we meet, things happen. Dreams begin to hover around in the air, and soon enough they become tangible. Today was no different. There we were sitting at one of the two Starbucks coffee located in St. Lazare. We were upstairs and we took our position in such a way that our view became a constantly moving parisian traffic made up of people and cars intersecting at zebra crossings. We talked about everything, of course beginning with our views and philosophies. He talked about his recent inclinations which is the Afroparisian Network – an utopia of a project that renders a big picture of injecting new life into the the dynamism of arts and culture in France and beyond through the proactivity of black culture.
Somewhere during our conversation, we touched upon pre-colonial values. Lately, I have been occupied with the question of pre-colonial knowledge, not as a nostalgia into a consciousness that was never lived, but rather in order to understand and therefore articulate a direction towards this ever sprawling energy hovering around in continental and Diasporan Africa. we all know by now that something is brewing within the black race and culture. It is obvious that what has come to stay has been unprecedented. what seems uncertain and a great deal fuzzy is the direction towards a constructive purpose. Energy is energy, and like a double-edged sword has the tendencies to strike down its bearer. It is also transient, that is to say it moves on or moves away when not put to use. Therefore the urgency at hand leans heavily on reflections as regards what direction to put this energy to use in such away that through black culture a new Utopia can be added to the attributes of universality while proposing a route to the freedom and thorough independence of the black race. In the long wrong all race will be independent of the other, and if one race should be dependent on the other, then it will be done independently.
Qudus narrated a brief epiphany he experienced just a few days ago when he attended a friend’s wedding in Toulouse. This friend is from a traditional french Family and the marriage rites took place in a Catholic church with all the rites performed to the fullest from the church to the after wedding ceremony. Qudus said he just realised that this feels familiar to him. It is the same weight, importance and symbolism given to marriage in the Yoruba culture, the only difference is the most obvious which is that they were invoking traditional french culture of sharing and humanity but also that of the Catholic – something that has become rare in any setting in a place like Paris.
I have decided to use Qudus’ experience as if it were mine because it greatly resonated with my intuition about this matter. So many times I too, have experienced this sought of differences between the provinces and cities especially but not limited to the European context.
What does this say to us Africans whose first hand experience of Europe is usually the big cities where all human values have receded to be replaced by a quest for survival and haste towards the grave as an end?
The Europeans we find in most European cities are those who by the virtue of a realignment of their values towards other ends, have moved away from the traditional culture of their people that once embodied the humanity of a given people. They throw away the deficiencies of these traditions without retaining its sublime attributes. They threw away religion along with the possibility of spirituality that could have been found therein. And over time, things become more and more distorted especially when economic deficiencies are answered with the gluttony of consumerism.
This is to say one thing, if we Africans must contribute anything tangible, we must come to the basic level of objectivity and for us to do that, it is important we are grounded in our culture, drawing from the implications and symbols of precolonial knowledge and philosophies because more often than not this knowledge attests to a universality that has been greatly down-trodden if not completely lost elsewhere in other cultures, especially in the cultures of the so-called developed world. Furthermore we would be operating from a point of weak foothold if we do not ground ourselves in the meanings and symbols of our precolonial knowledge. It is only when we return many steps backward can we eventually retrace it with a conscious understanding of how we got here.
The nuances in the relationship between the white and black race are too many and too interwoven to be dismissed solely as the product of man’s wickedness to man. I believe that there was something of universality lost to humanity, and it now falls on our shoulders to find that. How or what involved the atrocities of this loss of universality to humanity is something we can continuously debate until we are at our wit’s end, but it will never move us any inch forward if it is not done for the purpose of rediscovering lost values by taking an objective inventory of events. All nostalgia to the past aimed solely at pointing fingers will yield only barren results.
I will conclude by saying that the average African should see a rediscovery of pre-colonial knowledge as a necessary requirement for the journey towards free will, which when attained will propose a new way of being not just for the black race, but for the world at large. It will not seek to impose itself nor validate its position, it will simply pull all that is human together, in unity and fruitful exchange, and by the same nature is reinforced.