By Omiko Awa
INSPIRED by the spirit of convergence for which Lagos remains pre-eminent, the Lagos Black Heritage (LBH) Festival celebrates African creativity within a carnivalesque of traditional and contemporary dance, music, painting and photo exposition, drama, international symposium, film shows and other artistic offerings.
The 3rd edition, which maps out the black African presence in the Mediterranean with a cultural exploration of the Afro-Italian connection opened with a keynote, The Black Mediterranean: Migrants’ Routes In The Global Millennium, followed by Africa Meets Italy: History, Industry, Trade; Western Imperialism In Africa: The Italian Connection; and The Roots Of Italian Interest In Nigeria Oil: Economic And Political Stakes Of A Challenging Initiative. The various speakers that handled the subjects talked about Italy’s role in the exploitation and under development of Africa as well as how blacks have come to doing demeaning jobs in Europe, especially Nigerian ladies taking to prostitution in Italy and the consequent effect of stereotyping.
Calling on European countries to alleviate the plight of Africans countries whose homelands were plundered centuries ago by European slave traders and colonialist, Dr. Oti Agbajola Laoye, Professor of English and Diaspora Studies, Monmouth University, West Long Branch, New Jersey, US in a chat with The Guardian says, “Africans have been contributing positively to global economy. There are a lot of African professionals who are contributing in all kinds of ways to the economy of foreign countries; even the so-called uneducated or unskilled workers are also contributing to the growth and development of their host country. In most cases, people focus only on the negative facts and ignore all the positive contributions of Africans everywhere; so, if you are asking for people who are not necessary successful in the sense we define success to come back home, we should then ask everybody to come back to Africa and build the continent.”
Responding to those who often conclude that African engaged in prostitution and the sales of elephant tusks as the same and that Africans engaged in such business are doing ‘nothing’ in Europe, the don states, “we can’t say these class of people are doing nothing, at least the prostitute are taking care of the excess sexual energy of the Italian people. They need customers to survive in the business and the striving trade shows that they are being patronised not by Nigerian men, but by Italians and this has been going on everywhere, even during the colonial periods. Many of the white people came here and got ride of their excess sexual energy by interacting sexually with our women, I do not want to use an extreme word such as rape, though the whites did a lot of it. So, this is not a recent problem, it is a problem that has suddenly become noticeable because of the kind of attention given to it in the past few years.”
What then must the nation do to correct its damaged image as a result of this? Dr. Laoye who has presented many scholarly papers on African-European relations in seminars and symposiums says, “it’s time the various countries that make up the African continent, including Nigeria, begin to call back and ultilise their professionals that have left the continent. A lot of them left their home countries not because they hate them, but because there is nothing to do. I love Nigeria and many others outside do, but we left because we want to be busy, we want to be ultilised, we want our knowledge to be tapped for the betterment of the nation; and it is not until Nigeria and others that make up the African continent actively begin to think of nation building would they then create more jobs and the enabling environment for people to come back and contribute to the development of their countries.” She continues, “right now Nigeria is only spending money; in fact, wasting money because if you have a problem with prostitutes in Italy, then we should have problems with our leaders who take our money abroad or to Swiss banks; they buy expensive houses in different countries, thereby contributing to the economy of such countries while depleting our local economy. So, when we talk of prostitution, we need to redefine and expand the meaning to not only be limited to the women standing in the cold in a foreign countries waiting for customers, but to include our leaders and people that willingly hand over what truly belongs to Africa to Europeans.
“We should look at it in its proper perspective and not victimise the victim. The woman who leaves Edo State or wherever she may be coming from in Nigeria or Africa to Italy is being victimised and it is tragic because they are endangering their lives, they are exploited and easily killed.”
“Prostitution is not a good or fair business, rather those involved are victims of the society; they are, in fact, the victims of our time. And because of the activities of these victims of our local societies, the Italians have resulted to stereotyping all African women. To them, the few African women involved in the illicit trade, mean every woman that has legally made her way to Italy and doing legitimate job is a prostitute, and if there is any man carrying a bag or wearing Senegalese clothes, as long as he is an African, he is selling elephant tusks,” Laoye sighs.
Frowning at the way Africans are stereotyped the English language teacher says, “stereotyping is bad, in Africa we don’t say because one white person is a serial killer, he has killed a hundred people, therefore all white people are killers; it is not extended to all the white people in the world, why then should Africa identity be based on stereotype. I think it’s a dangerous way of looking at the world, because it will make us to continue to look at the world in terms of race, which is obsolete. We should look at the world in terms of ethnicity, culture and national identities rather than identifying a person based on the skin colour and then engaging in stereotyping, which are mostly negative. You will never find positive stereotypes.
“Nigeria has some of the most brilliant people in the world, but you will never hear them say Nigerians are brilliant people, you will never hear them extend that brilliance to every Nigerian. Stereotyping is, in fact, bad and dangerous,” she states.
Comparing the situation to the US where she lives, Dr. Laoye informs, “in the US you can take a person to court for stereotyping you, so they are more careful about asking you if you are a waiter, but that does not mean it does not exist. I am telling you if Obama steps out of the White House some one will surely stereotype him; even as he is in the White House, he is experiencing discrimination too.
“ Someone said there are Italians involved in crime in the US, yet an Italian rose to be a US president; that does not mean they are no longer criminals; the fact is, the illegal acts of those few Italians was not used against all of the Italians, but when it in the case of Africans, it is generalised inform of stereotype. Europeans forcefully transported Africans to their plantations to work for them and are still bold enough to punish us that should be punishing them for the crime committed against us.”
Can’t Nigeria and other African countries call Italy to pay reparations? “Some group of people want Italy to be held accountable for exploiting the African continent since they were among those that forcefully took away our resources, art and even man power to develop their country, but rather than refuse our people visas or citizenship, they want them to make it possible for any Nigerian or African to work in Italy because they are owing us.
“Reparations can take different forms; some people have said it is not possible to pay African in monetary terms because the harm done cannot be quantified monetarily; for example how do you quantify the Africa-American whose parents were forcefully taken to America 400 years ago and have worked for centuries without payment. It is not just the money, but also the suffering, psychological torture and the trauma, which can’t be paid for. European countries that have robbed Africa in the past can make things better by funding research, giving free services in needed areas and, with time the people will get back what that have been taken away from them, even if such giving lasts for 400 years. All the European countries are owing Africa and the least they can do is to respect us and not punish Africans for being black.”
Commending the efforts of Lagos State government on LBH, Laoye says, “the name Freedom Park, venue of the festival should be extended to other facets of life in the country, so that we can sit and think about freedom in more engaging ways and know what to be freed from.”
Making reference to the state of the nation, Laoye asks, “is it freedom from economic hardship, freedom of speech, freedom to move from one part of the country to another without fear of being bombed or is it freedom to work in the northerner part of the country without being offered temporary appointment because one is not a northerner? “We need to make border crossing a more positive thing rather ignore them or focus attention on the mobility that exists outside the country. While we are theorizing on freedom; we should begin to look at its practicality and extend it to our immediate local.”