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How Black Brits Are Reconnecting With Their African Heritage

These days, you don't have to shell out for an expensive flight just to get back in touch with your roots.

by Yomi Adegoke
13 August 2019, 2:11pm

Chinwe Nnajiuba visiting her aunt's land in Owerri, Igboland. Photo courtesy of Chinwe

The ballad of the culturally-disconnected, second-generation African-Brit is a surprisingly common one. We're allegedly blessed with two homes – our parents’ countries and the UK – but post-Brexit xenophobia and detachment from our heritage negates a sense of ownership of either. With each passing generation, many of us feel more removed from our ancestry. We find tenuous links to where we're from from, through food, music and often-mispronounced birth names. Some of us have never even visited the country of our heritage. For many, a dual identity feels more like one fractured in half.

But the rise of the far-right and the pull towards a sense of belonging has also seen swathes of Brits of African descent taking active steps to reconnect with the continent. Initiatives such as members-only community Movemeback help “leaders, influencers, talent” of the diaspora relocate to the African continent for work. In 2018, Ghana’s president Nana Akufo-Addo formally launched the “Year of Return” in the hope of convincing people from the African diaspora to visit, invest, or even settle permanently in Ghana.

The past few years have seen a shift of sorts – a yearning to return back to our roots through learning traditional cuisine, our history and most popularly, our language. But those unable or unwilling to relocate or travel must seek a slice of home closer to the UK.

“I don’t have any plans to go back to Nigeria, but if I stay in this country I worry we’ll lose the language,” Gbemisola Isimi tells me over the phone. “If you don’t speak Yoruba, how are your children going to speak it? How are their children going to speak it?”

It was this anxiety that led to Gbemisola founding Culture Tree, an initiative that teaches Yoruba to children and their millennial and Gen X parents. Gbemisola was born in Nigeria and speaks the Nigerian language fluently, but she almost stopped completely when she arrived in the UK as a child. Her parents spoke to her and her siblings in the language, and they’d reply in English. As she grew up, she noticed that a large number of Nigerians who came to the UK at a young age or were born here were unable to speak or understand the language at all.

“A lot of people were advised that speaking both [English and Yoruba] would affect your speaking – if you spoke two languages, you would be a late developer,” she says. “It’s a status thing as well. A lot of people felt they had to follow ‘Britishness’ and forget about their culture.”

A toddler class in session at Culture Tree, Peckham
A toddler class in session at Culture Tree, Peckham. Photo courtesy of Culture Tree

This mentality can be traced directly to Britain’s colonial rule in Africa. There are over 500 indigenous languages spoken in Nigeria, but English was chosen as its official language to facilitate ‘linguistic unity’ in the politically fragmented country. The spelling of people and place names was altered to align with the orthography and linguistic rules of English. The British colonial government even made English examinations a compulsory requirement for children hoping to attend university and made it mandatory for those seeking overseas scholarships and well-paid jobs.

In Nigeria and countries like Ghana, Kenya and Uganda, speaking your mother tongue (or ‘vernacular’ as it was called) was – and in some cases still is – banned in schools and punishable by caning. Teachers believed it would affect proficiency in English speaking, despite evidence showing the opposite. Though no official statistics exist on how many African-Brits speak their mother tongue, it is commonly assumed that many of us are monolingual.

“When I had my daughter, I wanted to teach her Yoruba,” Gbemisola says. “I didn’t want the same thing to happen to my children.” Collaborating with an animator, she first created Culture Tree TV, a YouTube channel where she translates her daughter's favourite nursery rhymes into Yoruba. That spawned the classes in Peckham, the appropriately nicknamed “Little Lagos” of London. Toddler classes are particularly popular – second-generation Nigerian-Brits accompany their babies to classes and learn alongside them as beginners. In adult classes, students learn the intricacies of Yoruba culture, including how to greet elders traditionally – women with a curtsey, men prostrating by placing themselves face down in reverence.

Being unable to practice their native language creates a particular sense of loss for many. British-born Nigerian Chinwe Nnajiuba is from the Igbo tribe and in 2015 joined a network called the Igbo Cultural and Support Network (ICSN), initially created to preserve the Igbo language. In 2006, UNESCO predicted it will go extinct by 2025 if nothing is done to reverse its decline – one partly caused by the civil war in Nigeria, after which Igbo lost its status as a lingua franca that even non-Igbo Nigerians would learn.

Chinwe attended the organisation’s Iri-Ji “New Yam” Festival party, a celebration of the yam crop in the region colloquially known as Igboland, and has been a regular since. As part of the minority who already understands Igbo, she was more interested in the non-profit’s other offerings: dance lessons and cooking classes, where you learnt to cook dishes like Isi Ewu, a delicacy made from goat’s head. “It wasn't like my parents pushing me to go, it was more me just trying to reconnect with this culture that I found in London that made me kind of feel more interconnected,” she says. “Now, my little brother is going to a youth weekender with them!”

Michelle and Kojo at their traditional Ghanaian wedding last year. Photo courtesy of Michelle Donker
Michelle and Kojo at their traditional Ghanaian wedding last year. Photo courtesy of Michelle Donkor

British-born Africans are also choosing to honour their heritage through so-called ‘traditional’ weddings and marriages. There are no records kept of the number of these ceremonies performed, but, at least anecdotally, these appear to have risen in popularity among young people looking to get hitched.

The exact details differ according to the tribe, ethnic group and country. In the Yoruba tradition, a dowry ceremony is moderated by two women – an Alaga Ijoko representing the bride’s family and an Alaga Iduro representing the groom’s. At Ghanaian weddings, a decoy bride is sometimes jokingly presented to the groom to ensure he knows the woman he truly loves.

In 2018, I was the maid of honour at my best friend Michelle’s traditional marriage. She’s half Bajan and half Ghanaian, and a wedding honouring their heritage was non-negotiable for her and her husband Kojo. “As soon as he proposed, I started looking at the Kente cloth [fabric local to Ghana] I wanted to wear,” she says. “It was important to me because I feel like I'm Ghanian. And that's part of my culture. That's part of my husband’s culture. So why wouldn't we do a Ghanaian traditional wedding? I absolutely loved planning it and finding out what was done in one. I feel like that even connected me a bit with my roots.”

Traditional wedding ceremonies are not recognised in British law, and are often seen as a precursor to a more official ‘white wedding’ that usually follows within a few weeks. Michelle and Kojo are yet to have one, and feel it is important that traditional African weddings are seen as just as valid as Western ones.

“I feel like it's really downplayed – not even within like the English community – but within even our own community,” she says. “That's how our grandparents and our great grandparents would have gotten married. That is a Ghanaian wedding – that means I’m married.”

The dream of homecoming was once the preserve of our parents, spoken of wistfully when they became weary of the cost, cold weather and cold shoulder of Britain. But increasingly, African Brits are hoping to do the same – or at the very least, bring a little bit of home back here.