We’re all becoming a little more Nigerian – is it cultural appropriation?

Is Lupita Nyong’o in a gele no different from a white girl wearing a Native American headdress? Rafeeat Aliyu considers whether Africans can appropriate each other’s culture

6 April 2018 // Rafeeat Aliyu

In July 2016, Nairobi-based media company, Rogue Chiefs, published an article suggesting that the voracity with which Nigerian pop culture, music, movies, books, and even Nigerian churches were being consumed across the African continent was proof of one thing: “Nigeriafication” of Africa.

Later that year Black Panther star, Lupita Nyong’o was the subject of heated debate after she wore a gele (headwrap) for the Queen of Katwe premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. For some, it was high praise, while for others Nyong’o, a Luo woman, was clearly appropriating Yoruba appropriation. For Amma Ogan, writing for NPR, while Lupita’s gele lacked the “crisp architectural look of current gele fashion” (read: it was little old-fashioned), it didn’t constitute cultural appropriation.

As cinema-goers across the continent celebrated the February 2018 release of Black Panther by donning traditional dress to the movies, the conversation about cultural appropriation has been resurrected. Several of my friends have argued that for Zimbabweans or Tanzanians, for example, to wear a gele like Lupita did, is appropriation.

“Nigerians and Ghanaians forget that jollof rice exists elsewhere in the region

So when does appreciation become appropriation, and should we even be talking about cultural appropriation among African people?

Navigating cultural appropriation, appreciation and assimilation can be tricky. According to Everyday Feminism, cultural appropriation can be essentially summarised as adopting elements of another culture without giving credit. Context matters; for something to be cultural appropriation, as opposed to appreciation, the element of power must come to play: a dominant culture picks and chooses bits of a marginalised culture and claims it as its own, or uses it out of its original content. Blood often boils when fashion designers are ‘inspired’ by traditional African textiles or clothing, or dreadlocks symbolise bohemian cool on white people while black people in the United States can lose their jobs for keeping natural hair in locs.

Yoruba women wearing aso oke in the 1890s

Yoruba women wearing aso oke in the 1890s. Credit: Nigeria Nostalgia Project

Conversely, wearing jeans and straightening your hair isn’t appropriating white culture, it’s assimilation. Historically, oppressed people were expected to assimilate, in other words adopt bits of a dominant culture to fit in. Today, even without direct colonial rule, western standards still dominate and so the majority brown world continues to assimilate.

The gele is firmly rooted in Nigerian, and more specifically Yoruba, culture. The current intricately layered style was popularised by Madam Kofo, the stage name for Abiola Atanda, one of Nollywood’s veteran actors. But other ethnic groups in Nigeria have their own names for the headscarve, be it the ichafu or dan kwali. In fact, it’s hard to make the case for cultural appropriation when there are so many similarities across cultural groups and geographies.

Reporting for the BBC, Pumza Fihlani acknowledged that while the Yoruba gele was “one of the most popular forms of headscarves,” young South African women were also reclaiming the doek”. Across South Africa today, women are wearing all black and a doek in remembrance of Winnie Madikizela Mandela, who died on 2 April, 2018. Later in the article Fihlani lists what the head wrap is called across the continent: for example duku in Ghana, tarha in Sudan, enkeycha in Sierra Leone, kilemba across the Swahili regions of east Africa, and kitambala in DR Congo.

The similarities don’t end with fashion. As the ‘Jollof Wars’ continue to rage, both Nigerians and Ghanaians forget that the rice dish also exists in Senegal, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, the Gambia and possibly elsewhere in the region. A refreshing hibiscus drink called zobo in Nigeria, is known as sobolo in Ghana,  bissap in Congo, Benin, and Senegal, among others. There are pan-African varieties of peanut sauce and vegetable stews. In Dakar, I discovered locally made incense, thouraiye, I had grow up calling ‘turaren wuta’ in Hausa.

This is not to suggest that Africa is a country, but rather to confirm that culture is fluid. African people have been travelling and exchanging with each other throughout history.

Without the power dynamics of appropriation, what is striking then is that despite – or to some degree because of – the Nigeriafication of Africa, there is evidence of prejudice towards Nigerians. In chat rooms, dozens wade in on the topic “why Africans hate Nigerians so much“.  The recent #KenyavsNigeria Twitter ‘fight’ reveals how ugly prejudice can get, even when it’s passed off as banter.

As some celebrity is called out for cultural appropriation almost daily (and often rightly) it is important that we’re able to distinguish what is appropriation and what isn’t. Nuance and context are key and with pan-African cultures we would do well to resist the urge to close in on our own small group and recognise how much more amazing we are when we see the similarities that exist across our various groups.

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