Listening to Africa

Students at Yale's Africa Salon
Students at Yale’s Africa Salon

Early on a Saturday morning in March, I found myself surrounded by African artists, speakers, and performers in the basement of the Afro-American Cultural Center. We ate Egyptian salad and South African banana bread for breakfast, and we didn’t talk much. I assumed that the others were nervous, like me, and thinking over what they were going to say. We were preparing to participate in the Africa Salon, billed as “Yale’s first-ever contemporary African arts fest.”

A month or so before the event, I’d received an email from Ifeanyi Awachie, a Woodbridge Fellow with the Yale Africa Initiative and the organizer of the Salon. She asked me to perform a poem I’d written about visiting my father’s country, Nigeria, for the first time as a child. I felt nervous when I saw that the program listed me as a “Yale artist to watch”: an African audience could disagree with my experience, or assume that I, an American citizen, was too unfamiliar with the continent to voice my opinion. A first-generation Nigerian American, Awachie assured me that my transnational viewpoint was valuable to the Salon, which aimed to expose audiences to the perspectives of Africans from all over the diaspora.

Africa Salon is a much-needed step forward in Yale’s Africa Initiative, which formed in response to President Salovey’s statement in his inaugural address to have “a greater focus on Africa.” Awachie became involved with the Africa Initiative because she wanted the University’s new concentration to be “something with soul and content, not an institutional gimmick.” Too often, the continent is thought of as static, in need of development and with few contributions for the Western world. The Salon provided an important counterpart to this perspective, exposing the Yale community to contemporary art that few Yalies were likely to recognize. Visiting artists from Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and the U.S. discussed their work—literature, visual arts, and music—alongside Yale’s a cappella group Asempa!, the dance group Dzana, and African student photographers and writers.

The Salon added to an ongoing conversation among African students at Yale. Comprising slightly over one percent of Yale’s student population, many feel like they are forced to become the sole voice and image of the continent’s many countries. Opelo Matome, a freshman from Botswana, said that in classes, “I’m called upon to speak as an African student—not representative of just my country, but the whole continent.” But the visitors at the Africa Salon could all comment on their complicated relationship with the West, adding nuance to the conversation.

At times, debate turned into disagreement: when Nigerian journalist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani asserted that African authors had to publish off the continent in order to be really successful, Nigerian publisher Bibi Bakare-Yusuf arched her eyebrows. She glanced at the audience, inviting them to share in her shock and disbelief. When Bakare-Yusuf finally spoke, she pushed back against misconceptions. She addressed three points neatly and rapidly: yes, African publishers were capable of producing manuscripts without typos, yes, there was literary work emerging outside of the U.S. and Europe, and no, she did not consider herself to be an idealist. This connected to the Salon’s project to “rebrand Africa,” as Awachie said, by presenting African art to Americans not because the artists needed Western validation, but because Americans need to be better informed.

Nodumo Ncomazi, a Zimbabwean sophomore who sat behind me, periodically snapped her fingers to indicate agreement with the panelists, or groaned loudly to voice her dissent. Later, Nodumo told me that she felt that as an African student, she was constantly observing white American culture. At the Salon, she felt that she was finally being observed, her culture considered valuable enough to warrant outsiders’ attention.

But how can the students at Yale carry on the discussions started at Africa Salon? Yale has created the Young African Scholars Program to recruit more African students, since they now make up only one percent of the student body. YYAS prioritizes teaching in remote areas of the continent, free of charge. The program’s project manager, Helinna Ayalew, networks with Yale affiliates in Africa to ensure that students from low-income areas hear about the program, allowing for a more diverse population of international students at Yale. Ayalew, who received her doctorate in African Studies last year, helped organize the first YYAS program in her home country of Ethiopia in the summer of 2014. “There are so many students who would be great at a school like this, but who have no idea how to begin the application process,” she said. “Going to college in the U.S. would be like going to the moon.”

Rachel Adams, Yale’s associate director for Africa, lauds YYAS as one of the most effective steps Yale has taken in outreach to Africa. As a native of Zimbabwe who did not attend a privileged school, she uses her personal network to help recruit students. She’s proud of the progress the Africa Initiative has made—the class of 2018 has the highest enrollment of African international students to date.

But the Africa Salon showed that even a few students can start a conversation. At the concert, the manager of a musical guest called Awachie onstage, presented her with a Maasai cloth—a bright, striped purple blanket—and tied it around her shoulders. “Every superwoman needs a super cape,” the manager said. Awachie replied with modest relief: “It’s like it was another version of me that did all this,” she said.

I delivered my piece, forgot a couple of insignificant lines and stuttered once. The audience applauded politely. I was still unsure whether I deserved to be at an event celebrating contemporary Africa and all its complexities. Admittedly, I’ve only been to the continent four times. I worried that I sounded naïve and, by depicting Nigeria through a child’s eyes, romanticized it in some way. I wrote about hearing Yoruba for the first time and thinking it was a song-language. But the poem was a sincere account of my experience:

Later my cousins will interlace their fingers with mine and            compare, saying

Chocolate and cinnamon

Copper and coconut shell

Even though I have grown dark here and I can walk with my father and no one asks him

where he got me—

this is not my home but I know that it is his

I hear him speak this tonal language and his tongue does not twist around last

names, has no lilt, does not curl back on itself when it knows it has mispronounced

and betrayed its employer

and for the first time his speech hides nothing.

My Nigerian friend Fadeke and I talked after the Salon, and we decided we were considering African art the same way some people consider charity: if it’s not on your mind at least some of the time, it should weigh on your conscience. We felt guilty for not thinking of these African conversations more often. To comfort each other, we said: it’s not all serious. African students, myself included, so often complain about Yale parties—no one dances! Why isn’t anyone dancing? But Battell Chapel was nearly full when the Kenyan funk group Just a Band came onstage, and during the performance of U.S.-South African rapper Jean Grae, most of the audience went to the front of the concert hall to dance. Here, at Yale, they gave us clips of so many sounds that are missing, so many voices that are waiting to be heard.