Where Are All the Black People?
Their eyes slide away from yours. Your smile is never returned. You’re black, you’re wearing ‘native’ attire… you stick out like a sore thumb. Yes they are black too, and they used to be like you, proudly wearing their ‘native’ prints, but now, all they want is to blend in, to keep their heads down. They want to speak Swedish because the better you speak the language the more your chances of employment, and they don’t need the burden. The burden of being reminded of home, of the reason they had fled in the first place. They don’t need you to be a burden in case you’re planning to defect, to become one of them.
But worse still, some of them are queer. They are on the run for their lives, from homophobes like you who wants to stone them or imprison them, not because they’ve stolen from you or killed your relative, but because for the first time in their lives they are free to be. They don’t need you with your dreadlocks to remind them of where they are coming from where they are running from… no, they don’t need you!
… Oh wait… someone smiled at you. She was black, she had a baby in a pram. She looked happy, self—confident but you don’t want to talk to her because you’re more interested in the unhappy ones, the ones who don’t smile back.
You are self-conscious. Is it politically correct to want to do ‘parapo’? Do you want to do ‘we against them?’ and then the knowledge that Africa is NOT a country. Blackness does not mean you’re kin.
You pass by her waving your pride flag. You give her your warmest smile, but pass by…
A Fucking Tight Schedule
You studied the program before you left Nigeria. You saw a long list of all the things you were to do, people to meet. Largely unpronounceable names float by your eyes—Christian Guggenberger, Kenneth Hallstrom, Goran Stanton, Ulrica Westerlundc, your eyes water, Fjaderholmarna, DramateGnu, Stadshusparken. You note that you’ve been asked to bring walking shoes. You laugh. This should be a breeze. Hey we walk everywhere in Nigeria … You define the people who walk better… We poor people.
But the reality was different. After the first day when you had a leisurely stroll around Stockholm and a nice lunch with one of the other journalists invited to the program Pontsho Pilane, (another fierce feminist from South Africa) your life was taken over by meetings.
Of course you barely slept that first night. You were partly hungover from all the wine you drank on your almost 24hrs flight from Nigeria through Addis-Ababa to … yay! Stockholm.
So during your first meeting you were nodding off, and thinking about first impressions, and how you’re blowing your ‘cool, professional, rebel’ cover by nodding off and probably snoring like a car with starter problems. So you do something you wouldn’t have done in Nigeria. You had coffee, black, unsweetened coffee, thick, mud-like coffee that scalded your tongue at the first sip, and that woke you up alright, knocking you … piam … up the Richter scale of hyperactivity.
And you met them Livia Podesta, the ever smiling, twinkly program co-ordinator, whom at some point you asked exactly what she’s smoking that makes her so happy, because at that point you were so exhausted you’d take anything. Podesta’s smile was only rivalled by that of Ibrahim Nehme of The Outpost Magazine, based in Lebanon. Maybe Livia was not on something, but Ibrahim was definitely on something and that thing made him laid back and pleasant all through the journey.
You respectfully listen to Professor Babro Westerholm because her story was so beautiful. Here was a straight woman who was resuming as a doctor on a board, and there were all these gay people by the doorsteps declared ‘sick’ by the Sweden constitution (this was in 1979). They were going to occupy the doorsteps until they were declared healthy, and Prof Babro said “I’ll do something about it,” and three months later, she did.
Gay people were no longer officially sick.
I mean this is a great idea for Nigerians who love taking “sick” days off.
Then there was the uber cool Nadja Karlsson who gave us a walking tour of Queer Stockholm—a rich history full of Kings, and Queens and Vikings. You couldn’t tear your eyes off one of the most gorgeous women you’ve ever met. Her sense of humor made what could have turned out to be another boring history lesson into something exciting. Of course Nadja had gone through her share of being treated as less than human because she was… wait for it … transsexual! But she didn’t just lie down for people to walk all over her. She did something about it because it was her life!
Then a boat ride, lunch at another beautiful restaurant, champagne with a group of civil rights activists, lawyers and advocates at the Swedish Institut. You turned down the non-alcoholic champagne for the alcoholic one.
A decision you were to regret the following morning as you had to scald your tongue with piping hot black coffee and load your system with chocolate so you won’t fall asleep.
You met Feareahd, Goran Staton of the Gay Police Organization, and Kristina Ljung, a pastor. You kind of gave that meeting a slip because you know how much damage the church has caused in your country, and you wanted to ask if theirs was being taxed and how heavily crippling the taxation was. You couldn’t because it wouldn’t be kosher. So you sat in the church and for the first time since you embarked on that trip, you listened … to the sound of deep, clean, silence. It was almost orgasmic.
Your torture was not over as you had to walk to the Pride Park, where you were accredited, you then met the press manager of the Stockholm Pride, you met Sofia, who works for an inclusive sports environment, you met Anna… you were in love with all the fierce people you met. It must be love.
Names, so many people doing so many things to promote inclusiveness, your head was spinning, too many pictures, too many names, too much coffee and alcohol in your system.
And yes … loads of walking.
Lost in Stockholm
Actually this is nigh to impossible in a country suffering from systemic OCD like Sweden, but you almost managed it.
Because you were dead drunk and dead tired and couldn’t decide which one was uppermost, you decided you felt like partying. It was just 11pm but … yay! The sun was still shinning. So you pulled on your clothes again, left the sanity of your hotel room and followed your footsteps to heaven-knows-where.
With studied nonchalance and Nigerian bravado, you ask a nice lady where the bus-stop to your unspecified destination was, because somebody mentioned that there would be a party there. You got to the stop and the two pretty, white ladies previously gossiping and tying shoelaces in that space quickly took their leave. You were once again reminded that you were too black, too ethnic, too wild, that you should have permed your hair. But you thank your lucky locs that you weren’t Pontsho, whose mega-big braids were causing a ruckus. She was a classic portrayal of the African Maami, the stuff fetish racist dreams were made of.
Anyway there you were on the bus to this unknown destination and of course you were driven past your stop because you were too busy enjoying the novel in your hand instead of paying attention. The truth was you were waiting for that loud, gruff announcement of bus-stops—“Somolu, Bariga, Beere!,” but all you got was some really classy voice announcing all these really difficult words and you were thinking it was part of the background noise. So you sat and stared and hey finally your stop… and the party had ended.
It was already after 12, and you decided to trek home, hoping your eyes would clear. It never did. Luckily for you, your drunken feet took you back to a stop you got on another bus back home. Finally you were tired enough to sleep.
It was 1am and the sky was still bright… yay!
The Pride March
Of course you overslept. You nearly missed breakfast, but you were too excited to eat. So you went to the fruit decorations (smack in the centre of the restaurant) and plucked some (to the dismay of the restaurant staff who tried to cover up by smiling at you, but you were too far gone to care)… you plucked one more banana, took two peaches and some unidentifiable fruits that you picked just for the hell of it. You dumped the fruits in your bag. Armed with your phone, some croissants and your good old walking shoes, you head out to the pride march, which was to start at 12noon.
The march is just one of the many events that marks pride week in Stockholm. It is much more than a party (as you were told over and again during the meetings). THE PRIDE is a movement, a political statement, an in-your-face kinda thing organized make homophobes and racists and sexists sit up and take notice.
Feeling like some kind of G, you stand in the middle of the road and showed the policeman trying to keep people on the other side of the barricade your “press” wristband. The butch guy with his sunshades smiled pityingly at you and insists, quite firmly, that you have to go to the other side of the barricade, “for your safety.”
You won’t let this stop you, not after all the sleepless nights and the long flight and layover. This was why you were here! You take out your china-made mobile phone and record, and record and took pictures (unclear pictures) because you’ve never been prouder. You’re here looking at people who have fought long and hard over the years to stand out in the sun and proclaim that they are more than their sexualities. They were gay. They were transgendered. They were intersex. They were gay parents with children. They were parents with gay children. They were proud. And they walked in the afternoon, in the sun.
And there were the marchers who were not gay. They were non-judgemental people willing to stand side by side with people reviled worldwide simply because they do not have sex with the recommended people.
It was awesome!
Sex, Power and all that Jazz
Hungover again, with a headache threatening, you check out of the hotel at 12 noon. You grab your backpacks and hop on a train for the airport, and a nine hour wait for your flight to Addis-Ababa. You found yourself a nice bench and curled up onto it, safe in the knowledge that your powerful snores would keep away thieves. A laptop, your most valued object, is tucked away inside your most expensive fashion item, a Marc Jacobs bag, which you’re using as a pillow.
You woke up one hour later, grabbed some more croissants, and the black coffee you were rapidly becoming addicted to even as you swore never again, no more coffee. You opened one of the many books you brought along with you and before you knew it … check in time. On your way to check in your luggage, you meet with a bunch of boisterous boys speaking Yoruba at the top of their lungs.
You say hello in Yoruba and was pleased at the way you were warmly welcomed. You go back to checking in praying their seats are as far away from yours as possible. You were not really looking for company.
So while waiting to board the flight, one of the boys comes over to talk to you. You’d overhead him talking about his wife who abandoned him when he left Nigeria. He was returning home and fancied himself a conquering hero—with a Swedish passport in pocket.
“Poor woman,” he’d said. “Lucky woman,” you murmured to yourself. Apparently, he left a managing position with a car dealership to become a short order cook at MacDonald’s in a strange land. You wanted to say “sir, you’re a bloody cliché!” but then you smile. He told you about how Sweden is a land for women. Are they practising “matriarchy?” You ask, hoping he’d reveal himself to be the Nigerian sexist that you imagined him to be. But, he disappoints you and almost makes you laugh when he says: “you see, if you have children here and you’re a man, it doesn’t matter whether you’re living with their mother or not, you have to pay upkeep, and if you don’t the police will arrest you. You can’t get away with being a bad parent or a bad husband.”
You finally understand how power works, why it is tough preaching feminism and equal rights in Nigeria. Mistreating people perceived as “weak” is seen as the measure of a man’s strength. Have different baby mamas, beat up your girlfriends and wives, and get away with it.
And that is the Nigeria you’re returning to.
You’re looking forward to the fight because you have seen first-hand how some people delivered themselves from their oppressors.
Yes they still have a lot of fight on their hands. Yes the homophobes, racists and sexists haven’t all disappeared, but now the disadvantaged have the law on their side. That’s where we are going in Nigeria, and we will get there!
Image by Elita Karim.
About the Author:
Ayodele Olofintuade is a writer and feminist who believes in and advocates for Intersectionality in gender issues. She’s also a children’s rights advocate who loves travel. She’s an adventurer who’ll try anything … once.