My white English grandmother tells me that whereas she is looking at the problems of colonialism from ‘the outside’, I see it from ‘the inside.’ She spent decades of her life in Africa. I grew up in Britain. I studied at Oxford, so does that make me part of the establishment? I started African Apocalypse wondering if the descendants of Voulet’s victims would trust and accept me, see me as another European, disengaged, like Marlow in Conrad’s book, swooping in from afar to document their story for them – or worse, another Kurtz…exploiting them for my own gain?
Our guards in Niger, the soldiers, young men my own age, told me that because I am from Europe then, to them, I might as well be white. Meanwhile porters in Oxford used to call the police on me because all they saw was a black man with locks hanging around the college. So where do I belong?
Niger is a country still in shock. Before me, school children recounted stories of Voulet from which they were separated by generations. Recounting an oral history of pain without retribution or even recognition with a calm yet firm resolution. They spoke as if the invasion had only happened last week.
It was here I saw the wisdom of Nigeriens, school kids crying for murdered ancestors and a stolen future, women lamenting the loss of their sons to migration, old men telling of their suffering in the (post)colonial mines and the loss of their culture and community, young men angry that all they feel they have is the grave of Voulet – in case Europeans, like me, one day want to come and spend some euros to see it.
I realise these Nigeriens all share something with Amina and Assan that as an outsider, as a European, I could never truly understand. But it’s more complicated than that. Where do I belong? In Britain I’m the other. In Niger I am too. I feel the weight of being an outsider when I expected to feel an insider. I thought my experience of being black man Britain, my Nigerian mother and father, my own African lineage, the racism I’ve experienced would bring an affinity, but it took time for me to connect, and to understand the truth of how Nigeriens live to this day.
I look back on African Apocalypse and I can see my struggle. Amina and Assan did too. Talking to the mothers, the elders, the children of Niger I was internalising so much, I forgot how to show my emotion. Expressionless when ordinarily I’m so very expressive. Appearing as the disengaged European I worried I may have been taken for. Yet simultaneously discovering an identity I hadn’t yet had the chance to explore.
The scene in the garden cafe was a turning point, at the time it felt confrontational – but it was necessary. Amina and Assan pulled me up and I’m grateful that they did. I was hearing these terrible things, such raw testimony and yet to them I seemed impassive. As if nothing was making an impression.
Caption: Femi, Amina and Assan
The reality is that I felt as though I needed to be given permission, as a European, an Oxford student, a young man with so many opportunities, living in a nation made rich on colonialism, to connect. And in a way, criticizing my ‘zen like’ tranquillity opened me up. I was being given permission to grieve alongside those whose suffering was so much more concrete, whose stories recounted the full scale and horror of colonialism rather than University campus microaggressions.
But grief alone cannot give us solutions. As the journey continued, I found myself connecting more and more with people. I found myself confident to speak and sing in their language (I had learned some Hausa) talking about their customs, planning and learning about how they could harness the energy of the Sun for their future and envisioning a brighter tomorrow both for Niger, and for the Africans whom I now feel comfortable saying are, in a sense, my people.