Part of McMaster University’s “Spotlight on the Arts” Festival 2013
Here is my story:
Every once in a while, I get asked the question “Where are you from?”
In my mischievous moments I respond: “I’m from planet earth – I am a true earthling, born and bred.” Then, there is often the follow up, “… I mean, where are you from originally?”
But you see, I really do think of myself as an earthling – a global citizen. My “show and tell” object today is a globe-shaped bookend that normally sits on my office bookshelf. It is a reminder to me that we all share a common humanity and “home” can be anywhere in the world.
Although I am originally from West Africa, Nigeria, I have lived and worked in 3 continents. Before I settled in Canada, I worked in Nigeria, South Africa, the UK, Denmark, Sweden and the United States. In all these countries I have come to realize how similar people and cultures are, even in our global diversity.
As a “coloured” person, the country where I felt most visibly different was Denmark where I worked in the late 1990s. As anyone who’s been to that part of the world knows, all Scandinavians appear to be tall, blue-eyed and blonde. Yet, the rural countryside of Frederikshavn in northern Denmark was a place where I felt very much at “home.”
I saw much in Danish folk culture and tradition that reminded me of my own African heritage – the food, music and dances, family traditions, folk tales and of course, the booze. My favourite was Gammel Dansk (literally, “Old Danish”) a liquor made from bitter herbs and roots. Gammel Dansk reminded me so much of akpeteshi (root gin), a common drink in West Africa and Chibuku beer of rural South Africa.
But what I fell most in love with in Denmark was the spirit of Hygge (pronounced hügge). There is no equivalent English word for Hygge; the closest is “coziness” but even this is inadequate. Hygge is a fundamental aspect of Danish culture. It means relaxing with good friends or loved ones, often while enjoying good food and drink in a friendly candle-lit atmosphere. Enjoying Hygge with my Danish friends reminded me of the moon light story telling sessions of the African villages where family and friends would gather to share food and stories around a bonfire.
Although Denmark was the country where I looked most different from those around me, in all my travels it was also the one place that reminded me most about my African childhood. The lesson for me is that human beings and societies have more in common than we accept or recognize. Strangers are often friends that we have not yet met; and distant foreign lands can be homes that we have not yet visited.
So, when someone asks me now, “Where are you from?” I answer, “From the planet earth…” When they add, “… where from originally?”, I respond with a straight face, “Frederikshavn, Denmark.”
What is your story?….