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Africa is being born abroad and dying at home – Tess Onwueme

You are celebrating 60 in two days. What does that feel like? God has been wonderful to me. To be turning 60, with all my…

You are celebrating 60 in two days. What does that feel like?
God has been wonderful to me. To be turning 60, with all my experiences and looking back on how blessed I have been and also how much God has blessed my children, joy and thanksgiving never depart from lips. I continue to sing and dance and remain jubilant.

What’s the secret to your youthful look?
(Laughter) I am a happy and content person. I have also ensured that I do things I love doing and enjoy; things that allow me be creative and to make a difference to those I relate with.

What are your fond memories of growing up in the Niger Delta?
Oh my, I loved my life growing up in the village. My chore as a little girl was polishing the hut early in the morning with mud before the sun rose. As I grew older, I began to make decorative patterns on the wall. I absolutely relish those moments. Sometimes like during New Yam festival I went to the forest to get leaves to make designs to beautify the environment. This my theatre and dancing and acting started then. I would gather the girls my age and younger children and would teach them dance steps. I remember my grandmother would make beads and ornaments which we wore on our legs and waist which were meant to help our bodies form in a shapely way.
It was simply beautiful. Even the hygiene measures we were taught for our personal consciousness and environment. You were cautious not to deviate from them because if you did there were elders with several eyes waiting to point you in the right direction and insist that you did the right thing.
The kitchen was the woman’s sanctuary, her sacred space and men respected it as such and never went in there. These days there is nothing sacred in our society and people are not conscious of these things.
We are losing a lot of values and the thirst for everything Western has become an obsession. It is also the mind-set and parents are largely responsible. Inferiority complex seems to have taken over the minds of our people and we have lost our cultural self-esteem.

You are very proud that your children although raised in the US are very much in touch with their Nigerian roots. How did you manage this?
I made it a policy right from when we were in Nigeria that wherever it is you sit in is Africa. Nigeria is not some far off distant place. It is you, it is home, it is what you eat and breath. Therefore, you should exude it. I made it a policy that once they stepped into the house… especially when we got to the US, I told them I didn’t understand English. Peer pressure and inferiority complex that this might impose on them, was something we trashed out. I said when they ask you, ‘what language is that you are speaking,’ tell them it is your language! It is what you tell them, that you are. So they knew that once they stepped into the house, they were in Africa. Even my grandkids have picked it up. You are the first teacher of your child and if you are going to leave that task to the teachers, then you are sending them away on exile. There’s cultural exile and that’s what happens. Africa is being born abroad and dying in Africa. I celebrate my rural identity.

The University of Wisconsin recently honoured you by creating an archive of your works. How did you receive this gesture?
It was a beautiful and welcome surprise for me. It is quite fulfilling to know and actually see in one’s lifetime that my works are appreciated; especially because they are making impact. I am very delighted and immensely appreciative of it all.

In your view, do Nigerian works properly represent the wealth of rural women?
It depends on who you are reading. Think of Sidi and Sadiku in Soyinka’s ‘Lion and the Jewel.’ Yes they were very articulate in the language and culture but they were nonentities and toys in the hands of Baroka. He had one whom all she did was pluck his armpit.  Then you think of Achebe and his women in ‘Things Fall Apart.’ Ozigbo them; who were they? I think there is more consciousness and also a lot of feminist resistance against all those sterotypification and relegation and marginalisation of women. By and large, left to them those women were either objects of desire, objects of sex.

What’s on your mind when you are developing you female characters?
Characters are bodies of ideas. Each character is imbued with certain premeditated ideologies and sensibilities. If my goal is to create a rebellious teenager and I have a lot of such counter culture non-conformist females like Shakara, Galadis whose parents cannot pronounce the new name ‘Gladys’ she has given herself. You embody her with those ideas and it means therefore her resistance is going to go against some other embodied set of values that represent the hegemony. You have Omesiete in ‘Shakara’ who is barely scratching the surface to survive, completely impoverished, and her self-esteem through marriage and all that, she’s been trampled on by her husband because she couldn’t produce male children. Even though she’s materially poor, she’s emotionally, psychologically affluent not just rich and is infused with such dignity and nobility that you admire her. She doesn’t have the material things people celebrate in our society but she is richer than the wealthiest. Though her daughter who is racing to amass these artefacts of power … when you follow Omesiete’s conflict with her daughter, this new ball of fire, you come to admire her. These characters don’t just happen it all depends on the story you want to tell. Drama on conflict of ideas that are embodied in characters but the eventual goal is to impose order within the chaos.

What do you say about playwrights or directors who create characters beyond real life situations?
All artistes are not equal and if the poetic justice that artiste has taken is to a very hyperbolic dimension it becomes unbelievable. It is your right as a critique to poke your needle into that inflated balloon. As a consumer you can criticise it.

Domestic tourism is almost non-existent. Also, stakeholders express concern over this development. What in your view is the reason for this plunge?
I see tourism as just a word in Nigeria and really not something that the people live on. Take for example, an average Nigerian home. It is partially clean and the culture of cleanliness has become one that some people are forced to inculcate within their environment. The villages are stark naked and the cities are built with concrete but despite that, we are bastardising our environment and fleeing to places where people are inculcating the values. The environment in Nigeria is littered with dirt, so why would a tourist or even Nigerians pay money to inhale thrash and squalor.
Look at little cities like the Bahamas and Jamaica which have no oil but depend largely on tourism because their environment is sanitized. We have an abundance of everything in Nigeria but I am afraid that we abuse or under value the best that nature has blessed us with.

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