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“I felt that black did not define me, Africa did”

By Billie McTernan
Posted on Thursday, 8 April 2010 13:24

Film-maker and journalist Zina Saro-Wiwa’s documentary This is My Africa was broadcast on television sets across the US in February 2010. In it, Saro-Wiwa talks with more than 20 Africans and people interested in Africa to reveal their personal stories and experiences of African culture across the continent. Here, in an exclusive online interview with Billie McTernan, she talks about personal identity, activism and the future of African art and cinema. Click here for our review of This My Africa.

The Africa Report: What is your most memorable experience about Africa

Zina Saro-Wiwa: Pretty much any market place I have visited. Many miniature dramas and comedies are played out in these spaces, and it’s quite intoxicating to be in the middle of it all.

Growing up in the United Kingdom with Nigerian parents, did you ever have difficulties to identify yourself culturally?

Growing up I did not really worry about it. I was just a Nigerian who happened to live in the UK. Every summer was spent in Nigeria, so that further cemented our Nigerianness.

My father never allowed us to call ourselves British, and I never really sought to define myself in that way. It was only when I started travelling around the world by myself that telling people I was purely Nigerian led them to believe I had grown up there.

The fact was and is that I am partly British, too, whether I liked it or not. But the identity struggle I had more recently around five years ago was with the idea of ‘black’.

Once I began to accept that I was unavoidably British I had to contend with this idea of what it meant to be ‘black British’. But I felt that black did not define me, Africa did.

This is because black in the UK context often meant Caribbean British and it did not reflect my own personal Nigerian history.

So for that reason I have now settled on British-Nigerian, as it is simply the most accurate description of what I am.

Given your background as the daughter of a extremely well-regarded political activist, the environmental campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa, have you ever felt politically inclined?

I have always had my own ‘activism’ which is related to growing Africa’s capability to define herself and tell her own stories on her own terms.

What change would you like to see in Nigeria, and moreover Africa, in the next 20 years?

I would like to see our natural resources prospected more cleanly and efficiently, and I would like to see the money from our primary resources lead to better transport, communications and education.

Most of my hopes and dreams for Africa are extremely basic, despite my own personal focus on the cultural aspects of our development. But we cannot hope to have peace and development without a fairer distribution of resources and if people are not educated.

It is when people feel they have enough and when they understand each other better because they have heard each others stories enough times, that wider problems like corruption can be tackled most effectively. Beyond this, I want to see African urban cultural industries become more powerful, plentiful and professional.

How has the reception been to your documentary This is My Africa?

The reaction has nearly always been very positive and this goodwill has propelled the film, it seems. It seems to have a momentum of its own. I organised a screening at the Barbican Arts Centre in London in 2008 and since then the film has really sold itself.

Film festivals, one by one, started requesting it and the same happened with [the US cable television channel] HBO. I have felt tremendously lucky, as my working life rarely pans out like this.

I reckon that people are ready to hear alternative African narratives. Also, the thing I always wanted to happen happened, whereby people have told me that they have been inspired to go out and buy the books, music and films talked about in the documentary. I wanted to offer people a variety of ways to connect with Africa and this seems to be happening. So, overall the reaction has been very positive.

What was the last book you read?

The last great book I read was A Good Man in Africa by William Boyd. I wasn’t expecting to like it. Since I was young, I have always thought there is something quite provocative about the title and I wasn’t sure what I would find.

But that provocation turns out to be a delightful, as well as profound, conceit. The idea of it really makes you think and laugh. A wonderful and surprising read. I laughed throughout but also cried at the very end.

What are your personal plans for the future?

I am in development for two more This is My Africa films. I am also developing a contemporary art show, that will take place in Manhattan, that I am super excited about and that relates to African film culture. I will be making an experimental video for this show.

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