Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
CHINWE AZUBUIKE (# 10)
Born in Lagos, Nigeria
Father & Mother both born in Nigeria
Ethnic heritage / Father & Mother: Igbo
Chinwe was born and raised in Lagos, the old capital of Nigeria. This most populous country of Africa is sometimes described as “the Giant of Africa” and is also listed amongst the ‘Next Eleven Economies’. With over 500 ethnic groups and almost as many languages, the country is roughly divided, on religious grounds, into two parts: the largely Muslim North and the predominantly Christian South. Nigeria gained independence from British rule in 1960 and from the very outset, the religious, cultural, tribal, and political differences between the dominant ethnic groups came into sharp focus. A stormy period followed independence, with civil war and a succession of military coups culminating in the 30-month ‘National Civil War’ of 1967 and the long siege of Biafra.
In 1999, after 33 years of military rule, democracy returned to Nigeria and, while this remains quite a turbulent country, with governance and social problems, it has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. However, the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider. Cultural life is thriving too, with Nigerian literature being widely read throughout the world, not to mention the now booming film industry, jocularly known as ‘Nollywood’. Sadly, sectarian violence continues to plague Nigeria and so do significant human rights abuses: extrajudicial killings, misconduct by the security forces, human trafficking outrages, female genital mutilation, child labour, and attacks on gay people. Such things are often in the news.
Chinwe commenced her education in Lagos during the rule of the Second Junta (this lasted until 1998) and continued in a local secondary school, very much based on the English education system - of course, English is the official language of Nigeria to this day. She went on to become a highly promising student at the University of Jos, but had to terminate her course early in her first year simply because, without a grant, her parents were unable to fund her studies. This forced her into starting work and helping to support her family.
Chinwe is the eldest daughter in a family where bonds are very strong indeed; she has two sisters and two brothers. As an intelligent and presentable young woman, she secured her first job as a media canvasser at the Lagos International Trade Fair. Chinwe had fallen in love with language and literature during her secondary education: “I started to write little poems or short articles about issues I witnessed in daily life.” But she did not come from a wealthy family: “My parents were hard-working people: after my father was laid off from the Civil Service, he had to take poorly paid jobs; and my mother ran a small trading business. But, of course, with five children to raise, she had her hands full.”
Chinwe had a happy childhood: though they lived modestly, her family were very close and remain so to this day; indeed, all Chinwe’s siblings continue to live at or close to the family home. But being the first born, Chinwe felt she had a lot on her shoulders: she was expected to support the family so, while her work was just a means to that end, it gave her the satisfaction of being relatively independent. Lagos, at that stage still the capital city, was cosmopolitan, very much a mixed community, though Chinwe’s own family were Christian, quite traditional, and with great respect for family values. A series of jobs followed the Trade Fair, all necessary if equally uninspiring, culminating in a job as a tea girl for an oil company. Throughout this time, she continued writing poetry. Chinwe’s own language is Igbo, but she writes in English, infusing her poetry with Igbo phrases.
Chinwe strongly believes that one’s culture and traditions are most important and that her respect for these things made her what she is today: “Though I was aware that traditional society had created a range of (mostly restrictive) norms and expectations, impacting especially on women’s roles and behaviour, I also began to understand that these traditions could be used by society as weapons of oppression. At that point, I started to question the very foundations of these social norms. In particular, I became interested in how they affected the women around me, people I knew well and whose stories I had heard.”
“From early on, I was especially interested in the constraints placed by society on the lives of widows. Of course, I naturally raised these questions first within my own family, a family distinctly patriarchal in nature, where such questions are neither expected nor welcomed from a woman. My own mother agreed with the points I was raising and, whilst she had not resigned herself to blind acceptance of the rules of a traditional society, like many, she was powerless to do anything about it. My father respected my intellect but continued in his belief that such questions were not for women to ask. ‘Why are you asking these questions?’ he would enquire; ‘Don’t you realise you are a daughter of Igbo soil?’ Though my father loved me, he felt I was ‘too clever by half’, describing me as, ‘Lawyer Ikpe ama’ - a lawyer who wins every case.”
The mistreatment of women permeated the very passionate poetry that Chinwe wrote at that time. Then, in 2003, an extraordinary set of circumstances came about: her work came to the attention of the US-Africa Literary Foundation and they published her work on their website - she was the first female poet to be so selected. Following this, in 2004, she was asked to contribute some of her work to an exhibition dealing with the victimisation and oppression of women, from which followed an invitation to be interviewed by the BBC for Network Africa and by Spectrum Radio, and she was subsequently asked to read her poetry as part of Exiled Writers Ink, in London.
“This must be a dream, I thought, but at the same time, with my work now coming to the attention of traditionalists within and outside Nigeria, I was soon to learn the price of taking liberties, of questioning the established order. The irritations were tangible and, for the first time ever, I asked myself seriously how one can become an outsider in one’s own country, simply by questioning social norms and by exposing injustice - the violation of women, female genital mutilation, and the appalling treatment of widows often involving horrific practices. ‘How dare you to write about things that are sacred?’ was a frequent demand in the many hostile emails.” Nevertheless, this was a time full of promise and hope, with Chinwe appreciating how good it was to know that one’s voice was beginning to be heard even if the antagonism was hard to bear. “I started to see my poetry as my weapon and I grew ever more determined to use it whenever I could.”
In 2006, Chinwe’s father died and, as if that event were not traumatic enough, her own mother had herself to endure a particularly gruesome experience of widowhood. Chinwe found this so appalling that she is still unable to talk about it without breaking down. She was, however, able to channel some of this pain into her subsequent writing.
Having arrived in Britain, Chinwe found it a real pleasure to discover that there were so many individuals with whom she could share her feelings and frustrations, so many organisation that were tackling similar issues as they affected women throughout the world. But, new to London, she was also an outsider. Still relatively unknown but buoyed up by the kindness of a few relatives and friends, including those from the arts and from women’s associations, she battled with the practicalities of a newcomer facing what were often the hard realities of life in London. “It is hard to survive as an author writing poetry alone,” Chinwe says; “one cannot live on praise.”
Chinwe now lives in East London with her partner, a fellow artist, and their fifteen month old son. She combines being a mother with poetry readings, talks and participating in artistic and women’s projects. “It is so good to feel one is not alone,” she says, “and one is able to share and work on strategies and campaigns that are so close to one’s heart. Since coming to London, I have started to incorporate into my poetry the topics which touch my life now: about the life of an immigrant, about the solitude that is felt by being away from home, away from those with whom one has shared life in Nigeria. London gave me a platform to speak from, and I intend to share it with like-minded people, and to use it to try to effect change in the lives of oppressed women everywhere. Of course, there are now numbers of outspoken women living in Nigeria, fighting the battle from within, but I feel that my voice here in London can also have a far-reaching impact.”
Chinwe describes herself as a spokeswoman for Nigeria’s deprived class, a campaigner for the rights of widows who, in Nigeria, can suffer human rights abuses, discrimination, marginalisation, poverty and violence.
Thinking of the disadvantages of being an outsider, Chinwe believes that challenging cultural and social norms, not to mention the laws that make women’s lives a misery, can make one unintentionally into an outsider and that has its price: disapproval, exclusion, and attacks from traditionalists in the media and the establishment.
On the other hand, being an outsider can provide a sense of freedom: “I can express myself without fear; I can ask questions freely, without worrying about consequences; I can even demand answers from those in authority. I can be who I am and be accepted for who I am.”
Given the choice of not being an outsider, Chinwe says: “To be honest, it’s not always comfortable being an outsider but, if given the choice, I would always select the option that allows me to be who I am, that lets me believe in whatever I choose to believe.”
Interview Date: 31st May 2013
Updated: 11th June 2013
Widows for Peace Through Democracy:
Army Widows' Association UK:
Born and raised in Nigeria, Chinwe is an established poet and describes herself as a spokeswoman for Nigeria’s deprived class, a campaigner for the rights of widows who can suffer human rights abuses, discrimination, marginalisation, poverty and violence. Perceiving that traditional society had created a range of (mostly restrictive) norms and expectations that impact on women’s roles and behaviour, Chinwe was particularly interested in the constraints society placed on the lives of widows. She began to understand that these traditions could be used as weapons of oppression, so she started to question their very foundations. But challenging cultural and social norms can turn one unintentionally into an outsider, and that has its price: disapproval, exclusion, and attacks from traditionalists in the media and the establishment.
Photography: London 31st May 2013