By Rachel Affiong Umoh
The Same Story Told In Different Languages.
I’m Nigerian by descent but living in the UK. As someone who puts great store in the power of words, I always welcome Black History Month as a wonderful reminder of how important our stories are. Passed down from generation to generation, between families and cultures and indeed new cultures we assimilate, they help us to connect by allowing us to understand each other better. As a writer, I try to encompass what matters to me in the pages I put together, but as a young woman living in London and working in mental health, I see the power of storytelling in action every day. We use it to answer questions, convey history, and teach lessons, both for the short term and over the course of our lives. In fact, this is one of the reasons I have come to connect with Pen to Print – initially volunteering for the organisation over ReadFest, and now being one of Write On!’s newest team members. With this in mind and, as I draw incredible strength from my own cultural roots, I’m taking this opportunity to share my own story and connections with you.
Black History Month in the diaspora always fills me with a sense of nostalgia, reminding me of my proud connection to a vibrant cultural heritage. Coming from Nigeria, a truly diverse nation with over 300 ethnic groups and 500 languages, I am in awe of the richness that stems from our diversity. It is this very diversity that strengthens us and makes our identity truly beautiful.
It is noteworthy that Nigeria’s independence from colonial rule coincides with Black History Month. In ancient times, adults would gather children together under the moonlight by a village fire (akin to modern-day community centres) and recount tales conveying important life lessons. These stories, known as Tales By Moonlight, captivated my imagination as a child. Examples include fables featuring animal characters, poetic folk songs, and staged dramas. I particularly loved how they drew on elements of folklore and fantasy.
Ben Okri, the seminal Nigerian-British poet and novelist, draws strongly on these elements in his work, moving this type of storytelling from cultural practice in Black and marginalised communities into the mainstream into the literary world. Indeed, the transition from oral tradition to written literature has enabled the preservation of significant historical events related to various ethnic groups’ struggles for freedom and united efforts toward independence. It’s fascinating how these same stories are told in different languages across our nation.
I’m fortunate to have been born into an interethnic family and raised in a society that is different from both of my parents’ ethnic groups. I take great pride in identifying myself as a true Nigerian. From a young age, I was blessed with the opportunity to experience a rich blend of cultures, including language, cuisine, music, and lifestyle. I’ve become skilled in the art of diplomacy, adaptation, and, above all, inclusion. My father hails from the Southern part of the country, belonging to the Ibibio tribe, while my mother comes from the Western part as a member of the Yoruba tribe. Both my siblings and I were born and raised in the Northern part, so we were exposed to cultural diversity from childhood.
Added to this, I attended a school established by a Ghanaian, with half the students coming from various regions of Africa. As you can imagine, our cultural day was a remarkable event, brimming with the essence of diverse cultures. The tantalising scent of African cuisine vied for attention with the vibrant traditional attire; all encompassed by the rhythmic beats of the accompanying drums.
This exposed me to the beauty of possessing a heritage that could connect millions of people. I came to realise that, beyond our skin colour, we share many similarities. Clothing, dance styles, and culinary delights all have elements of identification. For instance, Kenyan ugali and Nigerian fufu. I also particularly enjoyed the role-playing activities that were part and parcel of the event. I vividly recall my friend from Uganda portraying Queen Amina of Zaria, a boy from South Africa taking on the role of Kwame Nkuruma of Ghana, and me appearing as Queen Nzinga of Angola. As I reflect on these powerful memories, I’m reminded of the indomitable spirit of these historical figures and take pride in the greatness of my race.
While growing up, my mother used to sing songs in her dialect to pass on the importance of moral values to me and my siblings. One particular song was in the form of a proverb and emphasised the importance of education to broaden one’s perspective. A regular birthday present for me would be a book and there would always be a loving inscription on the fly leaf, from my mother: With love from Mum and Dad, read and explore the world. These words have shaped me, fueling my curiosity and passion for reading, as well as wanting to find out more about individuals from different races and backgrounds and researching what I needed in order to do so. In this pursuit of knowledge, I‘ve come to realise that the same words spoken by my mother, and the proverbial song that instilled morals in me, are also found in other regions of Nigeria and even throughout Africa; further demonstrating the common narrative we all share, albeit expressed through diverse languages.
I’m thrilled to be an advocate for equality and inclusion, always embracing diverse perspectives and celebrating my indigenous heritage. Throughout my journey, I’ve flourished regardless of cultural or environmental disparities, allowing me to effortlessly collaborate with individuals from diverse ethnic backgrounds and races. My willingness to embrace new stories, while sharing some of my own, has been an important part of that.
Rachel Affiong Umoh, also called Ladyray, is a Nigerian by descent but currently lives in the United Kingdom. She is a Rehabilitation Practitioner, specialising in disability and mental health support. She uses her love for writing to promote mental health awareness, disability rights, and inclusion. Rachel’s passion for blending arts with advocacy is further reflected through her foundation (Ray’s Haven) which she uses to support the rehabilitation and psychological wellbeing of both children and adults with disabilities in Africa. She believes in being a better person to make the world a better place.
Connect with Rachel: X (formerly Twitter): @moyinRachel Instagram: @moyin_umoh
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I see the power of storytelling in action every day. We use it to answer questions, convey history, and teach lessons, both for the short term and over the course of our lives.