COMING TO BRITAIN
By Moses Ochonu, PhD.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009.
I just got back from London, the British imperial capital, so, of course, I have a lot to say. First, I love the British “accent.” It’s one of the two hegemonic inflections of the English language, but unlike America-speak, it is not very exclusionary. It can be quite friendly, even entertaining to the ear, but, more importantly, for those of us children or orphans of Empire, it is more accepting of and compatible with our way of speaking.
Here in London, I get a few less “huh,” “excuse me,” “pardon,” and “say what now” and other unflattering American reminders that one’s so-called accent is unsettling for the typical American listener who is oversensitive to diversity of tongues and variations of speech inflections. Like the British, Americans consider their inflection (never mind that there are many American and British inflections—accents, they call them) paradigmatic and hegemonic. Linguistic neocolonialism waxes on.
In this narrative, it is the responsibility of “accents” that lay outside British-American English and their derivatives in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to measure up, to comprehend the master dialect. It is not up to Americo-British English speakers to strain to comprehend “non-native” English inflections
But in Britain, I just fit in, linguistically. It’s a small mystery to me. Everyone here seems to understand everything I say. I don’t have to enunciate or speak slowly. No, I just speak normally in my Nigerian “accent” and comprehension is fully established. I don’t even have to abandon my soft speaking, which is a communication barrier for some of my American listeners. It’s liberating and spooky at the same time. Spooky because it is a frightening reminder that I am, after all, a child of British colonialism in many ways. In more ways than I want to acknowledge. The Empire has a way of perpetuating itself in mundane, quotidian ways.
Given that when I gave a talk in a university in New York a few years ago, an audience member told me that I spoke with a British “accent,” and given my rather forceful disavowal of the British influence, I found my linguistic ease in England troubling philosophically even though I enjoyed it practically. Have I failed in my effort to deny and escape the colonizer’s culture? Is the empire more persistent in those who didn’t experience it directly than I had assumed? The empire asserts itself on its rebellious postcolonial subjects in very subtle, insidious ways—in ways that both embarrass and shock those who deny or criticize its sway on the colonized. It particularly stalks those like me who prefer to live in denial of its continuous hegemony, reminding us through the serendipitous discoveries of our interactions and at auspicious moments that its residues are present in today’s encounters. There is perhaps a metaphysical quality to colonialism, one that ensures the persistence of imperial forms of speech and ways of seeing in the children and grand children of Empire. It’s revenge for Empire over those of us who make a living critiquing it.
Or maybe I am just reading too much into nothing. Anyway, let’s move on.
On the bus from London to Oxford the other day I couldn’t help but notice one curiosity. There were fewer than eight of us in a bus designed to seat about 40. The pattern was repeated over the next few days as I commuted between the two cities to conduct professional research at Oxford University. I couldn’t understand how the bus company sustains itself, virtually going empty between the two cities every twenty minutes. How did it pay its staff, cover expenses, and turn in a profit? Surely, even the fuel for the trip would consume the fare we paid—₤8 one-way and ₤16 for a return ticket.
I don’t know, but in my restless mind every secular thing has to make sense, add up, and have a logical, rational basis. Why are they in business if all indications are that the route was unprofitable? This became a trip-long obsession, which only intensified when I saw the company’s bus making the return trip. It, too, had fewer than ten passengers on board. They’re probably being sustained by another, more lucrative route, I thought to myself. That wasn’t satisfactory, and that’s the problem. Why does everything have to make rational sense? Perhaps some things are better left unknown. Mystery is what makes life interesting. Not for me though. I overanalyze everything.
I’ve always been too curious for my own good, asking questions of everything, wanting to know how things work or didn’t work, seeking answers to every puzzle around me. It is not always a good thing. Like that time when I asked the neighborhood suya maker’s son what his father did with the leftover suya (Nigerian style barbecue). There was always suya left over every night but it always seemed as though the man made new suya every day, so what happened to the leftovers?
This really bugged me for a long time. I had my own hypothesis of what happened to the suya—I suspected that he mixed the old and the new— but it needed to be tested. I wanted a definitive answer just for the sake of knowing, of resolving it in my mind. His son was my friend and would have told me the secret if his father hadn’t overheard me asking him the question. Not only did I get a tongue lashing of epic proportions from the suya maker, he ended my friendship with his son. Some questions are better left unasked. He knew what my question insinuated and that I merely sought to validate my theory. My question struck at the core of his business practice, his trade secret. He struck back in the fervor of self-preservation. So much for curiosity and having an analytical, inquisitive mind!
I suppose that if I really wanted to know definitively if the London-Oxford route was viable, I could, math-challenged as I am, use an online software or enlist one of my math-capable friends to crunch the numbers and conclusively establish the mathematical sustainability or otherwise of the operation. But what would I do with such information and what would I do about the likely finding of non-viability? Nothing. So what’s the point of stressing my overloaded mind with this conundrum? Some riddles are better left unsolved. Why disturb or seek to unravel a mystery that works, that provides the goods and gets the job done? I was glad that the bus operated the route, which helped me commute between the two cities cheaply and efficiently. That’s all that mattered, not the mystery of the bus company’s solvency. All that should have mattered in my suya story was that people got suya to eat everyday. Why create mental complexity when you could just kick back and enjoy the available pleasures of life?
The different kinds of taxi service in London can sometimes be confusing, but even more frustrating is the drivers’ choosiness. When I got to Victoria Station, I approached a taxi to take me to my hotel. “I am not going there,” he said sharply and rudely, much to my shock. “It’s at the back of the station,” he added, motioning the direction. This add-on assuaged my shock but not my distress. Anyway, the hotel was not at the back of the station as he claimed; it was a good three or four blocks away, and getting there on foot with two pieces of luggage was a piece or work. Still, a part of me appreciated the driver’s rude honesty. He knew I was a visitor who didn’t know the neighborhood and could have driven me around to run the meter before dropping me off. Lagos taxi drivers are notorious for doing that to visitors and taxi drivers everywhere are routinely accused of puling little tricks to extend their fare. Against this backdrop, I was filled with a new gratitude to the driver, but not until I had rested.
Guarantee Trust Bank’s ads are emblazoned on buses and taxis all over London. The caption is quite sexy: “Proudly African, Truly International.” But is it truly global or just making a show in the typical Nigerian fashion of overselling oneself, trying to flex a non-existent muscle abroad to reap some PR dividends at home? Anyway, I am sure these ads cost a fortune and I hope that the expense is justified by the bank’s actual international presence. I couldn’t help but wonder, though, who the ad blitz is targeted at—Nigerians in the UK, foreigners, who? Does the bank have specific products packaged for the vast Nigerian diaspora in the UK or for other international types?
If I were a shareholder, I’d want to know why a bank with its customer base in Nigeria would launch such a major ad campaign internationally. I would ask specifically if the bank envisions a major international expansion that the ad is supposed to precede. I’d be concerned because I wouldn’t want my bank to end up being neither African nor international, a pretender on all fronts. But I am not a shareholder, so let’s leave matter, as we say in Nigeria.
I am not a fan of American cars, but I can recognize the major brands anywhere. I was therefore stunned to find that the British have more Ford brands to choose from than do Americans. Whereas we in America are stuck with bland Ford brands like Escape, Taurus, and Explorer, and other ugly gas suckers, the Brits have an impressive array of Ford choices, some of which I had never even heard of let alone seen.
Take the Ford Mondeo. What a slick mid-sized machine! You won’t believe it’s a Ford. Why don’t they sell it to us in America? Go figure. Even the British Focus is a futuristic, sexier version of its American prototype—if it is the prototype. When Ford shows so such disrespect for its American consumers, why should it be shocked that savvy American car buyers are embracing Asian brands and rejecting the irrational doctrine of nationalistic consumption?
One thing about England: I never quite know if tipping is a tradition—something that is expected or simply appreciated if done. I suppose if I went to a fancy restaurant I would perhaps be expected to leave a tip as dining traditions seem to have become fairly globalized. What about your average English eatery, would they too expect monetary appreciation? I took tipping for granted but when I left a tip for the Sri Lankan (he told me!) chef/waiter/greeter in the hotel’s restaurant, he looked rather surprised. I wanted to appreciate his Kashmiri concoction and his excellent service but he reacted like this was something out of order in his routine. If my budget allows me to go to a trendy place, I’ll find out what the real English tipping tradition is.
Rebranding is the fad of the moment. Everyone is getting in on it, including the managers of the Rhodes Foundation and Rhodes House, Oxford. Yes, the Rhodes of “Africa from Cape to Cairo” infamy—the Rhodes of Rhodes scholarship. Cecil Rhodes, empire builder on behalf of the British Crown. I was at the Rhodes House library in Oxford eight years ago and it (and the Rhodes Foundation that funds it) was still firmly named for the man who killed, maimed, and stole to endow the foundation with blood money from Southern Africa.
That was eight years ago. Today, it bears a new name: The Rhodes Mandela Foundation. The Mandelization of Rhodes’ legacy extends to the interior décor of the House. A portrait of Mr. Mandela adorns the wall a few meters from that of President Bill Clinton, a Rhodes Scholar. For added symbolic import, Madiba took the portrait next to the burst of Rhodes.
To complete the ensemble, there are two banners on the interior back wall of the main auditorium—one with a digital, artistic portrait of a young Cecil Rhodes captioned by one of his platitudes about freedom and justice, the familiar type that was a staple of colonialists’ rhetorical justification of their bloody conquests in Africa; the other contains the portrait of a young Steve Biko or Mandela with a quote similar to Rhodes’ declaration about freedom and justice.
In these juxtaposed images, Mr. Mandela’s stature is subtly but persuasively appropriated to sanctify the legacy of Rhodes. The recency of this image sanitization project may point to the unwelcome effects of a recent surge in awareness about Mr. Rhodes’ atrocities in Southern Africa. What better way to deflect critique, assuage raw emotions, and proclaim and prolong the post-Apartheid, postcolonial reconciliatory momentum than to call upon the image of the very embodiment of postcolonial forgiveness and reconciliation, the very epitome of racial harmony.
So, out with Rhodes Foundation; in with Rhodes Mandela Foundation. Mandela’s moral credential as a post-racial reconciler forecloses discussion on past wrongs and silences disturbing memories of Cecil Rhodes’ genocidal campaigns. For the obsessive critics of empire and its architects like Rhodes, take a look at the new, rebranded Rhodes-Mandela Foundation and the representation of Africa and Africans in the new image of the foundation and reconsider. That is the overarching message of the rebranding effort.
Let’s all get with the program of post-oppression reconciliation and racial harmony. Perhaps some analysts of colonialism are right that the distinction between colonizer and colonized is passé, meaningless, and that the drama of the colonial situation required the cooperation, constrained or not, of colonizer and colonized. Perhaps this spirit of cooperation—displayed in full glory by the Mandela-Rhodes symbolic rapprochement— is needed as colonizers and the colonized struggle to comprehend and navigate colonialism’s aftermath, and to inaugurate a post-imperial détente.
I wonder, though, if this is what Rhodes would want. Mandela is an avatar of all that is noble, but he was also a feisty revolutionary, fighting against all that Rhodes stood and fought for. So, I am not sure if lending Mandela’s brand to the Rhodes legacy does not distort the vision of its founder and financier. Perhaps in the reckoning of the foundation’s current trustees, this is a small price to pay, a small insult to bear for a fumigated, sanitized institution.
The empire is alive and well. It continues to normalize and rehabilitate itself, transferring the responsibilities of redemption and reconciliation to the colonized.
When in London, I usually go with ethnic food. But I should have known that a label does not an ethnic food make. And I should have known, too, that lasagna is no longer an Italian delicacy and that its inferior mutations can be found being made by clueless non-Italians all over the world. Anyway it was the only ethnic and familiar item on the menu of that Oxford University traditional English eatery. What I got was certainly not the lasagna of popular familiarity. It was an English creation that approximated and poorly imitated the real thing. I couldn’t eat it, so I had the salad that came with it and the garlic bread. That was my lunch.
Next time you are in London, get real ethnic food, made by the ethnic possessors of the culinary heritage not by Englishmen and women catering to and cashing in on globalizing tastes.
But let me not bash the British. I do that enough in my professional writings.
Moses Ochonu is a professor of history at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennesse, USA. He can be reached at Moses.firstname.lastname@example.org