“What do you do?”
As the go-to question many of us ask when we meet new people, this has almost become synonymous with “Who are you?”. What we often mean is “Where do you work?” but, perhaps, we mean both. We consciously or subconsciously determine who a person is, and what they are worth, based on where they work. “What do you do?” then becomes a loaded question: it’s about income, it’s about status, and possibly even about whether someone is worth associating with.
So, what does Amaka Nwosu do?
“I’m doing this film thing right now. I’m going through a kind of – how do you call it? A period of exploration, through the work that I’m doing, the project that I’m working on, the people I’m meeting.”
Not very clear, is it? Well, the answer to that question could depend on which meaning you prioritise. Where does Amaka work? She works at a charity. Who is Amaka? To me, she is a story-teller.
“My main focus – my main passion – is people, and culture, and stories, and finding a way to share it. I’m interested in stories that are undertold, and that’s what I’m trying to do with No Wahala Stories.”
No Wahala Stories is a bold new project Amaka is developing which aims to celebrate Nigerians in the diaspora. From issues of identity to more difficult discussions about culture and discrimination, Amaka is shining a light on the weird, wonderful, sometimes frustrating and ultimately multi-faceted nature of what it means to be Nigerian abroad.
“I feel like Nigerians have been in the UK for a while. There is a huge Nigerian population in the UK, especially in London. For the amount of Nigerians in London, it’s strange that Nigerian culture is just not as mainstream.
“There are so many stories in the sense of people who were born here, or born in Nigeria and have been back and forth. They have this kind of cultural duality, where they occupy more than one culture, and we tend to take these perspectives for granted.”
This focus on “undertold perspectives” drives Amaka’s work as a budding filmmaker. Her personal experiences also influence the stories she is interested in telling. Born in Nigeria, her family moved to Saudi when she was six, and moved again when she was ten – this time to the UK where she has been based ever since. Now living in London, she recalls growing up caught between two cultures.
“We would go back every couple of years and when I was there, I would become Nigerian again. Then when I came back, I would be British again. I became very good at adapting, and dialling up or down aspects of myself depending on my environment.”
“Code-switching” in this way is something that deeply interests Amaka. She describes it as a struggle between “the real self” and “the chosen self” and believes this is something many people question within themselves. When can they truly be Nigerian? When is it too much? And why is it something that people sometimes want to hide or “dial down”? For Amaka, part of it stems from the inherently alienating experience of being a minority in a foreign culture.
“There’s something very specific about Englishness that’s almost synonymous with whiteness. If you’re not an indigenous British person, you might be a person with a British passport but not considered fully British. There’s something impenetrable about British culture.”
However, Amaka isn’t telling these stories from a perspective of victimhood. She sees the way Nigerians and other minorities have been able to navigate these encounters as a strength.
“There’s so much uniqueness about people who occupy different cultures and I want to celebrate that. I feel like I have a unique cultural sensibility – an ability to intersect class and culture in a way other people might not be able to do. That’s what I want to celebrate with No Wahala Stories.”
In celebrating this strength, Amaka is also expressing herself by promoting an issue she is so passionate about. She is particularly interested in hearing perspectives from people whose opinions young people often miss.
“As much as I am creating a platform for others, I am also creating it for myself. In the process of meeting these people and facilitating a space for them to be seen and heard, it has been validating for me as well.
“Another thing I want to bring in is the older generation. They really have a matter-of-fact way of dealing with things. There’s rarely any mention of confusion or emotional strain. It’s not that they’re leaving it out on purpose, it’s just the African way of repressing emotional anxiety [but] the reality is our experiences and our parents’ – the ones they had when they just came – are probably the same.”
To capture the common ground between one generation and another, Amaka plans to follow up No Wahala Stories by speaking to her subjects’ parents down the line. Her passion for exposing under-represented experiences and perspectives doesn’t stop there.
“Other topics that are supposedly un-African and taboo – things like sexuality, gender and mental health… Depression, for example, is not a word that is used often in Nigeria. [We think] ‘You have food, water, light, money – what could you possibly have to be depressed about? There are people less fortunate than you.’ But things like this happen. It’s kinda under-appreciated in a way – the way things can take a toll on people’s emotions is under-appreciated.”
Facing difficulty with a stoic resolve can be powerful, but Amaka also worries about the rift it causes between the older and younger generation. Encouraging others to just get over hardship is not always empowering; it can stifle conversations and discourage people from opening up to their parents about their struggles.
She sees a sharp contrast between our culture and the relationships she observes during her day job. As an assistant at a charity which runs events for young people, she often has to liaise with their parents to gather information. This often leads to frank conversations with parents who discuss their children’s past struggles with mental health issues like depression.
“A lot of the parents I speak with, you can tell they have a close relationship with their kids. I can understand it, but only in a very abstract way because I cannot understand having that kind of conversation with my parents. It makes me kind of wistful, like ‘Wow. I wish I kinda had that.’”
There is so much Amaka has to say through her work. From our relationships with our elders, to our attitudes to homosexuality and religion, she is bursting with content ideas for future films.
“I have many friends who are Nigerian, and who are gay. There’s a huge black gay community and I’ve met many Nigerians who are part of that community. It’s seen as un-Nigerian and un-African. I think a huge part of the taboo is to do with religion, and that’s another thing that’s really important. Religion and how intertwined it is with Nigerian culture – sometimes in a very dangerous way. The message is forgotten – the essential message of love. It is used as a way to control people, which is funny because that’s how it was introduced to us – as a way to colonise and control.
“That part – the colonial, dirty side of the introduction of Christianity – is forgotten, and it’s not often talked about. I’m not rejecting it, but it would be good to have that conversation. How does this colonial past intersect with your Christianity? I’m still grappling with it but most people don’t touch on it because to even raise it is like blasphemy. Before you even open your mouth, you’ll be shot.
“Those things should be talked about even more. There is more than one way to be Nigerian. Naming our stories and defining our Nigerianness – that’s kinda the subtitle of this project.
Amaka is fiercely passionate about embracing her Nigerian identity in its full complexity – a drive which has grown in recent years. She believes Nigerians abroad have an important role to play back at home but understands the cynical view that many simply return to cash in on opportunities at home and are sometimes treated differently – often preferentially – when compared with their counterparts on the ground. However, she also believes Nigerians should not leave the country without contributing their skills towards the country in some shape or form. These tensions bother her.
“I do feel some type of way about that. It’s kind of a conundrum. On one hand, I want to go back and tell these stories and I want to do it on the ground. And a lot of Nigerians love ‘abroad’ – anybody coming from outside Nigeria – they kind of look at them like they have a different currency. It’s a kind of advantage that I would have.
“Mind you, this is something I really have a problem with – this tendency of Nigerians to look outside of Nigeria to discover talent. Even the way the presenters talk on the radio – the accent they put on – that really pissed me off. It’s another form of internalised colonialism – it’s something I really dislike. But I know that if I came back and got a job, I would probably be benefiting out of that system.”
That’s what I came to respect about Amaka after our conversation: her sense of balance. She recognised the short-comings of our culture while celebrating its strengths. She saw the hypocrisy of our reverence of all things foreign, while admitting it could potentially benefit her. I got to know her as honest, incredibly insightful and fiercely driven. If these are the ingredients going into No Wahala Stories, the result is bound to be nothing short of excellent. Her expectations are far more modest.
“If it can just achieve conversations – conversations about very human things… If we can just have that, I would be really excited and happy to have achieved that. My hope for No Wahala Stories is to shed light on these things in a very honest and organic way, and generate conversation. That’s really it.
“Whatever it is I want to achieve, I cannot do it by myself. If I can be part of that movement, that would be it – the definition of success.
“After this, I don’t know what the next thing is but I know there are other stories.”
I know Amaka will do a brilliant job of bringing these stories to life. That’s what she does; it’s who she is.
People Like Us is an exclusive column created by TNC to document the lives of everyday Nigerians.
Watch out for posts on Tuesday mornings at 10am twice every month.