Diane from Voice Write Africa interviews popular book review blogger Mary Okeke, who is a Nigerian living in Barcelona, Spain. She speaks to us about Spain, her passion for books and will even teach us a few words in Igbo which is her native language. 10 August 2013
Mary, tell us how it is you came to live in Spain? Do your family live there and do you consider Barcelona your home?
Thank you and it is an honour for Voice Write Afrika to feature me on this site.
I arrived at Spain eleven years ago to further my studies, broaden my horizon in culture and language, acquire new and different experiences about life in general. And I did. I learnt Spanish and Catalan, finished high school and was admitted to the University of Barcelona, where I studied Nursing and had a degree. Later, I went back for a Post grad in Anesthesiology, pain-therapy and CPR. In the process, I found love and stayed put. Therefore, I consider Barcelona my home. Home Sweet Home.
That is an interesting path you’ve taken and an adventurous life you’re living! Though you now consider Barcelona your home, do you have any connection to Nigeria and can you tell us a bit about the place your family is from in Nigeria?
Sure, I was born in Nigeria almost 27 years ago. I spent my infancy with my maternal grandparents at Ogidi. It was fun, perhaps even a bit wild growing up in the village. Both of my parents are actually from the same village (or town).
Ogidi is very well known as the birth place of Chinua Achebe. Apart from that, it is a village like any other; to me it is special because when I think about my childhood, it comes to mind.
Chinua Achebe? One of my favourite African writers. It would seem that there is something special about that place. So you are Igbo? What are the three things that you would say characterises the Igbo people?
Well, I cannot put a finger on the characteristics of an Igbo person. In my opinion, they are people just like the rest of mankind. With their own culture and tradition.
I understand but perhaps give us a taste of what the culture of the Igbo are so we can know more about the Igbo? At least one thing that differentiates the culture from other African cultures?
You know all African cultures are somewhat similar; we have more or less the same procedure when we celebrate birth, marriage and funeral ceremonies. And those celebrations last like…. forever. In this case I’d rather give you a glimpse into culture and traditions in Ogidi.
Nwafor Ogidi is an important festival we celebrate every year, during yam harvest. Relatives and friends come together; we eat a lot of yam porridge, pounded yam with soup or just roasted yam with palm oil and pepper. We drink palm wine. We dance to the beat of the drum, while we watch Masquerades dance and run around. It is fun.
Secondly, we do not kill pythons it is considered a deity. When we find one, we simply ask an adult to take it deep into the forest. They are actually not venomous. It is a protected animal.
Very interesting and exciting the yam harvest festival sounds, when we visit Nigeria we will sure check that out. Now back to Spain — how do you find living in Spain? It is not often that one hears of an English speaking African living in a Spanish country?
There are actually quite a lot of Anglophones living in Spain, for either long or short periods of time, some perhaps, even forever. I know and have met African people from Mozambique, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cameroon, Morocco, Senegal, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau and Nigeria of course. As well as European citizens from England, Finland, France, Lithuania, Italia, Romania and etc. Many others from the American continent; USA, Canada, and etc. And from Asia: India, Pakistan, China, Sri-Lanka and etc.
I had a Nigerian friend with whom I once visited Zurich during Christmas, we saw a guy who got out of a car holding a bottle of liquor. A light skin guy, he looked mixed race. Might not be, because there are many light skin people from Africa sub-Sahara, and they are not necessarily mixed race. My friend made a comment in Igbo “drinking alcohol and driving, sooner or later he would lose his life in a fatal accident just like that…..” And the guy heard us, turned and replied in Igbo, “I am only holding the bottle not drinking from it”.
That can be so embarrassing, its happened to me before too trying to speak siSwati in London! What did you do?
To you too – Gosh! We were amazed. You see, we neither expected a person of his looks to speak our language nor in a place as cold as Zurich, very far from our tropical Igbo land. But yes, it happened.
The point I am trying to make with this anecdote is that nowadays, anyone can live anywhere even in the most remote region and can speak any language. Spain is no exception. It is common and not bizarre at all, once you are able to make a living or especially when you find love and peace.
That too I can identify with! But knowing different languages must make life a lot easier for you?
It sure does. Look, I am from Ogidi and I speak and understand 6 languages; Igbo, English, French, Spanish, Catalan and Pidgin English (if it is considered a language of its own). I as well understand Portuguese, Italian and Galician (Northwest Spain), they all derived from Latin and are very similar. Again, I am open to learn more languages.
Moreover, after many years of living abroad, my accent in each language is quite unique, it is difficult to put a finger on where I come from just from the way I look or speak. People end up asking me: where are you from? And are taken aback when I say I am Nigerian.
Spain is a beautiful and peaceful country. The weather is fabulous; the gastronomy is rich and delicious. The seaside is amazing, especially on the Balearic Islands. And generally, people live and let live. Now, the economic crisis is striking hard, hopefully, we would get it over and done with.
Well I can attest to the gastronomy and the “late night” lifestyle – I have certainly had many nights out with my friend Yves who lives in Madrid, but there is often talk of racial dynamics where Africans are a minority in a country. Has racial intolerances been something you have experienced in Spain, and if so can you relate to us some of these incidents? And how you deal with them?
Racial intolerance is not rampant in Spain as one might think. I am not trying to say that there aren’t racists in Spain, of course there are. And, it is considered a criminal offence if evidence can be produced.
However, I have come across xenophobes or ignorant people who believe they are better than you just because they are white Europeans. Some even ask silly questions, for instance, whether I had a zebra as a pet or played with lions in my village where I grew up. Some ask whether I lived in huts before or whether I had even seen a car before I arrived here. Some even ask if I used to walk around naked! Normally, I try to put the record straight. Nonetheless, now I ask: what do you think?
You know sometimes, some people believe that just because one is black African, one is not capable of differentiating their right from their left or vice versa.
Yeah I had that feeling; I have also got some of those questions when travelling out of the continent. So does it get to be an irritant after a while?
Sometimes sure, but if you get to think about it, people who ask such questions are mostly those who cannot write their own language properly, the ones who never left their neighbourhood, maybe over thirty years old and still living with their parents at home, had opportunities but cannot get a University degree, let alone complete high school. Then when you look at them from up to down, you think it is better to ignore them rather than wasting your precious time trying to clarify or explain who you are.
All the same, luckily they are the minority. I have many Spanish and Catalan friends who are like family to me and our relationship is based on love and respect.
That’s good to know Mary. Indeed if we have Europeans living comfortably in many different countries in Africa, then Africans like yourselves should be comfortable living there too. Africans living around the world generally do not seem to talk about race and racial incidents. Why do you think this is the case? And do you think that racial dialogue is important?
Of course we do talk about race. Well, at least I do. I am not aware that they do not.
I have just found this to be the case where many Africans, perhaps in the UK, say that their struggle is not race but class, and that race is not really a factor. But enough about that. Let’s talk about your passion – books! How far do you hope to take this passion? What are the next steps from here?
I just started book blogging, and I look forward to taking it as far as possible … touch wood! My next step from here is to read as many novels as possible; I’ll try to publish at least a post per week. As you may understand it is lots of hard work, especially when combined with a full time job and other daily activities.
I would certainly agree with you on that!
Hopefully, I would get to encourage more people to read African literature and help them make up their mind on what to buy and read.
Perhaps in the future I might get to write a book or two, not my aim now, but who knows? I am actually enjoying the reading experience, it is exciting.
Now that excites me! Well we will keep encouraging you and maybe I will get to do your book review!
Hahahahaha….. (Mary laughs because she thinks that I am joking – I will certainly remind her!)
It is often said that “if you want to hide something from a black person, put it in a book” – how do you feel about this sentiment, given your passion. Do you think that reading is not easily done by Africans / Black people? Is this your experience and if so what do you think we should be doing?
I actually have not heard about that statement before, it is quite racist! I must say that in general people just do not read. It is easier to watch TV and listen to music. That is actually the reason why I write my blog to let people know that reading is fun, more fun than watching TV.
Also, I think there may be many reasons why reading is not easily done by Africans. One of the reasons is the cost and access to books. Let’s say for instance, I live in Ogidi, I definitely will not be able to access as many African novels as I do now, even if I do, I most probably will not be able to purchase them because of their exorbitant prices.
Although I remember that in schools then, students were obliged to read novels like The Concubine, Weep Not Child, The Beautyful Ones are not yet Born, etc. I did not read any then. Nonetheless, I used to visit my high school library and read many novels in Igbo. I read for fun and it was entertaining.
How accessible would you say African literature is in Europe and Spain in particular?
In Barcelona where I live there are hardly any African novels available in bookshops. Orders need to be placed in advance in specialty bookshops. Even so, not all books can be ordered. And, you know they aren’t cheap either!
However, that should not be used as an excuse, because the internet makes many things possible. I purchase my novels with a few clicks online from the comfort of my home on Amazon UK at very cheap rates and they arrive at my door.
However I am not sure this service is available in my hometown Ogidi. Which in itself becomes a hindrance to people having access to the works of other African writers outside of Nigeria.
What do you think we should be doing in Africa to encourage reading?
In order to encourage reading in Africa, we must first of all invest in public libraries and make sure that there is a diverse range of reading options from our local writers as well as those abroad.
Thank you for your time Mary, finally … Can you teach us a few words in Igbo? How would you say the following phrases in Igbo?
Hello, My name is Mary —- Afa’m bu Mary
It was really good to see you — Obi bum So anwuri na mu fulu gi or Anya m fulu gi atogbu go m
I love Afrika — Ifunanyam na obodo Afrika di ukwu
You may visit Mary’s blog here http://maryokekereviews.blogspot.com/