Friday, November 2, 2012

American Scholar Finds Art, Love, Connections in Nigeria

On the bustling streets of the mainland Lagos neighborhood of Palmgrove, the children know her as Mama K.

American scholar Karen Marguerite Wilson-Ama’Echefu first came to Nigeria as a Fulbright Scholar in mid-2011. After earning her PhD in American history from the University of California, Riverside in 2007, Wilson-Ama’Echefu, who is also a singer and storyteller, set out to explore the reflections and roots of African American diasporic culture in African culture in Nigeria and Ghana over the 9-month duration of her grant.

Wilson-Ama’Echefu’s experience in Nigeria has been a case of research mirroring life. During her time in Nigeria, she met and married her husband, musician and performer Ajimmiri Osuagwu Ama’Echefu, a fellow African culture enthusiast. She returned to Nigeria in September 2012, with her pet dog Cody in tow, to live with Ama’echefu and start a teaching job at the University of Calabar.

"I say, you can write a proposal but then life will intervene,” Wilson-Ama’Echefu said of her experiences in Nigeria.

Wilson said that in coming to Lagos, she was amazed by the constant cultural blending and community building that happens in the city. "It's not a laugh everyday, but in this place, so many people come together."
As a native of Harlem, Wilson finds similarities between New York City and Lagos. "Being a New Yorker, you are born anywhere, and you need to find your way to New York," she said. "Lagos is like that."

Wilson's research focuses on continuities and discontinuities between the traditions of the African diaspora and African culture itself. “I’m interested in helping people remember that what they’re taught about enslaved people may not be the whole story,” she said. "How can you understand diaspora if you don’t know where diaspora comes from?"

Through her research, she finds connections between the cultures of the African diaspora and those of African communities in Africa itself; greetings, she said, are important in both Africa and the African American diasporic culture she experienced growing up in Harlem. For her Fulbright research, she examined how these similarities were reflected in children’s games. "I write about how African American culture is African,” she said.
In Nigeria, Wilson’s research is not confined to universities and institutions. "I’ve had some of the finest discussions on buses," Wilson said, describing the 12-hour bus rides from Lagos to Calabar that she took during her Fulbright year.

Wilson-Ama’Echefu met her husband at a children's cultural event in November 2011. Ajimmiri Ama’echefu has also dedicated his life to African culture. A traditional musician and artist, he founded the African Culture Foundation, a non-governmental organization that seeks to promote traditional African arts, dance and culture. “Most of us now don’t know the value of our culture," he said.

"All of a sudden I was immersed in community," she said, describing her first visit to her husband's native Palmgrove neighborhood in Lagos.

In Palmgrove on a recent Sunday afternoon, Wilson-Ama’Echefu and Ama’echefu exchanged banter, music and conversation with friends and neighbors at a small neighborhood cafĂ©. Ama’echefu played a melody on his traditional Igbo flute, and Wilson sang an American Negro spiritual.
"I won’t say you’re welcome here, because you’re already a part of us," one of her Nigerian friends said.


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