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Chiundu Onuzo

Looking beyond Black History Month 2020: Chibundu Onuzo

Published on 25 November 2020

Lydia Mbogoro, Political and Parliamentary Officer, talks about her experience of interviewing Chibundu Onuzo during Black History Month 2020. In this blog she explores the idea of Africa being a space of innovation and technological advancement, a place where new ideas can benefit the whole world.

As part of a Christian Aid ‘In Conversation’ series for Black History Month, I had the honour of co-hosting a Q&A event with Chibundu Onuzo; author of ‘The Spider King’s Daughter’, which won the Betty Trask award, and ‘Welcome to Lagos’.

From the offset, Chibundu was the injection of energy, vitality and ‘spice’ that I personally needed after a tough year. 2020 has seen extended lockdowns, the ongoing global crisis, and the constant reminder that black bodies are not valued with the murder of George Floyd and countless others, as well as the brutality against young protestors in Nigeria. But as Chibundu reminded me, resilience is not a constant - there will be days where you will mourn, moan and indulge. What is important to remember is that ‘after you have your moaning/mourning period, you have to stand up...feel disappointed and work through those feelings, and not push them away’.

Chibundu highlighted that through the lens of limitations, poverty and grief, the Black experience is so often portrayed without dignity. She observed that in an advert for child welfare in the UK, under the distressing image of a child suffering, the text read 'actors used in filming', but when distress is shown in Africa, actors are not used. These are real people, whose real and raw suffering is used. Through her storytelling, she looked to articulate the Black experience with more richness - capturing the energy and spirit of Lagos through many characters entering and exiting Lagos. Through their story she shows not a Lagos that is lacking, but a Lagos which is thriving, bursting with innovation and culture, a place where people are drawn to.

Lydia Mbogoro and Priya Lukka interviewing Chibundu Onuzo

People come from all over Africa for the economic opportunities in Lagos. For cultural opportunities, Nollywood is in Lagos, the music industry is in Lagos or it is strongest there. In Nigerian context, Lagos is seen as the land of opportunities.

- Chibundu Onuzo, whilst being interviewed by Priya Lukka and Lydia Mbogoro

She questioned the depictions of constant struggle, which is often used within the charity sector to engage supporters and to fundraise. She warned how this lens of pity has contributed to British and global perceptions of Africa and the Global South. She spoke on recent movements that have proved that we are indeed able to galvanise support and fundraise without pity. For example, the world witnessing tens of thousands of Nigerians marching peacefully and raising their voices for justice - the world took notice and were inspired to engage, donate and sign petitions. She challenged Christian Aid to not let hardship be the only story told, but to also tell stories which inspire as, ‘people are inspired by the innovation that people [EndSars Movement] have done in just seven days. If the people can do this in seven days, what can they do in a month?’.

Now there is a group in Nigeria called The Feminist Coalition and so far, they’ve raised about $150,000 and they’ve raised that money through inspiration. The emotion they’ve accessed in people, people feel inspired to give. They haven’t given out of pity. They’ve given because they are inspired by what they’ve seen this group do.

- Chibundu Onuzo.

Her talk with Christian Aid was very timely as we were coming to the end of an internal review on the experiences of Black and Brown staff at Christian Aid. Once published internally, it did not make for easy reading, exposing the realities of being othered in the workplace and just how much further as an organisation we need to go, which is why we are currently working on implementing the recommendations stated in the review.

I would say that you’ve definitely done good work. I think sometimes these kind of conversations is not to say what you’ve done hasn’t been helpful. It’s not to say that lives haven’t been changed, that lives haven’t been impacted. But I think it’s for all of us to imagine how we can do things differently. How we can continue the good work we’ve done and how we can expand. And again, for me it’s about hitting that inspire button more. Not only the pity button.

- Chibundu Onuzo.

In saying that, we shouldn’t just speak on Black struggle and pain, but also our successes and through Black heroes who show us that Black ability is endless. From Olive Morris, community organiser and co-founder of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent in the 1970s; Marcus Rashford, footballer and campaigner for free school meals; and Leah Namugerwa, a 16-year-old climate activist from Uganda.

At Christian Aid, we should continually strive to celebrate our internal Black champions and look to learn from the work of our partners, who are disrupting implicit racial bias and other forms of discrimination - such as the inspiring work of our partners in India, who are tirelessly campaigning for the rights of Dalits.

Speaking with Chibundu was a reminder that there is a job to do beyond Black History Month. If we as an organisation are to live out our values and ‘speak truth to power’, anti-racism and allyship must become an embedded practice. In the face of the challenges we face internally, Christian Aid can apply the ‘Lagos mindset’, described in Chibundu’s ‘Welcome to Lagos’: ‘entering a space and always seeing the opportunities, not the obstacles’. This mindset teaches us to see beyond the challenge, to not retreat, but move forward in this uncomfortable reality, acknowledge more widely what history we are rooted in, and use it to make long-lasting structural changes.

And then, at least at Christian Aid, the Black experience can truly be limitless.

Image 1: Houston Chronicle/ Blayke Images

Image 2: Black History Month 2020: In Conversation with Chibundu Onuzo/ Christian Aid

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