“Later that night
I held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
The portrayal of the 21st century African as a cosmopolitan individual in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah reveals the new attitude that Africans have regarding their identity in the global village while at the same time exposing the challenges of the afropolitan approach that oftentimes culminates in disillusionment in African émigrés who regard themselves as citizens of the world. The novel demonstrates that in the 21st century, Africans, both at home and abroad, perceive cultural diversity and globalisation as alternative means of identity and belonging beyond the narrow confines of the nation-state. As such, the 21st century African is no longer one who cares about nationalism but rather a cosmopolitan individual. This is manifested in the attitudes of the main characters in Americanah when we meet them both in Nigeria and in America. However, the major challenge with the afropolitan approach is that when they leave for the West, African émigrés struggle to fit into their adopted societies and are often disillusioned from the “rejection” and alienation that confronts them. The novel also presents the West as a place of escape for Africans who are desperate for better socio-economic opportunities.
A cosmopolitan individual is defined as someone who shows cultural diversity by exhibiting the influence of many countries and cultures. Taiye Tuakli-Wosomu uses the term “afropolitan” to refer to cosmopolitans of African origin. In her essay, “Bye – Bye Barbar”, Tuakli-Wosomu argues that “afropolitans are not citizens of the world, but Africans of the world.” She further argues that “this new demographic has come of age in the 21st century, redefining what it means to be African.” They are known by their “funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes”. She also points out that “what is manifest is the extent to which the modern adolescent African is tasked to forge a sense of self from widely disparate sources”. Most of the Africans that we meet in Americanah bear witness to Tuakli-Wosomu’s sentiments.
In the first chapter of the novel, we meet the protagonist, Ifemelu, braiding her hair in a salon in America. The salon is owned by Mariama, a woman from Mali. The national and ethnic diversity of the characters that we meet in Mariama’s salon indicates that the salon, just like America, is a meeting place of people from different parts of the world. Ifemelu comes from Nigeria, Mariama and her sister Halima come from Mali, and Aisha is from Senegal. All of them have decided to make America their home and they exhibit the spirit of cosmopolitanism in their mannerisms. Aisha is a Senegalese who desires to marry an Igbo man from Nigeria. Ifemelu reads the American Jean Toomer’s Cane while getting her hair done, and Mariama exhibits her versatility in her fluency in both English and French. From their conversation, it is clear that for Africans, America is the place to be. Ifemelu lies about the number of years she has stayed in America because she learned that “to earn the prize of being taken seriously among Nigerians in America, among Africans in America, indeed among immigrants in America, she needed more years”. Upon learning that Ifemelu had spent fifteen years in America, “a new respect slipped into Aisha’s eyes” emphasizing the value that she places on America.
The cosmopolitan attitude is also evident in Ifemelu and her friends during their school days in Nigeria. The cultural diversity exhibited by Ifemelu, Ginika, Kayode, Emenike, and Obinze in terms of their tastes in music, books, and other activities of leisure point to a cosmopolitan approach. This has been clearly portrayed in the novel when Ginika takes Ifemelu to Kayode’s party where they listen to Tony Braxton and drink brandy that was imported by Kayode’s father. The narrator’s description of Obinze further emphasizes the spirit of cosmopolitanism among the students. She says:
Everybody watched American films and exchanged faded American magazines, but he knew details about American presidents from a hundred years ago. Everybody watched American shows, but he knew about Lisa Bonet leaving The Cosby Show to go and do Angel Heart and Will Smith’s huge debts before he was signed to do The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
The characters’ obsession with America emphasizes the value that they place on the country in contrast to the value that they place on Nigeria and its culture and lifestyle. In their eyes, America and Europe are perceived as the biblical Promised Land. For example, “Kayode spent every vacation in his parents’ house in England, which looked large and forbidding in the photos Ifemelu had seen. His girlfriend Yinka was like him – she, too, went to England often and lived in Ikoyi and spoke with a British accent”. Ginika was also respected in school because she had “the air of away”. This shows that the 21st century African would rather be in or be identified with the West rather than with Africa. Kwame Anthony Appiah has noticed this pathology and has argued that “cosmopolitanism’s claims to universality and belonging to a world community may often mask allegiance to Western norms”. The characters’ obsession with the West in Americanah suggests this allegiance to Western norms.
The novel also reveals that although afropolitans stress the global nature of everyday life, most of the people who leave Africa for the West in the novel are escaping from poor political, social, and economic conditions in Africa. They have hopes of living better lives in the West. As such, in the imagination of these Africans, America and Europe become safe havens. Ginika and Ifemelu leave for America in search of better education opportunities since universities in Nigeria became uncertain due to endless strikes by academic staff. When the chief who sustains Aunty Uju gets killed, her friend advises her that “you have to go somewhere for a while, so that they don’t give you trouble. Go to London or America.” Hence by and by, America and Europe are presented as places of escape for the 21st century African in search of a better life. As Bill Ashcroft argues in Post-Colonial Transformation, “we cannot understand globalization without understanding the structure of global power relations which flourish in the twenty first century as an economic, cultural, and political legacy of western imperialism”. The Africans leaving the continent are escaping to the metropolitan centre, which holds economic, cultural, and political power in the 21st century. As such, Ashcroft notices that “a common view among theorists in the developing world is that globalization is simply re-colonization”. Afropolitans risk becoming victims of such forms of neo-colonial domination.
In her portrayal of the 21st century African as a cosmopolitan individual, Adichie highlights the underlying challenges with afropolitanism to African émigrés. As Femi Akomolafe rightly observes in his article “New Pastures, Not So Green After All”, “it is not an exaggeration to say the true reality is that, just like anywhere else in the world, Europe does not offer the proverbial manna from heaven!” Most of the characters who migrate to the West in the novel become alienated and frustrated from the “rejection” that they face in these new places. They experience racism, unemployment, ridicule, and are oftentimes treated as second class citizens. They express a dire need to fit in and make these new places their homes but most of them end up being disillusioned.
When Ifemelu goes to America to join Aunty Uju, she struggles to get a job to the extent that she suspends her identity and uses a social security card belonging to Ngozi Okonkwo, who has the permission to work in America. Obinze also faces the same predicament in England and he is forced to work as Vincent Obi at the cost of forty percent of his earnings. The change in identity that the émigrés undergo brings to light a deep existential problem that they struggle with. It indicates that they do not exist in the countries that they desire to make their homes. Obinze goes to the extent of arranging a fake wedding dubbed “a marriage of papers” in order to get the necessary documentation to live in England. The émigrés cease to exist as themselves and have to exist as other people in order for them to be recognised. This existential quandary defeats the idea of the African as a citizen of the world by showing that there are places in the world where the afropolitan does not exist.
As already pointed out, the émigrés are often regarded as second class citizens in their adopted homes. They get low paying jobs that they would otherwise not do in their home countries. In America, Ifemelu takes up a job of caring for a sick old man. The working environment is not conducive as the narrator tells us that she was led “into a strong stench of urine. The living room was dark, unaired, and she imagined the whole building steeped in months, even years of accumulated urine, and herself working every day in this urine cloud.” Out of desperation, she is later forced to take up a demeaning job of sexually satisfying a “busy sports coach in Admore”. Almost all of Ifemelu’s African acquaintances in America struggle in the field of employment. Ginika works long hours to pay for her school fees and Dorothy, “the girly Ugandan with long braids” works as a waitress in Centre City. Most of these people are overqualified for such jobs but Mwombeki, “the Tanzanian double major in engineering and political science”, reminds them that “American employers did not like lower-level employees to be too educated”. Since they cannot get better jobs in America, the émigrés settle for what is available for them as second class citizens.
Obinze also faces similar problems in London. “He was indeed abroad cleaning toilets, wearing rubber gloves and carrying a pail, in an estate agent’s office on the second floor of a London building… The beautiful woman who cleaned the ladies toilet was Ghanaian about his age, with the shiniest dark skin he had ever seen”. The novel also reveals that émigrés who do not want to settle for “low lives” but desire to live better often achieve that at the cost of their dignity. This has been portrayed in the character of Emenike who fawns at the feet of white people in order to be incorporated into their circle. In the presence of his white wife, Emenike’s “entire being” became “much lower”. Obinze realises that his friend “cast home as the jungle and himself as interpreter of the jungle”. Emenike thrives on this disgrace in his struggle to fit into Western society.
In their dire struggle to fit in, the émigrés resort to the imitation of foreign accents and mannerisms in order to measure up to the culture of the metropolitan centre. According to Frantz Fanon, this is because “they want to achieve a feeling of equality with the European and his achievements”. When she first meets Aunty Uju in America, Ifemelu is surprised with the way she pronounces her name. She later realises that Aunty Uju assumed a “nasal, sliding accent in the presence of white Americans, in the hearing of white Americans…. And with the accent emerged a new persona, apologetic and self-abasing”. Aunty Uju explains this change in manners to Ifemelu by telling her that “You are in a country that is not your own. You do what you have to do if you want to succeed”. This shows that the afropolitans’ belief that they are citizens or Africans of the world becomes an illusion when they encounter the harsh realities of citizenship. As Martha Nussbaum observes, the American philosopher Richard Rorty urges Americans “not to disdain patriotism as a value, and indeed to give central importance to the emotion of national pride and a sense of shared national identity.” Such ideas work to the disadvantage of Africans and other immigrants in America who are alienated from this “emotion of national pride”. This also poses as a challenge to the cosmopolitan ideal of world citizenship.
The two major characters in Americanah, Ifemelu and Obinze, end up being disillusioned from their experience in the West. In order to fit in, Ifemelu starts practicing an American accent and American manners but she decided to stop the whole facade. “She had perfected from the careful watching of friends and newscasters, the blurring of the t, the creamy roll of the r, the sentences starting with “So”, and the sliding response of “Oh really”….” She decides to stop because she realises that “her triumph was full of air. Her fleeting victory had left in its wake a vast, echoing space, because she had taken on, for too long, a pitch of voice and a way of being that was not hers”. In the end she closes her blog, sells her condor, and goes back to live in Nigeria.
Obinze also becomes disillusioned and “he felt alienation run through him like a shiver.” The white people he associates with in England “would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well-fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty”. In the end, he decides to make a living in Nigeria after he is deported from England. He becomes a very successful man in Nigeria, a direct contrast to his status as an immigrant in England. His disillusionment and that of Ifemelu questions the validity of the ideals of cosmopolitanism and afropolitanism in the advent of globalization. The novel indicts cosmopolitans on whether one can truly be a citizen of the world by exposing the challenges that African émigrés face in Western countries. Cosmopolitanism remains a contentious ideal in the 21st century.
Image attribution: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie image courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons