On a chilly Sunday night, Nigerians of all ages came out to the Independence Day celebration in El Cerrito to watch ancestral dances, eat home-cooked spicy soup, and strut their stuff in the colorful traditional costumes of their nation in transition.
“This is the first time in a long time that we are celebrating self-rule and nationhood after a full year of civil democracy,” said Chike Nwoffiah, who has been living in California 13 years.
“Nigerians across the world are reflecting on how rough it’s been, and hoping that on Independence Day next year we will still have a true democracy.”
More than 10,000 Nigerian immigrants live in the Bay Area, according to Nwoffiah, and a large number live in Berkeley and Oakland. In the past two years, they have cautiously watched their homeland transition from a devastating 15-year military dictatorship under Sani Abacha to current President Olusegun Obasanjo’s fledgling democracy.
“You all know the old adage: He who is a fool at 40 is a fool forever,” Nwoffiah warned the crowd, and many answered back with a hearty “amen.” Nigeria is celebrating 40 years of independence.
But people said that in spite of Nigeria’s uncertain future, they have been partying all week. The evening started out with the national anthem set to a slow rhythm on skin-covered drums, and escalated into a series of jubilant dances from Nigeria and other African nations.
It was not long before many in the crowd were on their feet and throwing dollar bills on the sweating dancers to show their appreciation.
Sylvester Uadiale said he and his wife came from San Leandro with their three children, all who were born in the United States, to educate them about Nigerian ways.”
I want my kids to see how we behave so that when they go back home to visit they will know what the culture is about,” Uadiale said.” That way they will grow up and be able to make sense out of their history in this country and over there.”
Wearing an intricately patterned headscarf and sarong, Eromomen Esoimeme, 10, said that she’s been dancing as long as she can remember.
“It’s fun and it’s my heritage,” she said before performing with Masquerade, an Oakland-based dance troupe.
“If someone talks bad about you and you’re thinking about your heritage, nothing can hurt you. Anyway, they’re probably just jealous because their parents don’t teach them about their own history.”
The audience cheered enthusiastically as dancers wearing face masks and with bells on their fingers invoked the spirits of their ancestors, all against a painted backdrop of clay huts and
James Esoimeme helped organize the event with Friday and Beverly Jumbo, who teach Nigerian culture and dance at Berkeley Youth Alternatives and Malcolm X Elementary school.
He said Nigerians in the Bay Area share a strong commitment to preserving their culture and fostering unity among the more than 250 different ethnic groups in Nigeria.
“We are all here tonight to thank God that we are free at last from our oppressors – it’s taken us a long time, but if all Africans can work together and plan our future together, we’ll stay strong.”
A few non-Nigerians also came out to join in the festivities. Pauline Vanderpalm of Oakland, said that she came out to watch the celebration because she loves Nigerian music and is intrigued by the culture.
“It is such a mysterious country,” she said.
Yvette Hochberg, who is visiting Berkeley after living and working in development in Senegal for the past five years, said that she has participated in many Independence Day events-both here and in Africa.
“These people have a lot of pride, aside from all the problems in Nigeria,” she said.
“Incredible people have come out of there.”
The Nigerian immigrant community in the Bay Area, which has established networks of business professionals, scientists, artists and teachers, is the fruit of what President Obasanjo referred to as his country’s “brain drain” in a televised Independence Day speech.
“We have forged amazing unity abroad,” Nwoffiah said as he watched Senegalese dancers shake the floorboards during an enactment of a harvest ritual. “The Bay Area has attracted Nigerians with an extremely high level of intellectual resources.”
Hochberg said that the Nigerians she knows have come to Berkeley because of the area’s open embrace of different cultures. “It is a lot more integrated here than in other places,” she said, as she sat next to another American woman wearing a brightly-colored African robe.
For most immigrants who have re-settled here, community celebrations are a way of maintaining a close connection to
their homeland, Nwoffiah said.
“The concept of exile doesn’t exist in our psyche. We Nigerians may have fled persecution, but wherever we go there is some fundamental thing inside us that says ‘I will return.’”
Those interested in learning more about West African traditional music and dance can contact Beverly Jumbo at Performing Arts Media, 568-7909.