‘Migration is a topic that is really dear to my heart, it has been an enriching experience to engage with other perspectives to inform my work as a digital resident for performingborders. During this experience I have explored aspects of politics, history and wellbeing in the process of recounting personal experiences, which has led to a creation of a piece that blends memoir with historical commentary. It has been a real pleasure to centre my writing in this way to explore encounters between past and present.’ Anike Bello
Anike Bello has been the first writer in residency at performingborders as part of the performingbordersLIVE20 programme. From the 14th March until the 14th May, Anike has been delving into the performingborders digital resources that resonate with her practice and lived experiences and as a response she wrote this deeply powerful piece:
Encounters with fluid borders
Where are you from?
The image of a border evokes an idea of an entity that is rigid and immovable. It is a site that attempts to draw a physical line of demarcation for people to know: who is us and who is them? When I think about my personal encounters passing through borders, it has always been a re-enactment of such a question. Each experience consists of a smile from me as I place my passport on the counter, feeling nervous about how the set of eyes opposite will receive me. The border official glances at my passport, then at my face, followed by another glance down at the document whilst flicking through some of the empty pages. During these seconds, the nerves shoot up inside me before plummeting right back down once my passport is returned and I’m given a quick nod of approval to continue my journey. Irrational? Probably, but it is nonetheless a fear that exists when I encounter borders.
I spent the first ten years of my life undocumented, which seemed like a balancing act of being seen and unseen at the same time. ‘Never answer the door’, the four words which were drilled into my head as a child. Each time somebody knocked on the door of my house I’d freeze, hold my breath and attempt to make myself unnoticeable as I peered through the curtains to identify the mystery figure at the door. I perceived knocks as the arrival of unwanted news, be-it correspondence from debt collectors for unpaid bills or from the UK Home Office. It triggered a sense of restlessness that someone was after me and my family. Being labelled as part of the unwanted by society and draconian immigration policies can have that kind of impact on the body and mind. Having my immigration status regularized at age 11 felt like I had secured a nod of approval that finally allowed me to call the space that I was born and grew up in home. Yet that nod of approval did not seem secure, almost as if it was not interested in commitment.
Season Butler (2019) states that “border violence is racialised and racialising, and people of colour are constantly reminded that their European-ness is contingent”. This experience goes beyond present European borders, it has followed me around in most of my travel experiences and emerged in the questions that I’ve received in the past about ‘where I’m really from?’ after showing my passport to a border official. There were either looks of confusion as to why I did not ‘sound Nigerian’ when travelling with my Nigerian passport or confusion as to why I did not ‘look British’ when travelling with my British passport. It felt like a struggle to be received as both. Such encounters bring into question citizenship as a contingent experience for children of immigrants, particularly people of colour. The impact of borders goes beyond the physical presence of machines, gates and check-points, it contributed to my understanding of the external world whereby I saw it as an assortment of lines etched across the earth, separating people and belief systems.
History offers an alternative depiction of borders, as entities that are fluid which shift and adapt as humans shift and adapt. This perspective became clear to me after a recent trip to Benin earlier this year.
Where to draw a line?
Benin Republic is a country nestled in between present-day Nigeria and Togo. As with most of the physical borders that exist within the African continent, they represent the interests of former European colonial powers. Countries were created to shore up European economic interests and show-off political prowess. By engaging with pre-colonial African history, this presents an opportunity to gauge how culture transcends present-day rigid borders to reveal ancestral links shared between people from different countries. It points to a movement of stories, ideas and belief systems which emerge in a variety of cultural practices. Such a process plays an important role in unveiling a fluid border experience and facilitating opportunities to appreciate mobility “as an ontological feature of the human being. Freedom of movement is an elementary feature of the human condition”, as put by Nicholas De Genova (2017).
I am a London raised Yoruba woman; the maternal side of my ancestry hails from a town called Ifo in Ogun State, Nigeria – an area not too far from the current physical border between Benin and Nigeria. During a visit to Porto Novo, Benin I was able to connect with my ancestry in a meaningful way. This was achieved through encountering similarities in terms of facial features, language, spiritual practice and other aspects of culture, which mirrored aspects of my Yoruba heritage, and contributed to a strong sense of familiarity that I experienced.
It felt like an exchange of seeing and being seen.
By seeing aspects of my heritage that I identified with, I saw a part of myself in my surroundings, which, in turn, facilitated a deeper connection towards the place.
I saw this word on a big sign featuring smiling faces as I made my way through arrivals at Cotonou Cadjehoun Airport. I immediately thought of the word E’kaabo, which means welcome in Yoruba. I later found out that Kuwabo also means welcome in the Fon language, one of the main indigenous languages spoken in Benin. The process of seeing and hearing traces of Yoruba in the Fon language enabled me to “locate [a sense of] home within language” (Sneja Gunew 2004). Such an experience points to the impact of human mobility and the subtle and overt traces that still remain as a result, which shape a place. What does it mean to move between spaces? What are you taking with you in the process in terms of ways of seeing and understanding the world? I am curious about this. Those unseen aspects, in the form of belief systems and stories that move as humans physically move, which shape culture. Such a process draws attention to a ‘flow of wisdom’, as mentioned by Camille Barton (2018), which provides a key access point to connect with ancestry for people like me, who form part of the African diaspora.
The Dahomey Kingdom traces back to the period of the 17th century and made up a large chunk of present-day Benin. Its emergence was partly in resistance to military and slave raiding attacks from the neighbouring Oyo Kingdom, which existed in present-day Nigeria. The violent context that existed between the two Kingdoms often resulted in human trafficking at immense levels to sustain the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. In spite of the economic and political rivalry between the two kingdoms, their close proximity enabled for strong cultural similarities to emerge. The impact of such a process has passed down through generations to present-day, contributing to a fluid border experience between Nigeria and Benin despite the presence of a rigid physical border. This is encapsulated in Porto Novo, the capital of Benin, which unveils the cultural mobility between the two spaces as well as stories connecting Africa, the Americas and Europe.
Situated close to the physical border between Benin and Nigeria, Hogbonu, as it is referred to in the Fon language or Àjàshé Ilé, as it is referred to in the Yoruba language was given the name Porto Novo by Portuguese slave traders. It was established in the 16th century to administer trade under the control of the Oyo Kingdom. However, the collapse of the Oyo Kingdom followed by the emergence of French colonial rule led to Porto Novo’s official incorporation into the Kingdom of Dahomey in 1883.
Walking through the Musee Honme (Palais Royal), the former palace of King Toffa I, who ruled over Porto Novo between 1874 – 1908, I was once again gifted with an opportunity to connect to my Yoruba ancestry. I saw figurines paying homage to the Egungun masquerade, an entity that is perceived as a bridge between the material and ancesteral realm. From this, I was able to appreciate the similarities that exist between Vodun, the indigenous spiritual practice of the Fon and Òrìṣà, the indigenous spiritual practice of the Yoruba. I also learned that Gẹ̀lẹ̀dé, a festival commemorating womanhood and female ancestors, was also recognised and celebrated in Porto Novo and other parts of Benin, which unveiled another close cultural link.
Whilst visiting the Great Mosque of Porto-Novo I heard Yoruba spoken for afternoon prayers as a community sat together. This experience brought back childhood memories of me and my sister accompanying my mum to family gatherings. We ate together and us kids would sometimes receive prayers in Yoruba and money for sweets (if we were lucky!) from the adults. I learned that the Mosque was built by Afro-Brazilians that were freed following the emancipation of enslaved Africans, who settled in the area upon their return to the continent. Their knowledge of the architectural styles from their time in Brazil is reflected in the style of the mosque with its pastel tones and large arch door frames. This adds another layer to the fluid border experience present in the city. Porto Novo is a visual representation of the mobility of ideas that have transcended different spaces to leave cultural imprints of varying degrees on the place. Whether it is linguistic, spiritual or through material means, all point to a web of stories that connect people and places, which go beyond physical borders.
Human attempts to assert arbitrary rigid borders to arrange our external world fail to factor in the power of culture in creating a fluid border experience. Its ability to appear in all aspects of daily life shows how powerful it is as a tool in facilitating opportunities to connect and grow, no matter the space. Bearing this in mind, the presence of physical borders appears as a desperate attempt to convey difference and assert power. Crossing the land border between Benin and Nigeria really encapsulated this for me. I left Sèmè-Kpodji to enter Badagry and felt the full force of administrative aggression, the divider between the two spaces violently trying to be seen and heard in the face of cultural flow. I handed my passport over to the border official to trigger another encounter passing through borders.
On the migration crisis, mobility and postcolonial studies – Nicholas de Genova
The Dahomey Kingdom | African History Documentary – AEA Films
Was Dahomey A Barbaric African Kingdom? – HomeTeam History
The Home of Language: A Pedagogy of the Stammer – Sneja Gunew (2004)
History of Porto Novo / Ajase – Anago James Akeem Osho
Anike Bello is a London raised Yoruba woman with a keen interest in education, heritage, mobility and people. She is a creative educator that curates spaces online and offline to teach about ancestry and culture linked to pre-colonial African societies through writing, interviews, videos and workshops. Anike is also author of the book, Connecting to Self Through Ancestry, a collection of essays exploring engagements between heritage and wellbeing. oronanike.com
Featured image (cropped): courtesy of Anike Bello