In conversation with Tokunbo Okuwobi: On travel and heritage
Connecting to ancestry through travel offers one way to engage with the past. Having the opportunity to physically encounter the spaces that have shaped societies can facilitate a deeper understanding of heritage. Be it sacred sites or landscapes, each offers a glimpse at gauging key aspects of daily life from communities of the past. Tokunbo Okuwobi began his tour of ECOWAS countries back in May of this year which has recently come to an end. ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) consists of 15 West African countries all of which provide visa-free travel to its citizens. Tokunbo was born in the US, his father hailing from Nigeria and mother from the Dominican Republic. A strong desire to engage with his ancestry, promote tourism as well as change the negative perception of West Africa fuelled his desire to embark on this tour. I had a chance to speak with Tokunbo to discuss all things related to travel, heritage, identity as well as the lessons learnt from this trip.
Why did you decide to embark on this journey travelling through West Africa?
I guess it started with seeing certain pictures from West Africa, I came across beautiful waterfalls, animals, as well as amazing and varied landscapes, and I thought to myself, “why isn’t this mainstream?”. Everyone sees pictures online of places like the Eiffel Tower or Rome and other places in Europe. If you do see Africa, it is often very popular tourist destinations like Kenya, South Africa, Egypt or Morocco, but you never see West Africa. It felt as if every time that somebody heard that you were travelling to somewhere in that region, it was considered dangerous or met with confusion about what you were going to do there. In school and generally everywhere we are not really being taught about our history, we are learning about someone else’s history. There is so much history in the land beyond slavery, all that we are taught is that we were slaves and that’s it. What about before slavery? What did we do as a people? As communities? As tribes? That is how this tour started, I brought it upon myself to showcase the rich beauty and history of this area.
In what ways has this trip offered the chance for you to engage with your ancestry?
My dad’s side is from Nigeria, growing up in America you don’t really learn too much about Nigerian culture. Yes, you eat the food or wear the traditional clothing, but you do not really know the deeper meaning behind it. On this trip I have learned about Yoruba mythology whereas in school I was only ever taught about Roman or Greek mythology. From this trip, I can see that our history is being watered down to make it appear as if we did not have anything, apart from slavery. Travelling through Nigeria, offered the chance for me to learn about my people, our mythology and where we started as a tribe. I travelled to Ife, a place in Osun state, which is the cradle of the Yoruba tribe, I learned so much from that experience.
Has this ECOWAS tour taught you anything about yourself?
I have been learning a lot about myself, it has made me want to really showcase and put on for my culture. A lot of people are in between fitting in and representing their culture. It felt like ten years ago everybody was ashamed to be Nigerian or African. When you heard people being asked if they were African they would say, “No I’m not African, my grandma is” or “No, my dad is African”. A lot of people downplayed their culture because they wanted to fit in and be African-American as that was seen as cool. This trip has made me want to showcase every culture in West Africa and show you how dope each country is, and each ethnicity is. I want everyone to be proud of where they come from.
It’s interesting that you mention the reluctance to embrace heritage that can exist in the diaspora, have you always maintained a close link with your African heritage or was it something that emerged at a later stage in your life?
No, not really. My mum is Dominican, and my dad is Nigerian, most of my life I favoured towards my Dominican side. Yes, I ate Nigerian food and wore traditional clothing, but that was it. I don’t speak Yoruba as my dad never spoke to me in the language, so I never learned it. My mum always spoke Spanish to me, so I grew up speaking the language which made me favour towards my Dominican side more. Growing up I didn’t like my name. At school teachers always struggled to pronounce it, they would go through the call list, “Is Ashley here? Is Michael here?” and then when they got to my name they would make jokes like “I can’t say your name. I’m going to try but I will probably butcher it!”. This was my experience from elementary school to college. I never really realised the power of my name. Olatokunbo Okuwobi means wealth and happiness brought from a foreign land. I know where in Nigeria, what state, what tribe and area that I belong to. My name is powerful, and it has meaning and am so proud and glad that my grandpa named me that. Growing up in America I felt like I didn’t like my name, I always tried to give a nickname or shorten it. I would say that in my later years and more recently I really feel proud to be Nigerian. When you start to study your people, your tribe, your country, you see everything that our ancestors did, which makes me proud. I would say that it was a lack of awareness and knowledge which made people not want to claim their ethnicity. I was never ashamed to be Nigerian, but I was not on the level that I am at now. Now, I show love to both my Dominican and Nigerian side.
Why do you think as Africans it is important to physically explore the landscape from our heritage?
As Africans it is our duty to travel the lands of where our people come from. For me, I feel that it is my duty to showcase West Africa and wider Africa because I feel as if there is a war on history. Like I said, all we are taught is that we were slaves, nothing else. We are not taught about mythology, ancient civilizations like the Nok, or anything else that happened before Europeans came. If you read through the textbooks, we are basically taught that we were savages and lived in huts, and not capable of doing anything. Meanwhile we have been creating art, smelting iron for thousands of years. I think that it is important to learn about your land and teach others. If not, our history is going to disappear. If you do not have a history, then your culture does not exist.
(Cape Coast, Ghana)
Has this trip sparked a desire to travel around other parts of the continent?
Yes, this ECOWAS tour has inspired me to travel all of Africa. In fact, not just Africa but also travel to Brazil and other places where African slaves were shipped to. I really want to travel to Ethiopia, a place that has never been colonised. I want to discover all the tribes in the continent and engage in their history; learn about what they did and how long they have been around, what kingdoms ruled, I want to learn about all of it! The more I study West Africa, I am learning about all these kingdoms; like the Malian empire which was the learning focal point of the whole world at a point in time. We are not being taught any of this. All that we are taught on TV and social media is that West Africa is poor and there are hungry babies with big stomachs and flies on their faces that need clothes, or issues concerning terrorism. They are not showing the beauty or the history. I want to stop these misconceptions and raise awareness. Africa is more than just a zoo where people can see animals, take pictures and leave. It is much more than that. I have been so inspired from this trip, it has been the most meaningful trip that I have taken.
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All images published with permission.