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Mma Oyeka: What Paris Has Taught Me About African Integration

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I’ve heard a lot of high-level talk about regional and sub-regional integration, but I never quite understood it until after I came to Paris to study. Witnessing and experiencing some of the benefits that members of the European Union enjoy from their integration has exposed me to the reality of Africa’s integration, or lack thereof.

I was born and raised in Nigeria and until now, my travel experience outside of the country consisted of only the United States. I am ashamed to say now, that I was shocked to meet other Africans; many of who are sans-papier (without papers), and are at the bottom rung of society, when I arrived in Paris.

I have lived in Paris for 10 months now, in the 14th arrondissement (district) and I go to school in the 6th arrondissement. Both arrondissements are considered to be relatively average, if not above the average social class. I can, however, count the number of black African men I have seen clad in professional attire on one hand. It is even worse in places like Chateau Rouge and Chateau d’eau, where on a good week, you will hardly find any such men.

I am very mindful of how my identity whether as black, Nigerian or African is portrayed overseas. This leads me to be very conscious of the generally negative perception of the male black African population, especially with our men, that foreigners tend to have The fact that most of us were not perceived to be ‘responsible’ even though this perception is wrong in most cases, made me feel misrepresented. I found myself subconsciously, alarmingly, becoming reluctant to not wanting to interact with Africans in Paris – except for other Anglophone African students like myself, who also unfortunately share the same reluctance.

We can understand integration gaps better by examining demographic classifications. According to the 2009 census, Paris’s 2.2 million inhabitants included 30,000 Algerians, 21,000 Moroccans, 15,000 Tunisians and 54,000 with “other African nationalities”. Why “other nationalities?”
Shouldn’t we be either grouped together as one, or singled out as individual nationalities? The same goes for the North and Sub-Saharan Africa divide – which also unconsciously has an effect on the way we view ourselves.

My classroom experience is a case in point. On one occasion when we were supposed to give group presentations based on our continents of origin, unlike the rest of the class, the 5 Africans in my class at the time: two Nigerians, A French-Congolese, an Egyptian and a Tunisian, couldn’t give our presentation as a group. Instead, the Nigerians presented separately from the North Africans and the Congolese chose to identify with the French (European). Such divide stifles integration.

This division exists even among some foreign development workers in Africa. When I asked my professor, also a high-level OECD staff working in Africa, why South Africa was the only African country represented on her slides, her response to the class was that “South Africa is a different Africa”. While I knew exactly what she meant- the fact that South Africa has a better socio-economic climate relative to other African countries that makes it the preferred destination for Foreign Direct Investment. By her statement, she was reinforcing a stereotype, which I find very disturbing. It also made me wonder whether South Africans also see themselves as more ‘different’ from the rest of Africa.

So what lessons can be drawn from the reality of Africa’s integration?

1. A lot of Africans are not African enough, including myself. By this I mean that aside from what we read in literature, or what the media portrays, they have not had enough first hand experience of other parts of the continent, which again is important for regional integration and development. Many Nigerians that I know of, despite having the new ECOWAS passports that allow for non-visa entry into ECOWAS-member countries, still rather spend summer vacations and honeymoons in Europe and the Americas.

2. Africans (myself included) within Paris, and in other parts of the world need to make more effort to reach out to one another.

3. We all hold diverging views of ourselves, which is not a problem on its own, but when it starts to affects how we relate with each other, then it becomes a big problem. The more we highlight these differences, the less our chances of integrating and cooperating as one. This only makes it more important to dwell on the factors that bind us all together as one GIANT AFRICA.

When it is all said and done, all this high-level talk about regional and sub-regional integration boils down to you and I, and how we relate amongst ourselves on a daily basis. My mindset has completely changed, as I am now more open to meeting other Africans, especially when outside Africa, for who they are, and who they can become, not where they are from or how they appear.

Photo Credit: Dreamstime | Paffy1969

29 Comments

  1. pj

    February 13, 2015 at 3:27 pm

    and as Africans , no one has read or commented on the post, since its not gossip anyway

    • ocean beauty

      February 13, 2015 at 5:22 pm

      Maybe because some of us have not stayed outside Nigeria. Na play I dey oh

  2. Abena

    February 13, 2015 at 4:26 pm

    Interesting and very intellectual article…

  3. June

    February 13, 2015 at 4:56 pm

    Good insight Mma

  4. Chinyere

    February 13, 2015 at 5:06 pm

    Very intersting and well written article

  5. Mary129

    February 13, 2015 at 5:08 pm

    Great article. I agree African’s need to unite and focus on our similarities and NOT differences.

  6. Awa

    February 13, 2015 at 5:10 pm

    Thank you for this, very point on and well articulated, We Africans need to do better.

  7. nikky

    February 13, 2015 at 5:45 pm

    I thought about this issue recently. I was in a taxi here in Montreal with a chatty driver. He said he was from Algeria and I told him I’m Nigerian and he was the first to call me his sister cuz we are Africans. It was nice to have that sense of community and it pointed even to my own bias of thinking of sub-saharan Africans as real Africans and the north as middle east extension.

    • chi-e-z

      February 13, 2015 at 10:38 pm

      hmm that’s the first I’ve heard of an Algerian claiming to be African. Had such a not so good experience with one in D.C. I just assumed none of them even claim being African.

  8. Blue

    February 13, 2015 at 5:46 pm

    @pj.. you might want to consider that people are not commenting because they cannot relate??
    African men in Europe not properly/formally attired? that should be Paris only or any other Francophone Europe.
    I live in Cote d’Ivoire and I can relate to this article as I have met many French men and women with their high-horse attitude, despite being in Africa o!
    I also have lived in Anglo-phone Europe and i have seen many African men at the same level with their European counterparts………In short, the article is very relative.

  9. Anon

    February 13, 2015 at 5:52 pm

    Diversity and multiculturalism in a continent! With these, it is nigh on impossible for integration to take place.
    Also, the colonial masters played a huge role in the lack of integration – French, English, Belgian, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese…(this ties in with your classroom experience.)

    “It also made me wonder whether South Africans also see themselves as more ‘different’ from the rest of Africa.”
    Technologically, yes. Having Nelson Mandela, yes. The Rainbow nation, yes.
    What of the North Africans? They are worse. They are only Africans by geography and when it is time for football tournaments. Everything else, they are culturally, socio-economically and religiously Arab.

    “all this high-level talk about regional and sub-regional integration boils down to you and I.”
    It’s much bigger than you and I.
    Let’s start with for example, football matches. You know what goes on there and the kind of beef that erupts.

    “A lot of Africans are not African enough”
    Travelling around Africa won’t make you more African. It will just make you a traveller. It also depends on what people’s interests are. If it is just to travel to lounge on the beach, swim and hang around in a hotel, that’s not integration.

    “Africans (myself included) within Paris, and in other parts of the world need to make more effort to reach out to one another.”
    Have you reached out to your fellow Nigerians before extending your hand to your fellow Africans? Don’t we have to reach out internally before we can develop those skills to reach out to others? Charity begins at home.

    African! Reminds me of all the forms I fill. Origin; African. In some forms, Black African….

    • SOLO ACT

      February 13, 2015 at 8:41 pm

      This is what i try to tell africans oo! even some akata people! NORTH AFRICANS DONT CONSIDER THEMSELVES AFRICAN! they are only african because the continental drift dint push them away. NORTH AFRICANS consider themselves ARAB! in america our teacher in class even said it. talkless of when a tunisian comes to nigeria and we call them “white”. i respect myself. i have never forced a north african to bear the name AFRICAN. they dont want to and frankly its not my concern!
      Secondly, other sub saharan AFRICANS HATE NIGERIANS WITH A PASSION! they dont like us at all. NIGERIANS ONLY HAVE THEMSELVES OOO. they KILL NIGERIANS IN GHANA, AND EVEN SOUTHAFRICA! plz when you see ANOTHER NIGERIAN STICK TO THEM VERY WELL! DONT THINK OTHER AFRICANS COUNT YOU AS THEIR BROTHER OOO!

    • Mz Socially Awkward....

      February 14, 2015 at 12:59 am

      @Solo, people from Mauritius, are even on a whole other leve. Once knew a Mauritian who swore to the moon and back that she wasn’t from Africa. I tell am say, nne, but the map of the world says otherwise…

      Regarding other indigenes of sub-Saharan African states, to be honest, I think we Nigerians have a way of superimposing our presence on them that can be quite annoying (carrying our “Giant of Africa” title on our heads and such other irritating things) and it makes them quite closed to us. Some other debatable factors that aren’t necessary to go into here (“yahoo tinz” as the kids like to say) have certainly also coloured the minds of many other neighbouring nations but I think if you’re open to discovering their own lifestyles, they can be very warm towards accepting Naija friends.

      If I may say this frankly, I’ve actually noticed a distinct openness and lack of drama that seems to characterize all the friendships and bonds I am fortunate to have made with folk from other parts of Africa. To tell you the truth, sticking only with Nigerians that you meet in a foreign country has a serious likelihood of bringing some unnecessary wahala into your universe, for real.

    • Ada_ugo

      February 14, 2015 at 11:37 am

      thank you very much.
      there is so much diversity within the continent that there is little to really unite on besides geography. diversity in language, culture, skin colour, physical appearance/features, food, etc…. i mean, the concept of unification is noble, i admit, but it is far more complex to apply in practical terms.
      even within our sub-continent of a country – Nigeria, with like over 50 different cultures, how much and how successfully can we truly say we have united in our 54yrs of being a country? there is still in-fighting, tribalism, preferential-ism, etc.
      i say treat all men with respect and goodwill, regardless of where they come from. but if you can find some common ground with someone from another country, well, good for you!

  10. adetadel

    February 13, 2015 at 6:28 pm

    I can really relate to this. I was in paris for a vacation and to be honest the perception of society towrds blacks made me even start segregating myself from blacks of other nationalities esp the french speaking ones who mostly dont have legal immigration statuses. Its sad that we africans are not integrated enough to be unaffected by such perceptions.

  11. beaudonna.blogspot.com

    February 13, 2015 at 8:03 pm

    Wow. Are we ever going to grow past segregation?

  12. Anon 2

    February 13, 2015 at 8:19 pm

    Paris is a very funny city. I will give an example. I was visiting with a group of girl friends. Let just say our group covered the skin colour spectra from dark chocolate to fair ( white). We got some stirs but just thought Parisians were rude. On talking to a chatty waiter we found out that the reason people stirred was because of what we were, a group of girl friends of different race origin. This we were told was uncommon in Paris!!! ( Now you see I think this is sad, How can people fully understand each other if we all stay in our Eiffel towers with friends only within our race in a multicultural society)

    Now back to the article. I live in a country where some school kids ask question like do you speak African or Swahili? In countries like the US a lot of people think Africa is a country. The fund raising drives of the Big charities in the west has not helped the outlook regarding Africa. As a result balanced perspective of the true Africa is hard to come by. So the first thing I say in respond to the question is clearly state that I am Nigerian, we have 2oo+ language and there is no Language called African.

    Also people’s experiences are very different, and I think the school grouping assignment might also have been difficult to group if you had a diverse Asian ( from Arabia to Japan) community in your class.

    I agree with Anon 5:52pm on North Africa. Most North Africans see themselves as Arabs ( even though Arabs of the peninsular don’t see them as equally Arabs).

    I think once the public image of Africa outside Africa is improved people will claim it more freely.

  13. Drknite

    February 13, 2015 at 8:34 pm

    I love African Woman!

    • ook

      February 14, 2015 at 5:17 am

      Drnite, you need to give us more details on why u love African women just curious 🙂

  14. tunmi

    February 13, 2015 at 8:40 pm

    I work as a hair braider part time and it has given me the opportunity to know other West Africans. My boss is from Sierra Leone as are some braiders. We have Gambia, Guinea, Nigeria, and Cameroon. I attend a HBCU (Historically Black College and University), Morgan State, and in the actuarial science program we have Ghana, Togo, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. Life does have a way of exposing us to others

    I really do plan to use my ECOWAS passport. The Tourism industry would do well with this. Those Mr and Ms Tourism contest especially

  15. chi-e-z

    February 13, 2015 at 10:40 pm

    Your school even try. Imagine not just being the only African but black student male/female in your class- my experience. Everything I do they attribute to the whole of Africa the ignorance I hear menh.

  16. chi-e-z

    February 13, 2015 at 11:25 pm

    Have y’all heard of Saartjie Baatman… google it. won’t see me in France anytime soon. I was shocked at not really what happened to her since we naija ladies know it still happens to our sisters globally today -italy) but to her body after she died.

  17. S

    February 14, 2015 at 1:07 am

    Yup. I lived in Paris too. Same exact things I noticed. Hands down, she did a good job of summarizing the experience and communicating her cultural lens.

  18. Kelz

    February 14, 2015 at 5:44 pm

    “Secondly, other sub saharan AFRICANS HATE NIGERIANS WITH A PASSION! they dont like us at all. ”

    I swear I only read this craziness online. There are way more ppl that love Nigerians and want to be a apart of the rich culture than there are ppl who hate Nigerians.

    • Anon

      February 14, 2015 at 7:06 pm

      Very true.

  19. madamnk

    February 14, 2015 at 9:41 pm

    Surprisingly, it’s been the other way for me. In college, in London, I had just a few friends from other countries in africa, one zambian and 2 Algerians. When I moved to a different city for uni, I had a wider variety of friends. We bonded quite quickly and it’s made me even more aware of how bad African leaders are, from common conversations about lawlessness, corruption, embezzlement of funds e.t.c It’s also interesting learning new things as well.

  20. Jay

    February 15, 2015 at 2:37 am

    Not sure if you are also aware of the divide in the STATES too. In the very definitions of the racial distinctions – Black / African American includes those of us of a darker hue particular of sub-saharan decent while Caucasian includes North Africa and the Middle East in its definition. IMAGINE THAT!!!! So i can see how F-ed up we all can be in Africa – Dis UNITED

  21. NaijaParisian

    February 28, 2015 at 11:47 am

    Nigerian and in the paris region? You can join this fledgling meetup group,check us out here
    meetup.com/Naija-Parisians/

  22. Anna S. Kedi

    March 5, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    Thanks for sharing. Not always aligned with all the points but I think you really summarized well the straight issues we have. I had the chance to live in France and namely in Paris for a few years and to get to know different African nationalities, but what is funny though is I did not spend much time with my fellow Cameroonians and for some good reasons. So you can see, the fight is not only the way we consider each other as Africans and relate to one another but even sometimes amongst the same countries. It is really a long way to go but I still believe we can get there as long as we take the time to acknowledge our issues/barriers for integration, just as you did.

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