An Extra African



Once, there was a time when I had to be an extra African. Honest.

It was when I was at college. My West African roommate, Lydia, was trying to organize a cultural dance and song performance for the school. There were few other students of her ethnicity, so she was forced to improvise. Such improvisation consisted of badgering myself and Tessa (my other room-mate) for days, urging us to pretend at being African for her show.

“Come on, you’ll be great.”

“How can I learn all those dances in time?” I complained.

“Look, I’ll do the singing, you and Tessa can mouth along, and I’ll teach you the steps.”

“Yeah right. My shoulders can’t even move like that.” I was referring to the way in which she wanted us to push our shoulders in and out rapidly, while getting our feet to do something altogether different. Please note: it was not that I was lazy. I was studying ja dancing at the time, so I had some limited experience in choreography. It was just that the African dance movements were somehow … foreign, strange to my nervous system.

“It’s easy”, Lydia would continually say, grabbing my arms and forcing me into rhythm. “Like this … move your bust up and down.” Then she would sing. As I remember it, the words went something like,

“Gelete imole, a-koso ele imole. Alala obaiyo me, a-koso ele imole.”

In the “ele imole” parts, I was to rock my elbows forward and back, then step, step again, do a kind of difficult heel-toe thing, then repeat it all over again on the opposite side.

Lydia would cheer even the most minor resemblance of proper form. But when she performed it, the dance was like watching a fish swimming. It was fluid, ephemeral.

With me, it looked more like a car moving on square wheels. Clunk, clank-a-clunck. My arms were waving around like a drowning man.

She was patient, though, ever insisting that I try again. “This time,” she would say, “try doing it without sticking out your butt. Tuck it in like this,” she would demonstrate.

I must have gotten something right, in time enough for her cultural presentation. I think Tessa and I even learned enough of the song to fake an enthusiastic facsimile. The students loved our show — I think.

Afterwards, Lydia was understandably proud of herself. And of us.

“You look just like a Mulatto!” she beamed.

“What’s a Mulatto?”

She explained that it was a light-coloured African as a result of intermarriage.

That made sense. In the summer, my whole family gets quite dark within a short time of exposure to the sun. I’m coffee-coloured to begin with, so my skin always has a head start in terms of tanning easily. As a joke, I’ve often been able to pass myself off as Philippino, Spanish, Polynesian, Korean, or any other mildly dark-skinned person. Of course, having multi-varied friends as templates has been helpful, as well. I guess my repertoire could now include Mulatto.

One of the things that I have always found to be somewhat insidious about the politically correct movement is its tendency to portray humanity as one great hive, a featureless and homogeneous mass wherein uniformity defines perfection. Personally, I cannot stand uniformity, and I thrill at the countless differences between the cultures of humanity. Intermingling and interlearning can only strengthen any individual, and a society of strengthened individuals is ultimately a stronger society. Do we really want humans to adopt the politics of birds, wherein the collective pecking of the flock keeps each member in order?

Humanity’s colours shame the rainbow. It is in difference — not sameness — that mankind stands midway between animal and god.

After the show, Lydia presented me with a gift. She had had her mother sew a hand-made, traditional batik outfit, made to measure for me. It was stunningly beautiful. Of course, I wore it so frequently that it started to mold itself to my body shape. The only time that I did not wear it was when I went to sleep. For that I had a “lungi” from India.

But that is another story.


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