Nataal exclusive: This new book by photographer Nwobi Chukwuka and writer Adjoa Armah explores the beauty of individual freedom through storytelling that touches on familial ties, the diaspora’s sense of home and the social network of ghosts…
In my mother’s visits, it appears that only loved ones back home were able or willing to travel across continents to bid her farewell. Friends and relatives in Toronto, Arkansas or Rome evidently found the phone a much more appropriate technology than ghostly apparitions for news of their passing to be transmitted. Despite my thoroughly modern, very westernised, rational and somewhat mechanistic outlook, I grew up in a home within which ghosts would occasionally appear. Disbelief was not enough to quieten them. It did not matter that I didn’t believe in them. They believed in me.
For those of us at home and in the diaspora, ghosts do something productive. Always placed in a social network and part of a larger collective spirit. The meaning of a place depends on the ghosts we locate there, and connect with there. To remain connected in a world that requires ego. What a task. Perhaps our ghosts are the key. The ancestors never leave; our parents never stop listening. They hold on while giving us the room to be. Just be. Be in the knowledge that there is no risk of getting completely lost, straying too far, becoming untethered. They hold on without interfering too much. A love that says, "Be free, but I've got you".
It is important to sometimes loosen our grip on our pasts so that ties?can be made in new nations and communities. By not coming to me because I am not from there but from here. By instead going to my mother, ghosts from back home leave room for me to engage in appropriate acts of homing. For younger migrants to hold on to these ghosts themselves would be to negate their own forms of belonging and homemaking, of personal and familial ties grounded in their new homes.
We have the right to be everywhere but owe it to ourselves to be anchored. And for this generation, those coming up, at home and elsewhere, now safe in the knowledge that our elders are our ground, even when we disagree with and question them – as we should. Safe in the knowledge that with this solid ground we can just be.
It's easy to dismiss the superstitions of our elders in our search to be part of a world that has no room or recognition for the ancestors and spirits. But these spirits, at the most singular levels, are always a social response. Progress is not always what we can prove or rationalise. When we speak, or think, or feel, or imagine a thing, we connect with something bigger than ourselves. It's important that in our selfies, and snaps, and insta stories, and tweets, we remember that we are doing this all as part of a trajectory of ideas that have a home here. Just because the tools come from elsewhere does not mean the thoughts or sentiments do. We are our ancestors’ children, not the internet’s.
“If a diaspora represents a rupture between one's person and their origins, ghosts are a necessary bridge”
Our sense of the rightful possession of a place is not only about our sense of its ghosts. It can be enough that someone close to us has the sense of these ghosts. In fact for recent migrants whose position in the diaspora is through choice not a forced removal, whose presence in a new land may see them marginalised but was not necessarily violent at its inception and who simply have not been here long for a meaningful language of ghosts from here to emerge, they must hang on to ghosts from back home.
My argument is that those who leave their countries as adults and maintain a relationship with the ghosts of their birth countries, the elders: parents and grandparents in immigrant families, maintain these relationships on behalf of those who move as children or were born in their new homes. My mother in effect holds these ghosts for me and experiences their visits on my behalf. Her transmission of these stories gives me roots elsewhere that go much deeper than those here while leaving me to build my home here through my relationships and daily practices.
If a diaspora represents a rupture between one's person and their origins, ghosts are a necessary bridge. But room needs to be left for something else to emerge across generations. The first generation is able to live and work with the comfort of the ghosts from ‘back home’ while they build their lives in the sometimes-hostile streets of here. For their children, they can live in their new homes and even when they do not believe in these ghosts, can have them held on their behalf by relatives. For both first and second generations, the ghosts ground them there while they build or search for something new here.
Let us continue along these new and exiting paths we’ve carved out for ourselves. Our own ways of seeing in the world. More and more of that. New ways of being men. More and more of that. New ways of being women. More and more of that. New ways of being strong, of being rich, being smart, successful. No more big men, whose bigness is about the smallness of others. Real big men who can function when others are at the same scale as them. New families beyond blood, new communities beyond tribe, new belongings beyond nations. Strength as a capacity for care and not an ability to take.
For this land, the cradle of civilisation. Ancient but home to the youngest population. The continent that is younger than any other, there is a lot to do but we have the best ground to do it on. But be mindful. As we demand change, let us make sure what we are demanding is real change and not just a seat at the table for ourselves. That only gets us deeper into what is already broken…