African Library: Yoruba Girl Dancing by Simi Bedford

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Yoruba Girl Dancing
Simi Bedford

It would be a mistake to be misled by the seeming slightness of this text, or by its apparently celebratory title and by the prevailing cheerfulness and humour of its narration, since Simi Bedford’s Yoruba Girl Dancing (originally published by Heinemann in 1991 and subsequently by Penguin, in 1992 and 1994) tackles the weighty and painful issue of the extent to which Africans, even those who are members of the privileged classes, can gain social acceptance in “the West.” There is much that is so charming and endearing about the little girl narrator – secure and cherished in the exuberant family life of an impressively cultured and wealthily cushioned Lagos household, where her challenges are understood and occasional reprimands bravely faced – from whose perspective the story is initially told, that any reader must warm to the candour and courage of her nature. While this pertains to about the first third of the text, Remi’s basic nature does not change as she is faced with the terrible rigours of being taken to Britain at a very young age and grows into young womanhood (the point at which the narrative concludes). But almost everything around Remi is changed, and she herself has a quite profound recognition of what the struggle to adapt and survive under her new circumstances demands of her, and how high the price is that she is forced to pay for a result she had no voice in choosing.

Early in the text, as Remi sits on her immensely wealthy (industrialist) grandfather’s lap, she asks him about a family rumour: that they were enslaved long ago. So they were, he confirms “testily”; family members were transported to America, but regained their freedom by fighting on the side of the British forces during the War of Independence, for which they were rewarded and returned to Africa – not Nigeria, initially, but Sierra Leone. Remi’s grandfather’s grandfather’s son was born there and, as a grown man, found his way back to his own people. In reply to her question, Grandfather tells the inquisitive Remi:

Well he knew that according to our family tradition we came originally from the area around Abeokuta, so he made a journey up there and when he arrived he immediately recognised the tribal markings on the faces of the people, they were identical to the pattern handed down to his father by his grandfather in America. We are home for good now, I promise you. (4)

When Remi mentions that she wouldn’t like to go to the States, her grandfather reminds her of the family tradition of studying in the UK and Remi replies that she’ll do that “some day maybe” – with no idea of how shockingly soon she’ll be dispatched there. Her father, paternal aunt and maternal grandfather all acquired their higher education in Britain, but went there as adults. Remi’s maternal grandfather, left a young widower with three children, met and married a British woman, then Miss Pickering, while studying law in London – she became Remi’s fluttering BigMama (in contrast with her beloved Grandma Loretta, with whom Remi sleeps every night on a great mound of pillows).

Grandma (the paternal one) wanted a little one to bring up and Remi’s father, known to have been disappointed at his first-born’s femaleness, had no objection. Grandma lives on the middle floor and is the central day-to-day administrative power in the huge Lagos mansion where the extended Foster family and their small army of servants are accommodated. Grandpa, who is the ultimate authority figure and a prosperous industrialist and financier, lives entirely separately from Grandma, alone on the top floor of their palatial home. The couple communicates by note and Remi has picked up the family rumour (a very convincing account) that Grandma found her spouse’s earlier sexual liaison and the resulting out-of-wedlock son (Uncle Henry) unforgiveable. When she married him, he, too, had been left widowed by the death of Remi’s father’s and his sister Harriet’s mother (she was a Fante princess from Ghana), while Grandma in turn had three more children with Remi’s Grandpa. Dearly beloved by Remi as she is, and believed to be someone impossible to lie to, a true grande dame, Grandma is (hence) not genetically related to the little narrator, but forms the great anchor of her emotional life. There are also something like nine “foster children” – poorer relations from elsewhere, sent to live for a time with the Lagos family; availing themselves of the educational and other opportunities thus offered. When one of these leaves the household, another arrives to take his or her place. In so large and various a household, the servants too play important roles, and everyone constantly seems to gossip about everyone else; glorying in all this, Remi’s life is rich, full and exciting. Although Remi (with no fewer than three nursemaids to look after her!) is the favoured grandchild (the eldest son’s eldest child), she is by no means spoilt: her cousins and other children engage with her as an equal in energetic play and her nurses boss her around when they can.

Early in the narrative, there is a family wedding and here we find the first of the title references:

Yowande [Remi’s particular friend among the foster children and the one closest in age to her] and I abandoned him [Tunji, Remi’s younger brother, a hopeless dancer] to my mother and danced our way across the courtyard to join my aunts and their circle. The music poured through our veins and we flowed with the beat, each separate portion of our bodies winding and unwinding seamlessly as if we had no bones. Even Aunt Rose could not resist the pull of the drums and we surrounded her gleefully.

“That’s right, Auntie, move it, move it, oh!”

We danced long into the night underneath the lanterns strung between the trees. Inside the house, the old ladies moved their chairs so that they could observe us, and sat looking out, framed like pictures in the dining room windows. “No snake is more sinuous,” they said, “than a Yoruba girl dancing.” (26)

This wedding scene is no less vibrant, sociable and crowded than the funeral observations that occur not long afterwards, when Remi’s Grandpa unexpectedly dies –

Day after day, a constant stream of sympathisers, come to offer their condolences and to join in the mourning, passed in front of my grandmother. They flowed through the rooms, taking it in shifts so that the cycle wasn’t broken and the momentum maintained. Grandma would have to pace herself, Aunt Rose said. (37–38)

Although at least one of the “mourners” is forced to ask Remi: “Hey pickin, pickin, who dey die?” (38), clearly more interested in the free food and drink, the richly communal life lived by the family on home ground is evident, however “Westernised” or “English” they may appear to be in many major respects. But it is soon after this that the initially partly shocking, partly exciting news is conveyed to Remi: her father has decreed that she be sent to boarding school in England. (Remi is all of six years old at this time.) She is to go there on board a steamer in the company of her English grandmother BigMama, who is travelling to the UK for a medical examination, after which she will return. When evening falls on shipboard for the first time and Remi at last comprehends that she has been utterly separated from almost everyone she knows and loves, the pain of this severance causes her not only to burst out crying, but to yell so loudly that “I set the whole ship in an uproar” (48). Even though this may sound slightly triumphant (told with hindsight), the distress, even terror of the little girl becomes clearly evident, as does the inability of her less familiar grandmother, now her only familial support, to cope with Remi’s sorrow and fear.

Into the supposed “disciplinary breach” steps another passenger, a British woman who is in military service and who clearly perceives BigMama as unable to “handle” Remi. She offers to take the little girl “in hand” by means of strict time management, constant supervision as well as an educational programme, but this tiny tyrant (she is so physically small that Remi initially mistakes her for a child of her own age) has no idea how much smarter than she the formidable Yoruba “tiny tot” is. While she is initially forced to submit to the determined Miss Smith, Remi soon manages to outwit her by feigning exhaustion and illness and escapes to roam the cargo ship (there are few passengers and no other children on board) by herself. Remi makes friends with the charming bosun, Mr Lowther, who takes her on tours of the ship’s bowels and even rigs up a swing for her. Her “holiday” from the interfering Miss Smith comes to an end when, swinging too high, she has a spectacular fall, but Remi soon again manages to free herself. All along she is sustained by the mistaken belief that BigMama’s murmured consolation that she’d soon be seeing her family again, meant that they’d be awaiting her in England. Of course they are not there, and the devastated child has to accommodate herself to this brutal fact soon after landing, weeping till her eyes are dry.

The social sphere in which she is now immersed is British middle and later on lower middle class – BigMama (who now requires Remi to address her as “Aunty” to spare her embarrassment) has no fewer than nine siblings in the UK, and they are set to become Remi’s “surrogate family”. They are a kindly enough bunch and generally treat Remi as an ordinary child, whom they cheerfully take on as a previously unknown family member. What does not immediately impinge hurtfully on Remi, mainly because she is not yet able to read the signs or understand the terms, is the prevalent racial prejudice of the British. Remi first meets BigMama’s sister Aunty Madge and her husband Uncle Reg; she gets on so happily with them that she asks that they be the people with whom she should spend her school holidays, but her father as strict traditionalist has determined that Uncle Theo, who is the eldest of the ten siblings, and his wife Aunt Betty, must be Remi’s co-guardians. The British family members are fully aware that the appointed couple is distinctly of the “cockney” class, with a lifestyle hugely less luxurious than that to which Remi is accustomed, but at least they are warm-hearted people. To Remi, since everything in Britain is utterly strange and different (not least the shockingly cold weather), it does not matter that there are few luxuries here – what she misses are her loved ones and their vitality, not mere things.

The contemporary reader is far more shocked than Remi appears to be that nearly every item of the endless list of school clothes for Chilcott Manor School is described as having to be “nigger brown” in colour. This is a time when (in the UK) people assume the right to use racist language and to refer to a child like Remi as a “darky”, though the terminology appears to have washed over from the States. When all the clothes have been bought and Remi sees herself in the masquerade of her over-large school clothes upon a last look in the mirror, she throws herself on the shop’s carpet and weeps – when Aunty Madge in sympathy asks: “Poor little thing, what was the matter?’’ she can only say in “explanation”, “I don’t know, I was afraid. ” Whereupon, says Remi, Aunty Madge “rocked me in her lap just like Grandma” ( 67). Aunty Madge finds it incomprehensible that such a little girl can be sent off to boarding school in a different country on the other side of the world, to which BigMama (who will be returning to her life in Nigeria by boat, once her medical tests have been done) primly replies that it is because leading Nigerians like Remi’s father want the next generation to be equipped by means of a “proper” education to take over the reins of power in their country. The difference between coming to study in Britain as a young adult in his own enjoyment of his time here, and the different situation of his six-year-old daughter, appears not to have struck this strange, emotionally myopic man. Interestingly, Remi as narrator of her own tale never once overtly criticises her father for the sufferings to which his decision subject her, but then, it is not really necessary to spell out his insensitivity, snobbishness and foolish “colonial cringe” – for all his undoubted intellectual brilliance, innate sense of self-confidence and authority – to the reader.

When Remi goes to visit her young Aunt Grace, now studying art in the UK, prior to being taken to her boarding school in the countryside, the aunt and her university friends are avid for news from home. Remi regales them with the description of a lavish Yoruba wedding and Aunt Grace expresses her yearning for “the sound of the Calabar drum”, languidly and longingly swinging her hips. She informs her little niece: “You will find, Remi, that no one dances over here” (75). While this is not entirely accurate, the statement carries a deeper, even ominous resonance and is used as a short-hand comment to signify the huge cultural and lifestyle differences to be faced by Remi, at this stage only a few days in Britain. But it is her own Aunt Grace who is mainly responsible for Remi’s next, dreadful ordeal. BigMama being in hospital for her medical tests, Grace has been appointed to be the person who accompanies Remi to her new school and introduces her to those in whose charge she will remain throughout the school term. As the taxi they have taken drives into the school grounds, they notice immediately how quiet it all is, with a few lights on only in the central building. Not much less chilly than the outside weather is the reception they are offered by the headmistress, Miss Bowles, and particularly by the dreadful and grotesquely misnamed Miss Valentine, who will be the bane of Remi’s school existence. This woman has no qualms in informing Remi, not much later, that she had detested her on sight – an attitude to which Remi’s own dislike of this awful teacher is the natural and healthy response. The worst of the introductory meeting is the revelation that the two Nigerians have mistakenly arrived a week too early for the school’s opening and that Remi will not have the mild compensation of being with other girls of her age, some of whom may be rather friendlier than these aloof adult women. Aunt Grace quite adamantly – brutally, the reader cannot help feeling – explains that she cannot accommodate Remi in the crowded flat where she lives with two other students and is unable to look after her by day since she has to attend classes. “Don’t leave me, Aunt Grace, please don’t go” (79), Remi cries, but her aunt leaves the child gripped by the arm by a sergeant-like Matron who marches her off to sleep by herself in the dormitory she is soon to share with other boarders of her age. But for now, the entire pitch-dark, ice-cold building (with the window open!) surrounds the terrified child, who has never before slept alone, for the rest of the night as well as the next six nights.

During the daylight hours Remi, with her knack of befriending adults of all ages, chats to and assists the elderly groundsman, who assures her that the goblins and witches that inhabit the “far north” in her story-books do not exist in this area, but by night it is a different matter. At last the week is over and Remi faces the next ordeal – meeting her new roommates. At first, she hides, but at least there are two other new girls crying for their families, so Remi can be considered a veteran of the school compared to them. Yet, when the pretty and friendly girl in their dorm who has been appointed to look after Remi (Jesssica) takes her hand to go to the dining hall for supper, her jealous friend Anita shouts out with “the authority of an Oracle” that Remi’s hand should never be held, since “the black comes off” (86). Nothing that Remi says or does to refute this demonic, scurrilous claim (on the cited authority of Anita’s mother!) succeeds and from now on, though spoken to civilly under the eyes of the teachers, Remi is studiously ostracised as the rumour about her “contagious” blackness as the only pupil of colour there, spreads throughout the school. Remi has some respite from this when, during her first school holiday in England, she goes to stay with Aunt Betty and Uncle Theo, since the younger of their two children, a boy named Gerald who is several years older than Remi, immediately sees her potential as representative of her continent in the endless make-believe games played by him and a “gang” of neighbourhood children of whom he is the undisputed leader. As the verbally rather more sophisticated Remi puts it, he recognises that she “would lend a unique authenticity to the[ir] Tarzan games” (89) in which they compete with another “gang” of children. Back at school, though, Remi’s misery continues. Since no-one will play with her, she resorts to hiding away on the “punishment bench” where she is found, crying, by their French teacher, a robust woman who immediately marches Remi off to class, berates the other girls for their ugly and foolish prejudice and assures Remi’s future acceptance – at least within the school context – by the other pupils. Remi also makes a name for herself as a sports star, but her father’s strange refusal to allow her to travel home to her Yoruba family during the long holidays does not go unremarked among her friends and causes the girl not only unassuaged longing but embarrassment as she tries to “explain” (by lying) why she remains in Britain even during school breaks. Nevertheless, Remi thinks she does deserve praise for coping, and basks in her new-found popularity. Her “report card” on her new life is an honest one, all the same:

It seemed as if the little pot of African clay, which had been sent bobbing thousands of miles across the ocean, had survived against all the odds intact; the brown glaze was as shiny as before, only the hairline crack running from top to bottom on the inside betrayed that it was not the same as it was and would never be again. (97)

During the next holiday, Aunt Betty announces with glee that their whole clan (including Remi) will be spending an entire fortnight at the beach, in Mudeford-on-Sea. The name proves prophetic as the surroundings (when the rain starts falling again) are muddy and messy. When it is sunny, going to the beach is a constant ordeal for poor Remi as everyone stares at the unusual sight of a black child among the all-white crowd, most of whom (especially the children) comment loudly, insultingly and uninhibitedly on Remi’s appearance. The hand-knit swimsuit (in khaki and white wool left over from the war that her Aunt made for her to save her wealthy father money) that Remi wears does nothing to alleviate her mortification and she nearly bites the head off a passer-by who, meaning to be kind, pats her on the head and addresses her as a boy despite the earrings in her ears. Longingly, Remi remembers “the pink-painted house on Bamgbose Street” that “would be shimmering now in the afternoon heat, and inside it would be warm and dark” with Grandma “stationed in her rocking chair in the corner of the sitting room” (109).

Back at school, Remi decides to play a camouflaged role and no longer to rise to the challenge of the regularly recurring denigratory remarks about Africa and Africans made in her presence, deliberately or inadvertently insulting her. But her resolve cracks when Miss Valentine, discovering Remi to have been inattentive during one of her mathematics lessons, declares the problem which the girl could not solve merely because she’d been daydreaming to be a “perfectly simple” one which “even an African savage could have solved” (127). When Remi loudly objects to this by saying no more than “Africans are not savages, Miss Valentine” (if probably and understandably in a disrespectful tone), Miss Valentine is so furious at this response that she grabs the girl by the arm and marches her out of the classroom, out of the school building and down the drive, leaving her “outside on the road” after declaring her “not fit” to be in the school (127). Eventually the mild-mannered Miss Bowles, the headmistress of Chilcott Manor School, comes out to fetch Remi, telling her that Miss Valentine apologises for putting her outside. “Something in her had snapped,” but in punishment for her “insubordination” Remi has lost her place in the forthcoming netball match, in which she would have starred (127).

Not long afterwards, Remi is called to the headmistress (immediately worried that another serious transgression is involved), only to be told that she has visitors: “Your father has come to see you,” Miss Bowles tells her as she ushers her into the presence of two tall and (as Remi now notices) very dark-skinned gentlemen, neither of whom she recognises. So she asks, very politely,”How do you do, which one of you is my father?” (130). Of course this is hilarious, and no more than her father deserves after the four or five years that Remi has been cut off from her family, but it is also both shocking and sad; evidence of the extent to which Remi, who can still clearly picture her mother (who had wept at the announcement of her departure without being able to do anything about it) has always been kept at an emotional distance by her father. For now, he insists indignantly that she kiss him and tells Remi that the man with him is her Uncle Yomi. Grandly, Remi presides over the tea table and serves tea to her father and uncle. She is informed that her mother, brother and the three younger sisters whom she has never met because they were born after she had been sent away, are all in England and eager to see her. Remi recalls how socially awkward she had been when she had first arrived, a terrified six-year-old on a freezing, dark night, in the same room where they are now sitting, when her uncle says that her “transformation has been too complete”. Her father concurs, but Remi thinks, privately, that “they would never know what it had cost me” (131).

During their UK visit (made, it appears, inter alia to enrol Remi’s brother Tumi in a school here and Remi and the eldest of her three younger sisters in Dove House School, supposedly a more suitable, academic-minded establishment than Chilcott Manor) it becomes clear that Remi’s mother struggles to cope domestically without the servants to which she is used. Her father is no help whatsoever, being entirely lacking in practical skills. Now a High Court Judge like Remi’s maternal grandfather, he for his part is used to having even his phone calls dialled for him. There are a few comic passages that involve unexpected and often unsuitable visitors showing up at their home because, urged by his children to find out how “ordinary” Britons live, he has joined a Bingo Club. Yet he also becomes known as “his Lordship” among locals because of his unselfconsciously imperious manner. Ensuing school holidays, during which the three siblings are often “farmed out” together to oddly chosen British families (frequently former missionaries whose acquaintance he has made) by their father, who has returned to Nigeria with the rest of the family, provide amusement and maddening irritation and boredom in about equal proportions to the Yoruba children. With one family they are promised a “fun-filled” church sermon, but it does despite their ironic response prove to be enjoyable because the congregation includes a crowd of joyous and beautifully, brightly dressed West Indian worshippers whose presence and whose beautiful, loud singing (as well as swaying and dancing) completely transform what had been a drab environment. Nevertheless, even these ladies will have none of being told (by Remi) that “Jamaica must be just like Africa”; one responds “haughtily” with the remark that “The West Indies is not like Africa at all, [since] just like England in Jamaica” (150). Poor Remi leaves them, “hurt and disappointed”; even long-time diasporic Africans in England want no truck with her culture, it seems. “The music and the clapping and the dancing [by the Jamaican women] had awoken fierce memories of the rhythms of home”, Remi tells us. When the sisters are invited to join the family with whom they are holiday boarders at their daughter’s engagement party, they find that what is here referred to as dancing (waltz and quickstep) refers to movements quite unrelated to the music; while the older guests “sat stiffly in their chairs watching the dancing” (151), no doubt keeping an eye out for indecorous movements that would disturb this sedate group. They go to one other party, held by a rich aunt of the engaged couple, and here, at least, fun is to be had and the dancing is unrestrained, if fuelled by copious amounts of champagne.

About the final misadventure described as characterising Remi’s school years occurs during an exchange visit to a small German town, Hessig-Neustadt, which has “twinned” with Worcester, the town in which their school is located. In the foreign city, Remi is quartered with the local leading industrialist and his family, since it is known that her father is a man of high status. Most members of this family speak no English and Remi (whose French is fluent) speaks no German, so much use is made of the English-German dictionary. Nevertheless, Remi is declared beautiful by the ancient, resident granny, and the family (particularly the huge, powerful father and his mid-twenties student nephew) treat her kindly. It comes as a shock, then, when Remi receives a not too ambiguous night visit from the father, who tickles her toes under the covers and feeds her chocolate! The real nightmares, for Remi, are the gatherings where the German and English school pupils mingle and socialise, the German school being co-educational. Whether at the swimming pool or on the dance floor, as on the day of her arrival, Remi is nothing but a freak show to the local youngsters. This unremitting humiliation makes it a relief to be back at school with her best friend (at Dove House), Phoebe, who is surprised that the Germans did not see Remi as being as English as herself (as she and her mother and other school friends think of her by now). Then comes their A-level year, and these two as always team up: the cleverest and most articulate girls of their year group, but with no attraction for the boys, it seems. At least they fulfil the role of eloquent love letter writers for their more popular and supposedly prettier school friends, but at the school dance it is the same old story of not having partners, or having some foisted on them, in would-be charitable acts.
Although she is a star pupil, especially in English, outperforming even the brainy Phoebe, Remi to her shock in their introduction to the canonical texts they will be studying, hears their English teacher Mr Lawson (who knows exactly how well she did in his subject) say that as a class they “will have to make allowances for Remi, she will find it particularly difficult as she does not have the same cultural heritage” (170). Talking this through with Phoebe, Remi tells her friend (using the characters in their Shakespeare play for that year as references) that because of her schooling she was led to believe herself “one of you, Desdemona [… only as] an adult [… to] discover that [she is] in fact Othello” (173). At an interview for a university place which she thought had gone really well, Remi loses her temper (and her place) when at the end she is asked a question clearly based on racist assumptions about her (supposed lack of) abilities. Moping at home, her father (the family has for a time settled in the UK) briskly tells her to “buck up” and enrol for a part-time law course. Aunt Grace (whom Remi has notforgiven for abandoning her to the frigid British boarding school system at age six) comes to visit with her niece Ebun, who informs Remi that “Everyone is here [in London] [… meaning] all those boys we used to know, Akin Williams, Olu Thompson, Wole Grant [… as well as the girls:] Ayo Smith, Dele Hopkins, Alaba Jones” (181). At last, Remi is re-introduced to utterly congenial company and soon falls in love with Akin Williams.

He remembered me, he said, from Sisi Ebola’s wedding. In the photograph, he said, if I wanted to check, I was sitting in the middle of the front row and he was second from the end on the left. How could I resist? My mother asked me if he were like his father. She said his father was tall, and when he was young, slim; not handsome exactly, but he had a marvellously deep sexy voice. That was Akin, I said. Akin shared a flat with my cousin Ebun’s boyfriend Olu and two others, officially that is. In reality there were at least four others permanently resident, an equal number passing through, and then some. (182)

The reconstituted community of which this flat, Remi’s mother’s house or that of Derin McKenzie (another Lagos childhood friend of Remi’s) forms the hub, is by no means entirely Yoruba, Nigerian, or even African, since Indian and Persian young men and young women “from all over the globe” – Africa as well as South America, the Middle and Far East, “and every single country in between” (183) – make up this vibrant mix of youth, intelligence, enthusiasm and confidence. Moving about in a variously constituted group as they do, these young people are impervious to the condescension and sneers that might in isolation have hurt them, no longer “outsiders” trying desperately to “fit in” or even merely not to attract notice. Commenting on a Christmas party held at the residence of the Western High Commissioner, Remi says to Akin: “Everybody’s here,” and he concurs, adding: “And very soon we can all go home.” As the young women do their beautiful, sinuous dances in a group in the middle of the floor, the gorgeously dressed older women, sitting on chairs around the sides of the room, remark: “Is there a sight more beautiful […] than a Yoruba girl dancing?” (185), and these are the final words of the text.

The novel is funny, sad, lively, endearing, thought-provoking and incisively intelligent, like its narrator. Though she exists only in fiction, Remi is an unforgettable character whose humane and spirited nature recognises the ugly, unnecessary barriers that many non-African people continue to put up against Africans for ridiculous reasons, impoverishing their lives. It is a happy ending when Remi finds herself again, joyously celebrating among “her own kind”, but it is less happy if one recalls that it is one more example of the human tendency to exclude evoking a counter-exclusion when the possibilities of mutual cultural enrichment, that are shown in many instances in this text, are available all around us.

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