Written for Spoonfed. Originally published on 16th April 2012.
Naima Khan talks to playwright Bola Agbaje about her own issues with identity and her new play Belong at Royal Court.
When I arrive at Bola Agbaje’s offices in Stratford, it’s lunchtime and the reception area is teeming with people. I watch her wearing her usual smile as she introduces herself to a short woman in a headscarf before she realises that whoever she’s talking to is not me. Funnily enough, we’re here to talk about identity, a central feature of her new play, Belong, soon to run at Royal Court.
Starring Lucian Msmati and directed by Indhu Rubasingham, Belong, a co-production with Tiata Fahdzi, follows politician Kayode as he returns to Nigeria after an embarrassing election defeat in the UK. It’s in Nigeria that Kayode learns about the power games he needs to play to succeed, the perpetual ambivalence of identity construction and the elusive notion of home.
“Part of the reason I wrote this play,” begins Bola, “is because I’m battling with these things myself.” She is perhaps one of the most confident, enthusiastic emerging playwright in London at the moment but, she says, “it’s not just the question of where I belong, it’s also: what is another idea of home? Right now it feels like everything’s going wrong here. The Western world is imploding on itself while a lot of Africa is rising, people are achieving and there’s definitely a social shift.”
After an official return to democracy in 1999, Nigeria has been on the up. Its oil-driven economy has managed to average a healthy rate of 7.74% GDP growth over the last few years. Compare that with a 0.3% GDP growth rate in the UK for the same period. Since the economic crash in 2008, one of the biggest economies in Africa has experienced what the financial media types like to call “brain gain”. It means that after years, sometimes generations, away from their country of origin, Western-educated Nigerians are returning in their thousands.
It’s a boom that many Nigerians in the West are all too aware of. “Everyone’s waiting for Nigeria,” says Bola of her own experience with ‘repats’ or ‘returnees’. “They’re waiting for it to have this big explosion in creativity and economy but people are also trying to work out, who is the person to lead Nigeria as it rises? I don’t have those answers.”
Not bogged down with the fiscal details or the political predictions, Bola’s play looks at something more elusive and more universal. “I want to explore that notion of home,” she explains. “For second or third generation migrants, if you’re brought up with another culture at home, there is another world.” As if anticipating argument – perhaps from the likes of say, Lindsay Johns? – she emphasises the verb.
Part of the idea of belonging in this play, she continues, is understanding other people’s opinions of where you belong, regardless of how you feel about what they say. “I would say I’m Nigerian, but Nigerians in Nigeria might say, ‘well, you’re not really. You don’t know the way of life, you’re not as connected to it as you might feel you are.’ And here, as much as I say I’m British there will always be people who say ‘but where are your parents from? Where are you from originally?’ And I say the same thing to other people as well!”
Her protagonist Kayode experiences something similar. “As he gets more involved in the politics, he has to get more involved culturally. He can’t be that guy in the suit speaking English in the market, he has to wear their clothes and speak that language and even still he’s reminded that he’s British.”
Her point is: “You have to find the things that you’re most connected to and for me, a huge part of that is African culture. Everyone’s always trying to discover their own identity, but I’d be naïve to think I could just go to Nigeria now, start up a new life and assimilate seamlessly into that culture, because it’s so different to the one I’ve been in every day for so long.”
“There are different ways of looking at things,” she continues. “Take corruption for example, which is explored in the play. Corruption is usually accepted in Nigeria.” Along with poor infrastructure, it’s arguably the biggest obstacle to progress in Nigeria. “Although people are frustrated by it, part of dealing with that frustration is going along with it, saying ‘this is how we do things in this country, you have to do these things to exist in the system.’ But as outsiders, we might say, ‘no, you can’t accept it! You must want to change it.’”
Corruption exists here too, she notes, but it’s scandalous and sensationalist. “Take the MPs’ expenses, it’s a bit ambiguous. You have all these politicians who were exposed for being corrupt and they were shamed in the newspapers, but not all of them were punished for it. In one sense it means that over here, you have to be undercover about your corruption because if people find out, the country will be in uproar. In Nigeria it’s the opposite, people openly exploit their positions. Over here when something goes wrong, we can make a lot of noise but ultimately, we accept a lot of things we don’t approve of.”
As we get up to leave, Bola’s focus remains refreshingly clear : “My job as a playwright isn’t to have the answers. I’m not saying, let’s all go back to Africa and find home. I’m asking a question about the things that we do to find out where we belong.”