As you’ll know if you read my blog; one of the ways I’m distracting myself from doing nothing at the moment is by learning about the arts.
The current topic is about what happened when European and African cultures met – specifically when the people of Benin met the Portuguese and then the British – the one’s what nicked all the art. As we are wont to do. For its own good, of course.
Aside from the “conservation” of highly sophisticated Benin Bronzes (pay them your respects at the British Museum – free entry!), adventurous colonials bought home fantastic tales of human sacrifice and visceral descriptions of streets awash with blood. At a time when tightly-corseted Victorian ladies (almost certainly toting fans, or, at the very least, dainty hankies) considered a public hanging Right and Proper for society’s wrong uns, they fair swooned with shock at the Beninese practice of “crucifying” people (who were also likely considered – by the Beninese at least – to be wrong uns of the worst kind). There’s a lot more to it than that of course – slavery and blood shed all around – but it’s an interesting facet of cultural prejudice: I’s ok is we do it, because we’re civilised people what cover our ankles.
Whatever one’s perspective, Benin City is, now as then, a pretty darned interesting place. And it’s in Nigeria. Which is how we segue into the thing about diversity.
In the office I have a friend who hails from the land of the Niger. So, as he passed my desk en route to seek out a fresh cup of tea, I beckoned him over. Doubtless (as an IT bod) he may have expected I was going to ask him how I’d managed to turn my screen sideways (again) and how could I get it back the right way, as my neck was beginning to feel a tad uncomfortable. It’s less likely, I imagine, that he was expecting “what can you tell me about Benin..?”
Well, as it transpires, he could tell me quite a lot – given that he lived there for two years. He told me how the City was to be avoided on feast days; literally On Pain of Death: “That’s the time when you see the Priests. We know not to go there.” And that one only has to travel 50 miles or so outside the City to be in a realm of traditional beliefs. A dangerous place for a modern Nigerian – full of Western cultural ideas. He explained how some Nigerians believe the Beninese (among other rural tribes) practice witchcraft and, indeed, human sacrifice. It seems those blood curdling stories are alive and well. This led us to ponder how we judge what is or isn’t morally correct, along with wondering whether Africans would have had any notion of “witchcraft” before Christian missionaries told them that’s what they were doing. An interesting conversation ensued about the importance of understanding different beliefs and perspectives.
I also discovered that he had a pet hen – lived to be 12 and died in a traffic accident (I don’t think she was driving) – and a beloved dog called Sally – who once escaped having her throat cut by less dog-friendly locals. It sounded as though Sally could have shared some tails of her own: “Incredible Journey?! Pff. Try being a dog on the streets of Nigeria mate.”
My friend never did get to make his cup of tea.
This leads me to consider how we talk about and promote diversity in the workplace, in schools and in our communities. I’ve attended training sessions and workshops about diversity. They usually focus on respecting our differences in terms of race, religion, sexuality, disability and all the other things that appear on forms – to ensure everyone’s being treated fairly; which is important. There are more proactive versions of such training too – with a greater focus on awareness and celebration – such as events put on as part of Black History Month.
However, my conversation with my friend today raises other exciting ways to learn about one another – by hearing stories about Horrible Histories *, by learning about folklore and beliefs we may never have encountered, by hearing about “what it was like for me growing up”. We sometimes hear such stories, but not enough, I feel. When I was listening to my friend, I found myself thinking “he should be talking to a school group.” With, perhaps, the talk followed by a role play; with some children being the royal family of Benin and others the British invaders – which might aid thinking about the judgements we make about people’s lives.
Sharing stories is as old as humanity. Stories help us to connect with one another and to understand one another as people, not Diversity Labels. People with things in common to nod in agreement about and differences that may be astounding, moving, compelling or even shocking.
Everyone in your workplace is full of stories and all stories are fun. Even if Mavis, the Director’s PA, grew up just down the road from you, I’ll bet she could tell you a thing or two about her life. And I’ll bet it’s more exciting than how to clear the photocopier of a paper jam.
* Horrible Histories – stories for children to help them engage with history. There’s usually plenty of death, gore and, quite often, a fair smattering of poo.