"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: My sojourn in a country within a country

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

My sojourn in a country within a country

I have decided to archive all my columns in Weekly Trust. The following is my first column, which appeared on November 25, 2005 under the name "Notes from Louisiana."

By Farooq A. Kperogi

As a tribute to the meteoric but richly deserved elevation of my good friend and former classmate, AbdulAzeez Abdulahi, to the position of acting editor of the Daily Trust, I have decided to start a new weekly column. But more than that, the Trust Newspapers have a special place in my life in more ways than one.

It was in Trust Newspapers that I’ve had my most productive professional experience after graduating from the university. The excellent tradition of journalism that I was exposed to at the Trust has continued to inform and nourish my professional judgments.

And the best part: it was also at the Trust that I met my wife! So the debts I owe to Trust are actually heavier than the owners of the paper probably realize, and it is inconceivable that I can ever sever my umbilical cords with the papers.

I have been in the United States since the beginning of this year pursuing graduate studies (that’s how Americans call postgraduate studies) in journalism and communication, and I want to deploy this column to chronicle my sojourn in this strange land and share with readers my experiential encounters as they occur.

This past one year has been an incredibly exciting experience for me. Although this is not the first time I’m visiting the United States, it’s the first time I’ve been away from Nigeria for this long.

While I deeply miss being with my wife and feel intensely guilty about leaving my lovely little girl when she was only a couple of months old, the robust intellectual and cultural exposure I get here daily compensate for the sense of emotional loss I feel for being temporarily away from my family.

Like the title of my column suggests, I live in the state of Louisiana—an oil-rich state in the Deep South of the United States that shares so many similarities with Nigeria.

Given what I now know, I couldn’t have hoped for a better state to live in the United States. Louisiana is a warm state—in both the literal and figurative sense of the word. It has very mild winters and hot and sticky summers. That makes the state closer to what I was used to in Nigeria than the northern parts the U.S. where winters can get so chilly that they can literally freeze one’s blood.

The people here are also unbelievably friendly, convivial and obliging. Everybody seems to smile here, even to total strangers. But charming smiles from an equally charming girl to people from different cultural experiences can sometimes send unintended cues.

(One of my Ghanaian friends here told me that when he first got here two years ago, he thought he was so good-looking that girls couldn’t resist him—until he realized that everybody smiled to everybody). The warmth and courteousness of the people here is so very inconsistent with the stereotype of America I had been led to nurse before coming here.

Another beauty of the state is the rich racial alchemy of its people. In spite—or because—of the vicious racial segregationist history of the state, there is robust intermarriage between blacks and whites in both the biological and cultural significations of the term.

If the Creoles (light-skinned descendants of European, mostly French, and ex African slaves, but who are nonetheless considered “Black” in U.S. racial categorizations) are the biological consequence of this alchemy, Voodoo—a strange but fascinating mixture of African traditional religions and Catholicism—is its definitive cultural artifact. Even the food, music and art of Louisiana have more than a casual convergence of African and European influences.

However, the people who enjoy numerical dominion in the state, especially in the southwestern part of the state where I live, are called the Cajuns (pronounced k-ei-j-u-n-s)—an English corruption of the French word Acadien, which is itself derived from Acadia (pronounced a-k-ei-d-i-a), the ancestral home of the Cajuns in Nova Scotia, a region in the French-speaking part of Canada.

The Cajuns were originally French settlers in Canada who were expelled from there between 1755 and 1763 for refusing to pledge allegiance to the British Crown. Most of them came to settle in what is today Louisiana.

The really intriguing thing about these people is their fastidious doggedness in preserving their cultural idiosyncrasies in America’s enormous multicultural cauldron, or melting pot, if you will.

A great proportion of the people still speak a variety of French, called Cajun French, which is actually a mishmash of Canadian and Parisian or metropolitan French.

Although there has lately been a noticeably progressive decline in the number of people who speak Cajun French, there have been concerted efforts to make the language appealing to the younger generation. To this end, Cajun areas of Louisiana often form partnership with Acadians in Canada who send French teachers to reteach the language in schools.

Similarly, the University of Louisiana, where I teach and pursue graduate studies, has an internationally renowned undergraduate and graduate program in Francophone Studies. The medium of instruction in the program is French.

When the Cajuns speak English, they speak it with a distinct accent that sets them apart from other Americans. Their words are relatively slurred together, and they can be extremely fast—and incomprehensible to a first-timer.

I have always had to tell my students to enunciate more clearly and speak more slowly than they are won to when I want to understand them. But after almost one year of learning and teaching here, I’ve almost become a Cajun myself.

Louisiana is a country within a country in many respects. It is not only that most of the people here are unlike most Americans by being mostly bilingual in Cajun French and English, they also have parallel systems of administration, and use nomenclatures that are markedly different from the rest of America.

For instance, while every state in the United States calls its local governments “counties,” Louisianans call theirs “parishes.” It is a celebration of the people’s Catholic identity. (Most of America, apart from Boston, is predominantly Protestant).

But while Louisiana and its are people are great, the state’s proneness to hurricanes can be disconcerting. This year was particularly bad for the state. It was hit by two devastating hurricanes, which were given such deceptively innocuous names like Katrina and Rita.

Even though the city where I live was not affected by any of the hurricanes because it is situated inland, the auxiliary effects of the hurricanes have been very disorienting for us. I had never seen more violent winds in my entire life before. I can only imagine what people who were in the eye of the storm went through.

A few days after the hurricane, I had occasion to travel to the state of Florida, which required me to go through parts of Louisiana that were directly hit by the hurricane, and to such other affected states as Alabama and Mississippi. The consequence of the fury of the winds was immense. Huge trees were uprooted and dumped on the road and whole towns were literally wiped off the map.

Long lines for fuel—reminiscent of what I was used to in Nigeria—surfaced. The people had never experienced that in their lives and thought that was the worst thing that could happen to a nation.

Predictably, every body on the fuel queue had a short fuse—literally. In Mississippi where we stopped to refill our car, somebody’s fuse blew. A guy attempted to jump the long line, but an angry and frustrated man jumped forward, grabbed the man and shut him on his head.

His skull was blown to smithereens. He died instantly. And everybody scampered away in terror. There were several such reports all over Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi in the immediate aftermath of the hurricanes.
When I think of the fact that Nigerians go through more severe fuel scarcity with perfect equanimity—or almost perfect equanimity—I can’t help concluding that we’re indeed a rare breed of humanity.
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