San Basilio de Palenque: A Little Africa in South America.
“Does your hair look like this?”
He asked through a sly and flirtatious smile that most Palenquero men wore without effort as we sat by the arroyo that circled around the small town.
My hair was in loosely curled twists that reached the small of my back. I reminisced about occasions when I take out my twists to wash my hair. The water doused my curls, causing them to shrink into wet tight black curls that settled at the nape of my neck. My curl-pattern would resemble the tight curls that shaped the boy’s mohawk.
“Yes,” I responded, my eyes entranced as the boy continued to pick out his afro.
It was my last morning in Palenque. After two days spent exploring the small town, my heart was filled with nostalgia for my birth country, Nigeria.
I first learned about the community of San Basilio de Palenque during the summer of July 2017. I had returned from Bolivia and was reeling from the prejudice that myself and people of Afro-descent often face in Latin American countries.
During this time, I came across a video from Brooklyn-based Colombian artist, Gabriel Garcia Montano. The video featured stunning images of radiant, joyful, and vivacious Black people and it breathed a new excitement in my heart for Latin America, specifically Colombia.
The video for Montano’s “Bombo Fabrika” was filmed in San Basilio de Palenque and featured, a group I would later identify as, Kombilesa Mí.
Bombo Fabrika starts out with a black screen with the words “San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia.” The next scene features Gabriel lying down on a grassy and hilly terrain one of his legs is bent with his knee facing up to the sky. During my visit to the town, I learned this terrain is where many a football match is held. Gabriel is staring at the dusk sky, contemplating something, as a few young men, with rich chocolate skin tones, run past his supine body toward trees in the distance.
The young men in the video are wearing tops with designs that are reminiscent of Western Africa. The cut and style of these tops reminded me of the traditional clothing worn by people from Nigeria, where I was born and lived for nine years.
After watching the video, I was hooked. I had to know about this town and these people that reminded me so much of home. I watched videos from the Kuchá Suto Collective on YouTube and watched so many Kombilesa Mí videos that I was converted into a certified fan. I ended up writing a research paper about Kuchá Suto for one of my master’s courses.
That random act of summer laziness brought me to June 13, 2018—my first day in Palenque. Being the in the town felt concurrently familiar and new. I walked to the town center and stared at the statue of Benkos Bioho, the town founder. I had Googled photos of this statue several times, seeing it in person felt like I was being reacquainted with an old friend.
On another hand, I felt this strangeness, this newness, as I gazed at Benkos Bioho through my own eyes as opposed to through the eyes of whichever photographer. The broken chains on his wrist conveyed more depth and significance than it ever could through a computer screen. I was overwhelmed with the emotion of what Benkos Bioho signified and his powerful legacy not only in San Basilio but in the Americas.
Palenqueros are the proudest Africans in South America. Anyone in the town can recount the rich story of San Basilio, from their founder’s Guinea Bissauan roots to how the town went from being simply called “Palenque” to “San Basilio de Palenque.
As a Nigerian, my roots were of obvious interest to the town’s residents who self-identify as African, more so than Colombia. I anticipated that my Nigerian background would be a topic of interest well before my trip to Palenque. I was excited to share stories of my country and compare and contrast traditions and culture.
All that anticipation combusted upon my arrival to the town. Everyone was excited by my being Nigerian, but no one cared to inquire about the history of my country, what it was like, or the complexities of my identity as a Nigerian, and since 2009, an American.
Most assumed that Africa was a larger Palenque. Very few seemed to care that Africa is a continent made up of diverse countries and peoples of Black, White, and Asian-descent. A Nigerian could not tell you everything about a Guinea Bissauan much like a Colombia could not tell you what life is like in Bolivia. Palenque is similar to some small villages in Nigeria, but it differs vastly from metropolises like Lagos or Abuja.
I often tried to explain that Nigeria has its complexities and, “yes, I speak English because it’s the national language and my parents came from two different tribes (out of the over 200 existing tribes in the country) and so they raised me and my siblings to speak English.”
Another reason for my, and most, parents’ choice is that Western education is highly valued in Nigeria, as well as in other African countries. The ability to speak “proper,” English is considered to be one of many factors for success.
Most Nigerians, while very proud of our country, seek to emulate some Western customs because it will lead to success. Members of the Nigerian upper-class do everything to ensure that their wives give birth in United States or Western European countries, most popular is the United Kingdom, so that their children can have access to Western education and future success.
I realized all of this information, the seeming “westernization” of Africa, would disappoint Palenqueros. Their beloved Africa and African brethren seemed to have taken the bait that colonization offered—"European is better.” Many were already upset that I could not speak “Nigerian,” (a non-existent language) and that English was my lengua materna (mother tongue).
I remember an elderly Palenquero man lectured me on how important it is not to forget one’s roots. I sensed his lecture came less from a place of friendly reminder but more from a place of his fear that I no longer wanted to be African—his idea of African.
I seldom had the opportunity to explain that although English was my lengua materna, I was still proud to be Nigerian. I impose the untested statistic that 99.9 percent of Nigerians, is Africa and the diaspora, are proud to be Nigerian. No matter where we go, what language we speak, or our tribal differences, Nigerians carry our country’s banner, along with all the good and bad that it connotes, with pride.
Despite these moments of lost translations and mutual misunderstanding, Palenque reignited my longing for my country. The town’s muddied paths reminded me of the small village my father grew up. I was transported to pastimes as a young girl visiting her grandmother, this time the red dirt of the earth had taken on a browner shade.
The herding of cattle through the San Basilio’s main street took me back to my childhood watching the Fulani shepherds herding their cattle through the once-developing neighborhood in Lagos where my father lived. The area has converted into a fully developed real estate hot commodity. How times have changed. As have I.
I left Nigeria in 2002, an Esan (my father’s tribe) girl. Since then my identity has become more complex. Sixteen years in America have converted me into a Black Nigerian-American woman, who (when I divulge on occasion) is from the Esan tribe. Before Palenque, I struggled with how time and circumstances changed and shaped my identity. After Palenque, I accepted the fact that I can no longer simply be the Esan girl, I am a Nigerian-American woman.
Enni Aigbomian (Eye-Bo-Mee-Ann) makes aweinspiring food analogies & writes about communication for social change among other things.