In conversation with Minna Salami: On feminism and ancestry

Cultivating the space to contribute to heritage draws attention to the importance of engaging with ancestry and culture from a critical angle where we can place ourselves in a position to ask questions and explore different perspectives. It is a process that embraces an openness towards tradition and highlights the role that each of us can play in fostering positive change in society. Minna Salami is a Nigerian-Finnish and Swedish author, speaker and social critic, as well as the founder of the blog, Ms Afropolitan, a space dedicated to engaging with contemporary culture from an Africa and feminist centred perspective. Her upcoming book, Sensuous Knowledge: A Radical Black Feminist Approach for Everyone, due in Spring 2020 explores universal topics such as beauty, power, gender, globalisation, science and sexuality from a black feminist and Africa-centred perspective. Our conversation touched on themes in relation to ancestry, the female presence in heritage, as well as engaging with the wider human experience.

Has your engagement with ancestry been a process where you have always had the tools available for you to easily connect to it?

I was not directly exposed to ancestry. I grew up in Lagos in a typical Yoruba family home of the time, where my grandmother lived with us for a longtime as well as two of my aunts and their children, there was always extended family around. I would say that particularly with my grandmother and her lifestyle, that gave me a window to my ancestry at the very least. She was a herbalist as well as a market women. I found that there was something very intriguing about the presence of that kind of feminine knowledge system and tradition despite the setting otherwise in Lagos being very westernised and patriarchal. I was quite patriotic as a child and had a fascination with a lot of the indigenous cultural elements like the Egungun festival. I used to go out for walks and anytime that I would see something of that nature I would gravitate towards it and be quite curious. Growing up, my cousins and I were sent to Ibadan occasionally,  now in retrospect I am actually quite glad that my parents sent me as I got a lot of insight to a typical Yoruba life before Nigeria was colonised.

In your interview on the Badass women hour podcast, it featured a discussion on what it means to be free? You mentioned the importance of “cultivating a mind that cannot be manipulated” which made me think about the importance of the subjective experience and discernment. Can you describe the ways that you have applied this to your engagement with your heritage? 

‘ I see it as my lifeline. Just because something is part of my heritage or my ancestry, that does not mean that I will automatically accept it as true or empowering. Maybe being of mixed ancestry helps with that a little bit – it is much more clear to me with my Finnish ancestry that I need to be discerning with the past. I think that because we have been invaded in Yorubaland and all of Africa, there is a tendency to not be as discerning automatically. For me the question is always about beauty and truth, can this make my life more beautiful, honest and powerful? Can it add something that is true and, therefore beautiful to our collective endeavour? We have a lot of troubling elements to our heritage such as intra-tribal slavery, patriarchy etc. It is very important to have the kind of mindset that what we are doing is not just unearthing elements of the past to restore it’s position, but instead beautifying our culture, which is an ever-evolving process. By being critically aware, where criticism is due, I think that honours a culture much more than when you just dotingly accept everything about it. There is a lot of love in having a critical outlook. But then at the same time, I do continue to discover in my research just how many beautiful and true things that we already have in our legacy. There are things that we our struggling to understand now, which our ancestors already understood many centuries ago. I see myself having a relationship with my heritage and ancestry. It is not something that is static and that I absorb alone, it is also something that I constantly re-evaluate.

On my blog, my writing has evolved in the last four or five years to look at mysticism and spirituality whilst also engaging in black and radical feminism. Part of that journey was because I have been doing a lot of research through reading and visiting sites in Yorubaland of Ifa and Orisha. I have always thought of them as deities, in the past year or so I started to re-evaluate my relationship with the Orishas and think of them as actual people. This is influenced very much by Sophie Oluwole’s work, she has written about how it is a sloppy translation to refer to the Orishas as Gods/Goddesses or deities, it is more accurate to think of them as saints, similar to the Christian context. Reading her book, I started to think about the Orisha that I have been quite fascinated by, Oya, and I have written about the concept of Oyalogy in the past. Since reading Oluwole’s work I became interested in viewing Oya as an actual historical figure, which has had a very big impact on me, particularly in terms of my African feminism. One of the things that you are constantly being told is that feminism is not an African concept or that it is for westerners. The first feeling that you get is irritation, but also hurt because you cannot really prove what you know to be true. You know that you come from a lineage which has motivated you to this way of thinking and existing. Re-evaluating Oya has strengthened my understanding of the African feminist lineage. I believe a woman who was referred to as Oya quite possibly existed, and thus would be one of the key figures in the history of African feminism.

In a previous blog post on African spirituality, you reference the heavy presence of western-influenced binary-gendering of the spiritual system in the context of Yoruba cosmology –  In what ways do you see this having an impact on the ways in which we engage with our ancestry and culture?

It is not only a western thing, we have binary-gendering in the mythological realm as well as in kingdoms throughout African history. For example, in the history of Yorubaland a woman attained the title of Ooni of Ife, which is the highest spiritual bearer of the Yorubas. After her reign, it was decided that there would be no more women. You would need to be categorizing people according to their biological selves in order to come up with those kinds of actions. I think that there is a flaw already in assuming that what we regard as western-influenced gender-binary is not part of wider human history. There is a lot of material, whether Chinese, Australian, Indian or strictly European that draws attention to this – all knowledge that is useful is good to have to hand. On the other hand, I think that there is enough evidence to suggest that there was a fluidity about the categories of men and women that existed in the context of African history, which we are not accustomed to in the west. I think that there is an urgency to find a language, speaking in our western context and tongue, to think about the fluidity and malleability of gender. The issues arise not out of the binary structure in itself, but out of the rigidity of the binary structure. I believe that there is a lot that we can learn about fluidity and malleability of tradition in African past.

When assessing ways to facilitate an engagement with tradition that is not always mired in the patriarchal gaze do you perceive fluidity as an important element?

I think that fluidity is useful, but it is not the most important element when it comes to facilitating an understanding of culture and ancestry in a non-patriarchal way. I think what is most important is a philosophical engagement. For example, what I say to people in Nigeria that tell me that ‘feminism is not appropriate to our society’, is that what we are talking about is ethical. Is it moral that a person, because of their female biology, should see themselves as subsumed to another person, because of their male biology? Can we just talk about that from an ethical point of view? Then we can include our ancestral knowledge systems, myths, fables and other elements to assess that. At the centre of that transformation I think that it is important that people realise that it is not merely ideological or the culture in itself – it is about how should a society become to be ethical and safe in order to allow for its citizens to thrive? How do we do that? I believe the tools to answer such questions are largely philosophical ones.

In the past you have referenced Ancient Kemet as a society which had social values that were somewhat matriarchal but still elitist– Can you highlight other examples from African history drawing attention to a matriarchal presence in society?

I think that there is an element of female power expressed in almost all African cultures and ethnic groups. I think that across the continent, within the indigenous cultures, there is a lot of respect for women, which we cannot say about western tradition. However, the thing that is important to note is that respect and equality are not the same thing at all. You can have respect for someone and still feel that they should not have the same rights as you – I think Ancient Kemet, as a starting point, shows this as women were respected but not equal. That respect for women can be so high sometimes, which I think links to the importance given to motherhood, that it gives women access to a certain kind of power, particularly when you think of future generations and its importance to identity. In terms of specific examples with matriarchal tendencies, the Akan and the Igbo come to mind as it was possible for women to become kings and inherit land. However, from my feminist point of view, I would not call these examples matriarchal.

In your speech for the Oxford Union debate on the presence of minority women in Feminist movements, you described yourself as an advocate for cosmopolitanism – what does this mean in practice for you?

It means that I am curious about what it means to be a citizen of the world and what it means to other people as well. There are people that might be Instagram influencers where they get to travel the world, stay in a hotel and snap a few pictures – that for me is not how I interpret cosmopolitanism. On the other hand, you might have someone that is fleeing their country and lives in a refugee camp, but that person has an innate curiosity about other cultures. They might be from Tunisia and meet someone from Peru and they have a genuine curiosity about their shared humanity. That is a feeling that I have always had which is why I say that I am a cosmopolitan even more precisely an Afropolitan, because I centre Africa in my life. I have a deep curiosity about our shared humanity and what that can do for us, to get on to this higher dimension that I want to live in where there is not so much a division based on race, gender, sexuality and religion etc. I think that the solution to that is not only in our shared humanity but also in the curiosity about our shared humanity.

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All images published with permission.

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