WHEN THE US MISSION BROUGHT 'EVERYDAY AMERICANS' TO NIGERIA
The heavy percussion it started with was African; it could have been beaten in an African village, by Africans. But it was the sound that introduced the viewer to a small US town, Shelbyville in Tennessee, southern part of the United States of America. 'Welcome to Shelbyville', that was the film's title. Yes, anyone was welcome, but no one from Somalia, please. And definitely, no one who was a Muslim. That was at the onset though. First, the Director of the film, Kim Snyder, had her own introduction to make. The intention of the programme is to make independent documentary films that provoke people to share energy on issues that have wide impacts, she said. And the film is about people – how they think about their country, how they cohabit in a small place with different kind of people and different kinds of religion.
The film, shot just before the presidential election of November 4, started out on November 3, 2008, extended to the Inauguration day of January 20, 2009, and then beyond. There was a whole range of emotion captured in this period based on the landmark events that caught the world's attention, and also cut across the United States. First, the worry of the day before the election was that Somalis were arriving town. Eight hundred of them were in Shelbyville alone. That was not the only problem; they were Muslims. People remembered 9/11 attack, and they fretted about being killed. They talked about jobs being taken from them, some of the Somalis, such as Hawo Siyad, a nurse back in Somalia, were already recruited at Tyson, large scale chicken suppliers.
But the problem didn't start with the Somalis. It had been before the Somalis arrived. It was first between whites and blacks. Then came the Mexicans. The struggle was the same when the Somalis arrived, but everyone worried more because the government had shouted 'terrorists' for so long in its war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But this was not the rabidly racist 1950s and 60s when anyone could go out and begin to bash heads on the basis of colour. The law offers protection now, so there was not much anyone could do about the latest arrivals, except to complain. Yet the attacks were vicious, and accusations came from both sides.
Americans say they could hardly talk to any of the Somalis, few of whom could speak a word of English. The Somalis say the same; they talk of walking down streets and people staring at the hijabs on a woman or rawani of an Imam; and their friendly 'hello' often went unanswered. There was outrage on one side, their was hurt on the other. One side had its local newspaper leading the attack on foreigners whom some claimed are from a stone age. The picture of war ravaged people on CNN didn't help matter. How could people come from such setting to come and live in Shelbyville, or America, was the question on many lips.
The Somalis were doing what they could to survive though. Their kids were in classrooms. Adults too attend Lucy's classes to learn English. This teacher took time to encourage her students to see the positive rather than the negative in people, and to try harder to bring the other side to their side. But it was a tough task. Lucy decided to help out. Miguel was her collaborator in the project. They called it 'Welcome to Shelbyville.' Miguel, very emotional, talked of the time he arrived from Mexico years back, penniless. He talked of the changes that had happened to him. He had made it, unlike many from his former country who remained at the bottom of the ladder. He had suffered much, but he came through, but ironically, many of the people who suffered the same thing treatment he did had also got the send-Somalis-away from our town flu. Miguel reasoned that helping the new people to settle and make them feel welcome was a way out.
"The Somalis aren't going to pack and go." But over all of this, there was the tension of November 3 about the election of November 4. What would be the effect on the immigrant problems of if Obama won? Would America produce its first black man in the White House? It did, on November 4. Jubilation was in the air. It was as strange an occurrence as a Somali becoming the president of the United States of America. African Americans in Shelbyville rejoiced, and so did the Somalis. On the Inauguration Day of January 20, Miguel and his wife watched the proceedings on TV. When Americans present at the venue of the inauguration stood up to sing the American national anthem, they too did - in their living room. Everyone loved the first African-American president of the United States. It was a touching moment; and it got everyone present in the Cyprian Ekwensi Cultural Centre where the film was shown releasing a subdued 'haa'.
But the problem and tension in Shelbyville did not disappear the day after Obama sat in Oval Office. It was good Lucy and Miguel, joined by others, took steps to find solutions. They showed up at Siyad 's place. They sat around and waited for the reporter from Times Gazette. The 'Welcome to Shelbyville' team had invited him, it was with the thought that if he got to know that the likes of Siyad were good folks, the negative things he wrote would change. There was shocked silence when Siyads' husband said they knew him, that they had been reading his reports, that they had a collection of Times Gazette. He had a note of apology. "We didn't have any Somali, we didn't know any who could speak English that we could talk to," the reporter admitted. It was a reconciliation meeting. Husband and wife were invited to parties and other social events. The reporter's reports became more positive, the image of Somalis as non-humans began to change. But that was one family, the huge population had to be touched. Yet this thing has a way of spreading, though gradually. There is always a staring point.
There was something about a town where people had problems and they objectively sat down to talk about it. The fact that shepherds in churches saw opportunity to help others as the head of the church, Christ, enjoined them also helped. Positive messages about the humanity of every human first, before they are Christians or Muslims, coming from the altar could be potent. It helped Lucy and Miguel's cause. There are lessons in all of this for Nigerians who were in the audience on that occasion; one of the reasons, Robin Sanders, the U.S Ambassador to Nigeria, said she was happy to have it premiered in Nigeria. And she has a point. In a country where there is so much polarization on the basis of religion and ethnicity, a thing such as everyday Americans in Shelbyville did, has significant messages to heed. For wherever the humanity of man, his need to eke a living wherever he finds himself, is forgotten, the outcome can only be religious and ethnic violence such as the one witnessed across the country. Snyder's film was a documentary, but it had all the ingredients of a successful film. There was a plot, there were the characters who were almost actors – showing all the range of emotion as occasioned by the circumstances of their daily lives - and there were problems, just as there were solutions proffered to resolve them.
Present at the event that ran as smoothly and as professionally as expected was Ms Victoria Sloan, the Embassy's Cultural Affairs Officer, who played the role of the Master of Ceremony as well as Mallam Sani Mohammed, the Embassy's Cultural Affairs Specialist.
Ajibade, a Consultant Writer, lives in Abuja.