Enuma Okoro – “I was raised to approach the world with courage and curiosity”
I’m naturally intuitive but growing up in different cultural environments made me good at engaging different types of people and quickly finding points of mutual interest. Even with our differences, people have similar desires, worries, motivations, longings and regrets.
Enuma Okoro was raised in four countries on three continents. It is no surprise that her work focuses increasingly on issues of culture and identity. She is a Nigerian-American award-winning writer, public speaker and communications consultant. The author and editor of four books, her work has been featured on NPR, in The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, The US/UK Guardian, CNN, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post and Quartz Africa. She is also a culture columnist for The Guardian Nigeria. As a prolific speaker Enuma, has given over 55 public lectures and seminars and moderated at universities, organizations, corporate institutions, and conferences across Africa, the United States, Europe, and Australia. She recently had the honour of being the first black woman (and the second black person, the first was Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965) to speak from the 200 year-old pulpit at the historic American Church in Paris, France. Just over two years ago, she returned to Nigeria after a lifetime overseas. In this interview with CHIOMA MOMAH, she talks about her fascination with cultures and how people form a sense of identity, her belief that story is at the center of everything, and her passion and calling as a writer and communicator.
Tell us about yourself?
I’ve been in Nigeria for over two years now. For my formal education I studied Communications and Psychology. Then I went for a Master of Science program in Marriage and Family Therapy at Northwestern University in Chicago, before heading to Duke University for a Master of Theology. My only excuse is that I love to learn. I was accepted into the Master of Fine Arts program in fiction writing at Syracuse University two years ago. They accept six applicants a year. But I turned it down to try and establish deeper roots here in Nigeria where I work as a writer and communications consultant. So when I’m not working on a book or writing essays and articles, I’m probably writing someone’s speech, drafting and editing client documents or creating accessible and innovative content for an organization. As a speaker and moderator I travel quite a bit internationally. I just gave a lecture in Paris last week on the topic of cultural and national identity in a rapidly shifting global landscape. I love what I do because I am always learning something new. The public dialogue that comes from my writing or speaking is just another opportunity for me to encounter a new perspective. I’ve started to focus this work more at home in Nigeria. We’ll see how that goes.
You’ve written really well received books about spirituality, faith and culture. What inspired those topics?
I’ve always been fascinated with ideas of God, and how people make sense of the world and their lives. As a child I used to sit in the guest parlor of our house and just pour over Greek mythology in the encyclopedia. I was also raised in the Catholic Church, in awe of all the images, rituals and symbols that came with that tradition. But I am a big questioner in general! I rarely just accept things without investigation. So, the older I got the more important it became to me to try and make sense of all these things, and how I was going to shape my life around the contours of a belief system. Some of my earlier writings are attempts at that. But I am still learning. The spiritual life is a life long journey.
What about your growing up years? It must have been quite interesting growing up on different continents?
I was born in New York City and spent my early childhood years there. My family came back to Nigeria for two years when I was seven years old. After that we moved to Cote D’Ivoire, and eventually I went off to boarding school in Oxford, England before heading back to the States for college and then graduate school. While I was away my family moved to Tunisia. When I was younger I used to wish we would just stay in one country. But now I wouldn’t change my upbringing for the world. I learned from an early age to engage difference respectfully. I was raised with instructions to explore the world and to never be afraid of what was unfamiliar. My mother would always tell us, “The world is your oyster.” She would insist that we try new things because all that could happen was that either we fail or we find out we didn’t like it. That spirit of approaching the world with courage and curiosity really shaped my interests as a child and into adulthood. Reading, writing, travel and conversation became key ways that I learned about life and how I discovered that I wanted to be someone who could communicate effectively and powerfully about things I felt people needed to have public discourse over.
What did your experiences teach you about cultural intelligence?
I love that there’s even a name for it, cultural intelligence, this idea that some people have an uncanny ability to quickly read and interpret the appropriate “dos and don’ts” of a foreign context. Certainly, my experiences taught me that it’s best when you enter any new environment to be a keen observer before anything else. That’s how you learn and how you best assess your next steps, in any context really. I’m naturally intuitive but growing up in different cultural environments made me good at engaging different types of people and quickly finding points of mutual interest. Even with our differences, people have similar desires, worries, motivations, longings and regrets. With enough time you can always find a point of meaningful contact with someone.
One of the biggest problems in Nigeria is ethnicity, how have your life experiences (coming from a multi-cultural family as well as growing up as a black woman in the US) helped you in this regard?
I would actually rephrase the first part of that question. Ethnicity on its own is not a problem. But rather the problem is how we think about and engage people from ethnicities different from our own. To be honest, when I moved back to Nigeria, I had no idea there were tangible tensions between ethnic groups. But it only took me about a month to sense it. From the way I heard people from different ethnic groups talk about one another, it was quite revealing. And what’s funny is that when people first meet me, before they hear my name they often have difficulty placing me ethnically. In America the focus of difference is primarily on race (and class). But being here has really helped me explore more from a different angle around the themes of identity, belonging and nation building, all points of interest in my work. For good or bad, I wasn’t raised with any deep ethnic allegiances. My father was a proud Igbo man for sure but I don’t recall growing up hearing anything negative about people from other parts of Nigeria. On my mother’s side there is a lot of marriage across ethnic groups and faith traditions, so I’m used to seeing people from other ethnic groups as possible family members. Sadly, it’s only since returning to Nigeria that I’ve discovered that is not necessarily the norm. Yet our diversity of cultures and traditions is what makes Nigeria so rich. I wrote about that once for my Guardian column over an Eid holiday. I’ve started in small ways to try to learn more about the cultural and religious traditions of people from different parts of Nigeria.
In 2014 you delivered the TEDx talk in London on “How Cultural Collisions Crack Open New Sides of Our Own Stories.” You specifically framed that talk through the lens of how we view women from different cultures. Why?
Several years ago, I was at an art exhibit and I read a quote attributed to the Kenyan artist, Wangechi Mutu, that deeply resonated with me and has remained in my consciousness all these years as I write and work. She said, “Females carry the marks, languages, and nuances of their culture more than the male. Anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body.” I understood this to mean among many things, that in many ways, women are bearers of meaning. So the stories women tell with and through their bodies, and the stories we tell about women with and through their bodies can shape entire cultures over time, in positive and negative ways. I also just happen to think that “story” is at the center of everything. Most aspects and tenets of our lives are built around the stories we hear, the ones we believe or reject, the ones we learn to tell others and tell ourselves. Even the news we listen to is somebody’s version of a particular story. That’s one reason why we all have our preferred news sources.
What informs your sense of style?
Two words: comfort and timelessness. I love classic pieces and I never buy clothes that are difficult to put on or that force me to sit awkwardly in them, no matter how nice they might look. I’m pretty simple actually. I love linen. I love dresses. I own several pairs of black ankle length cigarette pants, and lots of scarves. As far as a style icon, I love Audrey Hepburn. But anyone who knows me knows I’m attracted to bright colors like a moth to a flame.
You are a very busy woman, how do you refresh and relax?
I’m an extrovert with many introvert tendencies. I need quiet spaces to recharge. A friend in college once told me that I was one of the few people she knew that made dates with myself. I read. I talk long walks. I gaze at artwork. I do love to dance, so that refreshes me. I also have a secret passion for interior design. So looking at colours, fabrics, textures, layouts and home furnishings is a weird way I relax.
What’s your hope and plan for next steps professionally?
Well, I’m still writing for different media channels and taking on new consulting projects. I’m also working on my first novel. It’s about the intricate webs of relationships among three generations of women in the same family. I’m fascinated by how other women see the world and how we relate to one another. I still learn so much on this topic as I toss about between countries and cultures. But I’m hoping that Nigeria can remain home for a while.