Before I’d even started my master’s, the graduation ceremony was on my mind. Starting a degree during the pandemic, there were many uncertainties, and with graduation ceremonies scheduled for the summer of 2020 postponed, I wasn’t sure I’d get to experience my own.
One thing I definitely knew was that, graduation ceremony or not, I would dress in traditional Nigerian attire to celebrate the completion of my degree. And this past Monday, that’s exactly what I wore as I crossed the Barbican Centre stage to collect my certificate.
Despite being born and raised in the UK, I’ve always had a deep affinity with my Nigerian heritage and culture. Whether it was my family’s annual summer holiday back home where I’d spend six weeks with all my relatives, or watching Nollywood films growing up, being Nigerian has always been a vital part of who I am.
One way I like to express my pride in my identity is through my choice of clothing. During many momentous occasions in my life I’ve chosen to wear traditional clothing, or “trad” as we like to call it. Eid celebrations see my family and I dressed in gowns made from the African wax fabric called ankara, which most Nigerian clothing is made from.
For my sixth-form leavers’ ball, I wore a western-style dress made from ankara as a way to stand out in the sea of ASOS and Topshop dresses that many of my peers donned for the occasion. Call me attention-seeking but I wanted something different and memorable, and wearing trad did just that.
For my undergraduate graduation, I told my whole family they had to dress in something made from ankara. So I had my parents and aunts in traditional outfits, while my sisters and I wore ankara dresses, jumpsuits and skirts, all to add a little flavour to the day.
Usually, a relative travelling to the UK will bring our outfits with them, and we’ll silently pray that the tailor back home has followed our measurements and the style we’ve chosen to perfection.
My master’s final project, which consisted of a 5,000-word article, involved me interviewing other young Black British Africans who were living across the continent, trying out life in the countries of their forefathers. As a journalist and writer, my identities greatly influence my work and what I choose to write about, so it was only apt that I celebrated the accomplishment of completing my degree in the way that I did.
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For Nigerians like myself living in the diaspora, wearing trad is just one way we get to connect with our culture and showcase the beauty of our identity. It’s a chance for us to represent our people and feel akin with those back home, despite the very obvious differences in our environments.
My trad dressing is also very specific to the Hausa ethnic group that I belong to in Nigeria, so much so that we were recognised by a hotel employee on my graduation day. She had studied Hausa as part of a module at university in South Korea. She recognised my dad’s outfit known as “babban riga” and began to greet my family and me in Hausa.
This distinct recognition is important to me due to the diversity of Nigeria – we are not as homogenous a population as some may think. We are a multi-ethnic society made of more than 250 ethnic groups, and each has its own cultural dress.
Living in the UK, where the intricacies of my Nigerian identity aren’t always recognised, means that opportunities to showcase my Hausa-ness are even more significant to me. Without my heritage, I wouldn’t be the person I am today – I wouldn’t have the insight into life that I have. By writing about and wearing symbols of my heritage, I am able to share it with the world.
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