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18.05.2009 Author

A Very British Beauty Queen Born in Nigeria

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Let's pluck the plot of today's story, which is set in far way Britain, and plant it in our context: if we ever had a Miss Ghana called Ngozi Okechuku, what would Ghanaians make of her? She had been born in Nigeria, to Nigerian parents, who brought her to Ghana when she was two.

Or, let's say she was born in Bubuashie to a Ghanaian mother and a Nigerian father, Chief Olawale Okechuku. She has since then lived in Ghana and never left the country. She holds a Ghanaian passport and speaks two Ghanaian languages, in addition to Yuroba and English. Let's throw in French for good measure. She attended Morning Star and Labone Secondary School, and capped it with tertiary training in Finance and Administration at Mensa Otabil's Central University.

The Miss Ghana registration requirements had said that a contestant must be of a certain age, and must be Ghanaian. Ngozi does well to win the show. Her first runner up is another Nigerian-born Nkechi Aworojo Adepitan. Efua Gyaaba Dadzie, a Ghanaian through and through, only managed to clinch the second runner-up position. Then K.K.D, or one those fine gentlemen, proclaims to a packed audience at the National Theatre: Ladies and Gentlemen, receive Miss Ghana 2012, Miss Ngozi Okechuku. What would happen?

beauty Pageant
Something like this happened in the British county of York only recently. Miss Helen Lawal, a Briton of mixed Nigerian-British parentage, had won the Miss York beauty Pageant. She would be representing her county in the Miss England competition on July 20 this year. The first runner-up slot had gone to Laura Ehima, another Nigerian-born contestant, with 22 year old Beth Ridley coming third. Some Yorkers are not happy, and they go ahead to register their protest. A self-confessed racist with a typical York accent is reported to have sent threatening messages to event organiser Vivienne Lee: “These people should not be allowed in the country.” The caller thinks that a black beauty queen is not a true reflection of Yorkshire. The police are investigating the matter.

He is by now a saturated example but his case fits very well into the plot of our story. We remember that some Americans calling themselves Birthers took issue with Barack Obama's citizenship during and after the 2008 presidential elections. Three law suits were filed with the Supreme Court of America, seeking to disqualify the candidate. Obama's mixed race parentage had become a matter of interest, with the Birthers, a parallel to the Truthers, the 9/11 conspiracy theorists, claiming that the candidate had been born in Kenya but his birth certificate was forged to make Hawaii his birthplace.

Pundits and Political opponents had variously referred to Article Two of the US constitution, which states that the President must be a natural born citizen of the United States of America. Obama's campaign team immediately issued a certified copy of his Live Birth Certification, which confirmed that the candidate had been born in Honolulu in 1961. The Director of the Hawaiin Health Department also confirmed that the Department has records of Obama's birth certificate, “in accordance with state policies and procedures.” Still, the conspirators will not rest their case; they raised issues about his Indonesian connection, claiming that he had become a citizen of Indonesia when he lived there.

Finally, they settled on dual citizenship as a basis for his disqualification. But America was already decided: Opinion polls carried out in November 2008 showed that only 10% of Americans believed the eligibility conspiracies. The Supreme Court also dismissed the cases. The cases were not filed at the lower courts. That did not end it for the conspirators. Even after his swearing-in on January 20, having been confirmed by Congress on January 8, 2009, as President of the United States of America, some Americans still find Obama's biracial identity a bother.

That is how consuming issues of race can be. Helen Lawal's is not a very big case; it is the kind of thing you would hear on the streets of Britain everyday, if you listen carefully. That is not to say that Britain is generally racist; it is very much a multicultural country, where policies are continuously churned out to promote immigrant integration.

There are some black Britons who hold important positions at national and county levels. June Sarpong is no less a celebrity than Hugh Grant or Titanic's Kate Winslet. Well, not until there is something big at stake, where Britishness would then be defined to include certain variables that have always been considered inconsequential, like colour.

By the way, what does a British citizen look like? Vivienne Lee says that among the requirements for the Miss York competition is that the candidate must be a British Citizen. And how do you prove British Citizenship? It is only a little document called passport or a birth certificate. How difficult is it to get a British passport, anyway? You don't need to have been born in Britain; you could marry any British cocaine junkie walking the streets of London, and get your citizenship off her back.

marriage of convInience
It only takes couple of thousands of Pounds Sterling for a junkie to agree to a marriage of convenience. Some of them will do it for good sex, or even food. So, perhaps, a British passport is not enough to prove British Citizenship. In much the same way, Ghanaian passports have often been found in the breast pockets of Ivorians, Nigerians and even the Senegalese. They come with valid serial numbers, signatures and all required official stamps.

Let's look at the issues critically. Miss Helen Lawal is British, and that is all that matters. Like Barack Obama, her mum is white, a nurse. The father, Mustapha Lawal, is a surgeon in Nigeria. We are not interested in how the parents met. All we know is that internet dating was not popular 23 years ago.

Doctors and nurses do meet, and they often meet. Helen Lawal is a useful citizen who is studying medicine at the York Hull Medical School. She says she entered the Miss York race to prove that it is possible to combine brains and beauty, to shutter stereotypes about beauty contests. Her winning proved just that. She has lived in Britain all her life. Why would anybody doubt her Britishness? Perhaps, it would have been a more serious case if she had been charcoal black, like me. Well, a quadroon is as black as an octoroon, unless of course he is an albino.

Before the York race, Helen had won the Miss Black Britain competition. There isn't a Miss White Britain beauty competition. There are black TV channels but we don't have a white equivalent. There are newspapers that represent the black race and other ethnic minorities. The Voice and the African Voice newspapers in the UK may not have any white employees, but Baz Bamigboye, a Nigerian, writes for the Daily Mail, one of Britain's most important newspapers. Kwame Kwei Armah, (original name Ian Roberts) a playwright and actor of Caribbean descent, wrote a column for the Guardian. His play Elmina Kitchen was the first by a black playwright to have been staged in the West End, where very few blacks would see it, even for free. Instead, there are black theatre groups that play mostly to black audiences. Helen's victory in the Miss York competition may have made nonsense of these dividing lines, but it does leave behind a few unanswered questions. Is a Miss Black Britain competition necessary at all? If it is, then we must see the holder of the title as a Miss Britain who is as important as the popular Miss England.

To progress from a Miss Black Britain to a Miss York seems to suggest that being Miss Black Britain does not quite capture the essentials required in being a British beauty Queen. Helen had come to the Miss York competition as a beauty queen from a particular race. What about her fellow contestants who did not have the opportunity to contest in competitions organised in their race? Or, can we say that a Miss Black Britain should be able to contest in the Miss England competition without going through the contests organised at the county levels? Well, that will not work, because a Miss England competitor must represent a county. And Helen Lawal is chosen to represent York.

So who does she represent being a Miss Black Britain? We know what she represents: the most beautiful girl from the black ethnic group in Britain. If so, then she would be a good match for Miss Asia Britain, Miss White Britain and maybe Miss Mulatto Britain. Race is always a big issue in every multiracial setting. multiculturalism We only carry Christian charity too far when we assume that blacks and whites are the same people. That is not the wisdom behind multiculturalism. Multiculturalism means people could still assert their differences and share in the same things. That will also mean that they would have different approaches to the same thing, and that shouldn't cause any tensions. Blacks are different from whites only to the extent no two blacks are even the same. In many cases, you may have to be black to understand what it means to have been born in the Sahara. You can't imagine it. You must experience it. BBC video footage of malnourished children with shrivelled buttocks eating nothing from a bowl, only makes a pictorial statement about famine in Africa. When we borrow from World Bank statistics on hunger, we only tell the story to agree with the popular narrative. It is not the same. I am wondering: What is Yorkshire police going to investigate about the racist attacks on Miss Lawal? The racist caller may have succeeded in verbalising the forbidden thoughts of many Yorkers. Those are the intangibles we are talking about. I suffered lots of racial abuses when I lived in England. At the time, I looked quite like a rat, so when Scott Fox, a colleague at work, called me a black rat, I ignored it. I was urged to make a report, and maybe get some compensation but I decided to remain a rat. Ethnic minorities need not play the victim all the time, I have come to appreciate. It goes against the spirit of multiculturalism. Fox had grown with a few thoughts about what black represents. He may be like the four year old Asian boy who looked me intently in the eye and asked: “Uncle Ben, why are you black? I answered that my parents are black, so I had to be black. Almost immediately, he added: “Do you like it?” Why does he think there is something wrong with being black? Did he pick that from school? That is also intangible. fictional hypothesis We had started with a fictional hypothesis: What would we make of Miss Ghana Ngozi Okechuku? Soon, it would become an important part of a true story, because like Britain, we also live in a multiethnic country. Already, some Ghanaians are singing the same hymn with the York caller: “These people should not be allowed in the country.”

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