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Svend Juncker: Turmoil, drama of tracing ancestral roots (1)

By  CHARLES KUMOLU

In this gripping report, Svend Juncker, son of a Danish woman and a black man, who grew up in Denmark not knowing his roots, discusses how his curiosity about his race and identity inspired him to search for his roots. It was an emotional journey that began in Copenhagen with a stopover in Austria (where he found his dad) and eventually ending in Nigeria with his arrival last week. Juncker, a prince of the Owu kingdom, tells his story in a manner that will promote a world without racial boundaries.

Ekabo, (Yoruba word for welcome) this writer added at the conclusion of an initial exchange of pleasantries with his interviewee. But the person’s  difficulties  in pronouncing the word in return revealed an accent that sounded French but wasn’t.

“Ikabo” he confidently retorted, while asking if it was a French phrase. A quick response   from Princess Tenidade Aofiyebi,   explained that it meant welcome in Yoruba language.  She didn’t stop at just telling him the meaning but elucidated the nuances of that particular word. ”\Ekabo signifies that an elderly person is being greeted, while kabo is for younger people, ” Aofiyebi added.Within those fleeting moments, he  learned that the Yoruba have appropriate salutations for every occasion.Princes Aofiyebi’s explanations included a little of the syllable structures of Yoruba language, as she spelled a word, explaining why there is a diacritic mark underneath the letter O in the word.

Svend Juncker

 

Emotional chaos

He assimilated the information with an expression reflective of someone interested in further details about the Yoruba race.As he intermittently sipped from a glass of red wine, more questions about Nigeria and Nigerians came from him, revealing a man of refreshing candour.Had this scene taken place at a place like Badagry, the man in the picture would be mistaken for a tourist on a visit to historical slave trade routes.His accent, colour, dark blue Yoruba cap, fila, which he wore on  a black shirt, shorts and sneakers, combined to create such an impression. However, Svend Juncker is not a tourist neither is he visiting Nigeria as an expatriate.Juncker, whose mother is Danish, is in Nigeria for the first time, after tracing his roots in a striking process characterised by emotional chaos and triumph.

I’ve found someone to shower with – Biodun Okeowo

He is a Dane but the blood that runs in  his veins is Yoruba. His blood is not just Yoruba but of the Gbogboade royal family in Owu, Abeokuta, Ogun State. Juncker was fathered by the late Prince Tiwalade Gbogboade, who was the son of the late Olowu of Owu, Oba Adelani Gbogboade.His story is replete  race, contradictions and values that can influence anyone not minding if the person is black or Caucasian.  The narrative persuasively presents the picture of what belonging to two different worlds means and Juncker’s reconciliation of such heritage.As he  narrates it with frankness, you can’t help but feel the concerns of a product of  inter-racial marriage emotionally disturbed by his identity.

The emotional conflict inspired an odyssey of self-discovery which culminated in his arrival in Lagos last week, where his first encounter with Nigerians at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport confirmed some negatives he had read about the country. “When I landed, after security agents  searched my belongings, they asked if I had anything for them. I didn’t understand what they meant immediately but when I did, I recalled that I had $20 in my pocket. I nearly gave it to them, but had to bring out a packet of sweets and gave to them which they collected with mixed feelings,” he said.

 

Altered states, ordinary miracle

The incident is reminiscent of a scene in Richard Dowden’s Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracle, where he said:” It is ironic that most people’s first experience of Nigeria is the Murtala Mohammed International Airport , Lagos, named after the only ruler of Nigeria, revered by almost all Nigerians. Murtala came to power in 1975 in a coup committed to order and efficiency. The airport named after him became an embodiment of disorder and dishonesty. Visitors vie with each other to recall their most bizarre and alarming experiences there.”

Notwithstanding, Juncker took his experience with smiles as he left for the warm embrace of his relative, who he had never met. “I didn’t find it surprising, because I had read about Nigeria, ” he said.  ”But I lectured you about what it is like at the airport,” Aofiyebi, his sister, who he had just met for the first time shortly before this writer arrived, quipped.”Yes, but I was not worried. I just felt at home,” Juncker said.Indeed, visiting the land of his forebearers was satisfying  as Juncker went down memory lane narrating how not being satisfied looking different in his Danish home, spurred him into the search for his ancestry.

 

My father and my origin

Reflecting, he said: “My father and my origin were issues I couldn’t just talk about as a child. All through my upbringing, my father was a subject I couldn’t just talk about until I was 18. I felt comfortable unllike other children  because  looking into the mirror, I realised I don’t look like other children. Though  I knew I was different, it was just like a taboo talking about it. I was a little bit confused but I was  just like a unique or  special child. There was never a question of where I came from because, in Denmark, there are things we don’t talk about out of respect or decorum. We all know those things exist but we don’t talk about them.

 

Questions about my father

“I did ask my mother about my father but she was not very good at talking about feelings. I am sure she was very hurt, because she was 18 at the time she met my father in London. My father was much older at the time. She is 76 now. She was very brave to have me. There were talks about having an abortion when my mother was pregnant but she refused, because she loved my father.  It was a manifestation  of uncommon  bravery, because having a coloured child in the ’60s in Denmark could ostracise a woman. I was not quite  brave  in my teens, because the feelings I could not understand  tormented me. It was not like I was not wanted, everybody in my family love me but not knowing my roots  hurt. That was the feeling while I was growing up, because I was confused.  I didn’t know who I was.

 

Coloured child in the family

”I was curious about  who I am and luckily my mother  kept  letters my father wrote her. There were some that were sent from Lagos. My mother told me a lot of stories but when I turned 18 was when my mother gave me the letters. My father met my mother, an 18-year-old Danish girl in London.  My mother was studying at the time.  They had an affair and she got pregnant. I don’t think she knew she was pregnant when she went back to Copenhagen in late 1961 but  eventually she  did  and told my father who came to Copenhagen to study so that he could  be with her. It didn’t work out well.  My father left for London when I was three months old. I grew up basically with my mother. For the first eight years, she was a single parent and it was a problem in Copenhagen at that time because it was like a taboo. She met another man when I was eight and they got married. They had children and I was the only coloured child in the family. I just knew I was different and lived with it until I was 18 and found my own place.

Letters from my father

“My dad was  a subject we didn’t discuss in my home maybe  to make me feel  like everyone else in the family but  I couldn’t fathom why  I don’t look like anyone in the family.

*To be concluded next week.


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