During the first lockdown period in March 2020, Keith Richards started writing the My Corona blog for The Chiswick Calendar – a mix of his observations from his daily constitutionals and the quiet enjoyment of his record collection. Since then he has continued to document the every day occurrences of this most peculiar time.
“Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Last week’s blog was on the theme of #proudofourkids and ‘local girl made good’ and this week’s is the same ……. But with a difference.
After all, what exactly is local in this modern world of connectability? At the moment I have friends just streets away from me who I only speak to on Zoom and less regularly than other friends scattered across the continents and separated by oceans. Social media and instant electronic communications have changed the meaning of ‘local’.
So, Umaimah Damakka is a visual development artist and animation designer from Kano in Northern Nigeria and falls under my definitions of #proudofourkids as well as ‘local girl made good’ and I am going to explain why.
Kano is an ancient walled city in the highly traditional and predominantly (but by no means exclusively) Muslim Northern Nigeria. Casual followers of western news sources might associate the modern city, with a current population of around five million, only with the ethnic and religious disturbances that are reported such as Boko Haram, kidnapping and the recent toppling of the Emir in a palace coup for daring to espouse the most moderate criticism of the Nigerian Muslim elite. Yet despite what you may read in the papers or see on CNN the vast majority of people live their lives concentrating on the same everyday basics as any Chiswick parent does: making an income to provide for the family, striving for some work life balance and worrying about their children’s future. It just looks different from afar.
Having first visited Kano back in the early ‘80’s, during my time in Nigeria I was a frequent visitor to the city’s huge markets: first selling soap and then, with Guinness (though less the stout, more the non-alcohol Malta drink). In my last job running a company with powdered milk, tea, coffee and food flavourings that region was an important market so I was a frequent visitor with the honour of calling upon the Emir to pay my respects and even to be ‘turbaned’ as a ‘Sarkin’ (chief) in neighbouring Daura.
As I moved towards retirement in about 2014 I was asked by a Kano based dairy business to sit on their board to advise on the commercialisation of their brands as they developed out of their family run farm. Their milk, ice cream and yoghourts are produced from the small herd they maintain as well as collections from local Fulani cooperatives. When I was first asked to join them by a friend of mine who was investing, Mezuo Nwuneli, I enquired about the founding Damakka family. When I was told that they voluntarily paid ten per cent more for milk if the family had a girl child at school I knew they had the values of people that I could work with. Since then Muhammadu (usually just known as ‘M D’) and his wives Zubaida and Rakiya have become both colleagues and friends. During my trips they would invite me into their home or to the family run restaurant where I would invariably meet their children. When my son George was in Nigeria he was invited up to spend time with them too. Family is everything.
Umaimah was already away at school when I got to know the Damakkas. I was impressed by the pride shown by M D in a daughter that was already taking a path for herself so far out of the norm for their society. Inspired by watching cartoons from Disney, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon and reading the Archie Comics supplied to her mum’s store she fell in love with art. In her words:
“It was inspiring to know that people were responsible for creating a whole fictional world that viewers could relate to and fall in love with, I wanted to be part of a team like that.”
At the same time, loving cartoons came with the awareness that many of the animated shows she watched did not reflect her kind of society and early on she saw a career as an artist who could reflect more of a life that was relevant to her and her background.
After school her parents were willing and able to support her career choice (when typically Nigerian parents would be discouraging their children to seek a life in the arts – pushing them toward law or medicine) and Umaimah was able to travel to Georgia USA where she studied and then graduated with a BA in Animation from Savannah College of Arts and Design.
While there her work was noticed by award-winning director and actor Jordan Peele, and it was featured in a Universal Studio Gallery show. In her final year, she co-directed and was the art director of her thesis film Harvest, which is currently achieving recognition at a number of film festivals. Since then, she has worked with studios like Cartoon Network, Sesame Studios, and Disney TV Animation and free-lanced for published authors under Harper Collins.
She is still in the United States, working as a Colour Designer with Disney on a reboot for the award-winning show The Proud Family. This means’ of course, that she has had to use Zoom to keep in touch with her family – spending her Covid time reading and cooking some of the Hausa food she misses.
When her father proudly mentioned her work in one of our L & Z Farm Zoom meetings and sent me some pictures I was inspired to share her story. I emailed Umaimah to ask her directly how she felt challenging what is seen as ‘proper’ behaviour as a young woman in her society. I will let her words speak themselves.
“Being Hausa and having some differing principles and values from those around you is not easy. It feels like you become the one person in your community that kind of goes out of what the norm is, and that can feel isolating.
It’s even harder when you’re a female child since society believes girls have no right to question the rules. However, I recognize that I am in a situation where this was easier for me because of my family; we are very loving and supportive towards each other despite our differences. This made it easier for me to study art in the US and pursue animation as a career.
“My upbringing reflects my art a lot, especially how my art looks right now. As an artist, your style and inspirations change. My parents were particular about self-love, including loving the culture you were brought up in and not throwing it away.
It made sense to me to put together my love for animation and my culture. A lot of my artworks are Fulani girls or local Fulani environments. I can’t remember seeing those subjects drawn in the style we see in animated films or shows…… I know it’s not the same for many girls in Kano. I can only hope that one day I’ll be able to give back to those girls and watch them grow out of the limits put on them.”
Here’s wishing her the best of luck with her aspirations as this blog’s ‘local girl made good’. #proudofourkids
Umaimah is making inroads into her career and is keen to expand her contacts. If you would like to see more of her work or reach out to her, her website is https://www.udamakka.com/about–resumeacute.html
I struggled to choose a piece of music to accompany today’s blog until I decided on the violin solo from Nicholai Rimsky-Korsakov’s ballet “Scheherazade”. Of course, the eponymous princess is the protagonist in the Persian “One thousand and One Nights”.
Umaimah is in her own way a story teller. Also, I have been fascinated by some of the history of pre-Islamic stories of what is now Northern Nigeria ever since at my turbanning the court historian of the Emir of Daura gave me an oral history lesson. I don’t have space to indulge myself here but several of the original peoples from that area were matrilineal societies and they had a history of strong women. Just maybe there is an echo of that in Umaimah’s determination. Anyway, here it is – and I thought this version with the cartoons was even more appropriate. Enjoy.
Read more blogs by Keith
Read the next in the series – Deja Vue all over again
Read the previous one – My Corona – Local Girl done good
See all Keith’s My Corona blogs here.
See more of Keith’s work on his website – outsiderinside.co.uk
Feel free to post any comments or suggestions there or by email to Keith@outsiderinside.co.uk
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