View from the Outside

My voice has always been the voice of the outsider. The African security specialist, who was not African. The British Royal Navy Reserve Officer who was born in the Caribbean. The lone woman running a company training special forces and policemen who had strong views about women and the kinds of companies they should be running. The counter-hegemonic, anti-colonial, university lecturer-based in a hegemon with a British passport. I always  seemed to be, not quite the norm, in my chosen profession. I stood out and standing out appeared to be my miserable destiny, when all I ever wanted was to fit in.  We all seek the cloak of invisibility. The welcome of acceptance. Being ordinary was a gift I felt I had been deprived of. Being like those around us means inclusion. It took me twenty years, life in three countries and work in seventeen, to realise that inclusion comes with rules and expected codes of behaviour. Being like everyone else meant exactly that and perhaps it also meant a life less lived because potential and promise lay beyond reach and less explored.

I never embraced this realisation when I was younger. I should have. Looking back I can see that being the odd one out made me the exception to the rule. Being noticeable and different led me down a path which gave me opportunities to be inspired by  those who had impacted their world because of their willingness to embrace difference. Those who change the world are those who do not accept the limitations and confinement of  what is expected of them. Being the outsider blessed me with the critical ability to question"is this all that is possible, or is there more ?"

As Africans and Caribbean people of all shades, tribes and clans we can choose to embrace our difference with pride. When we own our ethnicity we embrace our greatness.  We are our authentic essential selves. Unapologetic and proud we shadow the footsteps of the leaders before  who stepped out of tune and changed the music. The symphony of  Nkrumah, Kenyatta,Williams, Nehru, Sukharno et al. created  the possibility of the outsider making a difference, for the futures of our respective African and Caribbean countries.Our journey has been nearly identical. We are spiritual brothers and sisters.  For so long, made to believe that we were somehow less because we were other. 

The third world has long-struggled to shrug off the shame of its name. As a young  Caribbean woman in university when my  thinking was referred to as  third world, I thought it was an insult.The third world was something to leave behind. It was less. It was outside of all that seemed desirable. I aspired to the image of the first world- long forgetting the authenticity of our originality. 

We are third world because we opted out of the norms and practices, of the first. We eschewed the colonial path of entrenched power and prestige and equally, rejected the Soviet path of carbon copy, communist cut outs. We opted instead, to forge a third, non-aligned world -something new and critical and independent. We sought a path outside the existing systemic structures designed to keep us in our place. We seem to have forgotten the splendid image we cut, wearing our independence and sovereignty with pride.

Long after those who wielded power and shaped us in their likeness left, instead- we mimicked the very mimic-men who ruled us, in the likeness of a social structure they mirrored, but could themselves, never fit. We still strive for acceptance and the sense that we belong. We are still governed by a false sense of inferiority which cripples us. 

Each day I dwell a pause in my daily grind and think about the need to keep up appearances. The reality is that the second-hand suit of aspiration I go to work in, hides the dark beauty of my unique skin tone  from the very  sunlight of my Caribbean  singularity and exceptionality.When I embrace my African, Caribbean, Chinese and Portuguese mixed heritage I am hugged, held aloft by the principles of those brave men and women who owned their non western ethnicity and made created countries out of colonies, fearlessly. 

I simultaneously take pride in my ability to stand out from the crowd, and flack for not following it. But it is this strength hewn from hurt and heart and self- belief which makes me rise. My father was an outsider- a white man in a black military during the black power revolution. He embraced his difference with such authenticity, the loyalty of those he served with, blesses the lives of his children forty years later, when their children call his, family. My brother still serves the same military carrying the legacy of the outsider. Everyone he knows is rich and corporate and comfortable. He still serves so that they might sleep easy. My Chinese and Portuguese mixed ethnicity mother found success on the fashion ramps of London and Paris in the sixties  because of her unique look and walked away to marry  a man who shunned easy wealth and  privilege, opting instead to build a military tradition in a country which had none. He was the first Caribbean naval cadet officer at Britania Royal Naval College in 1962.   My sister sang Soca as a seventeen year old and rode her originality right into MTV and number one on the dance charts in 7 countries.  Today she fuses Chutney and Bollywood to African and Caribbean rhythms. Being the outsider means walking your own path, on your terms. The path less travelled is less crowded.

So here is what I learned about being the outsider. You don’t sip the same Kool-Aid as everyone else. You don’t get lost in group think. Standing back, and away, from the crowded stage gives a better view and a chance to assess what is on the stage rather than fighting for space next to it. Humans have always sought proximity to success and power, and somehow, lost the simple truth that being near to power, diminishes your own. Living in the reflected glory of someone else's achievements is a hollow reflection.  It does not nourish the soul. It gives the illusion of a life well lived.  In the struggle to be like everyone else and to follow the formulas for success, we sacrifice the special-ness and the uniqueness of our own talent, striving instead to live in the likeness of another.

In the struggle to recreate the image of success, we have forgotten the value of being on the outside. Being the outsider and not conforming to expectation is the opportunity to fashion our image to our own design and to be unafraid of being different. Ironically, it is only by being different that we climb the stairs to that stage because we were not afraid to own our unique spirit. The outsider is free to live a life beyond all expectations. Free to live unreasonably and free to be irrational and it is that spirit and that rejection of all that you should be which frees all that you could be. I am proud of my mixed heritage and proud to be AKoma. A space which celebrates the greatness, the beauty and the contribution- on our terms  and in our words-of our diaspora.

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