Lola Akinmade Åkerström: Exploring culture through food, tradition and lifestyles
Lola Akinmade Åkerström was born in Nigeria and is now based in Stockholm, Sweden. Lola is a National Geographic Creative photographer and has written and carried out photography assignments for publications such as the BBC, CNN, the UK Guardian and the venerable New York Times lens blog. Credentials are important and I have no problem invoking them. However, there is something more to Lola Akinmade Åkerström which goes beyond credentials. That something is the tripartite set of gifts she possesses – travel writer, photographer and storyteller. Nigeria has produced some of Africa’s greatest fiction writers, perhaps more so than any other African country, but travel writing as a creative form of self expression has been largely elusive. Scour the rest of the continent and you might bump into the next J.D ‘Okhai Ojeikere, James Barnor and Malick Sidibe (who passed away today age 80) all great African photographers. Traverse the continent once again looking for a few who do all three – write, photograph and explore through story telling – to a standard that only the Western world seems to appreciate and you would most likely find only one – Lola Akinmade Åkerström.
Africa may be rising, but until the story of the hunt is told by the Lion the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter! Africa needs the Lola Akinmade Åkerströms more than ever. It is a pleasure to interview Lola and I hope you appreciate the words of wisdom below as much as I did.
What triggered your passion for travel?
An unbridled love for geography. I come from a family of explorers, starting with my grandfather who was into shipping and traveled the globe to my father who is a geologist and still travels the globe. So I knew deep down, I was going to follow along their paths. We traveled a lot as a family and I fondly remember those wonderful vacations to the US, UK, and Europe, and when I moved to the US, I knew I was going to expand even more. While both my degrees are in Information Systems and I specialized in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) as a system architect for many years, my inner creative won.
Today, I work as a travel writer and photographer for various high profile international publications and above all, I’m a storyteller with an underlying intrinsic need to keep putting my own life, beliefs, and culture in perspective, in context, and in check against the greater world.
Bubbles aren’t only reserved for those who haven’t traveled or have no desire to travel. On the contrary, it’s very easy to live in an intellectual bubble of one’s own views about the world.
What do you get out of journeying to new or revisiting old places?
For me, travel isn’t a mad dash across the globe, but a way of me being a sponge to not only soak up other cultures, but to share my own Nigerian culture as well as a subconscious ambassador. It facilitates understanding, it slowly chips away at long-held prejudices, it forces the world which is hell-bent on marginalizing people of color for eternity to acknowledge you and your presence in all its corners.
In terms of revisiting old places, for me, travel is about listening. About investing a part of yourself in the places you visit and the people you meet. I try to listen to what a place tries to tell me at ground-level and if I can’t quite hear its voice, I should be willing to go back and back again until I hear it.
To what extent is a Nigerian, Kenyan or Ethiopian or indeed any other African likely to have a different experience to say a Caucasian or Asian traveler?
I started out an article once where I walked the reader through this scenario – Your Caucasian friend has just returned from an amazing life-changing experience where they got to spend time with locals and were readily invited into their homes. You also want your own amazing life-changing experience and you follow their footsteps only to find a chilly reception at the other end. Locals aren’t as warm and friendly, and the serendipitous home invitation you so desperately craved never comes.
No amount of wealth or privilege a person of color has can shield them from prejudice and racism during their travels. Case in point – Oprah Winfrey at the Hermes store in Paris.
But what can slowly fight racism is visibility. A constant visibility that, over time, moves you from the other to someone I meet and interact with every day. Prejudice comes from ignorance and a fear of the unknown. And what better way to make this “unknown” known than to make it constantly visible?
The more you see people of color in places they weren’t traditionally given access or opportunity to, the more our collective experiences as travelers begin to align.
Above all, the majority of the world is made up of good hearted, generous, kind, and genuinely curious people who truly want to learn more about you and your culture, and as African travelers in foreign lands, we are de facto ambassadors even if we feel the unbearable burden we often have to bear against our choice.That is why it is absolutely crucial to keep traveling and exploring the world despite this. There is so much beauty, culture, history, food, and people to explore and experience.
Given you have lived outside Nigeria since age 15, perhaps you are uniquely placed to shed some light on this. Is Africa travel still perceived as mostly about safaris?
I’m pretty sure travel to Africa has moved well beyond stereotypical safaris. Most of the people I know who work as professional travel writers who have written about and continue to write about travel to and within Africa have a much deeper, richer view of the continent as a whole. I have visited several African countries myself and try to share my own ground-level experiences and interactions in an engaging way.
I have not gone on safari – yet. I say “yet” because Africa truly is blessed with so many natural resources and wildlife that ignoring them in some sort of self-imposed political and cultural statement as an African is a limited way of viewing safaris in my opinion.
And if I do, it would be in a sustainable fashion that promotes and supports local suppliers, and goes directly back to local communities.It’s the same way people flock to Churchill, Canada, to see polar bears. I understand the fascination. I get it. But it has to be done ethically, sustainably, respectfully, and responsibly.
In a recent talk at Birmingham University, UK, you posed the question “If I don’t focus solely on the black experience or write mostly about African as an African, am I selling out?” I could gladly swap an answer from you with a round the world flight ticket.
That seems to be the case even within African literary circles where unless you write about Africa regardless of your diaspora experience, you aren’t often taken seriously or regarded as an authority in your field as an African travel writer.
Growing up in Nigeria, we defined ourselves by our tribes and cultural heritages. Most West Africans at least can relate. I am Yoruba and those cultural values have strongly shaped who I am. I also never consciously referenced my “blackness” when growing up in Nigeria, until it was thrown at me every day when I moved to the US as a teenager.
The American culture wanted me to always know that I was “black” and to remember this clearly-evident fact every single day by stating the obvious in the most mundane way of trying to marginalize people. So with this new found “blackness” that I was always supposed to be cognizant of, I needed to always fill it with “black experiences”. Which meant experiences that primarily involved people that looked exactly like me.
But the underlying “problem” was that I was raised in an environment where we were naturally raised to be curious about other cultures due to our strong tribal affiliations, and not the color of our skin. It was to understand how different cultures did things differently, how we were similar, and why we needed to be different
So my answer to that question really is – I don’t care.
Mostly because I’m not sure what I’m supposed to have wittingly “sold out” on when my own cultural upbringing and values are different from the very next Yoruba person, talk less of the world as a whole.
Constantly worrying about what others think of me or assume about my motivations doesn’t get me anywhere or further along my path. The path of “Why not?”.
I always say – if someone is curious, instead of making assumptions about a person, why not ask them?
“Exploring culture through food, tradition, and lifestyle” is the tagline of your blog – Geotraveler’s Niche. Doesn’t the country of your birth, Nigeria, have so much of all three to make it a hot travel destination? And if so, why isn’t it?
I love going back home to Nigeria and try to do so every year. And when I’m there, that’s exactly how I continue to absorb the culture of my birth. Through its food, tradition, and lifestyle. I have also written extensively about certain aspects of Nigerian culture and lifestyles for various international publications, most recently, a multi-page photo spread on Lagos for ELLE Decoration in South Africa.
Nigeria is that deeply rich dark chocolate that leaves a strong aftertaste and still has you reaching back for more. Its history, culture, political landscapes, and lifestyles are what make Nigeria such a powerhouse, and there is so much to offer.
As to why Nigeria hasn’t turned into a hot travel destination yet, we as Nigerians are its cultural ambassadors to tout and sell its beauty to the rest of the world beyond the negative press we constantly have to deal with. I certainly do my part in the diaspora.
But we can’t pretend we have no structural problems that still impact full-fledged tourism to the country. Every country has issues. The quicker a country fully admits this to itself when it comes to tourism, the quicker it can grow its tourism sector.
It seems more tourists flock to Ghana over Nigeria probably because they feel there’s stronger infrastructure that can support their travels through the country. Instead of wondering why we’re not the hottest travel destination at the moment, I really hope Nigeria is drawing inspiration from what its neighbors are doing well with regards to tourism.
That said, it is up to us storytellers to keep sharing those rich cultural stories about Nigeria so the world can see how much we have to offer and why they need to come explore the country themselves.
On MyWekuTastes, our photo essays and projects rule! Or so I thought until I cast an enviable eye on your photo projects – Solitude and Fishmongers. Tell us about these, your exhibitions, and any other future work in this area?
I love fish and seafood and especially the culture around it. If I believed in previous lives, then I was probably married to a fisherman once. So the Fishmonger project chronicles different lifestyles surrounding the catching and sale of fish from around the world – from Croatia and the Seychelles to Nigeria and West Sweden.
The images in my Solitude project are of individuals in various stages of “being” within their environments. Various moments when they’re interacting with their environment in a relaxed content state and are simply absorbing the world around them without judgment. Solitude is often seen as a negative state of being. One which has a solemn undertone of being alone and without comfort, love, friendship, and relationships. With this project, I’m visually depicting Solitude as contentment. As being comfortable in one’s skin and aura and in one’s company.
One of the definitions of the word “solitude” calls it a lonely unfrequented place with the absence of human activity. So I’m also depicting that lonely unfrequented place as silence and how we need to get back to it. To disconnect from the noise of this world and reconnect with nature and with places where we have the freedom to just be.
I currently have a solo exhibition called Chasing Light going on in Stockholm, Sweden, and I’m working on a portrait series called Solbacka at a refugee integration center in Sweden as well. There is always something in the works.
What tips would you give to an aspiring travel photographer who wants to follow in your foot steps into the high echelons that is National Geographic? Will they need to bungee jump off Mount Kilimanjaro whilst obsessing about lighting and changing from a wide angle to a 50mm lens only to take a photo of a shrub? Or, will the mundane suffice?
I am clear evidence that you don’t have to scale Everest or swim the deepest oceans. What you do need is to specialize and have a point with your images. A cohesive story. A collection of jaw-droppingly beautiful images from around the world is not a story. National Geographic as a brand is about storytelling.
The time to be a generalist and be everything to everyone has long passed. You as a photographer have to focus on personal projects that you are deeply interested in and passionate about. There are many fantastic landscape photographers but I just can’t tell their work apart.
For you to stand out, you need to bring your own unique voice and style to your work. Instead of aspiring for technical perfection, aspire to creativity. And you will attract the right brand, support, and influencers who respect and are naturally attracted to your style of work.
I personally seek beauty in the mundane. In the everyday we all take for granted.
Finally, we like to think of ourselves as great African cuisine chefs. If we were to invite you to a 5 course tasting session, what would you like us to cook for you? We might even throw in a blåbärsoppa to pay homage to Sweden.
Considering I have a goat meat supplier here in Stockholm and know where all the stores that sell African food (and hair) supplies are, I’d say skip the blåbärsoppa.
I’ll let you in on a little secret – I’m addicted to Nigerian small chops – meatpies, poff-poff, dodo mosa, snails, peppered gizzard – all that.
So I’d love a combination of those as appetizers, followed by a main course of Afang (Efik vegetable stew using Ukazi leaves) filled with goat meat, dried fish and crayfish, shaki, and kpomo. Can you ship to Sweden?