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Our second guest is Tolu, who loves being the person who completely destroys conventional wisdom.

30 October, 2022

Illustration by Midjourney

Tolu with wife Akilina. Picture by Tanya Bulgakova

TOZHSAMIST': What is your background, Tolu?

Tolu: My background is from Nigeria. But I was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

T: So interesting, what are your parent's names?

Tolu: My father is Bengo, and my mother is Nike. Also, I have a younger sister - Jennifer.

T: Tolu, and what does your name mean, by the way?

Tolu: Tolulope is my official name. One way to translate it is "Thank God."

It resembles the Ukrainian name Bogdan more in regards to meanings.

T: You mentioned that you met with a school friend yesterday who brought up unpleasant memories of school. How was your experience with school to be?

Tolu: The school was an excellent environment. At a certain point, I awoke to the fact that I am the type of person who bullies instead of being bullied. It was a defensive reaction: denigrate the opponent with humour. I just was a professional athlete :)

T: And where did you study?

Tolu: In School No. 29 of the city of Kharkiv.


T: How did Kharkiv, where you were born and raised, shape your personality? 

Who are you right now?

Tolu: I don't really consider individuals fitting into any particular role, and I don't know why we have to choose. I can, after all, mix the roles of a dancer, a father, a husband, and a son. I am multiple players instantly. But the question of national identity is a more complicated one. I think absolutely like a Ukrainian, but I also admire American as well as  European music and appreciate  German and Dutch design. I enjoy being both, Ukrainian and Nigerian, and it has benefits for me since I can comprehend both sides. In Ukraine, I've always liked being a person of colour.

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Picture by Akilina Fitel

T: Wow! We're sitting here discussing national identity in the city of Lviv, within walking distance of the Stepan Bandera monument. The pro-Russian media, meanwhile, misinform Western, African, and Indian societies with Kremlin's narratives about the ‘Nazi regime in Ukraine’.  I find it irritating, don't you?


Tolu: You know, I don’t have any problem with Ukraine’s national idea. 

Every country ought to have its own leaders and ideas. How individuals define themselves and how they specifically feel a connection to the region creates the national idea. My connection, by the way, is more cognitive than spiritual.

It's worth mentioning that Ukraine, such as African countries or India, has a colonial past. Cross-ethnic colonization is much easier to identify when the ethnic group of the colonial country is visually different from the ethnic group of the metropolitan country. At the time, Russia's colonial doctrine was that Ukrainians and Russians are ”one ethnic group”, “one people”, and “one nation”, restricting the possibility of independent people,  independent culture, and independent own history. In a case when separation is difficult, a national idea is essential.


T: Yes. The concept of a nation made up of diverse ethnicities, with no one surprised to observe individuals of colour :)

Tolu: You know, there was a case in the United States of America when one mate assumed I was from France and was shocked to discover that I am from Ukraine. He even invited the others to listen to my story. This guy was surprised but it was surprising for me also that people can have strong stereotypes even in the United States, such a democratic and diverse country. I love being the person who completely destroys conventional wisdom. And I love being the person who could tell his foreign friends about Ukrainian culture and society or even about a small,  beautiful Ukrainian town called Smila.


T: This situation you shared is funny, but it shouldn't be like that...

Tolu: It shouldn't. As my mother says, the black colour by default imposes many challenges with which you must interact, but it also has many positive aspects. A stylish hairstyle, for example. [laughing]

I do not believe that humankind can entirely abolish racism. We can all agree on the norms of interaction, but not on the rules of perception.

T: That is, do you think that racism cannot be eradicated?


Tolu: No. Eradicating racism means that no one in the whole world has problems with Ariel’s race from The Little Mermaid. [smiling]

I'm also concerned about all the urgent social problems. In addition to racism, chauvinism, sexism, and homophobia, there are numerous challenges for today.

Yet, racism must be separated from interest. Racism is intentional disdain for another race. Interest is a research process, not a destructive one. The situation in the United States is of particular interest. Or, for example, if I visit the little city of Smila in Ukraine, local people will be interested in me:)


T: Why you have mentioned the town of Smila?

Tolu: Because once I have been to Smila, which is in the Cherkasy region and had an awesome experience there!

I have been dancing for ten years, and it's allowed me to travel all around Ukraine. 

I came to the town of Smila to perform a master class. It's a small town with a nice centre square where no black people walked before me, I guess. [laughing]

So, I came to the master class, walked into the hall, saw around a hundred people waiting for me, and realised that I wanted to interact and engage with these people in such a manner that they get the best impression of me as a dancer, and of me as a dark-skinned Ukrainian that surprising them. In these moments you just give all the knowledge and wisdom to others. All eyes are on you. People are drawn to you and want to more about you! And this isn't racism, this is interest. I enjoy attracting people's interests and influencing their worldviews.


T: Tolu, you said the question of national identity is complicated and you have a lovely little daughter who is growing up. Do you think it will be difficult for her to identify herself?

Tolu: I wish she had the choice. The choice is a privilege, and I will do everything I can to support and guide it.

T:  Many people recognize you as a talented dancer. Mostly :) Tell us about your present activities and your relationship with dancing.


Tolu: I'm still a dancer, but I recognize dance as a professional hobby. I've been designing and producing leather goods for the past 7 years. Now I am responsible for the technical side of the SYZYGY brand. In addition, in 2020, we launched the Nexus online school for mathematics and physics with my friends.


T:  What do you imagine Ukraine to be like after the victory? 

Tolu: Liberated from occupiers and free from prejudices.

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Pictures by Akilina Fitel   

By Alice Zhuravel

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