My Kingston — Dr Enrique Okenve

Sunday, October 07, 2018

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Dr Enrique Okenve African Studies lecturer UWI, Mona

What is your fondest childhood memory?

Right now my fondest memory is the long summer nights in Madrid, dining with my grandparents, siblings and mum on my grandparents' beautiful verandah. They used to live in a small two-bedroom attic in Lavapiés, a traditional madrileño working-class barrio right in the centre of the city. From my grandparents' verandah you could see much of the barrio and city centre. Lavapiés has always been full of character though the neighbourhood has seen some difficult times. Conditions in the barrio deteriorated during the 1970s and 1980s because of petty drug dealing and crime. Many young families moved out but, from the late 1990s, conditions began to improve thanks to the arrival of migrants from all over the world: South America, West and North Africa, East and South Asia. Although Lavapiés is becoming slightly gentrified, it still preserves a nice blend of traditional madrileño character and migrant multicultural atmosphere.


When and why did you relocate to Kingston?

I moved to Kingston in May 2004. Two years before, I had met Simone, a girl from Montego Bay who was also a student in London. We dated long-distance for two years and decided that we had to live together to find out if our relationship could work out long-term. She had a full-time job in Kingston and I had a student scholarship in London. It was clear we couldn't both live on my scholarship in a city like London so I packed my bags and moved to Kingston for what I believed was a temporary move.


Which other cities have you lived in? How do they compare to Kingston?

I lived in Madrid for much of my early life. Before moving to Kingston I also lived in Bata (Equatorial Guinea) and in London. It is a bit difficult to compare Kingston to Madrid or London. In a city like Kingston you are constantly faced with the contradictions of living in a developing country. On the one hand, you can enjoy a night out at the movies or having great dinner in a chilled and relaxed spot thinking that everything around you is just fine. On the other, you can easily come across the difficult reality of those who have much less than you while you avoid potholes on your way home from an outing. Fourteen years later, I still haven't got used to these contradictions; in fact, I don't want to get used to them. One thing though, no matter what Jamaicans might think of their capital city, it still has a human touch that other big cities lack. Kingstonians might not like to admit this, but people here are generally warm and welcoming. Might not be obvious at first sight but it isn't hard to see it.


What has been your most memorable experience so far?

No doubt, this was the birth of my children. They were born in Kingston, at Nuttall Memorial Hospital. I don't know if I will be in Kingston forever, but, no matter where I go, this city will always be special to me. This is where my children were born and where they are growing up. It is through them that I feel strongly attached to Kingston and Jamaica.


What is your idea of a perfect weekend in Kingston?

That would be a weekend where I could find some time to dine out with my wife without distractions, take my kids to the movies followed by Devon House I-Scream, meet up with a few friends and chat over a glass of wine or a bottle of beer. The weekend wouldn't be perfect without some mindless relaxation on my own, watching either an FC Barcelona match or a TV series. And since you asked, why not also spend one morning at the beach. Needless to say, this ideal weekend would last four or five days.


Which five words best describe you?

“Too, “humble” “to” “talk” “about” “myself”. I'm afraid that's six words, though.

What spurred your research interest in socio-cultural transformations in Equatorial Guinea?

My upbringing in Madrid is just half of my story. The other half of my story is about Equatorial Guinea, a small country that you can find on the map of Africa, caught between Cameroon and Gabon. Nearly always, people ask me where I am from, expecting a simple answer to their question.But it is a bit more complicated than that. I was born and raised in Spain though my passport said that I was Equatorial Guinean. This is where my father was born, a place where people don't really ask where one is from. If they wish to know someone's identity they ask something like “you are the child of whom?” or “of whose clan are you?” This place has always been a part of my identity or identities, but not a place where we could live at the time because of its complicated political conditions. I suppose I always wanted to understand how Equatorial Guinea came to be and the struggle of those of my family who still live there. History provided me best tools to understand that reality and so I became a historian. To me, looking at the socio-cultural changes of this country over the past 120 years, it is really an opportunity to look into the experiences of people like my great-grandparents, my grandparents and my father. My great-grandparents were born before the Spanish colonised this part of Africa and my father came of age by the time the Spanish left.


Tell us about your research on the Fang people who used their language and culture as a weapon to resist whitewashing by Spanish colonialists.

My research deals with a simple question: what happens to people when they lose their political power, their independence? Before the Europeans colonised the Fang people, we used to live in small independent communities, villages where our elders took decisions and no one outside these communities had a say in ruling our destinies. That socio-political order came to an end with European colonialism but the spirit of independence and autonomy was so deeply entrenched in our cultures that, for much of the colonial period, people found ways to preserve some of the power that Europeans sought to take away from us. It is through the reexamination of our identity, culture and past, what I call our tradition, that people resisted. Alas, we lost the battle but, funny enough, we lost after the Spanish left and our local rulers took control of government.


Which three things would you like to see The UWI, Mona's History and Archaeology department (African Studies) achieve?

As a historian of Africa I would like to establish a more meaningful connection between Africa and Jamaica, helping students and society at large understand that the history of Africa is also their history and that they can find valuable lessons in it. As the current head of department, I would like to expand people's interest and appreciation for history, particularly Caribbean history, which is much more diverse than people tend to assume. This is a fascinating place, with a difficult but rich past. It is worth exploring it and learning from the experiences of those before us. Finally, as an educator I would like the Department of History and Archaeology to show that there is a different path to education, one in which top-quality teaching and rigorous learning are emphasised. This country faces many difficult challenges but it only stands a chance if we invest in people, in providing youngsters the best education we can so they will be equipped to find the solutions that we need. We should not be happy living in a country that pushes its people to migrate. Migration should be a choice not an obligation but, for this to happen, we need better educated people who can build a better society. In the Department of History and Archaeology we are working in that direction, using the past to provide top-quality education.


Finally, what's your personal credo?

Don't accept a situation for what it is; we can always do better.

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