“What Does It Mean To Be a Nigerian Woman in America?” is a provocative essay. Some of the issues raised by the author, Nikki O, are some of the issues that have been raised elsewhere but never fully discussed or developed. Sometimes, cultural issues are never fully discussed amongst Nigerians and other African because it is assumed that we “know why.” In other words, not too many Africans discuss things they already have familiarity with. Things that are part of one’s life are rarely examined in great detail.
After several years (in six states in all the regions) I have great familiarity, not only with the American life and system, but also with different African enclaves and settings. I almost can boast of “seen that, heard that, been there, done that.” With such a license, I am going to arrogantly submit that Nikki’s essay — as provocative and insightful as it is — is somewhat skewed. Now, this distortion could be a consequence of her interpretative style or worldview. Or, perhaps she lived a life that not even I am aware of. In which case, we are here dealing with an anomaly.
There are several vital information missing from Nikki’s piece — without which one can not truly know the extent of the anomalies: (1) how old was she when she migrated to the US; (2) in what state and city did she spend the next 10-15 years of her life after arriving the US; (3) is she familiar with other cultures, i.e. the Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latino and the Asian culture; (4) is she familiar with sociological and anthropological studies of cultures; (5) would she consider her immediate family a “normal Nigerian family” and is the family still intact; and (6) how old was she when she revisited, and how often does she return to Nigeria?
The answer to all these questions will help shed light on Nikki’s misgivings. The African culture, contrary to what most overseas and westernized Africans may want to believe, is not that strange. There are not too many points of divergence between what we have and what others have. I happen to know cultures from Latin America to Asia and the Middle East. Something else: Some people are not even aware of the fact that the so-called American culture is a recent thing — less than 100 years old.
Erroneously, some people think Americanization/Americanism has been around since the beginning of the republic. No! American has never always been the way it is now. And in fact, culturally, living in some part of the US (in 2007) is not that different from living in Jos, Lagos, or Port Harcourt of today. A visit to rural Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, West Virginia and the Appalachian mountain areas will bear me out.
There is the tendency amongst some Africans to think that African culture is backward and primitive and all that. We can only say that about some parts of the culture, i.e. female circumcision. The African culture is, for the most part, a nurturing and healthy culture.
Now, without the benefit of the required answers, I am going to arrogantly venture out and take a stab at some of the irritations the author suffered and or observed. First, it is odd for children not to interact with the grownups or the elders, but of course, there are exceptions to such rule.
Second, there is nothing subservient about the relationship between the young and the old. You could say that the relationship is structured and or has boundaries; however, the boundaries can be breached. And in fact, most of the boundaries are porous.
Third, kneeling or prostrating is part of the greeting process. I am from the Ijaw ethnic group where men don’t prostrate. But since I am more Yorubalized than Ijawed I prostrate before Yoruba elders. And I still do it (in America or in Nigeria). I will not be caught violating such essentiality.
As to “keeping your eyes lowered, never talking back, never speaking up, never giving an opinion, only speaking when spoken to,” well, that might be family-specific. The aforesaid is not present in my family. And indeed, in all my years in several Yoruba states those were not enforced. And in fact I never observed such from my nieces and nephews and children in their age group (about 95% of my large family members are married to non-Ijaw).
Fourth, to assert that “everything associated with being Nigerian centered around some rule, always seemed negative, and never had history, folklore, or substantive cultural relevance,” is not only incorrect, it reminds me of some of the archaic anthological arguments some European scholars made decades and decades and decades ago. Reread that part of your submission and tell me if a people whose lives are merged in culture and custom could have lived this long if those cultures and custom have no meaning and relevance to their existence and survival. Just because it is chic to put Africans down doesn’t mean we should help in that regard.
Now that you have “come into my own,” you need not submit to any of the cultural expectations you have railed against. You need not live your life according to the dictates of a culture you find offensive, oppressive and subjugating. You are an adult now, an American, westernized. The world is all yours. Do as you please. Marry across the race or nationality line. Do whatever makes you happy; do the things and associate only with those who complement you and make your soul dance.
In all of these — your agony, longing, exasperation and all that — I detect a longing in your tone; I detect the need to belong, to be accepted, to be validated and be acknowledged. You and only you can give yourself that. You can not wait for others (in whatever culture) to give you that. You cannot wait for anyone to make you whole. It is your life. It is up to you.
I have several non-Nigerian friends, male and female, who are still single. Some are single by choice; others are only because they have yet to find the man or woman of their dream. You may be still be single either because you have not found “the man,” or perhaps “the man” has not found you. Or what if you are not the marrying type? Is it also conceivable you are truly what people say you are (irrespective of your socialization and acculturation)?
Your brothers are not “too forceful, vulgar, condescending, possessive, insecure, or a blatant womanizers” perhaps because they are yours and you see then differently. You were brought up in America and only recently returned to Nigeria; therefore, your complaints may be justified — justified because you see the Nigerian men and the culture in which they live from a different lens. You may need to adjust your lenses. Absent that, mix with men and women with your type of orientation and upbringing.
And “what exactly does it mean to be a Nigerian woman in America? Great question! To be a Nigerian woman in America is not that much different from being an American woman in America. All women go through the same or similar crap when it comes to men. Some men also complain about the sh*t they have to endure from women. Although I sometimes think that some African women have simply gotten used to complaining about African men. And vice versa! Look closely; there is usually not much to complain about.
However, globalization/westernization is having a nasty effect on some Africans and their relationship. How successful a relationship is may depend, to a large extent, on how the effects of westernization/globalization are handled. When I dated non-Africans in Minnesota, Seattle and Oklahoma, they cooked, cleaned and listened and met most of my other demands and suggestions. I did the same for them without reservation. In between I dated an African who told me that because “we are in America…no man can tell me or make me do nonsense.”
The last I heard, she is still complaining about the lack of good African men. The world knows I am a great guy.