The first thing I saw was the burning car in the middle of the road. When I saw the man with the wild eyes shaking the large leafy tree branch at our van, I was close to panicking. It was at that moment that I wondered just how correct CNN was about Nigeria. Was Nigeria truly the land of madness? And if it was the land of madness what did that make me, whose two parents were born and raised in Nigeria?
This Christmas wasn’t my first time in the country. The previous time my family and I traveled there was five years ago; I was about 21. This time was different and I knew it would be. Over the last five years, I’ve fallen deeply into Nigerian history, become very interested in the country’s politics. I knew of its shaky government and how it made its people even shakier. The tribalism that made people who looked the same hate each other. The religious conflict between Muslims and Christians that made people who looked the same hate each other. The gender inequality that made people who looked the same hate each other. I also perfected my talent for listening without being noticed when around aunts and uncles.
I knew things. And this knowledge would pose problems. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. The Nigeria I anticipated seeing wasn’t only going to be the sweet rosy place of my memory, where the chicken tasted so fresh, the village dirt road was flanked by touch-and-die plants and my biggest worry was sizable spiders in the bathroom. Knowledge had burned that version of the country away and replaced it with something a little scarier. All those happy elements would be there but with much more added to them.
The first day my family and I spent in Abuja, Nigeria, was in the ritzy Hilton hotel. This is the very hotel President Clinton stayed in when he visited (he was the first American president to visit the country in 22 years). It was also the only place I saw white people. It was a Western safe haven, with its expensive elaborate European meals, bellhops, beautiful décor and languages from all over the world bouncing within its walls. Nevertheless, the Hilton was still in Nigeria. In the 24 hours we were there the power went out twice, though for not for more than a minute. And I wasn’t so ignorant to notice the several well dressed and bejewelled prostitutes roaming around the hotel.
The wildness started the minute we left the Hilton and ventured onto the road to the village. And I have yet to read about any of this in the news. We all piled into a van driven by a man named Endurance (a very fitting name indeed) and headed east to my father’s village. It was an eight-hour drive and plenty can happen in eight hours. You’d be amazed at how difficult it is to fill your tank with gas in the country of one of the world’s top oil producers. During a wait at a gas station, I watched a young man run across the street in a busy area. His body language screamed violence. He grasped a large rock.
I watched as he proceeded to run up to a bus full of people and wildly hurl the stone at it. Then he took off, several men following in pursuit. He didn’t get far and I turned my head away as he was beaten in the street. My head ached – not only from the shock of witnessing the incident but also from the horrible quality of Nigerian air. Nigeria is terribly polluted; every car and truck using diesel fuel and belching up fumes that make American car exhaust smell like flowers. The cities are environmental nightmares. But somehow I still saw robust fiery red grasshoppers, pink wall geckos, moist green tree frogs and temperamental lizards scurrying up and down walls.
Along the way, I ate some of the most succulent oranges, cashews and bananas I ever tasted. Maybe it was because we bought them from such beautiful people: Fulanese, Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba and others. Clear skin, good teeth, exercised bodies and lots of smiles. Healthiness is the only word I can think to describe them, though I understood that many were struggling. My siblings and I were laughed at for our accents and not being able to speak Igbo. I watched us move from a Muslim to Christian area. Long flowing attire, mosques and Hausa was replaced with Jesus trucks (trucks slathered with Christian pictures and words), Igbo, and kaftans.
I’ll forever remember the grin on my mother’s face as she haggled with (a) man over a huge pineapple. My mother’s first language was Hausa, though she is Igbo. She grew up in the North, which is predominantly Hausa (who are Muslim). But she hasn’t spoken Hausa in decades. Not until she began speaking to this man and her desire to get the pineapple for the cheapest price brought the language gushing back.
But the most memorable image I have of the trip to the village was that burning car in the middle of the road. It was less than a half-mile away. Before we got any closer, our van was accosted by a mob of men, one of whom was carrying a large leafy branch. He shook it at us, yelling something in some language. The mob behind him was volatile, ready to attack the van if we proceeded forward. Endurance, our driver, understood the hysterical man and took a detour.
We were forced to get onto a parallel road and once again I had to turn my head. This time from the burning car. We learned that the vehicle belonged to a drunk driver. And to this day I don’t know if the driver was also in the car. They call it Jungle Justice, a vigilante form of law. This seemed a kind of theme in Nigeria: everything was to the extreme, good intention or bad. It’s not a place one can move about armed only with common sense and carefulness. That’s not enough. You need other higher beings on your side.
The village was also a bittersweet experience. There were beautiful moments, like sitting with my cousin one evening watching the bats fly by at sunset as they headed toward the bush to feed. Listening to the roosters crow for hours in the morning (they get the cock-a-doodle-doo right about 60% of the time). Running my foot over the touch-and-die plants that flanked the road. Watching the little boys splish and splash in a nearby lagoon. In the village, everyone was an Okorafor.
Everyone looked like me. Similar skin tone, tallish, same mannerisms. I got to hang out with my grandmother, cousins, aunts and uncles. I got to see how many of my aunts and uncles were working together and enriching segments of the village; building schools, gorgeous homes and even a successful bread factory. I learned valuable lessons about how possible it is build something right from the rich dirt. Many of my cousins were studying to be doctors, engineers and journalists.
Nevertheless, humans are still human and human flaws are often exacerbated by the hardship of living in a struggling country. I blame cable television and general misinformation for the rampant myth that all Americans are wealthy. That African American men all walk around in yards of clothing rapping to themselves about drugs, women and guns. That African American women are gyrating body parts. I blame global misinformation for the idea that my foot and half long dreadlocks are the worst thing I could have done to myself. I also blame many of my relatives for allowing themselves to be misinformed. While my family and I were preoccupied with seeing relatives for the first time in five years, some of them seemed more interested in what they could get from us.
This is my country. This is where I come from. It’s a mystical place. You need only to look into the bush to know that. Or see the women walking on the side of the street in colorful wraps, jugs of water balanced on their heads. It’s also a troubled place, plagued by ethnic and religious backbiting, pollution and governmental confusion. It’s not the land of kings and queens, nor is it where time began, nor do people live in trees and run around naked. It’s wonderful and it’s horrible. And it’s the heritage I claim. And I claim it because it’s where I am from.
I’ve noticed that people have a strange habit of claiming a culture because it’s trendy or because there’s something clearly great about it. Rarely do I hear people claiming a place racked with hardship, or one that is not visibly extraordinary. Nigeria was once ranked the most corrupt place in the word. Recently it was ranked the seventh-poorest country in the world. To add insult to injury, three of the wealthiest people in the world are Nigerian and all of them could pay off the country’s debts and still remain relatively wealthy. Shameful.
Nevertheless, good and bad, regardless of CNN’s gruesome coverage, stigmas of Africa and general hard times, I’m proud to be Nigerian. Just as I am proud to be American. America is the land I was born in and I claim it as I claim my blood. When people ask me about my trip, I find it hard to voice the typical phrases – “It was great” just isn’t honest enough. Truth is, it was adventurous. Had its ups and downs. Filled in many gaps. Tattooed images of my culture to my soul forever.
And I wouldn’t take it back for the world.