Some ago, I read an article by a young Nigerian lady who came to the U.S. at an early age, grew up and schooled in predominantly white neighbourhoods and now of age, wants to settle down to marry a Nigerian man. She however finds she has hardly anything in common with the Nigerian community and is now at crossroads in her life. This got me thinking and I decided to write this article that dwells on the issue of identity and the price of seeking that piece of the American/European Dream.
In the last twenty years or so, due to the state of the Nation, thousands of Nigerians have taken to leaving the shores of this country in search of a better life in the Western world. This flight in as much as it has afforded them better quality of life, has also resulted in raising a generation of Nigerian children that have little or nothing to do with the country of their parent’s birth. The only thing Nigerian about them is their name. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with seeking better opportunities in life. Even the first wave of Europeans that came to the United States in the 1500’s did so in search of better standards of living from what they were getting in Europe at the time. However, one has to wonder (in the case of Nigerians now) whether the price they or their children have to pay have been worth it. What price you might say? The price of growing up believing you are inferior to your peers, because you’re not just African but Nigerian. The price of not being able to speak or understand your mother tongue or culture. The price of not being able to fit in with your mates if you do eventually come back to Nigeria or being able to have an interest in the running of their country and the list goes on.
I know some second generation Nigerians that don’t speak their native language or relate to the Nigerian experience. Are they Nigerian, African-American, Black British or Jamaican? That’s why we hear names like Chamellionaire and Seal instead of Hakeem Seriki and Bamidele Samuel (their real names) Bonafide Nigerians who you would never guess, if you don’t do thorough investigation.
For 1st generation Nigerians, this is not really a problem because you had the luxury of growing up in Nigeria, attending its schools, understanding and enjoying the culture, speaking the language. You most probably landed overseas in your late 20’s or 30’s and already knew who you were but its not so with the younger ones.
How sad it must be not to know what its like to play “ten-ten” or football in the dusty school playground, to listen to stories told by older ones in the evening under the night sky when NEPA has taken light, to make friends with some of the funniest and craziest characters in school, even to “do punishment” for a senior in Boarding house. How sad not to know what it is like for your grandmother to braid your hair, or bathe and cuddle you. Or for your cousins, uncles or aunties to joke and yap you when you step out of line and you know its all in good fun and not something to call the Cops on them for!
Yes, its good to have an Ivy League education, to speak English better than the Queen, to hobnob with the rich and famous but absolutely nothing compares to being in your home with your own.
This topic strikes a little close to home for me because I was in a not too different situation some years ago. I had the opportunity of growing up with an uncle who had a Jamaican wife that didn’t speak or understand Yoruba. As a result, we the children spoke only English in the home. The opportunity to learn Yoruba in secondary school did not present itself because it was in the eastern part of the country and vernacular of any sort was greatly discouraged. It was only when I eventually left and moved back to my family in Ibadan at the ripe old age of 17 to attend University, that I realized something was amiss. Here I was, a Yoruba girl with Yoruba parents that couldn’t speak Yoruba, living in the heart of Yorubaland! Ibadan for that matter! I was fair game or should I say dead meat, because if there is one thing Yoruba people know how to do, it is to yab! But I survived obviously, albeit with a thicker skin and a sharper tongue! On asking why I was sent at such a tender age to live in that environment, I was told it was done with my best interest in mind. I can not tell you the psychological pain I have endured as a result of this decision. Neither can I tell about all the yabs I received from my peers once they found out my little “secret”. Someone even told me to my face that I should call myself Mary, Stella or Helen and not Bolanle since I could not speak Yoruba! Have I eventually learnt to speak it? Well, it depends who you ask. My friends still laugh and say I speak Yoruba like an Ibo person but at least I get by. You can’t sell me! Things might be tough and not as rosy as when I was with my Uncle but one thing I don’t ever regret is going back to my roots and being amongst my own. There’s something infinitely satisfying about it. It can’t be explained. Blood is indeed thicker water.
For those born and still living in the Diaspora, its not too late. You can still retrace your steps and seek the land of your (or parent’s) birth. Even if it’s just for a visit. At least before you die. Yes, it is not a bed of roses. Yes, it’s lawless, crazy, tough and rough. Some parts of it even stink (according to Sabella) but its still home. It’s still your birthright and no one will ever reject you. Nor can they ever take that away from you. Naija for Life, Baby!