It doesn’t take long to stop being a “real Nigerian.” For you, it starts with boarding a plane from Muritala Mohammed International Airport under the guise of foreign tertiary education. As the plane takes off, you look at the sweeping landscape before you, and you know you don’t want to be back for a while. You return for one Christmas holiday in the winter break, step out of the plane and realize that it takes one holiday for disconnection and discontent to brew inside you. You notice immediately, and hold back your sensitivity to certain things you may have been numb to before. Your tongue loses its sense of awareness, unable to help itself as you verbally come to terms with the problems around you. Retorts from family, friends, people on the street, bank cashiers, waiters at restaurants set you off. Every thing sets you off. Like a matchstick lit in a dark cave, you realize that you are not necessarily free here the way you are elsewhere.
“You’re not in America oh, this one is Lagos, this is how we do things here,” your cousin says, as you watch a police officer flag down a clueless woman in traffic, hopping into the backseat. You realize that this is a live extortion in action. People look away uninterested, it is nothing but a regular occurrence in Lagos.
“I’m just as American as I am Nigerian,” you reply.
In these words you have proclaimed something you could previously not admit to anyone here. They can easily be translated to “I no longer feel so connected here, I refuse to accept some of the things you are forced to accept in the name of culture.” And in sowing that thought, you reap the idea that your American identity is a buffer.
“But you were Nigerian first, your America came after,” she responds, glancing at you for a moment with a smile on her lips. You ignore her and turn your face towards the window. In your mind, you count how long you have been away versus how long you have actually lived in the country. In a few years it might even out, the time spent in both places. But the feeling is unsettling. Why did geographical preeminence dictate more authenticity? Why was I less American because I had lived in Nigeria first? Even though there were numerous things about the culture I rejected from day one.
It is obvious, even in childhood, that feeling, that you might not thrive or blossom somewhere. There is a compulsion even to flee, to get out. For you, Nigeria has always been a place to be loved from afar, behind the cushions of online news, the widening eyes and stories from families and friends. These things keep the dream alive, but you are also unwilling to participate. In keeping the dream alive, the nightmare also rears it’s ugly head, and nightmares, they say, are dreams, too.
You’re old enough now, but you now remember the factors that caused you to look at this place with a weary nostalgia. Fragments of society that most people would regard as “a way of life here,” compromising with “that’s just the way it is” between mouthfuls of pepper-soup and yams at dinner. This nostalgia is wrapped in a longing for home, still, with a forced self-awareness. It causes you to look past the falsely wrapped fairy tales delivered by those who have no other choice but to be here, or the ones like you, who will only be there for a three-week holiday.
When you remember, you think about the Aunt who spends months sleeping in your family guest room, because months before, she suffered the weight of domestic abuse, and an emotional inability to leave her husband for fear of “disgracing her family.” You will remember her saying, “The God I serve does not believe in divorce,” while the scars and scarlet bruises on her back glower under the glare of flickering fluorescent lights. You eventually watch her pack her bags, and walk right back into the arms of a monster, with family chanting on the side like a morally deprived choir, echoing songs of, “Do it for the children, who will pay their school fees?” These are the things you remember and care about not unsustainable nights spent partying in smoke filled clubs in Lagos. Those factors will prove important when you consider packing your bags in America and moving back to Nigeria.
You will think about hard working parents and family friends, whose unwillingness to contribute or play a role in a decaying system may have cost them more than their dignity. You might think of plane crashes with airport staff and passers-by running with buckets of water to put out engulfing flames. Pastors speeding through the highway in tinted luxury cars, while their congregation leave for home with emptier pockets on decaying public transport, virtuously paying monthly tithes in offering baskets as their phones light up and their hearts drop, again the Naira has plummeted, “how will I afford school for my children abroad?” More tithing, “God will provide.” Your uncle who wheezes to death, on a rickety hospital bed somewhere in Abuja, misdiagnosed with malaria, while his eyes suffer the canary yellow of a liver disease. These things, though buried in memory, will always be at the back of your mind.
But from far away, across Atlantic waters, in the brick quarters of a matchbox New York City apartment you still long for something, and in that longing you know that to reach and grab, to accept, you must take all that comes with it. Friends will throw bait at you, dipping words like brushes into rose colored paint, lining them softly on your vision with what you know to be lies like, “it is so amazing here, you have to move back” on one day, and regret masked in “Nigeria is hard” on the other. You might take the bait, your mind will relish in certain possibilities, but you will eventually let them go. You will let them go because right now you have certain options, and try as you may, here in your “not real Nigerian-ness” you are safer, you can maintain a certain peace of mind, you do not feel like a caged bird, unable to sing due to the steel prisons of social stigma and deeply rooted patriarchal standards. You will admit the love for your culture, but you will also maintain your uneasiness with how close your people hold on to even its most harmful aspects.
Months and eventually years will pass without you visiting home. A marble like social network with Nigerian and non-Nigerian friends will be at your fingertips. America is your home now, so you might as well start building relationships. At bars and on the line at grocery stores, cashiers will blurt out while stocking, “Are you British? You’re not from here are you? Where are you from?”
And it is here you realize that the dash between Nigerian and American, Nigerian-American, is also the steeping gap between your two realities, a space between, and you are sitting right there on it, between the two worlds or words. In choosing one over the other, or one as opposed to the other, you still don’t really belong here either, and unconsciously through national and social conversations, you will feel it too.
While peeling three-dollar-a-piece mangoes, you realize that there are many things you have taken for granted. The pricey cost of yams, the watered-down pepper-deprived Jollof rice served in some Nigerian restaurants to appease white clientele, where in your quiet indignation, you decide to never eat Jollof rice outside home again. Goat meat that should taste a certain way but doesn’t, accusations of pride and arrogance from people who share your skin color, who don’t understand that in many ways you still feel like a foreigner here, and that black people all over the world are layered, and do not always share the same black experience. You will also find treasures- crowding in bars to celebrate a Nigerian football team win at the World Cup, watching the sudden rise of Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah on the subway as you take your silent polls of what New Yorkers are reading. Finding little treasures like chin-chin or the beginnings of Dbanj’s “Oliver Twist” playing at Zara on Fifth Avenue. The usual gathering with Nigerians where discussions seem to be like voices eating each other, all social affairs never devoid of politics.
At panels, speakers discussing the black experience in America, and you realize that somehow the African experience in America has also been largely excluded. You are unable to fully integrate into the black consciousness here. Friends will tell you that they’ve never lived in Nigeria, but they wouldn’t mind moving back. It seemed better to be back home, than to be black here in America. You will find little pockets of Nigeria in wide American spaces, and when your mind is quiet you will recognize that you inevitably found them because you searched for them.
“My dear, you are lost, you need to come back home to reconnect,” your relatives say.
Some days you find them right. America has a way of numbing you, and you know you need a “shock” to rescue you from its illusions of comfort. You are becoming complacent. You need to remember again why you are here. And only the visual play out of the Nigerian hustle, Nigerian social circles, the existential anguish and deep seated happiness, can help you realize why you have to work hard. You need to go back home to replenish yourself with the Nigerian spirit that has made so many of us successful in America. And when that barrel is filled, you can leave, because to go back means that you must also succumb to the socio-economic factors that cause this spirit to rise in the first place. Many will be offended that you can pick and choose when you want a dose of this experience.
Eventually, you realize that the dash is a gift. It is not a line dividing you from two worlds. On your worst day it represents a friction, and on the better ones it is a thread weaving two lives together. The dash, the short line between your Nigerian and American identity, is a bridge connecting both realities. You are neither here nor there because today you are here, and tomorrow you are somewhere else. The dash is not synonymous with being lost. It is not a cue for cultural displacement or confusion; it is a symbol of your power of navigation. You develop an ability to shape-shift, to embrace a multi-dimensional self, like a chameleon morphing in a kaleidoscopic world. It means that you have access. You are not contractually bound to choose between a Nigerian green, or an American blue passport to validate your identity. Today, you can stay and tomorrow, if you are lucky, you can leave. With that thought you lay down, stare at the ceiling, and settle in sleep, into the only constant home you have. Yourself.