In 1992, when I arrived in Glasgow, Scotland, I registered for my classes at the University of Glasgow and was made aware of the African/ Caribbean Students Union. They had a representative at the registrar’s office, who was handing out fliers announcing a welcome party for all new international students. The party would be held in a fortnight and I was very excited about the idea of meeting other Africans. After almost two years of being the only African/Black person in a tiny village in Bavaria, Germany, the thought of a gathering of Africans made me giggle with giddy anticipation.
I arrived at the venue for the party full of excitement and sure enough there were so many Black people, that I was grinning from ear to ear as I warmly greeted each and every person who made eye contact with me. Here I was among a whole bunch of people who looked like me, for the first time in 2 years and all I could think of is how beautiful they all were. Many were dressed in their national dress and speaking and guffawing with a reckless abandon that I found refreshing. I even witnessed two women making merry and slapping each other’s palms as they shared jokes. This is a truly African expression of happiness, and an agreement that indeed that happiness (or juicy gossip) was better shared.
I was mesmerized by one man in particular (across the room), who was dressed from head to toe in chartreuse (a mixture of purple and pink), in what appeared to be a long flowing robe which he kept hoisting onto his shoulders (I later learnt that it is called agbada or parachute!) and a jaunty hat in the same fabric of his outfit. He threw his head back and barked out a laugh so virulent, that I started laughing as though he had telepathically communicated the source of his mirth with me. He was probably over 6ft and had a generous belly from whence ripples of laughter rumbled up and out of his wide open mouth. I was enjoying being in this crowd of African and Caribbean students in bright greens orange, red, purple, yellow gold brown, black and chartreuse attire.
As I inched my way towards the table laden with food and drinks I found myself wondering what national dress I could have worn as a Zimbabwean. In fact I was starting to ask myself what it meant to be Zimbabwean, when next to me appeared one of the most strikingly beautiful women I have ever met. She was clad in jeans and a simple yet elegant dress shirt, much like I was dressed in and so I could not immediately place her as African. Maybe she was Caribbean. We exchanged furtive smiles, and I in my usual bold faced manner introduced myself. ‘Hi, I’m Barbara from Zimbabwe”. I took an immediate liking to her when she responded “Hi Barbara from Zimbabwe, I am Joy from Nigeria!” and burst out laughing.
This marked the birth of a friendship between Joy Odili and me, and the beginning of an obsessive fascination with Nigeria and Nigerians. Under the expert tutelage of Joy, I learned about the Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo, of which she is a member. I learnt how to cook jollof rice and how to fry plantain. I was introduced to the exquisite flavor of red palm oil which can redeem the most tasteless of meals. I learnt how to make akara (fried bean cakes) and how to eat food with “peppe” (hot habanero peppers or some other bitingly red hot pepper), and how to make hot “peppe soup”, either with fish or chicken. I learnt that ebba was a lot like sazda and that garri could be eaten with sugar and milk for breakfast. I learnt how to cook “three meats soup” in which goat with skin (fur singed off), chicken and beef (or smoked turkey) were cooked together in a spicy, flavor-laden tomato based sauce.
Apart from the culinary delights which poor Joy churned out for me to feast on, I also learned passively by being around someone ( and the other Nigerians she introduced me to) whose sense of self was defined first and foremost by her cultural identity.
“I am Igbo first then Nigerian, then everything else”.
This was very new to me, because in the world that I had known thus far, I had ferociously insisted on being seen as an individual. At school, I struggled not to be seen as “just one of the African girls”. I longed to be seen and heard as an original human being with my own ideas thoughts and feelings, not as one of the Black girls and all the connotations associated with being categorized in this way. “African girls stink! African girls are slow, these African girls are allergic to sport, they cannot swim…” the list of all the negative things that African girls were is endless and I refused to be part of that motley crew. Instead I became notorious, the original bandit/ prankster/ rebel without a cause. I got into trouble for calling the physical education teacher a cow. I threatened to report one nun who relished telling us how the country would disintegrate under African leadership to my uncle the minister of education. During church services when other knelt down in the pews, I would stand. When they sat down, I would kneel. The school rules stated that no chewing gum was allowed on school premises. I would chew mine and blow huge bubbles that burst and left a stringy mess of chewing gum covering half my face. I wore bright red nail polish and rolled my socks down to show my ankle bones. I folded back the sleeves of my school blazer so I looked cool like Michael Jackson. There was a time when because we were forbidden to speak Shona and Ndebele on school premises, I would speak nothing but Ndebele in a loud voice daring, anyone who had the guts, to go and report me. No one ever did, because the consequences of such a treacherous act would be pure hell on earth meted out by yours truly and my band of rag tag followers which changed from day to day. All this I did because every sinew in my body cried out to be seen as me, not as ‘the African girls”. I had carved out an identity for myself, as Barbara, who may as well have had a desk in the principal’s office, I was there so often. Interestingly the countless hours I spent with Sr. Angela in her office were far from punitive. Instead she got to know Barbara and figured out what was really behind the madness she exhibited on a daily basis.
In places where I was a distinct minority of one, I had found it burdensome to be viewed as “African” because somehow that meant that I represented the entire expanse of culture, language and geography of the vast continent of Africa. I was supposed to know details about the ravages of famine in Ethiopia, or the oil troubles in the Niger Delta or the killing of albinos for ‘medicinal body parts” in Tanzania, or why Whites in South Africa hated blacks. I was even supposed to know people’s friends in Burundi, Cameroon and the Gambia! All because I was a self professed African. For an 18 year old, away from the familiarity of home where language and the ability to communicate effectively were a given, being the only embodiment of Africanism in a sea of sometimes ignorant Europeanism was onerous. Meeting Joy made me revisit the whole issue of cultural identity and as I systematically chewed through her delicacies, I found myself wondering what in Zimbabwean culture could I be proud of. Was it our food? What were our traditional dishes? They seem to pale in comparison to Nigerian dishes. Sadza nenyama nemuriwo. Was it our dress? What dress was Zimbabwean? Was it our languages, Shona and Ndebele? Those languages which we had been banned from speaking on school premises? Being around Joy and her fellow Nigerians always left me with plenty to digest, both figuratively and literally.
I was struggling with making myself understood in and understanding German and I shirked my responsibility as African Ambassador to the West, along with the crazy notion that somehow I was supposed to speak “African”. Sprichts du Africanisch- Do you speak African? This question I bore with long sufferance and a tight, pain- filled smile initially. However, after I had mastered sufficient German, I would respond with my own question, eyes wide open in feigned innocence; spricht du Europeisch- do you speak European? I wanted to have fun, to get legless, to flirt and date and be myself. Yet I felt that I had to be in a perpetual state of seriousness and reflection, as I bore the weight of the troubles of my continent. How could I possibly enjoy a beer and dance with such hedonistic pleasure while children starved to death in Ethiopia? How dare I forget for a minute that in the time it takes to toss back a tequila shot and bite the lemon, 100 women across Africa would have perished in childbirth? Where was my conscience as I played basket ball and went to movies when I should have been devising a plan to end female genital mutilation in the Senegal? My quest for self discovery and personal fulfillment and the activities I engaged in did not fit the profile of an esteemed ambassador from the African continent. What a relief that was!
It was through Joy that I realized how I had been hoodwinked. I happened upon the painful fact that while my well meaning history teachers at school had been feeding me a steady diet of Gladstone and Disraeli, Otto von Bismark (first chancellor of Germany in 1871), the Congresse of Verona (1822) and the Treaty of Versailles (1919), Napoleon Bonarparte (1769-1821), Stalin (1878-1953) and Hitler (1889-1945), I had been deprived of the history of my own country as well as the history of the Continent of Africa. The only African history we had done in school was the Bantu migration delivered in a very perfunctory manner as a prelude to THE GREAT PARTITION OF AFRICA (1881-1914)! Which, to my understanding was when the real history of Africa began.
Joy educated me on the Biafran uprising from the 1967 to 1970. She explained Nigerian politics since its independence from British colonial rule in 1960. From there, I started to read the history of Africa, from Ethiopia to Kenya to the Sudan to the Congos to Angola to Namibia to Mozambique and Zambia to Zimbabwe and South Africa, then heading up to Ghana, Sierra Leone, Gambia and Senegal and all the other countries interspersed. This re- learning of history became a re- education about myself which liberated me from being in a continuous and exhausting state of internal struggle for visibility and uniqueness. The fear of disintegrating into a pile of nothingness with a plaque that read ‘just another African’ loosened its vice-like grip around my neck. I was unique by virtue of coming from a continent with such a rich and deep cultural legacy. There was nothing mediocre about my cultural heritage.
Enter Halima Ado, my Nigerian friend from the North. I met Halima when she joined my African dance class at the Minority Women’s cultural Center in Glasgow. Again note the terminology. An African dance class implied a class that teaches dances from all over the continent. That is a tall order given the huge number of cultural groups and therefore dances from north to south and east to west. What I taught was an exercise class to Congolese music. It was an aerobics class with elements of African dance. Halima pointed this out to the director, a Scottish woman, after the first class and she stood arguing with the poor woman who finally said “well its African music and you are exercising through dance, therefore it is African dance!”
Halima came to me with a big smile on her face and said ‘it was worth a try shaa! See all dese Oyinbo people wan com mek we Africans one ubiquitous amoeba!”
I got the gist of what she was saying and I loved her immediately! Halima introduced me to pounded yam and egusi soup and on that first night I ate it sitting on her bedsit floor, I poured libation for Okwonkwo the invincible, indomitable warrior brought to life on the pages of the classic novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, whose mounds of pounded yam and egusi soup had made my mouth water during my English literature class in 1988. It tasted better than I had imagined it and as I moulded a ball of yam with my fingers and scooped up some spinach and ground melon seeds cooked in palm oil, I knew my love for Nigeria had been permanently cemented. I ate suya and yam porridge and listened as Halima talked about Allah the Almighty. She showed me how to make amala and ewedu. I even fasted with her during Ramadan, though that only lasted a day, while she fasted from sun rise till sunset for 40days! Through Halima I was able to see Islam practiced. Halima was what I might call a spiritual Muslim to differentiate her from a religious Muslim among which we also find those of terrorist (jihadist) tendencies.
Halima prayed and her life was grounded in the practice of the spirit of Islam not the in the literal or fundamentalist interpretation of the letter of Islam. She was kind and forgiving, she lived in a spirit of gratitude and was always conscious of how she affected others and the world in which she lived. She strived to have a positive effect at all times and her response to the question “How are you” was always, “I am fine, Al hamdulillah, may God be praised”. She read parts of the Koran to me and she enlightened me through a new, personal perspective on religious violence, something which I had only understood in an abstract way. Halima freed me from the guilt which had plagued me since leaving home in 1990. The guilt was caused by my “lapsed Catholic” status. I had found my experience of church in Germany to be very traumatic and I knew I could no longer attend services and still remain a believer, when one day during a rapidly delivered, cold, sterile 20 minute service, which left me feeling empty and depressed I asked, “where are you God??” Halima straightened me out by stating in her very simple philosophy, “God is everywhere so why u de worry yosef over one building or de oda?” She was right; I did not need to go to a church with people I had no affinity for. If I wanted to pray I could do so anywhere.
In January,1998 when I came to America, I enrolled as a student of public health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. There I met several Nigerians one of whom became a very good friend and source of help as I navigated the academic system at Hopkins. Gbenga Obasanjo educated me on the deep rooted problems of corruption and poor governance in Nigeria. His father at that time was in prison for speaking out against the human rights abuses of the Abacha regime. The son of the late Rivers State activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa was also a student at Hopkins and Gbenga educated me on the curse of the liquid black gold of the Niger Delta and he explained that Ken Saro-Wiwa was killed (1995) for agitating for social and ecological justice for the Ogoni people, whose livelihood was threatened by oil drilling operations in the Niger Delta. Talking with Gbenga made me understand that while I was having a love affair with this vast country of many layers and political, religious, social and moral complexities, its indigens had an oscillating love/hate relationship with it. The love fueled by its beauty, the creativity and ingenuity of its people, and the hate, foddered by the frustrations due to poor governance, wasted potential, squandered and plundered national resources and violent repression of political freedoms.
It was a moment of great jubilation when Gbenga’s dad was released in June of 1998 after the sudden death of Sunny Abacha. There was an atmosphere of hope as African students looked on at the political proceedings in Nigeria, which we all believed would usher in a new era both in Nigeria and the rest of the continent of Africa. My love for Naija deepened and widened as I tasted snail, dried grass cutter bush meat and palm wine, and stood at the brink of endless possibilities with the others.
Enter Nollywood, home of the Nigerian filim industry, the third largest in the world after Hollywood of the U.S.A and Bollywood of India. So the movies are low budget and sometimes a bit corny, however, if anyone was ever going to create a thriving film industry in Africa, with movies entertaining Africans on the entire continent and in the diaspora, it had to be the Nigerians. I have a collection of over a thousand of these movies which are cheap, sometimes with poor picture and sound quality, but oh so entertaining. It is through these movies that I get a glimpse into my beloved adopted country. From luxurious Victoria Island mansions with piles of garbage on the streets to Ikoyi, to Ikeja and the beaches, as well as to the slum called Adjengule! (It is at the mention of this ghetto that every Nigerian I have met so far becomes convinced that I am a Fulani or Igbo Nigerian, who for numerous valid reasons has decided to disguise my true identity! It is hilarious when from some proper Niaja brother, the outburst of ‘Na lie! You bi Naija babe for real! You no bi Zimbabwean!’ spills out of its own volition.)
The screaming okada riders, the yellow buses, the motor parks and the motor park touts, the man sized potholes and the huge bill boards with Nollywood stars such as Genevieve Nnaji, Chioma Chukwuka, Rita Dominic, Desmond Elliot, Kenneth Okwonkwo etc. all make for a vibrant, electric Lagos, one which I will visit, enshallah (God willing). Some of the most beautiful historically themed movies about village life before colonization are among Nollywood’s offerings. The stories of the traditional rulers, the Igwes and their Lollos in the east and the Obas in the west are fascinating. I have learnt about the Osu, outcasts from normal civic life because their families were sacrificed to deities and the caste system persisted generation after generation. I have even learned some Igbo through watching these quaint films that always leave me nostalgic.
I have also perfected my pidgin through watching Nollywood movies. Much to my husband’s embarrassment, I have been known to break into pidgin the minute I hear that someone is from Nigeria. “My broda, how you dey?” Unfortunately for me not every Nigerian wants to be associated with pidgin, which is a language spoken on the streets and by those without pedigree or good schooling. I think that this is a shame on two levels:
Firstly in a country with many diverse languages, Nigerians (and other West Africans) should be proud that they have evolved a language which they can use to communicate across language barriers. It’s is an inclusive language through which the “oga” can speak to his workers and vice versa, and workers can speak amongst themselves, across tribal lines. For me it symbolizes relaxation and an incorrectness which appeals to me, given the rather hectic lives we lead in the diaspora, and the ever present pressure to speak correctly and to be politically correct. To me its very incorrectness is appealing because it represents the letting go of airs and niceties which often hinder honest,’ stripped to the bare essentials’ communication, through which true progress is made. I sometimes imagine that if peace talks were held in pidgin, the participants would really let it all hang out! A few ‘your mama’s!” would fly but in the end I imagine big finger snapping handshakes and “We go gree! We go let peace reign!”
Secondly, the total bastardization of English is something I absolutely love. The anarchist, non conformist, rebel without a cause in me does a little dance of defiance when I can bend, break and scatter de queen’s own English wit impunity!
Personally, I find pidgin very energy conserving. I like its precision. For example instead of ‘I am going to put the milk in the fridge’ it is “ I go fridge de milk.” Instead of I need to switch off the TV it is “I go off de T.V.” You will understand that for a busy mother of 4, energy conservation is vital for survival. I find myself thinking in pidgin when I am tired.
The scintillating sounds of P-square’s Do me I do you (man no go vex), and raunchy renditions from the Koco Master himself (D’banj) can be heard blasting from my Bose system as I streak across Ann Arbor, ferrying my kids to and from school. At these times I be true Naija chick, bouncing up and down in my seat while my moto vibrates rhythmically. This music is my source of sanity and sunny disposition in the middle of Michigan’s brutal winters, when a weak pallid sun peers from behind grey, snow- pregnant clouds to mock and taunt with its ineffectual rays. I am carried away to the hustling bustling streets of Lagos, where everybody has a terry face cloth to wipe away the humidity/heat induced sweat episodes.
Having had to work very hard to convince Nigerians of my “non-Nigerianess”, I believe I have earned honorary Nigerian citizenship. With citizenship also comes responsibilities, such as being part of the effort to eliminate fraudulent activity among our people, which is tarnishing our country’s image. Fraudsters are ruining the image of the Federal republic and this is not acceptable. We will deal with these never do well types. My contribution to this endeavor to get rid of 419 criminals is, rather than delete their email solicitations for me to gladly send them my money like one big “mugu” ( stupid cash cow), I respond thus:
“Wetin de worri u sef? Tief! God go punish you! May the eggs of a thousand lice infest dat your head and suck all your blood finish! Dis ting weh u de do, com take people moni no good at all at all! I de sorri for your mama weh born you. Ewu! He- goat, foolish man, useless mumu! Come na! Come take my moni see! I go show you peppe! As I dey here so eh? As I dey here so, I de call EFCC quick quick!! If seh na me, I go commot dat internet café faaast! Your own don finish jo! Na detention cell weh go be your home for twenty good years! Na EFCC koboko weh go be your chop and drink nite an day. See, if you write dis rubbish again eh, thunder go fire dat your useless fingers! You tink seh I be Oyinbo or one akata pessin weh u go rob for broad daylite so? Me sef I be bigga criminal dan you! No jus de try me today!!! I dey vex! Wakka for you!
Chief- General Uchenna Ogwenyagba. MM. (Master Masquerade)”
In true Naija style!