Returning from Nigeria, I’m invariably asked what is it like? My response is usually a sentence that involves ‘crazy’. My father, by way of whom I am Nigerian, hates this. Still, I’ve been a lot of places – and so far, Nigeria is the craziest place I’ve been.
To this I must add a disclaimer: my relationship with Nigeria is fraught. In North America, I am black (although not quite, owing to my features that hint at something else). In Nigeria, I am ada beke (white daughter) or onyocha (white), although not quite, because, as my cousin told me, if I moved to Abuja I’d soon become darker than her. The fluidity of race is beautiful, but its consequence can be exclusion. I experience this more in Nigeria than anywhere else, because it’s a place I expected to fit in, and never have. Nigeria confronts me with a culture I belong to but am unfamiliar with, a language that I don’t understand and have seldom had occasion to use and the reality that the accident of my birth removed the possibility of growing up in the village that I write this from. A place where, after the generator is turned off for the night, I sleep in a room so dark that I cannot make out a form next to me. I travel to explore, experience and understand. In Nigeria, my limitations are laid bare: I stay close to home for fear of kidnappers, am a wealthy participant in a vastly unequal society and I struggle to navigate relationships I should understand, but do not. In Nigeria I am faced the disorienting truth of complexity.
Nevertheless, I am going to try to share it with you through a series of stories I will condense into three posts: moving, eating and perambulating.
When my siblings and I were young and wild, my father used to ask ‘why are you guys perambulating around?’ Essentially, it means to go through a place in a leisurely way. Similarly, time has a way of standing still in our village – and the village is where this part of the story begins.
We came to Nigeria to ‘open’ my father’s village house. As I understand it (at least in Igbo land), most Nigerians have a ‘village house’ that they return to for holidays and reprieve from chaotic urban life. However, I found the first images of it alarming – why were we building a house in a village in a country where none of us live?
Upon arriving and surveying the uneven staircase and lime green foyer, I (uncharitably) regarded the house as a Nigerian version of a midlife crisis – a sort of immobile sports car. But as I sprawled out on my bed that evening, my skin already tacky with sweat in spite of my recent shower, I was happy to be beneath a ceiling fan. Sure, its frantic whirling had me wondering about the odds of it becoming unfixed from its bearings, but the point is that I was thankful. I had begun to recognize the house as a refuge.
As the days passed, I found out that the upstairs balcony off my room is a great place for moon gazing and stolen moments of meditation when the compound goes quiet. My uncle plans to build a gazebo amid the palm trees that surround the house, to shelter notoriously raucous conversations from the punishing African sun. I could imagine hosting my friends there on the ever-promised, no-fixed-date trip to Nigeria that we speak of making.
Many of our extended family members and friends came to see the completed house. It was through their eyes that I finally began to understand the real reason for the house, its cultural importance. It might seem obvious, but it hadn’t occurred to me that the house was a sense of pride for the whole family – evidence of shared success and the continuation of a legacy. My cousin repeated how great it was that my 85-year-old grandmother had lived to see the house. As her eldest son, it was my dad’s responsibility to build this house and for the other men of the family to eventually follow suit with the completion of homes of their own. I’ve long known that my father left a part of his heart in Nigeria – I see now that it too needed a shelter.
The topic of hearts leads me to my second story. In Nigeria, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman of a mature age must be in want of a husband. Specifically, a Nigerian one.
And so it was that on the last day of our trip, one of my aunts caught my eye and said ‘Chioma, I want to pray with you’. Given her failure to phrase this as a question, there was only one thing I could do, and so I followed her into a small blue bedroom in my father’s old house. ‘Cover your head’. I did. My cousin who lent me the cloth for my head joined us with my niece. ‘Kneel down’. At the side of the bed, my knees pressed uncomfortably into the carpet. Then the singing began. In the South, the Nigerian gift for singing and dancing has been harnessed into enthusiastic Christian worship. After my aunt and cousin had finished three or four songs I was told it was time to solicit God for what we wanted. My aunt and cousin began a fevered plea to deliver a good Nigerian husband to me. I continued to kneel on the rough floor, hands pressed together, silent. ‘Pray!’ My aunt commanded, pressing the back of my head down towards the mattress. ‘Aloud!’ So I began to speak, happy for my feeble words to be drowned out by their own requests. Next, it was time to repent – ‘Aloud!’ Then, my aunt pulled a small squeeze bottle out of her purse and began dousing us with the ‘blood of Christ’. This had happened before, so I was ready for it. But then, unexpectedly, she pulled my head back, said ‘open your mouth!’ and proceeded to spray the liquid into my mouth faster than I could register what was happening. I fumbled through the last part of our prayers, searching for verses I once knew, trying not to think too deeply about whether blessed untreated water had the same impact as regular untreated water on the gastrointestinal tract.
By design or by prayer, by lunch that same day, my dad’s friend offered to introduce me to a potential Nigerian suitor. The exchange was light-hearted and after cracking a few jokes, conversation moved on. My brother and I decided to perambulate around the village as a type of trip-end decompression. Within about half an hour, the cousin I’d been praying with came rushing to bring me back to the house. Between laughs, she explained that someone had come to the house to marry me. This is what our conversation looked like.
Notice our expressions – I believed someone was there, sure, but not seriously. I let her lead me home.
That is until I saw my mother having a stern conversation with my aunt and uncle explaining that while we deeply respect their culture, this is not what happens where I grew up and so I would not be marrying him. My laughter turned to panic. I always joke about my aunts tricking me into marriage in Nigeria – but this was for real?!?
My mom told me my father had not agreed and that I should go in and be respectful. I needed a few minutes to compose myself.
Apparently he’d seen me walking around a local market and broke the cultural conventions of introduction and courtship because he knew I was about to leave. ‘This is not the way’ was the refrain of my family members, adamant that they had not been involved in his appearance at our house.
I think I believe them. So if it wasn’t their scheme, and it wasn’t my charm – could it have been the water?!? I left before I found out. It’s not always a good idea to wander around at a leisurely pace.