Journey to the Motherland

Journey to the Motherland: A diasporic account of my return back to Nigeria

Preface

 

I left my birthplace of Nigeria in 1998 when I was just two years old, with my mother, to follow my father to Britain. Since then, I had not returned, and I retained no memory of my homeland due to my young age. The Igbo language of my foremothers had not been passed down to me, like twins, it had been due to skip a generation. I asked my mother why she had chosen to stop blessing me with my ancestor’s tongue and she replied to me that she was worried, she was apprehensive. Apprehensive over the sight of me struggling and juggling linguistically with the European and African speech. I was annoyed at this reasoning, as my parents spoke perfect English in addition to their native language, so why was I robbed of the opportunity? From the moment my brain began thinking in total English, a cultural disconnect began. This, coupled with the fact that my parents rarely socialised due to my siblings’ autistic condition, meant that, besides food and church, I knew little about Nigerian culture for the early part of my life. I asked my parents multiple times over the years to take me to Nigeria and they would always reply with ‘Maybe next year’, and then the next year would come and I would still be on British soil. This continued year after year until finally, at the age of 21, in my second year of university, I decided that I would just take myself to my country. I bought my return plane ticket and asked my mother to get in touch with one of my relatives in Lagos so that I would have someone to stay with. It was with this that my journey begins…

 

The journey

 

My African adventure began on the 16th of June, 2017. After packing and prepping and preparing and pondering for months prior, I was ready to go, to leave Britain and see Nigeria for the first time in my living memory. I was armed with an arsenal of Nivea cream, biscuits and shoes from Debenhams, which my mum had ordered for me to bring with me the last minute as a customary gift to my extended family. I found the selection of gifts rather absurd, to be honest, and I was amused at the sight of her scrambling to find something for me to stuff in my suitcase, but I guess it’s the thought that counts. A mixture of emotions fluttered within me on my way to Manchester airport. This was the first long haul flight I had ever taken by myself. At this point, I wasn’t an experienced flier either, as I had only flown a few times and all had been shorter than a few hours beside the germinal trip I had taken with my mother during infancy. Thus my novelty to spending hours on end, in a steel contraption soaring thousands of feet above the ground, (almost hilariously) exposed itself when encountered with the phenomenon of turbulence. Turbulence: the supposedly benign force that likes to pay you a visit in the most charming of situations, just to liven things up a bit during your 10+ hour plane ride. Honestly, every jump of the plane had me terrified that this would be my end, though evidently, I’d lived to tell the tale. The plane would shake and quake at random intervals, and each time I prophesied a gruesome crash. Thankfully, the numerous airborne excursions taken later on in my life have been met with less anxiety. This has chiefly been due to the many trips planned during my year abroad in Italy, which have helped to dull out the menacing sense of doom into light background tension. However, at this point in time, the experience was frightening.

 

Not to dwell on the negative, I was faced with another novelty, at which I marvelled. Nearly everyone on board was black. Perhaps marvelled isn’t the right word, but the fact that I was the racial norm offered me a refreshing feel of snugness to my surroundings. Besides the staff and one or two fellow passengers, I was met with a sea of black faces of varying shades. It felt… nice. Nice to be the norm. Now not to sound ludicrous, but against the backdrop of this, the understanding that I was surrounded by Christians who were praying for everyone’s survival greatly helped to fade out the sense of peril that hung over us all. Nigeria is a very religious country, after all. I imagined myself protected by a sphere of prayers both from the passengers and their families (as well as my own) for a safe journey. Of course, even at the time this sentiment was laughable, but it’s what got me through the flight, and to the other side.

 

Arrival

 

As the plane descended, I felt a sensation of relief to have arrived firmly in one piece. It had not been my time to go! I always tell myself that I am going to live until the ripe old age of 106 and die peacefully in my sleep, and I stand by that prediction. Now, after that first slog another challenge faced me, finding my aunt. I had sent her a few photos of me before embarking, and I was using her WhatsApp profile picture for reference. But this exchange had not prepared me for the fact that the airport had no WIFI service accessible to the public. I was startled at this revelation and quickly had to refigure my original plan of WhatsApp calling my aunty upon landing. Saddled with two heavy suitcases, I was at a loss at what to do with myself. The locals must have been able to smell my agitation; they must have known from my ‘Western’ appearance and demeanour that I was a ‘Johnny just come’. As I waited by the arrivals exit for my aunty to materialise, I was bombarded by unknown men offering to drive me to my destination. I refused not solely because I had no idea where I was supposed to be going, but also because the fear of becoming embroiled in some type of 419 kidnapping scam had crossed my mind a few times. At last, I encountered someone who actually worked for the airport, to help me find my aunty. He gave me his phone to call her number on and directed me to her standing location. I thought that this would have been the end of it, but alas I was wrong. He not so subtly hinted at a tip, which I thought was a rather bizarre request for a person doing what they were employed to do, but different customs apply in different areas of the world. Unfortunately, or maybe, fortunately, I had not exchanged my Pound Sterling into the local Naira currency, so I had no means to pay him with any local tender regardless. Luckily for him, on meeting my aunty she paid him gratuity and he went about his day.

 

Upon meeting my aunt I was greeted with a huge hug and basically implied to have been a catfish. I wish I could say I was joking, but she told me I looked nothing like the photos I’d sent her and proceeded to mildly scold me, for not sending pictures with a more accurate likeness. I think I’ll put that comment down to the wig I was wearing for my own sanity. This aunt, in particular, was called Lillian, ‘Aunt Lily’ I called her. I felt somewhat self-conscious of my imposition of this title as I had not directly referred to anyone as ‘Aunt’ or ‘Aunty’ in a long time, not to mention of course that this lady was practically a stranger to me as the last time I had seen her I had been a baby. Nonetheless, as the days went on, I soon began to feel more comfortable with this reignited familial bond. When we got to her car, my suitcases were heaved into the boot and I met her husband, Uncle Johnson. A nice man. My British money was exchanged for a wad of crisp Naira by an unknown roadside, I had been told by a friend that I would get a higher rate if I waited till I was in Nigeria to exchange, and they were right. By another unknown roadside, my uncle-in-law purchased some suya meat, chopped beef buried in a mountain of interconnected, aromatic seasonings and wrapped up neatly in newspaper. It is a Nigerian delicacy, and I certainly enjoyed. Passing through a number of gates we finally entered the housing compound where my aunt and uncle resided. Many larger houses and even mansions preceded before we reached their more humble, but still handsome, abode. Entering the home, I was immediately embraced by my two young cousins, Belle and Bella. They were twins and just nine at the time. Adorable. The two older children, though still younger than me, Benni (Benjamin) and Mychal also greeted me. At last, I was home.

Lagos

‘Now that I’m in Lagos, I can finally start my African adventure properly!’, I thought to myself. I wanted to go to Lekki, the country’s party hot spot, and experience the nightlife; visit the beaches; go to Banana Island to hopefully run into Tiwa Savage or Wizkid. My aunty, however, had other ideas. ‘Now what are you wearing to church?’, she asked me on my first morning in the continent. Church? Ah… church… of course, that thing. I was hardly thrilled, to say the least. I had assumed that I had been done with that place when I was 14, after my parents finally stopped forcing me to go every Sunday. It had been a vigilant battle between myself and them, in which I had eventually come out victorious, due to a number of circumstances which are too detailed to discuss right now. The only thing that I ever enjoyed about Church was the food, and the church that my aunty planned on taking me to was 100% praise and worship, 0% food.

I quickly ruffled through my suitcase to find something appropriate to wear, I had mainly packed crop tops. Luckily I had packed a colourful shirt with me, almost with the foresight of something like this occurring. I paired my shirt with a semi-smart pair of black trousers (that I can no longer fit in), and my new brown sandals which I had bought the day before travelling. ‘Modest, yet fashionable’ I told myself, while eyeing my outfit in the mirror. Aunty had made me scrambled egg and yam for breakfast, which I ate with intrigue. The humble dish gave me a satisfying novelty to consume, I felt like a true Nigerian.

After breakfast, the whole family was ready to leave for Church. As I entered my aunt’s car I was struck by the blistering heat of the leather seat, as it touched my skin. The seat was so hot that you could quite literally cook something on it. I was shocked by the intensity of the heat, much to aunt Lily’s entertainment, and also astonished by the local’s apparent resilience to it. My aunt said that you get used to it, I took her word for it. Travelling in two separate cars, one driven by my aunty and the other by my uncle, we arrived together at one of the innumerable houses of Christian worship in the city. I do not remember the name of this particular one, religion is a deeply embedded institution in Nigeria and all the different buildings and names blend into one. Thanks to the State of the Art air conditioning in the Church it was very cool inside, almost too cool. I guess this is what the offerings pay for though. The service lasted an uncounted number of hours, as I had been zoning in and out of it all afternoon. My black feminist sense tingled at the assertion that a woman should kneel for her husband once every few months, as a sign of respect. Submission is what they called it. ‘That is so sexist.’, I remarked to my aunt, my face twisted in disapproving expression of what I was seeing and hearing. She smirked and told me that I’ll come to see the necessity of it in due time. I most certainly won’t. The highlight of my time was holding an acquaintance of my aunt and uncle’s baby, I won’t go into detail about my adoration of miniature humans, but the experience was delightful.

My aunty is a Church deacon, something which she informed me of proudly. What this basically means is that she is the most authoritative female figure in the Church. Although I care little for rankings within organised religion, I was immensely impressed by her achievement. The downside to this, however, was that the whole family was expected to attend service more frequently than the standard once a week. I went to Church 3 times and sat through an evening household prayer during the 10 days I was in Nigeria, 2 of the occasions were normal Sunday service and the other time was a Wednesday night vigil that happens monthly. Just my luck that I’d made it! Every session of worship was an appendage to the last. The night vigil seemed to have lasted for an eternity, and I hope to not have to experience anything like that again in the near future, if ever. I didn’t get to go to sleep until 5am.

One thing that I will note with further expansion was the time I saw a pregnant girl outside the Church gates. She looked about 13 and was there with her mother talking to the pastor. Instantly I was disgusted, disgusted at the implications running through my head that were proven to be accurate. She was a village girl who had been ‘given’ to a significantly older man and had fallen pregnant as an unsavoury result. This sight served to remind me that Lagos was not all glitz and glamour; certain village mentalities regarding female sexual agency still permeated the State and this girl was a manifestation of such. Stunned, I demanded to know whether my Uncle would allow such a situation to happen with Belle and Bella, who were close in age. He immediately replied no, almost amused at the supposition of such a thing happening. This alleviated my tension greatly, yet I still to this day think about that young girl.

More exciting activities filled my stay, which made up for my rather monotonous start. Accompanied by Mychal, the oldest child aged 16 at the time, we took to exploring the gated residential area which enclosed us. An array of modest homes, large houses and grand mansions surrounded us. I was amazed at the diversity, yet uniformity of the buildings. Each was unique, yet none looked out of place in the area. We walked and talked, sharing our favourite music genres and artists. I quizzed him on Grime and UK rap, he mirrored me with questions on Afrobeat songs and singers. I told him that Wizkid was my favourite Afrobeat singer – stereotypical I know, but true. As we neared the guarded gate which divided our small neighbourhood from the main road that cut through Ikeja, the Capital of the Capital, Mychal eagerly derailed our stroll to inform me that we were at P Square’s house. I was relatively star struck; ‘to think, my aunty lives in the same spot as P Square’ I thought to myself. P Square are a musical duo, and most young West African people, living natively or abroad, know who they are. I had to get a picture to show my friends back home (my British home anyway), and I did.

motherland 1

The strange position I occupied as a tourist, yet a native, in my home country really resonated with me while I was taking pictures, such as these, as mementoes. It’s a unique space that only people of the diaspora are able to enter, whether that be the Asian, African or Caribbean diaspora. Sometimes the latter two merge into one socio-political identity, in which the term ‘African diaspora’ (or the more straightforward ‘Black diaspora’) encompass a global network of all people of direct African descent living outside of Africa.

 

I had expressed to my aunty when I had arrived that my main goal was to purchase jewellery and materials for clothes making at the market.

motherland 2.png

‘Ankara’ print, they call it, beautiful fine pieces of cotton fabric in an assortment of prints and patterns. The history of how Ankara came to have such a strong West African association is quite ironic. The fabrics were actually brought over by Dutch business people as a means of trade in the region. Evidently, we took to it with great enthusiasm. Mainly being produced in the Netherlands, the materials have little African roots, beyond our incorporation of them into traditional wear since the 1800s. It’s a conflicting revelation to deal with because so much diasporic cultural identity is tied to the attire, but I’ve come to the resolution that imperialist impact is inevitable. Moreover, our adoption of Ankara print so diffusely shows that it still operated as a signifier of West African and Nigerian cultural identity. I compare it to Indomie noodles, something which no Nigerian has not heard of, despite it being manufactured in Indonesia.

 

There’s a small shop in Newcastle (where I’ve lived since age 13, though I do not regard it as my hometown), that sells lots of ‘ethnic’ (i.e., not ethnically white) jewellery and trinkets. They boast an array of Afrocentric necklaces and earrings from Kenya, which I have purchased after much internal deliberation over the ethics of such consumption. The shop is owned by two white people. The manager often travels to Kenya to buy jewellery from the markets there to resell in England. I’d often wonder to myself whether doing this as a European, to then sell at a 400% mark up in the UK, was morally sound. However, I reasoned with myself that they would always be fully transparent over where their stock came from; their business did help the local Kenyan economy; and without their enterprise, I would not have been able to come into contact with such beautiful ornaments, certainly not in Newcastle anyway. The last point is what sealed the deal for me. Furthermore, one of my Nigerian-British friends who had recently been to the country told me of her going to the tailor to get clothes personally made for her, at 1/10th of the price you’d come across in England. As a fashionista, this was a huge selling point for me. 

 

Pardon the rather long digression, but I had to set the context of my primary desires to make my account more informative. Now back to the main story, my aunt of course agreed to take me, first to the local market and then to the much larger one that was more central. The trip to the local market was principally to buy food and hair extensions, as I wanted to get my hair done in faux locs at the Dove beauty salon near my aunty’s house. The hustle and bustle of just the local market alone was enough to engage my senses with a multitude of colours, sounds and smells, which thoroughly enthralled my globetrotter being.

 

Here are some pictures which I feel capture the spirit of the local market I visited. As a Westerner, I didn’t want to make the native market-goers the ‘objects’ of my photos for fear of encouraging colonialist undertones. Rather, I wanted to make them the subjects of my images and show them as multi-dimensional beings against the indigenous backdrop:

The local Ikeja stalls were merely the prelude for the even grander and busier Balogun market, which Aunt Lily drove me to. Sprawling across a concrete network of fabric, clothing and jewellery stalls, it is one of the most notable markets in Lagos and Nigeria.

The drive to Balogun was treacherous, to say the least. The driving in Lagos is something of international significance, due to how utterly haphazard the road conduct is. According to a recent study, it has been shown to be the third-worst city to drive in the world, just to put it into perspective. If I could include a video to illustrate the things I saw along the city’s motorways I would, as no description can give justice to the farce that I saw. There were motorcyclists and their passengers riding without a helmet, some of the passengers even sat sideways while they zigzagged through the numerous industrial-sized lorries and vans that occupied the same main road. Old, weathered pickup trucks carried groups of passengers to their destination in the back. Some men were even standing at the back. Buses, which looked like they were about to combust at any second, clunked along. 20 or so people seemed to have been crammed into an automobile that was designed to fit half the amount.

I internally cringed at the thought of what would happen if there was to be a collision. Lagos interstate motor travel had developed in line with my aunt’s evolution into a Lagosian, having lived here now for nearly two decades. She was used to the driving, but I was not; I was horrified by what I saw. I wound down the windows to cool down the internal heat of the car and was hit with the overpowering smell of carbon emission. The pollution in the air there is something I had noticed whenever I veered towards any main road in the city, but the stench grew ten-fold when I was actually encompassed within its direct source. The odour lingered as we finally reached the main market, though the smell of fossil fuel secretion had now dulled down to be taken over by a mixture of market scents. An aromatic combination of carbon, sweat and food filled the air.

Just like at the airport, the locals could sense that I was not one of them. I was hounded by sellers asking me to come and purchase or further inspect their good with every glance, or cursory turn of my head. ‘London!’ they shouted at me. ‘I’m not from London’, I would respond. They used ‘London’ interchangeably with the ‘UK’, so that when I would say I’m not from London, instead of drawing clues from my accent, a number of different country suggestions would be thrown at me. ‘America! Australia! Italy!’. Even my own aunt and cousins would mistakenly ask me about London, under the impression that I lived there or close, as opposed to a 3+ hour train ride away. Sometimes their faces would crumple as I spoke, they were unable to understand the words I delivered, despite me speaking in a perfectly neutral English tone. At this point, I was used to this, as my aunt and the rest of my extended family would ask me to repeat myself often. I could understand them entirely, thanks to my parents’ retention of their homeland accent, yet they could barely comprehend me. This may sound upsetting, but I was more so annoyed than anything else, especially at the verbal harassment. I wanted to be able without being under the looming pressure of having the buy something there and then. Having said that, I understand that the appearance of a ‘foreigner’ means big business to local vendors, so I can’t fault them as much as they irritated me. My aunt and I scoured all over Balogun, looking for the perfect jewellery, fabrics and accessories. I bought some beautiful bracelets for the equivalent of 25p each, as well as a mountain of different prints and designs to take to the tailor later on. The local stalls and markets in Nigeria are a sight to see and behold, they’re a flurry of animation, and I hope to visit more across Africa, in the near future.

Revelations

The aforementioned night vigil was towards the end of my stay. We’d all arrived home tired and exhausted from the night of worship, though my aunt and I congregated in the living room. I was recounting my trip to Kaduna, which I had taken to see my dad’s side of the family a few days prior. Somehow, we ended up on the discussion of my siblings. Nnenna and David are two of my three younger siblings, and they both have severe autism. My mother had, unknown to me, kept It a secret from the rest of her family since she’d had them. Aunt Lilly knew that they had some type of disability, but she was totally unaware to the extent, or what autism even really was. ‘The first time I’d heard of this autism dis ting was when you told me about it’ she said. I was thoroughly surprised that my mum had managed to keep the details of their condition hidden for so long, 17 years at this point, or 14 I guess if you start counting from the diagnosis date. Everything suddenly started making sense. Why she’d left and never returned; why she was so hesitant for me to go back; why I knew nothing about my Nigerian kinfolk beyond a few awkward ‘Hello’, ‘Chinny how are you?’, ‘I’m fine’ on the telephone. I asked my aunty why she didn’t tell you, and her voice broke. ‘She said that she didn’t want to be a burden’. My heart felt heavy. She asked about me and how I’ve coped with it, and my heart, too heavy to hold in the emotion, burst into a sea of tears. I simply briefed to her that it had been hard. I didn’t have the composure to build upon that there and then. My aunt must have still been full from the spirit of prophecy after church, as she gripped my hand to start praying with me. She declared healing onto them and the rest of my family. I was cynical, but I did not object. We sat there and talked and cried until dawn.

Concluding thoughts

My soul lies in England, though my being rose from Nigeria,

An Igbo girl taken away from the village,  the village taken out of me,

My identity is a hybrid of Naija and UK,

Caught in a crossroads between being the subject and the object,

Of Western Imperialist thoughts.

I present now my African adventure,

My return to the Motherland,

My Journey into myself.

3 thoughts on “Journey to the Motherland

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