Musings on Home From a Nigerian-American

As I approach 34 years old, I find myself thinking more about the idea of home and wondering if I’ve found it. I enjoy conversations with transnational Millennials grappling with the same question. With the hyper pace of globalization, constructs of home continue to evolve and I find it all so fascinating.

The timeliness of this matter syncs with U.S. President Donald Trump adding six more countries to his list of countries facing travel restrictions.

“Where are you from?”

“Where are you based?”

For today’s wanderlust-driven professional, that’s a loaded question, because even when you present an answer, the answer is usually challenged.

So while considering the “wanderluster” tribe and the third culture kids of the diaspora, I put some thoughts about home on paper.

When I was about two years old, my mother scooped me up with my little sister and together we left Nigeria, headed for the United States of America to join dad. We settled into our new home and at such a young age, the displacement didn’t hurt me immediately. But, it was the growing up in America that did, with the frequent expectations to explain myself and my personhood, having to justify my right to matter. I ended up living in America for almost three decades, yet many people saw me as African, not American.

Probably because I flaunted "African" like it was a new purse. Man, I was secretly happy to be so African. Nigerian, really. Mom kept reminding me — we’re not Americans. We’re Nigerian. She kept the Kenmore fridge filled with jollof rice and egusi soup.

So all that time in America, I never called myself American. No way, I was Nigerian to the core. Man, I pushed my Nigerian-ness so hard that I almost fell off the boat doing it. But little did I know that I was becoming more American than I realized. I’d somehow missed that macaroni, spaghetti and sandwich meats had over time taken over the fridge. Bits of the culture had already penetrated my brown skin, swirling the tones around and bending my tongue so far that when I visited Nigeria for the first time at age 20 or 21, my cousins and uncles and aunties said in streams of sheepish (or was it nervous?) giggles that I talk like a white woman. You be oyibo! Chai! I wasn’t sure whether to cry or to laugh. I just wanted them to stop saying that.

And there in Nigeria in the place where I was born, people called me American, not Nigerian. Not "one of them." But something else. Someone else. American. And some said it with so much light dazzling in their eyes that I had to look away. All the awestruck gazing didn't sit well with my soul. It just didn't sit well at all.

Being a transnational third culture kid (that term first used by American sociologist and anthropologist, Dr. Ruth Hill Useem) with a hyphenated nationality like Nigerian-American may seem cool and it has its perks, yeah, but I can’t forget the microaggressions that slapped my childhood face. Some slaps left marks that I still can’t cover. Some slaps took away things that I’m still trying to recover. So I’m sensitive in some parts, you understand. I’m sensitive.

Because school wasn’t fun on the days when the kids decided to laugh at my name, saying "Chika" sounds a whole lot like chicken and wondering why I was wearing clothes when I was "supposed to be African." I didn’t bring any pet elephant to school. In fact, I didn’t even have pets. Mom said Nigerians don’t have pets. A visit from grandma left me saying things like, "Off de light." In class, I didn’t carry on in a manner that the other kids understood, therefore I was misunderstood. I slipped inside myself and stayed there for a very long time.

I took to hiding in school restrooms year after year, climbing up to perch on toilet stalls to hide my immigrant self from my red-white-and-blue classmates sparkling in the hallways.

One day, I got off the toilet and moved to Kenya. 2010. Then to Nigeria. 2012. I went looking for home. I was 26. I went to embrace | I went to explore | I went to dig | I went looking for where they buried my umbilical cord | I went to the village where I was born | I went to pay my respects to this idea we call home, but what to do when the people back home keep telling you that you’re lost? Say you’ve been away from home for too long? They branded my head with a smoking hot label: Americanah.

My American-influenced sensibilities struggled to accept what people kept telling me were the norm and status quo in Nigeria like the blatant discrimination against women, the senseless tribalism, the crude thievery of public money by elected officials, the rich man shouting mad at the poor man in disturbing public displays of classicism, being taken for a mumu (clueless simpleton) because I was raised in the US, the combustible religious politics that tells Muslim kids and Christian kids to never trust each other, the stifling limitations on females, the piercing screams of a child getting whipped by a mother who insist she’s only trying to discipline the child.

Trauma unmanaged morphs into chronic agony.

I moved to Senegal.

I’m turning 34 this year and I’m still looking for home. (Start playing U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For). What can I say about it? I can say home is complicated. It’s bittersweet. It’s sweet. It’s joy. It’s sadness. It’s displacement. It’s sacred. It’s where you leave your photo album, your bookshelf, your favorite jewelry, your cookbooks. It’s where you sleep, where you laugh, love, live, eat, work, pray. After living in Senegal, Kenya, America, Nigeria and visiting other places, I’ve finally come around to appreciate my American-ness. I’m red, white and blue, green, white and green, yellow, black - the red is for the blood. Always.

I’m holding my dual nationality even closer to my heart in a time when borders are closing and visas are restricted because I adore it. It gives me complexity and nuance and a coloration that there isn’t even a name for. I stand with my feet rooted in many places. I’ve tasted goodness in those places.

I stumble when anyone asks me, "Where are you based?"

The thing is, I have homes. I have addresses and that’s alright. Maybe it’s even good somehow. And when I go to Awkuzu and my grandmother there in the village hugs me and says ‘welcome, this is your home,’ that’s alright, too. I am a daughter of the soil.

So I’m curious. Where is your home?



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Chika Oduah

Africa-centric news, notes and observations from a journalist | poet | photographer | filmmaker | writer travelling through Africa *