African in Africa

I believe we start on a path for a reason, and that in most cases, it’s because we’re meant to learn something. People often study abroad to immerse themselves in a new culture or simply to experience life in a different country. In the fall of 2013, I went north of Africa, and studied for a semester in Morocco. The program was SIT’s Field Studies in Journalism and New Media. My choice was inspired by the program’s direct relation to my course of study and its location in Africa. Somehow, attending college on another continent had made me yearn to learn about mine with a zeal that I didn’t feel when I was home in Nigeria.

Morocco was at once very familiar to me. It was familiar in how people crossed the train tracks directly, instead of taking the stairs from one side to the other. It was familiar in the beat-up cars and taxis driving alongside newer, fancier models. It was familiar in the immediate-tan heat, the pungent marketplace with fresh meat displayed within arms’ reach, fresh fruit looking straight off a tree. The marketplaces were like home, where music blared from no-door shops with their wares hanging down like forest vines. I felt like I “knew” Morocco. But this knowledge didn’t translate to comfort.

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I remember one night at my host family’s house, I was up late doing homework, and then, I smelled the toilet. I was more than a little annoyed, and it was a culmination of different events. My thought process: “why can’t people flush the toilet.” This later led to, “why do I always smell fish in our stairway?” That somehow connected to, “how could someone just leave my laptop on the couch unplugged and let the battery die, don’t they know the computer hangs when it comes back on?” Then I had a little mental rant, revolving around Africa and Africans and “these people.” At which point I realized that I needed to catch myself. There was something wrong with how I sounded. Therefore, at 4 am in the morning, I gave myself a talking to, something along the lines of, “where the hell do you think you come from?”

I grew up relatively privileged in Lagos state. My family was lower middle-class, bordering on poor, but our sensibilities were definitely above our class. My parents are speech consultants and were formerly radio broadcasters. My father was trained by the British Broadcast Corporation (BBC). Teachers would always call on me to read in class and I would, with my British accent. When I was a child I learned piano, then violin. On Saturday mornings I had Taekwondo lessons at Ikoyi club. On Sunday mornings, we had Kellogg’s cornflakes with homemade burgers and omelettes. However, my father drove a ’92 BMW that spewed smoke and made funny drum-like sounds. My three siblings and I slept on a bunk bed three levels high instead of two, in a tiny room that we shared with a “house-help.” My mother bought her meat from the open-air butcher’s sheds, where birds lined up on the roof waiting to swoop down for scraps. We bought foodstuff not at a fancy supermarket, but at Yaba Market, navigating the spaces between bodies, down dark narrow aisles lined with dimly lit trader’s shops on both sides. As a child I always dreaded walking past the chicken coop because it smelled terrible.

The truth is that, all these experiences that I had in Morocco were not unfamiliar to me. I grew up in these surroundings. What did it mean for me to now reject them? In order to function fully in Morocco, I had to ask myself these questions, because I was a barrier to fitting in, in a place that should have felt like home.

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A friend suggested I read Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized. I took his advice and discovered that never had one book summed up my conflict like this book did. Memmi studied colonized peoples and in his book, proposed that the colonized aspires to be equal to the colonizer, and therefore imitates his clothes, mannerisms, food, and music tastes, among others. Then there comes a breaking point where the price the colonized pays for this transition becomes too much. The colonized has taken on negative attitudes of the colonized and views his people through that negative lens. He fixes this when he then, “accepts and asserts himself with passion.” During this period I finished reading Chimamanda’s Americanah and it got me thinking about the ways in which some of us Nigerians erode ourselves to fit into Western society or to appear economically superior. Granted, I naturally grew up westernized as a result of my upbringing, but that wasn’t all there was to my picture.

Living in Morocco helped me connect to my “Nigerian-ness” in a way that I might not have if I had stayed there. It was while riding a bus, very much like Lagos’ BRT, that I articulated in my head, “this life is not beyond me.” I don’t plan to go around shouting and claiming Nigeria…that might never be me. The things I love about Nigeria are very personal. It’s the scent of the rain, the atmosphere of driving over Third Mainland bridge on certain evenings, or the harmattan haze on Saturday mornings. I never really had a sense of national pride; give me a few more years and a lot more living and reading and it might happen. I’m Nigerian. Nigeria is where I was born and raised. It’s where the bulk of my family lives. It’s what I sound like when I’m angry. It’s in the shape of my nose and the thickness of my hair. The country shaped a lot of my sensibilities and the way I see the world. For me this conclusion is more of a welcome acceptance. It’s less a shout of pride and more a statement of fact. It’s like quietly finding where I belong in everything; like coming home.