Hailing from Abia State, Nigeria, Marvellous Iheukwumere is a recent graduate of Columbia University. She is currently an Associate at the NBA, where she rotates through different departments and experiences various aspects of Sports Business and Marketing. Marvellous currently resides in New York City. She enjoys running track, traveling, and cooking.
Press Play. Mondays mean a lot to me. April 2, 2001 was the first Monday that changed my life – literally. Here I was, age nine, aboard a Lufthansa flight, clad in a typical church dress for a nine-year-old girl. On top of my typical church dress, I wore a puffy sweater and a bright red coat. The plane finally descended and the flight attendants screeched, “Welcome to Austin, Texas, we hope you enjoy your stay!”
Pause. So this was it. My twenty-three hour journey to America was complete. My first airplane ride was over, but the rest of my life in America was about to begin. However, in my nine-year old mind, I never thought that I was moving to my new home. It felt like vacation, it felt like two weeks later I would be back in Nigeria with my cousins, watching Pinky and the Brain and eating fried plantains with fried eggs, and custard for breakfast. I didn’t know that after April 2, 2001, I wouldn’t see Nigeria until I was sixteen years old.
Rewind. My father put down our names for the US Visa Lottery sometime before 2001, and we just so happened to win green cards to come to America. My mother never wanted to come, but after praying about it and thinking about how the decision would affect my future, she decided to go. At the time, nothing was explained to me. I was just toggled from one hospital to another, from one important government building to another, from Aba to Lagos, from Lagos to Aba, and then finally from Lagos to Austin, Texas. I never got to say bye to all of my friends (but, do we ever?), nor did I know how to explain where I was going. We left. And, it didn’t hit me until I was living in America, a place I could only dream of, because before coming here, I did not know what it looked like.
Pause. When I finally came to America and experienced what it was like to live here, I immediately realized that this was not a vacation. I was here to stay and I would be expected to sound like the rest of my new classmates, and learn how to be American. But, it was difficult because all of my life it was rice and stew, Igbo in the house, okada rides, NEPA, pure water-pure water, cabin biscuits, Indomie, masquerades, kerosene lamps, suya, Channel O, Kanayo O. Kanayo movies, and Willy-Willy. No one ever had a problem pronouncing my last name and no one asked me if my name was an English version of a Nigerian word. I was just Marvellous Iheukwumere, no questions. But, in America, on my first day of school, my teacher asked, “What is your REAL name?”
Play. I assimilated. I became the American version of me. By the time I was in 10th grade, no one believed me when I said I was from Nigeria. They said, “But you don’t have an accent, But you’re light-skinned, But you don’t look Nigerian, But you can’t be, But you have long hair, But your English is so good”… the “Buts” continued, and the “Buts” still exist now. Even people from Nigeria raise these doubts… “But you look like an ‘akata’” (last heard in September 2014).
Pause. If looking like an “akata” makes me less of a Nigerian, then I’m sure my ability to fluently speak, read, and write Igbo covers up for that. Or maybe the fact that my stomach isn’t satisfied unless I have eaten rice and stew, fufu and okra soup, and downed some malt also makes up for not looking Nigerian…whatever that means.
Fast Forward. Now, I am twenty-two. In May, I graduated from Columbia University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. During my elementary, middle school, and high school days, I worked on refining my assimilation. But, it was during college that I felt and showed the most pride in being Nigerian. It was the first place where my “Nigerianness,” where my “Omo Naija” meant something, and differentiated me in a good way. It was the place where I could share familiar stories with fellow Nigerians, and also hear about different coming to America stories. It was the first time I felt like a little piece of home was still with me. Puff-Puff in the student center hall, Dbanj and WizKid blaring from the speakers, Honey YouTube series and discussions on current affairs in Nigeria; all these things reminded me of everything I thought I had lost when I arrived on April 2, 2001.
Fast Forward 2X to Summer 2014. All was not lost. After my college graduation, I went home to Nigeria for five weeks. I originally went home to compete in the Nigerian National Track and Field Championships. I was supposed to be there for about a week, but I chose to stay longer because I fell in love with Nigeria; this time it was a true, meaningful, mature, adult love. I felt so much pride while running at the national competition. The opportunity to run in front of my people and to be identified as an athlete for Nigeria meant so much to me. I hadn’t sung the Nigerian anthem in thirteen years, and being able to revel in the sounds of voices singing, “one nation bound in freeeeeedom, peace and unity” brought back a lot of the childhood joys I thought I had lost. Even the simple fact that the announcers could pronounce my name with ease was comforting. Leaving the track and going back to the hotel to eat traditional Nigerian food was even better.
Pause. During my time in Nigeria, I visited different states, and experienced the diversity of Nigerian culture. From exploring the night life in Calabar, to eating isiewu in Aba, and to my first mall experience in Victoria Island, I began to re-appreciate Nigeria, and to notice the boundless opportunities. When you leave your motherland for a long time and come back to it as a mature young adult, you have this new-found love, and zeal to blaze a path, to leave a footprint. Nigeria is only fifty-four years old, so there’s room for me to make an impact. My land, my people, my heritage deserve to see me more than once every six years.
Press Play. If you had talked to me five years ago, I probably would have never entertained the idea of having a professional career in Nigeria. At age seventeen, my mind was simply not there. Today, at twenty-two, my mind is there and I have this awareness of what it means to be a “Naijapolitan.” Green, White, Green are not just three basic colors to me, they’re the foundation of my identity. It’s the reason why I say, “I’m from Nigeria, I lived in Texas for a little bit, and I went to college in New York City.” No harsh feelings towards America. It’s just that home is where the heart is. As I sojourn through this new chapter of my adult life, I want to continue to re-explore Nigeria, and to find where my hands can make a difference.
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