Wherever You Go, There You Are
In the beginning, there was a transition. In snake-like fashion, I shed my skin, worn off like an old cloak, the beginning of an evolution. On the day I was leaving Lagos, I watched the small flurries of white and gray clumps of dirt and dried skin swirl around the drain and disappear. Standing there in front of a purple bucket, a white plastic bowl floating buoyantly on the top, pouring cold water all over my body, I knew that I would transition again as soon as I stepped off the plane at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. My hands would glide on the railings, and the immigration officer would look at my new American passport, and nod with approval at United Kingdom noted underneath Place of Birth, and I would drag my hand luggage away while he would try to come to terms with the disconnect. My life in Nigeria as I knew it had come to an end, and I was happy to leave. I did not want to see or hear about how things were abnormally wrong, how our government was not functioning adequately, and how the people who could not fight were suffering. I was young and extremely sensitive growing up in Nigeria, everything that was inconsistent hurt, I was more than ready to leave and never come back.
My experience growing up in Lagos had made me a fiercely internal and paranoid person. I did not understand Nigeria, living there made me entirely negative about the country’s future. I thought I was escaping. At the airport, my father held me on the shoulders and said to me, “Nne (Nne is an igbo term of endearment), do not forget where you came from” and I told him that I wouldn’t. As the plane took off, and the small seeds of nostalgia and homesickness settled in my stomach I wondered, “Where exactly do I come from?” Nigeria is a patriarchal society, so primarily I knew that I came from my father’s village in Imo State, even though I had lived in Lagos my entire life.
As I settled in New Jersey that night, I opened my Facebook and lingered on the “from” section in my About profile. I boldly chose Lagos, Nigeria, asserting to my would be American friends that this is where I was from, not a vegetation jungle, but a concrete one just like New York, with more people, more colors, more humanity; they could Google it. I imagined my father stumbling on my Facebook that night, narrowing his eyes and muttering indistinctly at how quickly I had forgotten our village back in Imo State; the place he felt was primarily where I came from. This is my Afropolitanism, my nuanced identity caving in and out of different worlds that piled on each other. I did not recognize then that I was a layered person because of all these geographical experiences, and eventually I would no longer feel the need to choose one place.
Moving to America at sixteen changed me entirely as a person. I thought I had escaped the divide I experienced with my peers in Nigeria—I had never really fit in anywhere. Little did I know, that Wherever you go, there you are, that displacement was a constant part of my identity and it would be even more amplified as I settled down to suburban American life in a high school where I was the second black person in my class. But the concept of Afropolitanism did not develop till I moved suitcases and lamps in the trunk of an old Mazda to a lower level Brownstone in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Recently, there have been various schools of thought vying for the elimination or acceptance of the word “Afropolitanism.” Writers like Binyavanga Wainana expressed at the African Studies U.K. association, “I am a Pan-Africanist, not an Afropolitan” and Taiye Selasi, who famously coined the term, has watched the conversation grow from this seed she planted.
In the midst of friends sitting down in an apartment near the Savoy in Harlem, I realized that in many ways I was both, and so were the people around me. Just like Taiye Selasi, I knew of computer engineers who DJ’ed at African parties at night, lawyers who were visual artists or writers on the side, PhD students who created apps to advance Africa’s future in the tech space. I was overwhelmed and continually humbled by this experience, this need to be more than the well drawn lines of success we seem to have in our communities as Africans, where one can only be lawyer, doctor, engineer, banker, or nurse. Internally, there was also much conflict to come to terms with. Why did I hate Nigeria as a child? And why was the feeling not going away? Why was I so critical of her now, more than ever? Why on earth did I read Flora Nwapa for the first time in my Africana studies class in college? Why was my childhood filled with Enid Blyton and The Famous Five when there were African stories for children that were not being told? Then I thought to blame someone for this feeling of traditional incomplete.
Could I blame my parents? My father, with his canned Americanism on one side and his Igbo sensationalism on the other? My mother and her western upbringing, her painful experiences as a woman in Nigeria? What ultimately was my cornerstone of belonging? Where did I truly belong? How could I be an Afropolitan, an African of the world, who still could not hold tight to home or her current metropolitan area of residence? How could where I was going be clear when I did not want to revisit where I came from? There was no one left to take the responsibility but myself.
In 2008 I returned to Nigeria briefly for “winter break.” It was ironic, being greeted by a harsh heat wave leaving the airport while my skin struggled to adjust in the form of sunburns from my neck to my waist. I thought Black people don’t get sunburn? I stared out of the window at the streets and peered at the faces of the hawkers selling their goods, the orphaned Shuwa Arab children from neighboring Chad lingering window by window in bumper-to-fender Lagos traffic, the increase in tinted luxury cars on the street, the rich moving in swift silence, the poor slipping through the cracks, and I wondered if it had always been this way or if I was just growing up.
Nigeria had an undeniable problem, and it was enigmatic, this problem. Cased in complaints like: We haven’t had light since November oh! Just running on diesel. Can you imagine? The landlord refused to let me sign the lease without my husband present. This government has refused to pay me for my work for about two years now. But I was happy to be home. It didn’t make sense, to come back to a country where so much was missing in the people, and even in me, yet I still felt whole. The food: I could taste what it was supposed to be, not a bland version submerged in pesticides and genetic modification.
My father’s village which we visited every Christmas, was still the same. There was a sea of black faces around me, all in institutions of power, regularity, or trying to evolve past the constraints of poverty and corruption. Black was normal. But as the weeks passed, another form of longing filled me. I wanted to go home. I wanted to go back to America. It made sense to me, I was American also, and New Jersey was my home, too. Both places filled certain holes in me. Where Nigeria had punctured me, America had healed, and where America had been inadequate, my culture had uplifted. It was an unexpected symbiosis.
Perhaps I could never be a Pan-Africanist because my complaints were numerous and I was not one to sugar coat the bitter truth about our continent and the problems we faced, and perhaps I’m really not an Afropolitan because I did not also want to characterize myself as the other. In the end, I was only myself. There were problems everywhere; I knew this. Nigeria has her cultural beauty, enigmatic people, insatiable corruption, ethnic and class conflict and disparity. America has a morally deprived racial history hiding under a false mask of impunity, and her inert corruption problem. I could not escape Nigeria in America.
She was in the news every day, on Kudirat Abiola way in Midtown East New York, in the taxi drivers who picked me up from the train station, in my history textbooks in high school when we talked about Olaudah Equiano. As far as I knew, in America I was paralyzed by her presence. Wherever you go, there you are. I was the only constant in these spheres, and I decided to let go of my guilt, that being Afropolitan or Pan-Africanist meant that I had to choose. I realized once again in Murtala International Airport as my parents waved goodbye and I held back tears that I did not have to choose.
To some people that would be a betrayal: I needed to be completely African and accept the west as an after part of my identity, the succession to my African experience. And to the people here in America who marveled at the way I pronounced my “t’s” in twenty, they wanted to know what I would choose if I had to live in one world or the other. My identity in both worlds is constantly straddling a fence, or in an envious embrace from the people who do not have a choice. But I refuse to choose, because my Afropolitanism is a blessing, and sometimes an escape—because both worlds can be dark and heavy—and that is not a privilege most people have.
Written by Sheba Anyanwu
Photo credit: jetphoto.net