I thought ‘you don’t look Nigerian’ was a compliment

In the wake of Trump’s battle to ban muslims from the US, notions of citizenship, race and nationalism has caused me to reflect upon something that I have personally battled with my whole life. As a British-Nigerian with dual citizenship but choosing to reside in neither of these countries, the question of “where are you from” is often a question that causes me a certain level anxiety.  The naive interrogator who asks me has no idea how much reflective analysis that I require to answer what on the surface may appear to be a relatively innocent question. Yet, I am conflicted between responding in a way that is pleasing to the ears of the questioner but also pleasing to myself.

“Don’t be fooled by the rocks I ain’t got,
I’m not, I’m not Abi from the block,
I used to have a lot, now and I have a little,
No matter where I am, I know where I came from
*screams* LAGOS, NIGERIA”

Believe it or not, this is a song I remixed during swimming class from Jennifer Lopez’s 2002 smash hit “Jenny from the Block“. For those who are unfamiliar with the anthem, the song boasts how despite J-Lo’s huge fame, she is still proud of her humble beginnings. Yet, here is 8-year-old me, identifying with this song but not in the way one may expect from a young child growing up in a dangerous council estate in Hackney. At such a tender age in primary school, I was all too conscious of the fact that I was not born in  East London’s Homerton Hospital like the rest of my peers. I was different. I was actually from Nigeria, something my mum would constantly remind my brother and I of. I never explicitly identified as British, yet alone English, as being black I didn’t even see it as an option. However trying to identify as Nigerian as a foreigner to Nigeria itself was not an easy task either. My mum  did not want us to lose our sense of culture (despite having never spoken to us in Yoruba nor Igbo) and thus treated us as if we were still in Lagos. “In Nigeria this…” ,”When I was young I would do this” Mum would always say. Sometimes I felt that we were made to feel guilty for not adopting the culture of “back home”. But how could I? I knew nothing about Nigeria other than what I had seen in some Nollywood movies and at the same time thought it was as destitute as the Oxfam advertisements would make you believe of any African country.

Thus it was no surprise that when my cousin Dayo came to visit us in England from Nigeria, I was not only surprised but outrage by his comments.

Dayo: “Nigeria is better than England. Why would anyone want to live in this depressingly cold, grey country. I cant wait to go back home”

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Me: Sorry I don’t understand. All I can see is paradise in this country

I don’t remember my exact words I responded to him 15 years ago, but I do remember defending the ‘greatness’ of Great Britain to the point that you would not be able to differentiate my words from those of a deluded UKIP supporter. In fact, it was me that thought that my cousin Dayo was deluded. How could anyone think Nigeria could even compare to the all mighty Great Britain…

However, my own delusions and warped depictions of Nigeria started to become dismantled in late 2004, when my father brought home an R’n’B CD from Lagos. I remember it had all the best songs of the time from the likes of 50 Cent’s “Up in the Club” to Usher’s “Yeah”.  “No way! They listen to this kind of music in Nigeria?” I declared to my dad with shock as if somehow it was impossible for Nigerians to have access to ‘modern’ music. I was so shocked by this discovery I could not wait to share the news with all my friends in Year 6, to the point I even brought the CD into the school as some sort of “proof” since I genuinely felt that know one would believe me.

To put this story into further context, I grew up at a time when to be African at school was not “cool”. I used to take “you don’t look Nigerian” as one the biggest compliments. This compliment would be given extra bonus points when it was said to me by another Nigerian.

Tunde: You don’t look fully Nigerian

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Me: oh, thank you

 Although in my primary school I would say the ratio of African (basically Nigerian or Ghanaian) to Caribbean was 7:3, it was the Jamaicans* that ran the show. (*It was later discovered that many claimed to be ‘Jamaican’ but actually varied from St Lucian, Dominican, Bajan heritage). I remember I borrowed that CD to a “Jamaican” boy at school (never got it back despite major attempts) but later thought that he would possibly  use it as a testimony to evangelise the “good news” to his friends that in fact Africans are modern too.

The Awakening

Secondary school marked an end of an era living as a closet Nigerian. Although bashment music was THE thing, by the late 00s Afrobeats was making a wave. D’Banj became THAT guy and I would no longer feel embarrassed to play Afrobeats at the back of the bus to ungrateful commuters. But years of internalized racism only hindered my already fragile sense of self-identity.

By 2009 I had my first trip as a teenager to Nigeria. I’m ashamed to admit it but I went with a sense of entitlement. I’m British, therefore I’m better. I bragged to my cousins of the fancy lifestyle I was allegedly living back home (Britain). Without consciously thinking of it, I had internalized the white supremacist narrative that the European mentality is a ‘civilised’ mentality.  I considered myself privileged and superior to be associated with a European lifestyle.  I grew up in a council estate and took the bus to school and my cousins lived in gated communities with their own personal drivers, YETTTT none of that mattered because I was British. I was ‘better’. (Don’t laugh at me. The power of internalised racism is strong y’all!)

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Me at 16: I have a big LCD TV at home y’know

But the more I got to discover Nigerian culture first hand, the harder this British pride front was proving hard to keep up with. My teenage self felt left out of the conversations my cousins were having in pidgin English that I could barely follow. I wanted to understand the jokes. There’s only so much fake laughing one can do until you feel like your cheeks are going to fall off.

Cousin Chioma: “If na u, wetin u go do di gateman?”

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Me

My British accent turned to something that I flaunted with pride at the beginning of the trip, to something I became a bit embarrassed of. Aunties would chuckle upon hearing me pronounce my name phonetically in English “Abi-oh-la”, instead of “Blolah” (at least this is how it sounds to me when said in a Nigerian accent). One family friend lectured me on how I was pronouncing my name wrong, that I should know my culture and although I may  think I am British,  my black skin better ought to remember that I am 100% Nigerian. After all, I am only there because I had been brought there. God’s plan was for me to be Nigerian. Don’t disrupt God’s plan!

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Woah, am I disrupting God’s plan?

Whether she was right to say what she said is a question of debate. But at the time, I didn’t consider the notion of being a hybrid of two cultures as a something even plausible. There was only one narrative I was presented with, Nigerian OR British. Now decide.

My experience in Nigeria enabled me to see the country for all its beauty and I truly fell in love. The people, the food and the music all encapsulated me and I wanted to be a part of the country’s rich and vibrant culture. I started to feel at felt at ‘home’. Everyone looked like me and my identity was never questioned (unless if I spoke of course). I realised how comfortable I could be in Nigeria. I began to understand what my cousin Dayo told me all those years ago. I wanted to embrace the culture that was naturally mine before it became completely “lost”.

“I was born in Lagos you know”

From this period on I would only identify as Nigerian but in a way that made it seem as if I had been living in Lagos for the past 16 years. I believed that England was in fact not home but rather my temporary residence and I have plans  to move back as soon as I finish my degree. So I had a lot of catching up to do. My family is not the typical ‘Nigerian’ family. Going to a Nigerian party every Saturday was not the ritual in my household, but rather a chore. So was speaking Igbo or Yoruba in the home. I would force my mother to speak either of these  languages to me but please, these attempts were always left in vain as she reverted back to English within seconds.

 So I overcompensated for the my linguistic setbacks by becoming militantly proud of my heritage in every other sense. I remember boasting photos to friends about how there was even a Nando’s in Nigeria! (Nando’s guys c’mon! It doesn’t get any better than that!) At the same time, parading the idea that I am going to go back to Nigeria and do Youth Service to serve my country (compulsory government programme for Nigerian graduates) once I finish university in the UK.

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Give Nando’s in Nigeria a chance

My sense of Nigerian pride was only exacerbated upon starting college in 2011 where the majority of the minority black student population were Nigerian, if not Ghanaian.

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Nigerian independence day (me at the right hand desperately holding up the Nigerian scarf I stole from my brother)

At college, I got to know a bit more about British culture. Growing up in pre-gentrified Hackney I was used to be being surrounded by other black people. At college, I learnt that some people call there mum’s by their first name and going to the pub with their dad for a beer and Sunday roast is a casual activity. For Nigerians, we know that calling your mum by your first name is as big of a sin as using your left hand to hand her food. I had never even eaten a Sunday roast at a pub let alone the idea of having a drink with my parents. As you can imagine, it was a complete culture shock for me. I was made to think about my blackness more and more being the only black person in most of my lessons and sometimes having to answer to intruding questions as if I was a representative of “the black race”.

Although, I must admit I spent parts of my first year attempting to embrace this culture shock and evolve myself to my own perception of how a ‘typical British teenager’ behaves -I spent a whole dam year only listening to dubstep!- but I still didn’t really feel part of the “British” narrative. I felt I was putting on a mask and trying too hard to fit in. Changing my accent to sound ‘less Hackney’ and more ‘neutral’ became exhausting.

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Me at my first quintessential British 3 day outdoor camping music festival (Please note, that is not my hand doing the gun finger sign)

At the same time even within the Nigerian British community, I felt left out. I still didn’t go to any Nigerian parties and envious of the fact that many of my Nigerian friends owned traditional clothes. I didn’t eat much Nigerian food at home either besides the obligatory jellof rice and pounded yam. I even had to google what ayamase was. However with my British Nigerian friends, I didn’t really have to do much, at least when it came to cultural references, they all knew who I was talking about if said “Wiz Kid”. I could kind of just get by and be myself. Despite of cultural shortcomings in both cultures, I still recognised myself as Nigerian through and through. My opening line on a date was once “I was born in Lagos you know” (cringe) as some sort of affirmation that you can’t take away my Nigerian card from me!

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Debuting my first (and only) Ankara on Instagram after having begged my friend to invite me to a Nigerian party

By my final year in college I made a family trip back to Nigeria. This is where I experienced a culturally awakening again (and also an anti-Lil Wayne advocate). I was with my cousin Dayo, driving through the overly trafficked streets of Lagos, with Lil-Waynes “Every Girl” tune playing in the background. The first misogynist line of the song brags about how the rapper prefers lighter skinned women. This led to a conversation of anti black women. I couldn’t believe how the same cousin who used to boast about the greatness of Nigeria to me 10 years ago, was now bragging how he can’t wait to leave the country to meet more ‘civilised’ white women. As you can see the tables had turned. I was the one defending blackness and proclaiming the greatness of the African continent, where he was doing the exact opposite.

It became my mission to wake people up from this ‘unconsciousness’, whether they wanted it or not. I started to see people who I would consider friends as victims of white supremacy, based on their choices and failure to identify with what I considered their ‘true’ identity. Upon returning from my holiday in Lagos, I found myself in college again listening to another black student identifying as ‘Black English’ and not Nigerian. At the time, I had never even heard such a collocation in my life! My automatic reaction was to feel sorry for him. He was lost and confused. Why were so many young people rejecting ‘home’. These people don’t know any better. I would think to myself

Fast track a few years and I’m in my final year at university. I hadn’t returned to Nigeria since the 2011 trip but I did become more politicised after studying a political science summer course in South Africa. My dissertation was an embodiment of everything I believed in at the time. It expressed all the elements of anti-imperialism and anti-neo colonialism in Nigeria and even got me a first class honours (yay me!). Academically, I knew everything there was to know about Nigerian democracy and political history. I attended every talk and lecture from prominent African writers that my university had to offer. Even my dad was surprised of my knowledge of Nigeria. I couldn’t be any more Nigerian, I thought to myself.

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Me protesting outside the Nigerian embassy against the slow reaction of the Nigerian government to find the missing school girls

Well, until I became in contact with actual Nigerians. It was at an African event at the LSE and I remember trying to ‘buddy buddy’ with a group of young Nigerians. I told someone I was from Lagos and they laughed at my affirmation. I didn’t understand? Why is she laughing? She didn’t know it but it was a huge slap in the face. I remembered how I was laughed at in Nigeria for identifying as British. Now after all my hard work and effort, here is a Nigerian laughing at me for identifying as Nigerian. “You’re British” she claimed to me. Words that I would once flaunt with pride, couldn’t have offended me more. It was as if someone had called me the impossible. I’d put in a lot of work to embrace my culture and its own citizens cannot even see it. They continued their conversations about boarding school and NEPA and other cultural references I had never actually experienced, besides reading about it in books and seeing pictures on Bella Naija. Despite all my effort, here I was right back where I began, pretending to fake laugh all over again…(to be continued)

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Me: Yeah I surely don’t miss NEPA’s power cuts

There is a Part 2!. Follow this blog to receive an email update of when it’ll be released 🙂 In the meantime, feel free to share your stories if you’ve had to ever experience an identity crisis at one point!

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5 thoughts on “I thought ‘you don’t look Nigerian’ was a compliment

  1. Loved this Abi! I can definitely relate to all you were saying, especially regarding feeling superior when mentioning you were British whilst in Nigeria.
    I look forward to the next post!

    Like

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