I have had a fractious relationship with my African identity. I spent a part of my early childhood in the UK. My parents were among that crop of Nigerians who travelled out into the world to get further qualifications after their first degrees. As children in the UK, we experienced the exclusions that come from being a Black African in a world not constructed with us in mind. Classmates asked questions about huts in Africa, and wondered aloud about the correlation between not bathing and dark pigmentations, teachers made assumptions and associations about melanin and aptitude for sports and mathematics. Unlike many Nigerians, I never had the luxury of never knowing I was black.
My parents were really eager for us to return to Nigeria after their degrees. I know they had friends who stayed on in the UK, even though they had been sponsored by the Nigerian government and were meant to return to Nigeria. It was the 80s, we had no idea where Nigeria was headed, but there was still hope in those days. My parents wanted to go home. Home. Home is a dangerous spirit. Home is a restless soul. I had been taken to the UK as a baby and had no concept of this ‘home’. But on my parent lips, the word ‘home’ was seductive, like dark and luscious chocolate after a fast. We had a countdown and we were going home! The excitement was palpable, even if I could not understand it. We were going home. Home had to be better than here.
The first thing I remember was the heat. When we landed at MMA in Lagos, the heat wrapped us up in its humid embrace and threatened to suffocate the life from us. Ilorin, a short flight northwards, was a bit cooler. Though not by much. After wading through snow in Southampton, the sun in the Southern hemisphere was striking. For a long while, we could only walk in the shade. The trees were different, big leafy giants. Not the spindly mid-height trees, we had left behind. Everything was loud, cars, music, people. The people were all black. Different shades of black, different types of people. All black. After a while you stop noticing.
So I learnt to be African. I learnt malaria. I learnt the fortnightly chills that were the gift of the mosquito. The malaria medication that slowly drove you mad.
I learnt family. Family in Nigeria is not an antiseptic relationship reserved only for parents and children. It is a chaotic kaleidoscope culminating in a maelstrom of emotion. It is anger and hatred and need and love and bitterness and codependency. It is everything. It encapsulates towns, and cities and villages, it destroys nations and disrespects borders.
I found Africa in the thunder and the lightning and the rain. When the skies release the floods, you had better seek shelter or risk drowning. The earth drinks in the bounty of the heaven and brings forth seed. The smell of the soil after a tropical rain is more intoxicating than palmwine on an empty stomach.
I found Africa in the music. The 80s was the time of Apartheid and SAP and Pan Africanism, a time of elevated shoulder pads and pouffy Jerri-curls. We danced to Shina Peters, Majek Fashek, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Mariam Makeba, Bob Marley, Ras Kimono, Sonny Okosuns, IK Dairo, King Sunny Ade…
I found Nigeria in my journeys. I travelled smooth roads and bounced over deep gullies pretending to be potholes. I bought gala and Agege bread through half opened windows. Between Egbe and Obajana, I was covered with enough dust to build a dozen huts. I travelled from savanna north to forest south. I visited motor parks from Akure to Gariki, from Zuba to Ojota. I climbed Mount Pati and Erin Ijesha falls, crossed the Rivers Niger and Benue, I have driven over the Atlantic. I got lost in Ila Orangun. I have seen hamlets like Isapa Tuntun, villages like my own Olle-Bunu, towns like sleepy Idofian and cities as dynamic as Enugu.
I found Africa in the struggle. The struggle to be a good student – as teachers tried to marry tradition with education, sometimes the combination became volatile and exploded, sometimes they married well and exuded a sweet fragrance that wafted into our hearts and stayed there. The struggle for relevance in a world obsessed with power. A Nigeria where to be young and female is to strip you of autonomy.
I found Africa in protest. At university, we were always protesting something, it was as if we had to prove to ourselves and each other, prove to each other that despite the stench of deprivation, we still had some power, that we were still alive, that we meant something. I found Africa in the spontaneous songs of struggle, the irrepressible spirit, that kept getting back up after being knocked down. The creative causes that found us blocking roads with billiard tables and quoting Socrates and Aristotle to market women and bus drivers.
I found Africa in the pain. Because no matter how deep it burned, how hot the wounds seared, there was always someone there. Always. Someone who looked at you and saw you. You. Not some stereotypical image of deprived black humanity, but you. As you were. Black. And beautiful. And human.
Africa may not be a country. But it is more than a continent. Africa is its people, all those on the continent and those flung across the earth like so many specks of oloyin beans across the floor. I learnt Africa. And found myself. African. Woman. Me.