“I want to be white like my friends!” My daughter’s words hit me hard. It’s a fair request, not birthed from any abuse she’s facing, but from a perplexing question clearly weighing on her mind: Why am I dark and everyone else is not? What’s the big idea? I feel helpless as she goes on, “Please, Mummy… Can I be white?” I can’t explain it to her.
We live in Alford, a magical village out in the sticks of Aberdeenshire in Northeastern Scotland. It’s self-sufficient with a butcher shop, three grocery stores, two barber shops, two beauty shops, and of most note, a ski slope, golf course, transport museum, and our renowned coffee shop, The Alford Bistro. It can be bitterly cold in the winter, but warmer than the nearest city in the summer. We’re surrounded by extensive farmlands, cows, horses, and people guaranteed to offer help to strangers.
Our home is nearly twice as big as our old house. The size isn’t apparent from the outside, but surprises visitors as they step through the white door to find this seemingly “terraced” house is in fact a magnificent converted steading, a farm building with high ceilings, its walls decorated with striking African paintings and of course, pictures of our smiling family.
It is in the midst of the magic that my two children begin to notice the color of their own skin. We are the only black family in the village, aside from the father of a popular Scottish singer and songwriter (Emeli Sandé), an affable man and a technology teacher at the local secondary school. The first time I spotted him in the local grocery shop, I hesitated. I’m not sure whether to wave or not. He’s smiling at me and I take the risk. He waves back. It’s the first reminder in a while. I conclude I need reminding. I’ve gone a long time forgetting, or perhaps simply ignoring it.
Our skin color hasn’t held us back, not in any way I can comfortably complain about. We work hard and make a decent living. I’ve never felt victimized for it—not in Scotland. In my career, it has been harder being a woman than being black. Yet, having children brings renewed concerns. They have questions about who they are. I’m embarrassingly ill-equipped to construct satisfying answers. Heck, I just get on with it. I’m too busy, I tell myself. I can’t be worrying about things I can’t change.
Someone calls my 10-year-old son Chocolate in jest. He calls him, Vanilla in return. I talk to his teacher to put an end to it. It ends—but my son can’t see what the fuss is about. “We are just playing,” he says. “I know,” I say, “but these things can get out of hand.” What kind of parent would I be if I let that go on? Who knows when these words will lose their innocence?
We sit at the dinner table and my thoughts drift off. “Mummy, I’m full up,” my daughter announces. “Eat some more,” I encourage. “Two bites,” I say, offering a way out of our ceremonial eating fiascos. “Give my food to the people in Africa,” she counters. Something inside me stands up, “Not everyone in Africa is starving, you know,” I can’t control my irritation. It’s evident in my tone. She narrows her brow as if trying to combine this information with what she’s seen in magazines and on television.
I get out a map of the world and try to explain. My husband, Gabriel, points to Africa, “That is Africa,” he says. I add, “You see how big it is? Millions of people live there, and they are not all poor.” Gabriel continues, pointing to the North of the UK, “We live here, see?” Both children gape with curiosity. “Who lives here…? And there?” my son asks, tapping North America, then Russia. I name them and remind him of a family holiday to Florida. “That’s where we went,” I confirm, feeling my irritation subside.
We love our lives in Alford, but this summer we’re flying over 4,000 miles to go home to Nigeria. I hope for the Africaducation of my children. I nurse my confused identity, fueled by guilt. I chastise myself for not recounting patriotic stories around the dinner table, stories of Africa’s pride, slavery, and bravery. I don’t have the insecurities and hang-ups I should have. I see my reflection, daring to carry on as if it’s of no consequence.
Summer came quickly. My daughter looks uneasy on the drive from Murtala Muhammad Airport, Lagos to my parents’ house. There are five of us in the car: my father, his driver, my two children and I. I watch the road as we pass. I have an image of my last trip, nearly six years ago. The streets look cleaner now, with heaps of organized rubbish appearing to be set out with a purpose, rather than haphazardly by absent minded passers-by. I glance back at my daughter. It’s dark now, and I recognize her fearful expression as she looks at the crowds of hawkers lunging at the front of our SUV as our driver threads his way through intense traffic.
“What’s wrong, sweetie?” I ask, as I stroke her head. “I’m scared…” my daughter almost whispers the words. She continues, “These people look like criminals… Are they coming to get us?” There’s real concern, not just in her voice, but in her eyes, too. My father turns around from the front seat, “Ah, don’t worry. They are not dangerous. They are only selling their goods. Hmm?” He smiles at her, “My girl,” he says as a soothing topping to his reassuring words.
My father is in his early 60s, but looks about 20 years younger. He was educated in the UK at the then Thames Polytechnic (now University of Greenwich, London), and later earned a PhD in the U.S. He’s very tech-savvy, armed with his superior intellect and the latest gadgets. As we make headway on the highway, he tells impressive stories of big brands, politics, and the energy industry, complete with exact dates and full names of all involved. I smile and think to myself that I’ll never be as smart. And for the first time in my adult life, I decide that I can live with that.
“Is Grandpa rich?” I laugh out loud at my son’s question.
“Why do you ask that?”
“Well, he sent those people to help us at the airport, and he has a driver,” he says. “And then there was the guy that opened the gate when we arrived at the house.”
I’ve learned to allow him to come up with the answers himself. It doesn’t always happen, but this time, his 10-year-old mind continues to process.
“I know they are not slaves! He must be paying them!” The penny drops: Not everyone in Africa is poor.
We spend only eight days in Nigeria but many of these days include some of the best nights’ sleep I’ve had in months. As we drive through Lagos Island, I find myself constantly saying, “Can you see how many dark people there are here?” Both children nod. “You see,” I continue, “We are not the only dark people in the world. We are simply privileged to live somewhere else where there are not many people like us.”
My children spend plenty of time with their grandparents and extended family. They have nine uncles and aunties and nine cousins, some of whom they’d never met until this trip. They play tag, hide-and-seek, and watch their favorite TV shows. In the beautiful warm weather, they ride bicycles and play ball games until night falls. Sometimes, they don’t understand each other’s accents, but they play on regardless, making guesses to fill the gaps. Shrieks of laughter ripple throughout the house. I worry that they are too loud. But my brother-in-law beckons to me as I attempt to hush them. He says,”Let them laugh. It’s their time.”
They ask me questions about some of the behaviors in this culture, like why car horns are always going off, why adults not related to us at all should be referred to as “Uncle” or “Aunty,” and why there are so many people on the streets. I answer their questions as best I can, often dissatisfied with my own response. I make a mental note to find more compelling ways to answer these questions. It’s obvious that they are glad to be here. I sense that they finally get it. It is home.
Near the end of our trip, as we lie in bed, I plant a kiss on each of their foreheads and say, “You see? You are not alone. You never will be.” Tears roll down my cheeks, and I turn away so that they don’t see me cry.
Alford is lovely, but it is far from home. To face the real world, my children need to know where they are from. Mission accomplished, for now.