My African Family Pilgrimage

all of us

my family

“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.

Advertisements

Things To Do This Summer: Go Home

Toyin & I

My cousin and I: It’s been over 10 years since I saw her

I haven’t been home to Nigeria in nearly 6 years. It’s a long time to stay away but I’m glad I got a chance to go home this summer.

I spent a majority of the time with my parents. My children spent lots of quality time with their cousins, uncles, aunties and grandparents. Going home has played a part in grounding me, remembering who I am and where I come from. A busy life makes one forget.

Part of our family and friends as we caught this summer

Part of our family and friends as we caught up this summer

It was a blessing to see how big my family is (in number and in heart), a wide network of people who will be there for me but most importantly for my children.
With most of my time spent in Lagos, I was able to see the progress my country has made. In many ways, certain common practices are ahead of some developed countries. For instance, money transfer is dead easy and can be done with mobile phones using text messaging.

There is contact less payment – nothing like what we have in the UK with debit cards that don’t require pin entry at purchases below £20. Contact less payment in Nigeria makes it possible to make payments of any amount from a mobile phone as you stand right there in a shop. This is possible with 4G wi-fi portable devices that can be carried around in a handbag so internet could literally be everywhere. Indeed, IT/telecommunications are market leading sectors of the Nigerian economy, and perhaps leading in the global economy also.

A sign at a nearby GT bank: Set up a savings account via text

A sign at a nearby GT bank: Set up a savings account via text

We are a long way from where we are going but we are taking significant steps. Infrastructure such as electricity and good roads, customer service and coherent business processes are all part of what is required for the next steps. Seeing Nigeria as a whole grow and develop warms my heart. The people are innovative and have worked long and hard to prosper. A positive outlook and an amazing sense of humour get Nigerians through practically anything. We hope for the best and prepare for the worst. This is how we are able to laugh and build lasting character.

I won’t leave it this long again. Going home is important for us all. Wherever is “home” for you is where you feel loved and at peace. It’s where people you consider to be family reside. I watched my children feel at home too. For them, Nigeria will no longer be an unfamiliar place in Africa. For me, Nigeria will no longer be away from my heart.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Half & Half

My kids are 2 halves of the same coin. They know how to have fun and make even sachets of ketchup amusing.

And all this laughter after a long wait in an airport and visits to 2 very busy Nigerian cities. Not to mention almost 5 hours combined they had to wait in a car with the engine running while I tried to sort out the mess that was my banking. I love them more than anything.
Images by Yekemi Otaru aka The Task Mistress. Copyright All Rights Reserved

Weekly Photo Challenge: Achievement

IMG_2745.JPG
“The Young Shall Achieve Greater Things” (Taken with Nikon D5200, 18-105mm lens)

Photo taken by The Task Mistress

What you think of me

My 5-year old daughter LOVES music. She’s got a great sense of rhythm that even her teachers have picked up on. Each time we are in the car together and I’ve got music playing, she sings along – particularly if it’s a female artist. She also makes special requests like, “Mummy, could you play that song with the girl that wants to wreck a ball??” Then I skip to Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’. As she listens to the song, she will often ask, “Mummy, is the girl in the song happy or sad?” Most of the time, I say the girl is sad. I see in my mirror that my daughter becomes sad too. Suddenly, a somewhat meaningless song becomes a sadness-inducer. Today – a day after my birthday- I couldn’t help thinking about how I often let other people’s feelings or disposition smear on me.

Self-conscious

I admit that for most of my life, I’ve been virtually obsessed with what people think of me. At first, it was a guide as I picked up social norms in the different cultures I was raised in. People’s reactions to me helped me know if I was doing the right thing. If people seemed anxious, I would become anxious too. If they appeared pleased, then I was pleased. For years, I learned how to behave by observing people’s reactions to me. I suppose it’s a skill that everyone picks up from early years but it often made me miserable. Ultimately, people are inconsistent and unreliable. They approve of you today but they are not sure of you tomorrow.

Self-aware

I recently started reading a book on authentic leadership (True North by Bill George). As I read the first few pages, I realised that I’d carried a bad habit into my adulthood. I thought I was being self aware by considering others’ reactions to me but I was really being self-conscious. Self-awareness is considering my own reactions to situations – identifying my triggers and managing them. I can’t control how people feel or what they think of me but I can control how I react to it. I’ve found this realisation liberating. I can be myself far more freely without the extra pressure of guessing, considering and trying to change what people think.

I’m now really loving my mid 30s as it’s so much better than my mid 20s. I suppose with age, who you really are cannot stay hidden.

%d bloggers like this: