An essay by Enuma Okoro
When I was 7 years old my father bought me a Bag of Laughs. It was the early 1980s and, as with most every school morning in Lagos, Nigeria, we were stuck in traffic. My father was at the wheel, listening to Bob Marley on the eight-track. I sat in the back, staring at the street peddlers walking in between lanes jostling can openers, batteries and other random items at car windows.
A boy, older than me but still young enough that he should have been in school, dangled a toy outside my window. It was a yellow cloth bag cinched at the top with a picture on one side of a cartoonish open mouth laughing madly. Inside the bag was a little battery-operated mechanism. If you pressed a button, the bag shook violently and made uproarious sounds like a guffawing crowd. My father slipped a few naira notes through a crack in the window in exchange for the toy. Sitting there behind my parents, I pushed the button over and over again, grinning endlessly at the obnoxious crowd contained in my little hands.
Until recently, that Bag of Laughs was one of the few memories that popped up whenever I tried to think positively about Nigeria, the country of my ancestors.
I was born in New York City and lived in Nigeria only between the ages of 7 and 9. That’s when my mother left my father, taking my younger sister and me to live in Ivory Coast, then England and finally the United States. We were not raised to imagine ourselves as woven into the fabric of Nigeria, let alone as lovers of it. As children our parents always spoke to us in English, reserving our indigenous language, Igbo, for the secrets that passed between adults over our ears.
Coming of age in foreign classrooms, my sister and I slowly shed our native skins. We let teachers mangle our names, then adopted their mispronunciations — introducing ourselves with syllables our own relatives tripped over.
At home we caught snippets of phone conversations between our parents and relatives still living in Nigeria. “So and so’s house has been attacked by armed robbers.” “The police do not do anything. Some of them are even in on it.” “You can’t trust anyone.” “There’s no hope for this country.” As the years turned into decades, Nigeria saw economic struggles, the rise of email scammers and Boko Haram, a terrorist group. Whatever childhood memories of birthday parties and schoolyard antics we had treasured were soon dulled by these new testimonies. Before too long we began to dislike and to fear our home country, to expect nothing but the worst from Nigerians. It most likely would have stayed that way, if not for my father’s sudden death.
When I was 29 my father died back in Nigeria, within weeks of a cancer diagnosis. My older brother, then living in New York City, and I left the States to go back and bury him. In accordance with Igbo custom we had to bury him in his ancestral village of Akunwanta in southeastern Nigeria. So we flew into Enugu Airport, drove the two hours to Arondizuogu, and then down a red clay road to the enclave bearing our family name, Akunwanta village.
Akunwanta is the piece of land to which I can trace my paternal ancestry as far back as possible. It is the second part of a hyphenated last name I do not use. There was the dust from which my father came and the dust to which he was returning. I was returning. Suddenly, my life in the United States seemed like a storybook, so far away it didn’t seem tangible.
After that, I couldn’t get Nigeria out of my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that there was a land and a people that rightfully claimed me. Choosing to ignore that seemed oddly irresponsible in light of the genuine plight of illegal immigrants here in America and across the globe, who reluctantly left their countries out of financial desperation. It seemed oddly disrespectful in light of the growing number of refugees who fled their countries because of war. And it seemed oddly confusing as a black woman to choose as my home a country with such a deep-seated history of prejudice and injustice toward minorities.
I started to imagine what it would be like to live in a place where you did not have to explain some aspect of your identity on a daily basis, where you did not have to offer people a reason, no matter how subtle, for why you were among them.
When I am in Nigeria, my name alone places me in recognizable context. A few years after my father’s funeral, I started going back to Nigeria for weeks and then months at a time, writing and working from there. I let myself be wooed by the little ordinary things: the bath towel sun-soaked warm through mosquito-netted windows; eating pineapples in season, cut round and sweet; the way women sway in form-fitting long printed Ankara skirts going to work or market.
Each time I boarded the plane to return to the States it was with a surprising hint of sadness. I became increasingly uncertain about what I was really going back to. Sure, there was the reliable infrastructure of basic necessities like electricity and medical care. Yet, back in Nigeria, I had the irreplaceable experience of feeling connected to an untapped part of myself. I was gaining insight into my ancestral and communal identity as a Nigerian, as an Igbo woman.
At some point I started entertaining the idea of moving back. Maybe just to try it for a few years. I spoke of it tentatively, trying to gauge reactions from friends and family. My mother considered it a miracle. My siblings were stunned, wondering why I’d leave for a country rife with corruption and ethno-religious factions. And I had my own concerns. What if I’d been away too long for Nigeria to ever really feel like home? Could I actually make a difference in the development of my country, or would I be just one more returnee, in for a rude awakening and endless frustrations? In my less introspective moments I simply wondered how I could give up my regular jaunts to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.
My questions were endless. But so was my desire to know the country that claimed me. So, finally, I bought a one-way ticket for this summer. I am moving to Nigeria. I say it aloud, mostly to myself. And I laugh at the surprise of it.
On my most recent visit, approaching Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, I looked out the plane’s window at the clusters of dry green bushes and the expanse of clay earth. The large mound of Aso Rock loomed in the background. I descended and walked to the line for those holding Nigerian passports. I no longer anticipated an airport official trying to redirect me to the line for visitors, those with visas, those who are not from this country. The passport control officers rarely change, and they remembered me now.
The man in the tan uniform flipped through the pages of my green passport and looked up at me. “My beautiful sister, you have returned.”
“Yes, ooo” I said.
“How was your journey? Did you bring me something?” He teased.
“It was well. Not this time, Oga.” I greeted him playfully but with respect.
“Oya,” he stamped the page and slipped my passport back to me. “You are welcome home.”
Enuma Okoro, the author of the spiritual memoir “Reluctant Pilgrim,” is a public speaker and communications consultant.
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