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Office of Multicultural Affairs—NYC

Through African Eyes

On many occasions, I have been told by Nigerians and non-Nigerians alike that I do not fit the profile of what they either assume a Nigerian to be and act like – in the case of non-Nigerians – or that my speech and mannerisms betray my ethnicity and nationality. In society, we are often seeking for a sense of belonging and a sense of identity that is usually defined through other people’s perception of us. To a certain extent, certain factors of our identities are passed down to us by default, such as our race, gender and sexual orientation (to a certain degree), nationality, and ethnicity, to name a few. For instance, on paper, I can be described as a black, female, Nigerian of the Yoruba tribe. However, none of these labels or even the labels collectively, accurately defines who I am as a human being.

Having lived in many other countries throughout the world, as opposed to my home country of Nigeria, I am fully aware of the fact that as a Nigerian living in the Diaspora, my realities differ from that of the average Nigerians who have. Often times, when in Nigeria or amongst Nigerians who have grown up solely in the Western world, I find it hard to relate or find the middle ground between the two groups that where I seem to fit in. For instance, those who have grown-up primarily within the Diaspora do not always feel that sense of connection for their heritage that native Nigerians feel. Furthermore, for many of them, Nigeria seems to be a far, foreign and alien concept that they are yet to see, and at times this causes a separation between them and their immediate roots, that in turn leaves them unattached to the happenings in Nigeria.

For those who were born, bred and either continue to live in Nigeria, or have only recently left, I often find that their sense of patriotism, nationalism and unity is on a far greater scale than those who are based in the Diaspora, and even more so than myself. These Nigerians are often quick to label anyone who does not share in the Nigerian experience that can only be acquired in one having lived there, as not fully Nigerians. This is mainly because of the hardships and constant friction that people living in Nigeria feel, and is often the source of flight for many of those who have re-settled in countries around the world. Those who are left in the country to inevitably take on this burden often feel that it is these very experiences that shape and define the Nigerian identity. Thus, if one has not experienced this sort of lifestyle, one cannot claim to be a Nigerian as that person would have no real understanding of what other Nigerians attach the basis of their identity to.

In-between those who are detached and others who have no choice but to be attached, lie people similar to me. Although I was born in Nigeria, by the age of four I relocated and although I visit often, it is not the same as living in Nigeria permanently. At times, I often feel like a foreigner when visiting my home country, where at times I have been referred to as a, “oyinbo”, a Yoruba word meaning “white person”, due to the fact that I sound and act like one, according to certain people in Nigeria. At first, this came as a shock and although it was not meant as a direct insult, I certainly took as one. For starters, I was certainly not a white person – at least in the racial sense. Secondly, with the exception of this particular context, due to the fact that I am black I have never enjoyed the privileges experience by white people in other countries. Yes, I did not speak the language fluently, and yes, I had not lived in Nigeria permanently beyond the age of four, even my first name did not reflect my ethnicity or my nationality, but was that enough to dismiss my ever-increasing sense of pride in being a Nigerian despite the negative and at times hateful remarks I continuously endure because of my nationality.

I was always left completely baffled and could not quite fully comprehend, until much later, that this had nothing to do with my skin color, but everything to do with perception. After all, where does one draw the line between defining oneself by way of other people, or through one’s own personal understanding of a particular ideology, regarding identity? What are the criteria that one has to fulfill in order to make one eligible and deserving of a title or label? If such criteria exists, is it malleable and subject to change? Or is it fixed and set in stone, with no possibility of exceptions and additions? I find that over and over again, I continuously have to prove myself as a Nigerian – mostly to my fellow countrymen – but also to those who see me as too westernized to even be an African. In the presence of non-Nigerians, there have been times that people have forgotten my nationality and even gone as far as to make negative remarks about Nigeria and Nigerians. Naturally, this leaves me greatly offended, and when I do not side with them and staunchly defend those who they have attempted to degrade, they are often left surprised as I remind them that whether or not they consider myself to be a “different kind of Nigerian, not like the others”, it does not change the fact that I am one, regardless.

Although I can understand where these judgments stem from, it does not make them any easier to bear. Constantly having to prove one’s self worth for the satisfaction of others is a tiring process. This comes as a disadvantage of not growing up in my home country, as well as through the conditioning that I have been exposed to in the West. For a large portion of my childhood, I greatly ignored the significance of African, and specifically Nigerian, history. Not because I believed it to be irrelevant to my life, but because the schools I attended greatly omitted this subject in my education. A lot of what I have come to know of both Nigeria and various African countries has been through a great personal effort to educate myself through reading, as well as in asking my parents, relatives and friends about their experiences and the history of their identities. In doing so, I have been able to re-connect with those who were once skeptical about my patriotism and concerns for Africa and its people. More specifically, I have also come to identify as a Pan-Africanist: someone who believes in the unification of all African people and nations, regardless of our differences. For if we can overcome what divides us, what unites us shall eventually persevere and ensure a secure and prosperous future. As simple as that sounds, the goals and hardships to overcome are deeply rooted in former and neo-colonialist structures that have immensely affected the state of Africa today. It is going to take a complete overhaul of many of the ideologies that were embedded by European colonialists that continue to be enforced, still to this day. Many Africans still feel a sense of division that has flourished since colonialist times, hence the labeling of someone who has lived in the west as a “oyinbo” - a white man, a betrayer of the African identity.

Fall 2010