My relationship to my ancestral home is complicated yet precious.
By Itoro Udofia
People often assume I was not born and raised in the United States. As a child of Nigerian immigrants bearing an indigenous name, and with features etched from another land, I have never felt like I fully belong here.
But I’ve also had difficulty fitting in with my Nigerian origins.
The cultural gatherings my family hosted when I was growing up made me anxious, although I looked forward to them. Would I fail the “authentic Nigerian” inspection of my elders? My voice lacks the musical timbre of most Ibibio-speaking peoples. It’s clear when I pronounce my name. Would that one aunt with the smirk across her lips slyly ask me to repeat my name? And when I did, would she tell me I had mispronounced it, correct me, and then dismiss me like I had no right to my own life?
I was 2 years old the first time I visited Nigeria. Will my family and others living there judge me for my cultural limitations when I return?
After 29 years, I fly into the Abuja international airport as a guest author to speak to students about coming of age as a first-generation Nigerian woman in the U.S.
At the airport, a friendly agent looks at my passport, “Eh! Your name’s Itoro. You’re from the Akwa Ibom State. Are you going to Uyo for the festival?”
I feel a rush of gratitude for my name, because it has become an entry into learning more about my ancestry. “This is your home,” she says, encouraging me to get my Nigerian passport. “Feel free to come back anytime.”
My relatives are also tender and eagerly check in with me. I feel the rare joy of belonging with my wide nose, dark skin, and box braids respected as the norm.
There is much to celebrate.
Through the students, however, I learn there is also much to reconcile.
I’m asked questions like, “Why didn’t your parents send you home more often?” “You didn’t have money growing up, aren’t Americans rich?” “Why don’t you know your mother tongue?” “Racism is a real problem over there, huh?” “Will you start visiting home more often now?” “Do you even know your tribe?”
It’s not just the students but the encounters with others that make me feel, ultimately, You’re like us but not really. You’re more American than Nigerian.
In some respect, they may be right. I’m the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, born in the American South and raised in the rural hills of New England. I do not fluently speak any of the local languages and can understand only a handful of Ibibo words. When I open my mouth to speak, I feel my own contradiction of sounding American while looking and sometimes feeling Nigerian.
Africa, for me, is not the experience of many Western tourists—safaris, wildlife, and a devastating savior complex. But also it is not a place where I am magically unscathed by the pillage and plundering that has taken place here for centuries. My relationship to my ancestral home is complicated yet precious.
I connect some encounters abroad to similar experiences as a Black woman in the U.S. In one incident, while staying in a hostel catered to expatriates, I’m approached by a man. “I’d like a glass of water,” he says as I stand at the front desk joking around with the receptionist. I let the gentleman know that I didn’t work there, as I was not wearing the uniform that clearly identifies who can get you a cup of water. He walks away. “Looks like you’re one of us now,” the receptionist whispers.
What Black person has not survived the tired notion that dark skin means naturally suited to serve? But for the most part, if I keep quiet, I can “pass” for being a part of the dominant culture. If I play my cards right, I could feign understanding of social and cultural experiences that are not my own. But I wasn’t there to lie to myself; traveling is a luxury many people don’t have. I saw this trip as a sacred opportunity to do something different.
I use these moments to listen and observe, and to talk and relate when appropriate. Being the stereotypical Westerner who gets to ask questions, take pictures, and then present their ideas on what they’ve “discovered” as fact is unflattering. The magic for me is the unique opportunity to listen and fill in the gaps with what I learn.
Traveling back home gives me a sacred opportunity to glean from others respective diasporic experiences and hear their ideas on how we can remain connected.