11 years had distorted my memories of Nigeria. Children, depression, abandonment of my PhD, the near death of my marriage all happened in the space between visits. Nigeria 2010 was better than I remembered. So was I.
Chinua Achebe called Nigeria "dirty, callous & vulgar, a place of unrelenting selfishness." It's also a public urinal. Men piss everywhere. And I do mean everywhere! By day 3, I could only marvel "how is this place not swimming in piss?"
The city is a sensory assault. Dusty potholed streets, rubbish strewn neighborhoods, green black sludge in open gutters, auto exhaust fumes so thick you feel choked, motorways jammed up with vendors & vehicles, vehicles crammed up with people. Your standard issue 3rd World overcrowded urban experience I suppose.
Despite the frustrations, this time I enjoyed the novelty of Lagos. Its defiance. Its leanness & strength. Its fearless street hawkers. Its vibrantly dressed women. The ever present irony of the glo mobile phone carrier slogan "RULE YOUR WORLD". (Really? rule your world? in a city like Lagos where you rule NOTHING... God in Heaven, the balls it takes to declare such a thing in such a place!). Most of all I enjoyed that our house was an oasis of calm in the middle of all that chaos. In small doses, Lagos is tolerable.
I never expected this trip to inspire admiration because - let's face it - among Africans, Nigerians are known for taking arrogance to entirely new levels.
But I did admire them. Grudgingly. And I understood why my mentor Mudavanha said Nigerians were "smarter, faster, better looking" than other Africans. It really is survival of the fittest in Lagos. You have to be tough, you have to be aggressive, you have to be loud to make it here. And they are. All of the above.
My father-in-law wants to know if I can live there, even though you'll often hear the locals proclaim "In Nigeria, you will suffer." Even though (after watching hours of Yoruba language dramas depicting women as conniving, cheating, deceiving or evil) I'm convinced the Yoruba don't appreciate, trust or even like their women.
"On the fence" is my official position. After 16 years, he ain't at all satisfied with that.
How would I even begin to approach life in Lagos if it should come to that? I've known since I married this man that he would return one day. Permanently. As the eldest, first born son who found success in America, he is the undisputed heir apparent for the office of family patriarch.
So far, the only way I can see making peace with Lagos is to surrender to it. Don't bother asking "why is it this way?" or "why doesn't it do things this way?"Accept it unconditionally, warts, bad breath & all. And do the best you can to get around in it.
But by doing that, I'd run the risk of becoming every bit as aggressive & hard faced as the natives. Unacceptable.
I keep telling myself maybe when that day comes, when the kids are grown, maybe I'll be ready for an adventure. Paul Theroux wrote "all news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there."
This damned fencepost is stabbing me in the butt, but I'm just not there yet Mr. Theroux.
Dr. Mudavanha (the Africentric father figure/mentor who guided me through the obstacle course of my developing racial identity) said all Black Americans should travel to West Africa. When Black Americans visit Africa, it either makes them more African or more American. Can you see yourself living here?
Imagine what your life would be like if your ancestors didn't survive the Middle Passage or were never captured or kidnapped into slavery. Could this be you?
Envision yourself living in Nigeria. It should be easy because Nigerians look like us (it's probably more correct to say we look like them.). Stay in Lagos long enough, I guarantee you'll see someone who looks like your cousin, your high school sweetheart, your brother, your uncle... maybe even you.
In my life, my body belongs to Africa. I make love to it. My womb has nurtured its seed. My breasts have nursed two of its daughters.
In my dreams, my heart belongs to Asia. The photos & images that transfix me are always Asian. Even my breath goes still at the vision. Rice paddies dotted with ox carts & small women in cone shaped hats bent over at the waist, immersed to their ankles in muddy water. Slender limbed, dark skinned women trudging dusty roads, draped in vividly colored saris, bangles ascending each arm. They carry water on their head. They stare without smiling as they pass.
I traveled this summer to Africa & Asia. And I came away with a deeper understanding of me than I ever had before. I learned some things, was surprised by some things, settled some things, became wiser about some things. The next few posts will highlight some of these insights. I hope no one finds it too boring.
If there's one thing living with a foreigner has taught me, it is how to get along with people who are different.
My husband and I have been having the same argument off and on for 16 years. When it comes to Africa, we hold diametrically opposed worldviews. He is a tribalist. I am nationalist.
We met when I was at the height of my pro-Black racial identity development. I had been mentored in college by a Black Activist named Mudavanha with a PhD from UC Berkeley who had kicked it with the Black Panthers in the Bay Area during the height of the racially tense 60s. He evolved into a Pan Africanist who lived part-time in Ghana, wore bata karis adorned with Adinkra symbols every day, and was fond of giving African American students Ashanti names.
I was so down with my peeps back then. It was all about Africa - its glorious history, its unrecognized & untapped potential, its shinning future. Black Americans & Africans - we were all the same. Africans. Some never left the Continent, others - like me - were victims of an African Diaspora brought on by the TransAtlantic Slave Trade.
Believe me I was shocked to my toes to see my African husband argue any American (including me) into the ground who dared to claim Africa and Africans were - should - or could ever be one.
Historically, Americans subordinate allegiance to ethnic heritage in favor of a national identity. Irish-American, African-American, Korean-American, Mexican-American... "American" unites us all. E Pluribus Unum.Out of many, one.
To my American mind, unity is strength.
On the other hand, we have tribalism. Tribe is the center, the source, the guide, the organizing system of my husband's African mind. Europeans who carved up Africa during the 1885 Berlin Conference grouped together people who had "no business" being united under a single anything. The people groups referred to as "Nigerians" today were separate nations, like Italian city-states, each with its own ruler.
Nigeria's dominant ethnic groups have tried to work together & "get along" - it has been a failed experiment. (Read Uwem Akpan's excellent short story "Luxurious Hearses" for a snapshot of all the elements that must be combined for Nigeria to become united.) Today, my husband is convinced that splitting Nigeria into 5 parts can solve all its problems. Corruption magically disappears. Disorganization & chaos disappears. Why? Because fighting disappears. Tribes are each unified by their tribe's vision to advance the tribe as a whole. Everyone lives happily... ever... after.
If I grew up as he did, I'd probably believe as he does. But I'm extremely wary of this brand of tribalism because in the negative extreme, tribalism is the seed that can give rise to ethnic rivalry, tribal hatred & ethnic cleansing. I do not - maybe even cannot - believe fragmentation & division can ever trump unity & wholeness.
Many Nigerians are convinced Nigeria could change Africa if it ever got its sh*t together. If Nigeria is to ever become the world power it longs to be, it better learn how to live & work with people who are different. Learn how to build consensus despite differences. Start with the tribe next door.
I've done Nigeria. I've done it twice. And I've slept next to it for 16 years. After my 2nd trip, I decided I didn't want to do Nigeria anymore. In fact, its fair to say I don't want any part of Black sub-Saharan Africa. Not anymore.
I went to find a place where I belonged. I was infatuated. Eager to melt into a culture where I would be welcomed & embraced.
I arrived & found how alien I was.
Lagosians chanted the Yoruba word for a white person as I walked down the street. It irked me to no end that my Nigerian husband was so tickled by it. In my husband's home town, the children peered goggle eyed at me in church & in my car window. By their expressions (what is that?), it was as if they were looking @ an abomination. Yes, I expected stares... but not to that degree.
By Nigerian standards I guess I'm not really Black. I'm something else. I guess. I'm clearly not white - my skin isn't even particularly light. Some people tan within only a few shades of their natural color. Not me. My arms I can go from Beyonce bright to Biggie Smalls black in days. Yet my hair texture & a few features reveals mixed heritage.
It has been 14 years since I stepped foot in Lagos. At the end of this month, I will return. God help me.
My children are visiting their father's home for the 1st time. I'm eager for that reason alone to co-navigate their brief immersion into Nigerian society & Yoruba culture. There's a lot I want them to understand & experience first hand.
Generally... The people are lovely. The food delicious. The traffic aggravating. The infrastructure Third World. The toilets traumatizing.
Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa. Lagos is a hive. Cacophanous commotion. Actively chaotic. Grimy with smog. The people are intensely proud. Loud. Aggressive. Ambitious. Opinionated. The country is world-renowned for scams & corruption. The culture gave birth to voodoo.
It's my 3rd visit. I don't want to go with my defenses up but... they're up. Way up. Can't help it. How many times can I expect to be told how fat I am? At least once for person who comes to greet & welcome me. And I'll probably meet lots of those.
So I guess I better brace myself. Nigerians are are what they are. Judgmental & not shy about telling you what you should be doing. But I can't turn off my American sensibilities in Africa any more than they can turn off their Nigerian ones in America.
I have a few weeks to practice the fine art of politely telling someone I'm beginning to be insulted, you can shut the hell up now...
Last night, I watched Oprah's interview with John Edwards' "baby mama" Rielle Hunter. Someone called her a "New Age Airhead".
My reaction: Wow. She really is scum.
Not only because she slept with a married man. It was her sense of entitlement that bothered me. She claims to be a person who "lives by truth." With the affair now exposed, "Johnny" is now forced to "live a more authentic life" instead of the "lie" of a solid marriage to scary, emasculating Elizabeth Edwards.
In everything concerning the affair, Rielle Hunter felt perfectly justified. She (Rielle) was only following her heart. It's obvious she believes following her heart is always right. No matter who gets hurt. No matter that a dying woman's husband wants to screw you. Rielle didn't take vows to honor Elizabeth Edwards. Therefore, Rielle is off the hook. She's off the hook all right...
What's troubling is she truly believes she is on a superior spiritual path. She doesn't even recognize the acid trip her ego is on. The ego deceives (in church they call it "the flesh"; Freud calls it "the id"). It sees, it wants, it covets, it takes. Damn the consequences.
She's been fooled into believing her hormones & her heart are one & the same. She has concocted an elaborate "belief system" that justifies everything she does & exonerates her married boyfriend Johnny from any wrongdoing.
It must be nice inside that head of hers. Because everything is someone else's fault (e.g., the affair: Elizabeth's). People's opinions have nothing to do with her (the reason: you don't know me). You can't wreck a home where the marriage is strong (because: in her experience, 3rd parties can't wreck strong marriages).
For all her well-thought out justifications, Rielle fails to consider the simplest question of all and fails the simplest measure of human decency: how would you like it if someone did that to you?
About 13 years ago, I took a detour from career path to the less demanding path leading to "just a grind that pays the bills". It is what it is & I don't regret it.
For 12 years, I did kids, jumped from mindless secretary job to mindless, demanding, well paying secretary job before burning out after 3 tax seasons at an accounting firm. So here I sit. The stay-at-home mom. And I'm astonished at my ability to manifest my destiny.
About 7 years in to my non-career, I was bored, exhausted & depressed. I used to say all the time "I'm ready to live life as a lady of leisure". I didn't exactly have a vision of what this "lady of leisure" did (that's not true... she was "Aunt Phoebe" from All My Children), but she was certainly older, whiter, more fabulous, had better credit, more friends, drank more martinis, drove a more luxurious car, rode more horses, visited more spas and shopping malls than barefoot, bluetoed, sweats-&-sweater-wearing, overweight, can't-drive-a-stick-or-ride-a-horse, 3 months-overdue-for-a-haircut me.
And yet somehow, when I take a step back, I see I now have as much leisure time as I ever dreamed.
But it dawned on me today that I have become a cliche. I have slid into the uncomfortable & cliched category of "housewife letting herself go" (or at least I have been for the last 2 months).
So now I'm beginning to wonder about those guys I see checking me out... what exactly are they looking at? Is it my imagination practicing a little confirmation bias & convincing me they might be... flirting... or do they have some sort of 6th "spidey sense" or x-ray vision that let's them peer past the Walmart baseball cap & hoody & into the future & what I look like after HOURS of preparation (pretty darned good, if I do say so myself).
Another thing I still say to this day is "I wish I could know what it's like to be in the body of a man for 24 hours," to have those hormones, that sex drive, that brain, those rules encouraging promiscuity, that tool attached to me, running my life.
For everyone's sake, let's hope I'm not as good at manifesting my destiny as I used to be.
I did it again. What should have been a 30-second purchase turned into a 15 minute history lesson on the Central African Republic at my local pharmacy. I can't help it. I can't NOT ask that burning question of almost every foreigner I meet: "So, where are you from?" Because sometimes - like today - I discover a gold mine.
I describe myself as endlessly curious. Secretly, I love that about me. (It's certainly better than being "intellectually incurious" as one White House staffer described President George W. Bush.) I also love that my appetite to learn about foreign history, culture is so easily indulged. I adore my little multi-cultural suburb. There are so many opportunities to connect with someone from someplace different. But sometimes my ego catches me off guard. And sometimes the little jerk points out that this curiosity only makes me weird because so few of the Americans in my circle possess that same level interest.
So I ask myself: Why do I love different? Why do I feel most at ease in the company of people who live as aliens in a foreign land? (no, not illegal aliens... just alien as in "not native" - as I would be if I moved to China, for instance).
The writer/amateur head shrink in me has concluded that I have always felt out of place & different, as if I didn't belong. So why wouldn't I find the most comfort among people for whom "out of placeness" is a daily reality? Their "out of placeness" reflects back my perceptions of me.
So I ask myself the follow up: Is it healthy to love different? Granted, my love of foreign things is not bad. It's the flip side - the not loving "unforeign" things - that gives me pause.
Fact: My appetite for different goes unsatisfied in typical exchanges with Black Americans. Fact: Therefore, I often don't enjoy the company of Black Americans. Fact: Therefore, I'm not interested in predominantly Black environments. Fact: Therefore, I avoid homogenous Black American groups events. Fact: Black Americans display an exclusivity that strikes me as closed-minded & rejecting. Fact: Therefore, I reject many things about Black American culture. Fact: I am judgmental toward Black Americans. Fact: I am a Black American.
I married an African man. I guess I was destined to do so. Frankly, I've never been in a relationship with a Black American man who was my intellectual superior (it sounds so conceited to admit that, but it's true... the American guys I dated weren't up to the challenge of fending off the curiosity of the brain inside this dome). Thankfully, my husband is widely read, widely traveled, a decade older, and worlds wiser simply for having lived a "Third World to America"n life. His mind is as appealing to me now as it was when we met 16 years ago. All the "evidence" is pointing to the conclusion that I was never meant to marry an American man. The man God had for me is the man God has given me.
But, there is a part of me that laments never having had this kind of connection with a Black American man (my "brothas"). (Probably the same little jerk that tells me I'm weird.)
Knowing me, I will probably write about the my need to heal my relationship with my "brothas".
It's hard not to smile at a man who calls you "Miss Beautiful Lady" every morning when he sees you at 7-11 buying your morning cup of coffee. It's hard not to look for him each morning as you pull into the parking lot for your morning pick me up.
I've begun to think of him as "Mr. Pesonality". He doesn't speak much English but he has mastered the art of flirting with American women. Miss Beautiful Lady - what more do you need? He's the kind of man who'd be comfortable barking on a sidewalk to lure passersby into his club. Flirting to hustle up business. Flirting to make the time pass. Flirting to compete with his buddies (watch me get the lady's number). Flirting for entertainment as he stands shivering in the January cold on the grassy side of the parking lot.
The other Hispanic day laborers all stand back, trying not to be too conspicuous, wary of police attention, some looking like they're trying not to be too scary. Mr. Personality stands forward, takes a few steps nearer any cars approaching that barely-used corner of parking lot, makes aggressive eye contact, and gives you a big friendly smile. (Yes, he's handsome - which doesn't hurt). You want to hire this guy. In fact, he's the first one you choose. He's confident. His English can get him by. You know he's going to ask questions. He's your go-to guy when you want to give directions to the others who speak no English at all.
I have to admit I do wonder about their stories. Not just Mr. Personality - all of them. Those men who show up every morning no matter how cold. Those men who are all probably far from home, cut off from family and so many familiar things. Whatever they've left behind must have been awful if this - risking frostbite, harassment, alienation, imprisonment - is better than what they had before.
I admit I have to guard against my writers imagination. It looks for the story of an epic journey in everyone. And I especially have to guard against my novelists imagination which looks for the good, the hopeful, the redeeming, and the rising against all odds story arc in everyone. I love foreign things (I've been married to a foreigner for - oy vay! - 16 years). The thrill of learning new things about foreign cultures appeals to me like Coach bags to label-whores.
I know this about myself so I have to give myself a reality check. The reality is they're not all good. Their stories aren't all hopeful. They're not all here seeking the dream. Some, I'm sure, are running from something. Some, I'm sure, are just as capable of taking what they need from someone who isn't looking as they are of seeking an honest pay for an honest days work. When you live close to the edge, those lines of integrity, morality, and legality get crossed all the time.
Still, I like to see them there - new Americans - for what they represent. A new America.
Last summer, I was at an event at the Smithsonian celebrating 3 cultures. I spent most of my time in the Spanish culture section, then did the obligatory Black American walk through. The kids were hungry so I looked for food. You'll pardon the stereotype but I love fried chicken. If I'm at an event about Blacks and I see a bunch of people walking around eating watermelon (which I did), I just know they're going to have fried chicken too. I said as much to the older, African American lady standing next to me. She looked at me out of the corner of her eye (you know how we do) and I heard her mumble something that might have been an acknowledgment. Then she quickly moved away from me to join her friend in line.
Looking back, I can just imagine what she was thinking. Who does she think she is? She ain't even Black. She got the nerve to talk about some fried chicken and watermelon. Just 'cause you got Black kids don't mean you Black.
I am "mixed". I know my ethnic heritage throws people for a loop. They need a category to plug me in so they can know what to expect from me. How comfortable to be toward me. Whether to laugh or go off on me. There's a whole bunch of stuff thrown into the batch that made me and you can see it all in my face.
I forget sometimes that other people look at me and don't always see a Black woman. I forget sometimes that Black people don't always automatically receive me as one of them.
My mother never seemed to have this problem. My mother is not Black nor does she look Black. She is Hawaiian. She looks Hawaiian (if you know what the original Hawaiians look like - and most people don't), or Fillipina or even Latina. But she identifies with Blacks. The Black Civil Rights struggle is important to her. She can name famous Blacks in history. Racism stings her as harshly as if she were on the receiving end of all those blows & water hoses in Birmingham & Montgomery, Ala. She was called "nigger" by her own mother. She was the darkest-skinned child in her family. She was the "black sheep" in more ways than one. She had her 1st child very young. Later, she had children with Black men. Though not Black, when she moved to the "Mainland" she found easy acceptance in the Black community.
How strange that my mother, who is ethnically anything BUT Black (no matter how much she might long for it), found her place among the group that I rightfully belong to (rightfully, due to my genetic inheritance and my extensive childhood experience living in predominantly Black neighborhoods)... and yet I still haven't.
And "my writer" wonders about the overlapping threads of our lives. How my mother's journey, her struggle, her story blends, bleeds, and intertwines with mine - a continuation of our universal search for acceptance & belonging. If there is wisdom to be shared from our overlapping life stories, it is the value of finding acceptance among the community that receives you. Make family, make love, make lifelong friends among the people that welcome you.
My mother, as a "polynesian" (Samoan-Hawaiian-Chinese) woman raised in a very foreign land very far from America, was received like a daughter among Black Americans.
As I struggle with my own sense of never feeling truly at home in homogeneous Black American environments, I take a step back and think about the people who speak Spanish to me everyday (and I do mean every day). These people have no problem identifying me as someone who belongs. Someone who is one of them. Someone who fits in.
I, as a "biracial" American (Black-Hawaiian-Samoan-Chinese-Indian-White), am received like a daughter among Latin Americans.
I can see Mr. Personality has a good chance of finding acceptance in the new America. I don't know his citizenship status, but I do know his apparent ease in navigating his current situation & shaping it to his intention, is proof that this 21st century America will one day receive him, too like a son.
I've been simple. I've been still. I've been a true seeker - seeking the One Truth in all the threads of wisdom & belief available to me. I've prayed. I've observed countless synchronicities. I've spotted those time prompts and digital prompts and universal nudges urging me to...
Embrace the Me I Be.
Learn People's Stories.
Be the Bridge.
The seeker has sought... and sought... and sought...
The seeker has had just about enough.
What happens when the seeker stops seeking? I love the process, don't get me wrong. New discovery is as welcome & thrilling as going on a foreign adventure (not that I've ever actually been on one). New discovery is an adventure to me.
But all this seeking & researching & digging & scouring the internet & bookstores have all lead me to one conclusion...
I have a REAL problem with focus.
My season to seek is coming to a close. It may open again in the future. For now, the next new thing for me is:
Apprehend the Dream.
Master Habits of Success.
It's time to build the dream - bring it out of the realm of creation into the land of form.
Let the beauty of the Lord be upon me and establish the work of my hands...
I've never used the passion & gifting God gave me for anything other than my enjoyment... for the complete & utter pleasure of writing myself clear & whole. I've never written anything in the hopes that someone else would be blessed, touched or inspired by it.
I simply love to write. I connect with something sacred when the words begin to flow. I love the flow.
Not being able to write would be like cutting me off from myself. The pieces of myself don't fit together coherently when I don't write, things in this world stop making sense when I don't write... I stop making sense (to myself) when I don't write.
Though beloved, writing is a solitary exercise that pulls me into myself and away from the vital connections that sustain me and keep me sane. I begin to "turn" on myself when I spend too much time writing. My writer me is my most fundamental me... she's been neglected long enough. It's time I started learning how to live with her. It's time to shake her free of the negative thought patterns she drags around with her (sure, they help her write - but they depress the hell out of me).
I've never used what God has given me to tell a story of something beautiful and good. If I should die never having used the passion & gifts God gave me to write, that would be an utterly deplorable & shameful WASTE.