I was 6 years old when I made the most significant decision of my life. While my peers were busy making tough choices in the tangled web of playground politics, I was being asked if I wanted to stay in England with the white British couple who had helped to raise me since I was 10 days old, or go with my biological parents to Nigeria. I remember I was combing my Barbie's blonde hair when I gave my answer:
I want to stay here with Annette and John.
My biological mum said OK, and that was that. She didn’t say much at the time, but with hindsight I don't think I'm imagining the hurt in her eyes. I had confirmed what she already knew – I had chosen another mother figure over her.
I was, of course, unaware of the complex consequences my decision would have on the rest of my life.
My choice saw me spend my teens and my twenties navigating an intricate game of identity politics that went beyond broad terms of race; I was exploring the complications of culture within an ethnicity.
My biological parents’ tale is the all too familiar ballad of the immigrant: They came to the British Isles in search of a better life. My dad came in April 1985 – by day, he got settled and tried to establish some sort of home and by night, he slept on his sister’s sofa. When my mother arrived to an English winter three years later, my dad had tentatively found his feet on the uneven pavements of east London. A year after that, I came along.
Although my parents found work (Dad as a track engineer on the London underground, mum at a frozen food factory), they struggled to afford the expenses that came with living in a two-bed flat in Stratford. They took on further night shifts to supplement their income, leaving me in the care of a childminder, Annette. The situation was more along the lines of a live-in nanny, except I lived with her. I slept in her house, and she did all the obvious things: the school run, bath time, help with homework, and the kind of love that fixes scraped knees and runny noses. At the weekends, I would go “home” to spend time with the people who looked like me – the only people I was allowed to call Mum and Dad – only they didn’t quite feel like my mum and dad. I spent Sunday afternoons sitting on the kitchen counter, glued to the window and wishing the minutes away, waiting to be collected.
When my biological parents left for Nigeria, my dad sought to make me comfortable with my blackness. My bedroom filled with black dolls and books – and since this was the time of the Spice Girls, Mel B merchandise – that spilled out into and cluttered up the living room. A blend of childhood artefacts and a pop culture phenomenon gave me my first grounding in blackness as an identity.
But my identity was also forged in less rosy circumstances. I remember one time my dad wouldn’t get me an ice cream after school. On the way home, with my face like a wet weekend in Bognor, a stranger – a black man – asked if I was OK, and if I needed help, insinuating that I may have been taken by this white man. Our horror in the moment was secondary only to my realisation that people saw us as different. It was a small thing, but it made me aware I didn’t have the privilege to act like a stroppy 10-year-old in public without raising some eyebrows.
But it wasn’t until my adolescent years that I realised my skin tone wasn’t just an indicator of difference, and that it wasn’t enough to create a fulfilling identity. While I was obviously black, I didn’t feel Nigerian. I looked Nigerian, my name was Nigerian, but I wasn’t Nigerian culturally. I didn’t have any sense of how it felt to be Nigerian. Looking back, it’s clear I felt I was merely "passing" as a Nigerian.
When I asked Annette if she'd had any fears about bringing up a Nigerian-British child she told me she just wanted to make sure I was a "good person". When I pressed her about maybe missing out on Nigerian culture, she was pragmatic: "It crossed my mind. There is no manual to raising a child of a different race but for me, it was important that you had personal experiences." We attended a church with a Nigerian community, my parents had Nigerian friends, and then I lucked out at secondary school. "You made great friendships with girls who happened to be Nigerian," my mum told me. "So it was time for me to take a step back and let you form more of those relationships independently." And I did.
My first memorable encounter with "Nigerian-ness" came at 11, courtesy of my best friend, Demi. The first time I entered her home, I made a series of faux pas that no Nigerian-born – and bred – child would ever make.
I walked into her house and simply said “hi” to her parents, with no honorific "Aunty’"or "Uncle", no "how are you?" to cushion my impertinence. A bathroom break a few minutes later led to some confusion when I spotted a bucket in their bathtub. I brought it up upon my return to the living room, and was met with Demi's casual truth bomb: A bucket was literally part of the furniture in many Nigerian bathrooms. At dinner (steaming jollof, fried plantain and meat), I ate the meat first, and asked for more from my generous hosts, who obliged. Later, Demi quietly informed me that you should eat the meat after the rice, a ritual that has stood me in good stead for visits to other Nigerian households since.
Through Demi and subsequent Nigerian friends I formed the misconception that there was a monolithic Nigerian identity: where girls spent chunks of their Saturdays in their mothers' kitchens, learning about the secret ingredients that made their versions of okra soup and fried rice so unique. I heard stories of Nigerian classmates dragged to parties and being "sprayed" with dollars, a novel concept I couldn’t ask about because of the embarrassment of ignorance. I had come to the conclusion that England would never quite be home, and there was a disconnect with my Nigerian side – a disconnect that was cemented when I joined a predominantly Nigerian church at 18, and became more involved in church life. I began to dread a simple question:
How do you pronounce your surname?
Which always led to the next dreaded question:
Do you understand Yoruba?
And to complete the glorious trifecta:
Ah, do you know how to cook jollof rice?
It felt like I was being asked these questions on a weekly basis, a handy checklist to make sure I was as Nigerian as I looked. And without fail, these questions of identity left me flailing. The feeling you’ve failed a verbal identity test is strange, but knowing you will never pass is borderline depressing.
With that in mind, you can imagine my apprehension in 2008, when my (biological) cousin flew me and my mother to Nigeria for her wedding.
My last meeting with my biological mother had been to say goodbye, back in 1996, and our only interaction since had been periodic routine phone calls over the years. At a sweltering Lagos airport, here she was again: my mother, a woman I did not recognise.
As my mothers embraced for a long time, I stood on the sidelines, an observer of a moment from which I was naturally exempt. Our own reunion was a lot more awkward: slight hesitation from us both, a mix of suspicion and suspense, and then eventually – finally – a hug. I’d begun my Nigeria experience. I did a lot that week, but the most important thing is that I finally experienced being “sprayed” – while wearing head-to-toe ankara and a gele, and dancing to a live band. And it was glorious.
But something even more glorious took place on my trip. Every time someone asked me if I understood Yoruba, a random Aunty or Uncle would spring to my defence and say: Ah, she’s English now.
The relief at having that Aunty-cushion for the first time in my life was deep. But it also served to make me realise I was more of a foreigner than ever. Why had I thought my “motherland” would fill the void of unfamiliarity, when I struggled to achieve the comfort I sought in Nigerian communities in London? I knew England would never quite accept me as one of her own, but Nigeria couldn’t either.
A college friend finally articulated what I had felt. He explained his sense of a “lost identity” being a British-raised Nigerian; even without the added peculiarity of my complicated upbringing, neither England nor Nigeria felt a natural “home” for him. It dawned on me that there is no one definitive Nigerian experience – coming from the most populated country in Africa with communities spread across the globe, each with different social and cultural complications, there is bound to be more than one take on Nigerian identity. I'm a Nigerian-British millennial. We often feel like we're in a no-man's-land, but we are not alone. I grew up eating a Sunday roast rather than pounded yam while watching the EastEnders omnibus, but there is a plurality to the Nigerian identity. It’s OK. We're OK.
After finally getting comfortable in accepting my version of Nigerian-ness I felt like I was back at square one when I met my boyfriend. Once again, my tell was food: When I admitted that I hadn’t had pounded yam in years, he instantly questioned what type of Nigerian household I was living in. I keep learning. Through him I have come to understand that age gaps between siblings sometimes bring titles (I’m so glad his younger siblings don’t call me “Sister Tobi”) and why it’s extremely important to know the difference between someone being an “Aunty” and a “Big Mummy”. (Trust me, it’s too complex to get into here.)
With him, I’ve also experienced another Nigerian pastime visited upon young women in long-term relationships: the constant questioning of when the wedding is. Like many Nigerian brides-to-be, I am sure I will feel the overwhelming anxiety as I organise two (traditional and white) or possibly three (legal) weddings. I know my boyfriend would love for further bonding sessions with his mother to take place over cooking sessions in which I learn her version of jollof rice. And I’m sure he’ll still correct me when I pronounce it as "jellof” rice.
The one thing I’m finally sure of is that at 26, my Nigerian identity is valid.
Tobi Oredein is the Founder and Editor of Black Ballad and a freelance journalist based in London.
Contact Tobi Oredein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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