After my dad’s death, home had seemed like a place I would drift further away from. It took some time but eventually I found my way back.
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Brooklyn, United States
There are a few steps of planning that go into getting ready for my yearly trip to Nigeria. This includes buying gifts for loved ones, examining my clothes to make sure I have at least one or two outfits my mom approves of, making sure I have all my work visa documents in order and withdrawing money to gift people. With COVID-19, travelling became even more precarious so I added more steps to the list. I made sure to get multiple tests and have enough copies of the results distributed across my bags to avoid complications.
This year, my to-do list was almost complete except one thing. Besides seeing my family and attending my dad’s one-year memorial, I wanted to be unduly distracted. A few weeks prior to my trip, my boyfriend and I had broken up after three and a half years. We agreed it was the best thing but it was devastating. I knew I needed something more than my standard two-week routine in Nigeria to keep me occupied. From the time I left for school in 2013, whenever I made the yearly visit in December, I would mostly stay at home since I could not drive, did not have a sim card, a credit card, or the mental capacity to explain to my parents why an event started after sundown. Yet, 2021 was different. The universe had cursed my December, with the death of a parent and the demise of a relationship to grieve. I needed a coping strategy.
I figured that the best way was to try out new things. So I sent a casual DM to an old friend who lived in Nigeria. I will refer to him as ‘S.’ ‘Old’ as a descriptor is true because I had known him for a while, although it was difficult to bring a memory of us to mind. Meanwhile, ‘friend’ was less true. He was an acquaintance, but one I had an inkling could be somewhat of a good time and I needed someone to distract me from the consuming sadness. He responded and our conversation flowed well. Like me, he was born in Nigeria and had lived on the US East Coast. At the time, he too was going through a breakup. We ran parallel conversations across Twitter and WhatsApp speaking about work, music, and books. We talked about our time in university and the places we had visited during the short school holidays. We took a quiz to test our knowledge of US States. I got 24 out of the 50. He got all the 50 states. He challenged me to do the state quiz for Nigeria but I declined. I knew I would score poorly. I could not remember the last time I looked at a map of the Nigerian states. I could barely remember the route from my house to school, church or the hairdresser. As I heard more about his life in Nigeria, I started to realize how I felt so disconnected from the place I had called home for more than half of my life.
I left for the US when I was 17 to go to university.
After my freshman year I went back to Abuja for the whole summer. Since then, I had not spent more than two weeks per year in Nigeria. Every subsequent trip back, I realized how much things had changed. My accent had shifted, I rarely said my name correctly the first time, after repeated moments of frustration at mispronunciation led me to introduce myself as ‘Yeli like Jelly with a Y,’ instead of ‘Yeh-Li.’ My family had also moved out of the last place I lived so I struggled to find my way around. I spent most of my limited time in Abuja indoors reading, and barely reached out to anyone or experienced much of the city outside of church and occasionally going to the movies nearby.
Balancing time with family, and trying to catch up with old friends left no time to make new ones. The shift did not gnaw at me at first, I was focused on forging a life in the US. I was the only member of my immediate family in America and I was starved of community. I also knew that the metric of success was to graduate at the top of my class, get a good job, stay for a couple years and return to Nigeria. I wanted to make sure my family’s effort to get me there was not in vain, and it was not. I got a good job, and a supportive group of friends. I also began dating a boy who was not African. When my dad found out about him, he told me he had worked hard to build a life for me in Nigeria, which he wanted me to return to eventually. I cried on the phone and for days after because for the first time I was not sure I wanted to go back to Nigeria. The familiarity with which I once navigated the country and the non-familial relationships that once kept me occupied were no longer present. Whereas, after the first two years of isolation and disorientation, New York had become a place I knew intimately. I had cultivated a community, gotten a partner and I was steadily moving up at work. The gnawing grew bigger.
Returning To Self
Though I felt resigned to the banality of my yearly two week trip, I knew there were things I could do to feel more connected while I was in the United States.
I started getting more involved with the Nigerian tech community on Twitter and when I moved from San Francisco to New York, I made sure to live close to an African market. At the time my family came to stay with me right before lockdown, I had gotten into the habit of cooking my favorite Nigerian dishes with help from Chef Lola’s Kitchen and Sisi Jemimah. My mom brought more spices and dried food to replenish my supply from my last visit. I was determined to impress her with my jollof rice. I knew I had when she ate it out of the pot with her hands. When reports of COVID-19 become more urgent, and flights were getting cancelled, my dad spoke fondly about staying in my apartment forever. Thinking back, I wish I had let him.
After my family finally got a flight back to Nigeria before the lockdown, I got to work with the plethora of food stuff my mom had left. I made a delicious vegan egusi recipe for two of my Nigerian friends that did not eat meat and I sent pictures of freshly steamed moi moi to my dad. I spent the first nine months of the pandemic sharing my kitchen exploits with my parents. They were impressed and I was thrilled. It felt like I was finally returning to self.
Then my dad died.
I travelled back to Nigeria. Rifts within the family strained my relationships with extended family members. My connections outside my family were severed by distance and time. I could feel my anchors slowly disappearing. I wondered what it would be like in 40 years. What would I have to return back to? How would I not feel like a stranger in my own country? I stayed indoors trying to support my mother and brother but mostly, wishing I would disappear. On the rare better days, I took on activities such as starting a book club with an old friend from secondary school. But after one book I had to leave to go back to the US.
I felt like I was drifting at sea. I knew how to be a Nigerian person in Brooklyn, where to get all the right ingredients for Nigerian meals, what bars and djs to look out for if I wanted to spend a night dancing to Afrobeats. Meanwhile, I knew nothing about how to function as a person in Nigeria. Since I had left for university, I had spent most of my energy catering to my relationships in the US, that in Nigeria, only my family kept me at bay. And now a big part of that was gone. In Nigeria, I spent most of my time with my dad while he watched Riona on African Magic or cursed at Trump while watching CNN. I had never known a Nigeria without my dad in it. More than ever I struggled to do more than exist while I was there.
Almost a year later, I had mostly buried this feeling.
I was preoccupied with mourning the loss of my dad and not considering what it meant for my relationship to Nigeria. I only thought of the practicality of my imminent yearly trip that is, what I had to prepare for the memorial, what I needed to bring that people had requested, what books I would read when I was not hanging out with my family or facetiming my friends and boyfriend back in the US.
The re-excavation of my distress happened post breakup, when I started talking to S. Instead of spending hours on the phone talking to my now-ex, who was a big part of my ‘other’ life in the US, I was talking to S, a welcome representation of what my time in Nigeria could be if I just tried a little harder. As I learnt more about his life in Nigeria, I wanted to be more like S: He had traveled to over a dozen Nigerian states, I had only been to three. He confidently moved around Abuja, a confidence I was only projecting when my mom left me to fend for myself in the market. He knew more names of artists whose songs had not yet been catapulted into popularity by TikTok or put on the Spotify playlists. His Pidgin was better than mine. I sometimes tripped over my words and revealed myself as an IJGB.
I wanted to spend more time with him to feel more attune with the streets of Abuja. He sent me lists of places to visit on Google Keep. The first time we met after a decade, he suggested a bookstore. I walked through excitedly, thrilled at how many new Nigerian authors had emerged, and piling books in my arm till I got to the register and realized I could not buy them all. I finally picked up Nearly All The Men In Lagos Are Mad and Imminent River. I wrote down names of the other books that had caught my attention or that he had recommended, hoping to get them in a US library. None of them were available in the US yet, so I resolved to check out some more bookstores before I left Nigeria.
When I got back to the house I followed several Nigerian publishers and book influencers. My secondary school friend and I restarted our book club. I finished Nearly All The Men In Lagos Are Mad in a few days, S asked me for my review. My conclusion was that men in Lagos were, in fact, all mad. I joked about quitting my job and becoming an ethnographer of the subject, he suggested I move to Lagos to experience the madness for myself.
S played me Lazarus by Dave and I loved it after three listens.
I played it for my brother, he was impressed. I smiled a little, it was nice to put him on to Nigerian music. S had lived in Lagos since he graduated from school six years ago. He made me a playlist and sent me song recommendations multiple times a week. I used them as a starting point to find similar songs. The time we spent together motivated me to be more proactive about engaging in activities outside my home. Before we first met up, he would joke about my ‘bare-ish’ social calendar while sending the link to an event happening. When he checked in with me weeks later, after he had left Abuja and I told him of the plethora of activities I had gotten involved in; we joked that the student had become the master.
After my dad’s death, home had seemed like a place I would drift further away from.
I had lost one anchor, and then another, and then another. But I had been approaching my time at home with a lazy beckoning, waiting for the familiarity of my teens to take hold again. The need to nurse my dual heartbreak had led me to S and being around him gave me the kick to approach my time in Nigeria more intentionally.
Now, I was comfortable: I had begun walking around the neighborhood with my mom a couple times a week. With every subsequent day, we were venturing out a little further or taking a route previously untravelled. I moved my flight yet again, bringing my time in Nigeria up to two months. I had places to suggest friends go to, reconnected with a good number of people from my childhood, and I was going to boxing lessons with a friend multiple times a week. I checked out two more bookstores, and was already stressing about how I would fit the eight books I bought in my luggage.
On the days I was in the market, I priced up while my mother priced down, sneaking in some extra notes to the sellers when she was not looking. I had playful fights with my mom when she insisted I let my brother drop me instead of taking a Bolt. I scoffed at the idea of being kidnapped (in the light of day). I stayed out ‘late’ (i.e past 9 p.m.). I tried to toe the line between blind confidence and crippling paranoia. I was finding a place in my country again⎈
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