Moving to the UK was her parents’ dream; and leaving Nigeria was her loss—until she ditched the concept of ‘home’.
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London, United Kingdom
On 10 August 2007, I arrived in the United Kingdom with my parents and four sisters. The English sun burned less intensely than the sun in Lagos, where we departed from hours earlier, but it was a warm day and the queue in the arrival hall of London’s Heathrow airport was excruciating. Each step towards the row of Border Force officers was slow but oddly comforting; it reassured me that fresh air was within reach, beyond the airport’s poorly ventilated hall. Once we finally approached a Border Force officer with our travel documents, my family was inundated with questions. The officer wanted to know why the Nigerian man standing before him had decided to emigrate to the UK with a woman and five children as dependants. His questions, heavy with hostility, made me feel distraught and unwelcome, but I too wondered why we were there. Why had my parents decided to deracinate our family, leaving what, to me, was a comfortable life in Lagos? This question, along with the feelings of disorientation sparked by the immigration officer’s queries, re-emerged at different points during my life in the UK. They stalked me as I struggled to settle into an environment that alienated me, forcing me to reinvent myself.
Why had my parents decided to deracinate our family, leaving what, to me, was a comfortable life in Lagos?
While migration can be an active ingredient in the realization of dreams, it can also cause a disturbance, a pang of loss. Until reading M. NourbeSe Philip’s collection of poems, She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, I had not considered that parallels existed between migration and horticulture. Both are delicate processes involving risk and (the art of) survival. In Philip’s collection, she offers an instruction from The Practical Guide to Gardening: ‘When transplanting, you may notice a gently ripping sound as the roots are torn away from the soil. This is to be expected: for the plant, transplanting is always a painful process.’ My emigration to the UK was a realization of my parents’ dream—a subsidiary of the Nigerian dream, which is to leave the country that manages to find new ways of inflicting deeper pain each day, so that one might have a chance at a decent life.
I do not recall crafting and nurturing dreams of my own while living in Lagos; I simply had fleeting desires. The year we left Nigeria, I would turn ten and finally experience the customary family celebration to mark one’s first decade and usher in the next phase of life—‘you’re a big girl now’. Alas, the tradition escaped me, and in the place of a grand tenth birthday party, I was uprooted and left to pick up the pieces of adjusting to my life as an unwitting emigrant. Amid the severe disruption and sadness, I learnt an important lesson. Becoming an emigrant at ten years old is more life-changing than a lavish Lagos party held to mark the milestone.
Until reading M. NourbeSe Philip’s collection of poems, ‘She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks’, I had not considered that parallels existed between migration and horticulture.
When I arrived in the UK, I had just completed Primary 5 (or Year 5 in the UK). To ensure I could complete my final year of primary education, my parents worked tirelessly to enrol me into a good school in north London. I recall an occasion where my mother was told by a White headteacher that they could not admit me as a student because they already had ‘a tall Black girl’ in their school. In Nigeria, being one of the tallest girls in my class came with privileges such as being chosen by the teacher to wipe the blackboard, but in the UK, I was regarded with fear. The feelings of disorientation I first experienced at Heathrow came flooding back. Unable to identify any immediate benefits of being in the UK, I still wondered why my parents made us move to another country only to be treated with contempt. I was eventually admitted into what seemed to be a more accommodating school, but there my feelings of displacement accelerated.
I slowly began to understand my parents’ decision to relocate to the UK. They had probably anticipated an increasing deterioration of the Nigerian state and the negative impact it would have on our welfare had we remained in Lagos. Perhaps they knew that only so much money could cushion us against the calamitous effects of Nigeria’s ‘demonstration of craze’ as Fela Kuti put it. Yet, both they and I had failed to consider the psychological trauma we would experience in the UK simply because we were Black Africans. Unlike some Black African migrants who discover their blackness only when they arrive in a European society, I always knew I was Black or that White people existed. As the daughter of middle-class Nigerians, my parents often took me and my siblings to Ikoyi Club, a leisure centre originally founded in 1938 by European civil servants in Lagos. In this private club, we were allowed to eat as much candy floss and suya as we desired—a treat for having sat through Sunday Mass and correctly interpreted the homily to our father who always asked sternly, ‘What was today’s message?’ Having noticed several White people in Ikoyi Club, I understood that they looked different to me, but I never paid attention to the politics of difference. I knew very little about the history of colonialism in my country and, with history absent from the national curriculum at the time, I did not have the opportunity to learn about Nigeria’s inception. I did not know much about nationalism and identity. Undeniably, I had been taught about Nigeria’s numerous ethnic groups and knew that I was of Yoruba origin, but I remained largely ignorant of complex identity politics. The innocence of my youth resulted in my inability to foresee the identity crisis I would go on to experience for most of my life in the United Kingdom.
Unlike some Black African migrants who discover their blackness only when they arrive in a European society, I always knew I was Black…
As I navigated my new life in the UK, I experienced not only a cultural homelessness but also what the linguist, Alex Baratta, refers to as ‘linguistic homelessness’. On my first day of Year 6, I was assigned a buddy to support me as I integrated into the unfamiliar environment. I first noticed how freely the students interacted with their teachers who they called by their first names. Coming from a strict, conservative environment, this seemed too radical, and I was reluctant to partake of such liberties. But after being reprimanded several times for prefixing teachers’ names with the titles ‘Ms’ or ‘Mr’, I gave into the informalities. Some of my classmates were fascinated by my presence. Once, I was fiddling with my hair and, having noticed that strands of my hair didn’t fall downward after I pulled them up, one of my classmates pointed at me as he informed the others of my hair’s ability to defy gravity. They stared at me for a while and although the moment eventually passed, I remained deeply conscious of my difference.
I began to notice the ways in which my pronunciation of words differed to that of my peers. Perhaps it was easier to notice because I was sometimes teased about it and, other times, when I used phrases in English, such as ‘next tomorrow’ and ‘doll-baby’, that I hadn’t yet realized were Nigerian inventions, they stared at me as though I had uttered gibberish. Frustrated by the torment, I did not feel strong enough to defend myself and my grasp of the English language, nor did I know how to do so. It seemed easier to change myself, to embody what Frantz Fanon refers to in Black Skin, White Masks as a ‘being-for-others’. Knowing I could not change the colour of my skin, I chose to adapt the tune to which my tongue sang. Language became my primary channel for self-reinvention.
Impelled by the pressure to belong, I started my journey to bidialectalism; I spoke with a Nigerian accent in my house and switched to a British accent once I arrived at school. Although Fanon describes a Black person’s adoption of White people’s linguistic characteristics as ‘exist[ing] absolutely for the other’, my self-adjustment was not simply for others but also for my sanity—it was a strategy for survival. As I taught myself to speak like a British person, I realized that I had underestimated the difficulty of the process and the pace at which it could occur, but I chose to persevere. My self-training (and survival) therefore continued into my secondary education.
Knowing I could not change the colour of my skin, I chose to adapt the tune to which my tongue sang. Language became my primary channel for self-reinvention.
My Catholic high school was different. Beside the compulsory attendance of Mass, teachers had to be addressed with titles and students’ skirts could not be too short. Yet, what stood out most was the way I was treated by other Black students. High school was where I first realized that there is nothing like ‘the Black experience’, there are simply different experiences of blackness. As a Black African, my Black British peers would repeat phrases I uttered, exaggerating my intonation. They called me a ‘freshie’ because I had yet to master a British accent and still sounded foreign. I recall a time when another Black girl, though slightly lighter in complexion, referred to me as ‘blick’ — a racial slur used in British slang to describe, or rather denigrate, Black people with a dark complexion. It was difficult to fit in, so I turned to books at lunchtime, sometimes reading under an umbrella on rainy days. One day, as I sat alone in the playground, I was approached by a group of Black girls who offered me a place in their clique but I declined, after which they replied, ‘Be a loser then’. They weren’t completely wrong about me being a loser. As a young emigrant, transplanted without a choice, I had lost a portion of soil I could lay claim to. Like a plant undergoing transplant shock because its roots were disturbed during its relocation, I battled with anxiety because, while in the middle of stabilizing myself in one environment, I was thrust into another, left to find my feet in an abyss of uncertainty. Building a new life in a new country became a process of grieving just as much as it was an exercise in grit.
Having immersed myself in UK society for some years, I was still deemed too African and, when I returned to Nigeria for holidays, I was not Nigerian (or Yoruba) enough. It did not help that I had been a weak student of Yoruba language in primary school before moving to the UK. Growing up in Lagos, I had minimal exposure to the Yoruba language as my parents encouraged our anglicization, probably because they felt it would prepare us for our eventual relocation to the UK. If only they had known that becoming increasingly anglicized, as Black Africans, would never result in full acceptance by the English. Although I mostly spoke English to my parents and grandparents, I heard adults around me hold vivid conversations in Yoruba, so I accumulated some useful words and phrases, but they were never enough to fully master the language. When my parents realized they did not want us to become ‘too British’ they began speaking Yoruba more often in the UK. Self-reconstruction became a chore and I worked double shifts as I reinvented myself: just as I watched British TV shows such as Garrow’s Law to hone my British accent, I became increasingly dependent on Yoruba films such as Irapada and Alakada and music by Ebenezer Obey and Tunji Oyelana to improve my proficiency of Yoruba which is still a work in progress. Despite my efforts, I remain, as the poet Ijeoma Umebinyuo writes, ‘too foreign for home, too foreign for here, never enough for both.’
As a young emigrant, transplanted without a choice, I had lost a portion of soil I could lay claim to.
For a long time, I felt liminal, confused about who I was and where ‘home’ was. I have only recently found consolation in Glissant’s Poetics of Relation. In this text, Glissant draws a distinction between ‘root identity’ and ‘relation identity’. The former is concerned with a fixed rootedness. A crisis of root identity often emerges among emigrants who, like me, previously viewed a territory as theirs but suddenly become unsettled once uprooted from that territory. On the other hand, relation identity is centred on Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s theory of deterritorialization and rhizomes. It emphasizes a continuous becoming and connection to different places or, as Julia Kristeva puts it in Strangers to Ourselves, ‘an impossibility to take root’. In the years following my emigration, I felt compelled to ultimately claim one territory, one accent as mine. But now, I claim both accents as part of my hybrid identity, as evidence of my rhizomatic existence.
That said, although I have reinvented myself for survival and acquired fragments of both cultures, I do not view my identity as complete. Similarly, I do not think of home as one place or any place at all. Home is a concept I am not eager to define because defining a thing mirrors the act of caging a bird. Definitions involve the erection of walls, the imposition of limits. Yet home continues to evolve, it remains unsettled.
Echoing Franz Kafka, the writer Carole Maso encourages the recognition of ‘the incompleteness of any life—not because it is too short, but because it is a human life.’ Moving from Lagos to London made me recognize the intrinsic quality of incompleteness that characterizes my life. Today, nowhere feels completely like a haven and I no longer feel the need to belong to one place, but rather to remain on the path of becoming. I realize now that, all along, the real work suppressed beneath the reinvention of myself was finding a way to accept myself as compounded, rather than waiting to be accepted by others. My identity is still under construction. And for as long as I live, there remains a possibility of further transplanting, further reinvention, but I welcome it with open arms⎈
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