Chinyere—“God’s Gift.” How could a name meaning something so sweet taste so sour?
As early as Pre-Kindergarten, I was engaged in a war against my name—I hated it! Every day, all I heard from my classmates was, “What’s you name again?” as they snickered and made snide remarks, mumbling, “African booty scratcher!” I was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and my parents were born and raised in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. Although I have lived in D.C. all my life, my Igbo culture has always been a part of my household. Igbo, Hausa, and Yoruba are a few leading ethnic groups of the 250 different ethnic groups in Nigeria. Because each ethnic group has its own culture, tension between groups, especially between Muslim (predominantly Hausa) and Christian (predominantly Igbo and Yoruba) has always ravaged the country and continues to do so even today.
I have been traveling to Nigeria with my family every two to four years ever since I was born. It was not until the last years of elementary school that I truly appreciated flying overseas. Yet because I lacked maturity and cultural comfort, I feared the words, “We’re going to Nigeria this summer,” for this meant that I would miss out on everything from camp to a summer job. It seemed as if my war with my name had evolved into a war with my Nigerian roots. The most puzzling thing about this personal war with my culture was how my parents often said, “We’re going home this summer.” I thought, “Home? How can Nigeria be my home?”
The smell of pollution combined with that of burning wood filled the thick, humid air as we landed at Owerri (Nigerian state) Airport. The distinctive smell was coupled with another characteristic component of the Nigerian experience—corruption. Corruption was evident even before we left the airport as the security guards detained us with bogus claims that our bags had not been searched. After being detained for a while, my parents simply paid the security guards a little Naira (Nigerian currency) and they immediately let us go. I thought to myself, “This is what you call home?” From the airport, my family and I piled into a van and proceeded to the little village where my father is from called Udo, meaning “peace.”
We were greeted by our family and friends, and of course, by my overjoyed grandparents: “Kedu? (How are you?)” my grandmother asked. “Odinma (I’m fine),” I replied. As I went to greet other family members, my grandmother broke out into a church song in her native language, Igbo. My grandfather, over 100 years old, said one of the most powerful prayers I have ever heard in my life. Although I could make out only a few Igbo words, I was both moved and puzzled. “Maybe this is what they call home?” I thought. It was then I realized the reason why being active in the church is such an important part of our life in the United States—Religion is key to the Igbo culture.
But I was still perplexed: This place was so foreign. Finally, my family and I walked into our house. As I reached to turn on the light, my cousin, born and raised in Nigeria, said, “The light has not come.” Confused, I asked my parents if they had paid the light bill, and to my surprise, they said they had. Later, I learned that even if you pay the light bill, the light comes on only periodically. The United States is the number one consumer of electricity, consuming about 3.9 trillion kilowatts per hour, while Nigeria, with a population roughly half the size of the U.S. consumes only about 19 billion kilowatts per hour, about one-half of one percent as much. Electricity, something that most Americans, such as myself, waste on a daily basis, is a blessing in Nigeria, and when it did come, people proclaimed, “NEPA (National Electric Power Authority) abiala (has come)!” More important than NEPA, however, was family, for those times when NEPA was not around became genuine family time where we did anything from cook to take a walk around the village. Soon, I noticed that most, if not all, of the time I spent in Nigeria was devoted to visiting my aunts, uncles, grandparents, and other extended family and friends. Then I realized that back in the US, my parents always emphasized the importance of family—Family is key to the Igbo culture. Could this be why they called it home?
I was struck with immense humility when I saw with my own eyes how fortunate I was to have US currency; for one US dollar is equal to roughly 120 Naira. This did not hit me until my dad explained to me why my neighbors woke up at the break of dawn. My neighbors lived in a very small shack-like house that strained to accommodate a six-member family. There was a girl about my age whose daily routine was to wake up at 5:00 a.m. and walk three miles to the river to fetch water. From there, she returned by 6:30 a.m. to heat up the leftovers to prevent the food from spoiling (few families had refrigerators). She also used some water to bathe, making sure she saved enough water for her family to bathe as well; my dad also told me that many others simply bathed in the same river where they fetched their water. After bathing, she would find some breakfast, or simply eat any leftovers she could find, and prepare for the day’s work.
Her parents were farmers, so she helped them work in the field to produce crops to sell in the market. In this way, they made their living. By 8:00 a.m., she reported to school; to my surprise my father said that she was fortunate: some families could not afford school fees. I was shocked. “Why aren’t there any public schools?” I wondered. I felt privileged yet upset about my own familiar routine; I became disgusted with the way that some Americans wasted their opportunity to get a free education by either skipping class or not trying in school. However, the literacy rate of United States is 99%, while the literacy rate of Nigeria is only 68%. My neighbor’s life showed me just how hard people worked in Nigeria to obtain what we Americans tend to take for granted—running water, electricity, refrigerators, and education. Observing my neighbors also revealed the importance of family in Igbo culture; for everything my neighbor did, from fetching the water to helping out with the farming, was not for herself alone, but also for her family. Her routine was common to the 52% of Nigerians in rural areas.
Unfortunately, like my neighbors, 70% of Nigeria also lives below the poverty line. In comparison, only 12% of those in the United States live below the poverty line. This type of daily struggle was so different from my experience, so how could this place be my home? Other traditions were also new to me, such as the “Coming Out Ceremony” during which boys become “men” at around twenty-five years of age. I actually observed this odd ceremony in which my cousin “became a man.” They dressed with traditional wrappers on their heads and waists, and danced with swords and sticks. As I wondered how this made someone a “man” and thanked God that my classmates were not there to make fun of my cousin, I had a realization.
As the drums pounded and a rhythmic beat seemingly controlled the men in their dances, and I finally realized that this is my home and these “odd” ceremonies weren’t so odd after all. This is my culture, my people, and my heritage. It was as if the music, yelling, and dancing had opened my eyes to see that a lot of the culture I experienced in Nigeria—religion, family, and traditional customs—was very much alive in my life in the United States and in fact laid the foundation not only to my home, but also to my life. Because many poverty-stricken youth in Nigeria lack suitable living circumstances, an education, and the opportunity to advance themselves, while I live “the land of opportunity,” it seems as if we come from entirely different worlds. Yet I still find an intimate connection with these children through the one thing that I used to be ashamed of—my Igbo culture. A protracted emotional struggle that started out with my being ashamed of my name had ultimately ended in great pride. Now when I say my name, I proclaim it with the pride of a lion, for I am a proud product of my culture and my name represents that.
Many children worldwide experience a lack of comfort with their own culture and heritage, especially those who feel pressured to assimilate and blend in with the culture in which they live. I hope that not all children have to travel a thousand miles to be comfortable with their cultures. Ideally, “cultural comfort” simply starts with an open mind and a strong spirit, not a plane ticket. I traveled to Nigeria with a closed mind and a lack of cultural orientation, but I left with so much more. Gaining understanding and confidence with my own culture has allowed me to view the world in a whole new light—with an open mind, humble heart, and grateful a demeanor—and has inspired me to pursue an understanding of other cultures.