Proving myself Nigerian
In the UK, according to their equal opportunity and ethnicity forms, I am known as Mixed Race (sometimes I have the option of White and Black African), in Nigeria I am commonly and wrongly referred to as being half caste, in the slave days I would have been known as a mulatto, and I have even been asked what breed I am. Excuse me?
I, on the other hand, have always referred to myself as being Mixed. And sometimes, when I do not see an appropriate category on a form in which to place myself, I make up my own – Afro-European.
As nature would have it though, I have taken most of my physical features from my mother (who is the white – oops is that PC? or the Caucasian parent) – I am pale skinned, becoming even more so now that it’s winter and there is no sunshine in sight to tan me golden, I’ve got long straight hair (for which I was always the envy of my friends as I have never had to use any sort of straightening products), and all my life I have always been asked if I was Indian, Chinese or Hawaiian. When I was six months old and in Germany, my mum was congratulated on being brave and compassionate enough to have adopted a Vietnamese orphan!!
Sometimes looking the way I do has been an advantage. For instance, when I was in university and we had to queue up either to pay for hostel accommodation or at the bursary to pay the tuition fees, nine times out of ten I would be called from the back of the queue to the front to pay before anyone else. It was like the general thought amongst the university officials was that I couldn’t cope with standing in the heat so it was best to attend to me first – I was presumed to be an Aje-butter because of the way I looked. Did I put them right and behave all noble and wait my turn patiently in the sun for four hours? Hell no! (LOL).
At other times, it’s been a disadvantage. Most traders and market sellers always tried to rip me off. I was always a beacon in the dark for the area boys on the beach who just assumed I was loaded with ‘dolla’s’ and so hung around me like flies on shit – and were sometimes quite aggressive as well. But coming to think about it Area Boy and Aggression kind of go hand in hand. And last year, I was almost refused renewal of my Nigerian passport at the immigration office in Enugu because the immigration officer didn’t believe that I was Nigerian. As for the original passport that needed renewing? Well, he thought I had greased a few palms to get it in the first place, naturally. My husband, quickly sensing that I was on the verge of telling the officer where he could stick his non-advantageous green Nigerian passport, stepped in in the nick of time and soothed things over before I had a chance to explode and thus seriously jeopardizing my chances of renewing my passport EVER. I did get the passport renewed in the end but not before we were fleeced of a few thousand Naira.
And what always made me laugh was the little children who would run after me in the markets yelling ‘shpree- shpree- sphree’ through their noses in their imitation of a foreign accent I guess.
But the focus of this post is to do with my fellow Nigerians and their reactions towards me.
Whenever I find myself at a Nigerian gathering (for example a general meeting of Nigerians in Diaspora or at a Naija only party) I always notice a slight puzzled look fleet across the faces around me as they try and figure out what exactly I am doing amongst them. Then one person invariably plucks up the courage and asks ‘Are you Nigerian?’ and even when I respond that I am, I can still see the doubt and this is when I find myself adapting my language. I either start to intersperse my sentences with pidgin English, or I casually drop in some conk ‘you-will-only-know-these-words-if-you-are-Nigerian’ speak into my conversation. Only then do I see them visibly relax. Then the final question comes ‘But you are not full Nigerian, are you?’
The scene described above has played itself out many times over the years and I sometimes despair that I have to ‘prove’ myself Nigerian to my fellow country people. It’s almost as though because I have white blood flowing through my veins I cannot be considered a thorough bred Nigerian in spite of the fact that I was born and raised there. I lived there for 30 years for chrissakes, how much more Nigerian could I possibly be?
I adore African/Nigerian arts and crafts so every room, flat or house I have lived in has always been decorated with a strong African theme – leather poufs from the North, terracotta pottery, woven baskets, mud cloth throws and so forth. And so it was when I lived in Abuja, I had decorated my house in exactly this style. One day, I invited one of my friends from the office round for lunch. When she entered my house she looked around for a long time and then said to me ‘I love the way you have decorated your house, it looks so beautiful. But if we (Nigerians) do the same, people will say we are bush’. I was gob smacked when I heard this. Why would anyone consider you ‘bush’ for appreciating your own arts/crafts and having them on display in your home? I have never been able to understand this line of thinking.
I have also had my Nigerian friends tell me that I am able to get away with stuff that other Nigerians won’t be able to because ‘ah-ah, you are Oyinbo now’. What??? We have been friends since birth and you still consider me as being ‘Oyinbo’? Oh, and the mother of a guy I once dated told him straight off as soon as she saw me ‘Ah, me I don’t want any Oyinbo grandchildren O!’ Needless to say, that relationship was doomed from the start.
I could go on and on about the way some Nigerians view mixed race people – like the woman onboard the flight back from Nigeria to the UK earlier this year who declared to an inter-racial married couple who were having a bit of a problem getting their child to behave, ‘Eh, that’s how all these half caste children behave. They are uncontrollable. No home upbringing’. You know how your hand begins to itch when you want to just reach across and slap someone? If that wasn’t the height of ignorance, I don’t know what is.
And the thing is I never really consider what I am – it’s a non-issue for me. When asked, I always say I am Nigerian- whether I am being asked the question by a Caucasian or a fellow Nigerian. Only if they venture to question further, do I admit that my mother is white. Not because I don’t embrace my ‘white side’ but it’s just that I feel myself more Nigerian than anything else. But I realise that my being mixed race is an issue for some (hopefully a minority) Nigerians and I guess my inquiring mind wants to know…
If you are mixed race, have you experienced similar situations where you feel you have to ‘prove’ yourself Nigerian? And even then, do you feel that you are not quite accepted as being one?
And if you are a Nigerian, you do think mixed race Nigerians are not ‘authentic’ Nigerians? Do you think mixed race Nigerians are promiscuous and wild (oh yes, I have heard this said loads of times). Or do you think that we ‘to-do’ (heard this one as well)?
Keep it clean.