eflecting on a conversation once had with a dear loved one, I remember being slightly confused and caught off guard when I was told that I was overly flamboyant due to my showy display of bright colors, cultural references and how it bordered along the lines of arrogance. I sat politely and listened, which is a rare feat for me as I am notorious for sometimes interjecting for fear of losing my train of thought. Me, arrogant? How can the two be put in the same sentence? I almost got in my feelings perceiving it as a character flaw but something said speak up. Let’s not forget that this is based off of another’s perception. Although our perceptions create our realities, it does not constitute fact.
Arrogance… They say Nigerians have a sense of arrogance, and we attribute to it being “the Giant of Africa,” but I don’t see it that way. Don’t get me wrong. There are arrogant Nigerians, arrogant Africans but that arrogance generally stems from something vain, materialistic.
You see, I am a first generation Nigerian-American. My father came here on a federal scholarship to study engineering because he was among the top of his class and later brought my mother here. Circumstances both here and in Nigeria would find them raising six children in a country foreign to them.
For me and my siblings that would result in a clashing of cultures and societal norms. It would mean adaptation, assimilation, and acknowledgment. .
Adaptation in the sense that our household would become a two-parent working household, which was not necessarily our custom back home where my mother would be what is deemed a housewife there, raising her children with the support of our large family on both sides. There would be no need to work 3p-11p and 11p-7a shifts in odd places while strangers were entrusted to ideally watch your children. However, if we were to eat, those were the sacrifices that were to be made, which resulted in our assimilation.
Somehow, some way, it got into the minds of my parents and their peers that if they did not teach us our language then maybe we would have a better chance at being successful in America. Such a grave mistake but as young parents they did not know any better. Their attempt to fit in would become “if I could turn back the hands of time” regrets later on.
Heavy accents influenced our way of speaking and to keep from being ridiculed, I often found myself desperately trying to be as “black” as I could be. I even sought a name change from my Dad to something more “urban” like Shaquita, Chiquita and then Naomi. Why couldn’t my last name be Johnson, Jones or Williams; something easy to pronounce by teachers doing roll-call?
Assimilation would find me rejecting our traditional hairstyles, the ones my Mom could do with thread and being uber proud of braids with colorful beads, perms and yes, the Jheri curl. I had them all: Carefree, Leisure, etc. but never could keep it from being dry after the first day. My hair woes is another story for another day. Anywhoo, this assimilation would find me never wanting friends to come over my house because I didn’t want anyone asking me “why does your house stink?” My second best friend who we’ll call J.C actually asked me that when she came over my house one day, and I wanted to fight her and sink into a hole at the same time. Fortunately, I didn’t hear of it again and didn’t try to invite anyone over again for a long time.
That smell that you smell and equate to stinkiness are the spices, herbs, and dried fish that are added to make the tasty dishes that we have come to love and thoroughly enjoy. Stock fish is the most notorious of them all and, YES, yes it does stink! As a kid, nothing is more dreaded than coming home and being greeted with its offensive odor as you walk to the kitchen and see it soaking for what will be days. That’s enough time for the odor to find its way throughout your home and settle in enough that you forget, only to be quickly reminded as your classmates scrunch their noses in disgust trying to find the source of the “funky fish.”
Panic sets in as you rush to your room to close your door and remove any paraphernalia that may trap the odor in and find its way outside of your home. Your mother is in the kitchen singing off key some native song from her childhood and remembers that she has run out of ogbono and egusi seeds. She calls you so that you can go to the neighborhood store conveniently across the street to pick up some plantain.
Dreadfully you go and as you enter, of course, your peers are present purchasing “normal stuff” like Little Debbie snacks, Doritos, Freeze-a-pops and Huggies. You walk to the back of the store despite the egusi and ogbono being front and center for the world to see. The clerk suddenly turns his attention on you. You say a quick prayer “ Dear God, why won’t they just go because you don’t feel like explaining just what you are buying nor do you feel like being called an ‘African Booty Scratcher’ at this moment?” As your peers walk out the door, you quickly grab the seeds and plantain and scurry home.
White rice and stew with plantain is a dish that was enjoyed by all of my siblings. Okra soup and fufu or farina as it was called in my house not so much. Not even going to tell you how my little brother would stuff it in his underwear and flush it down the toilet, lol. I, though, looked forward to Mommy’s seafood okra soup with fresh fish, shrimp, and spinach with the right amount of pepper and seasonings. How do you explain that as your favorite food when asked in a classroom setting? Pizza rather became my standard answer, easy and requiring no additional explanation.
Mommy’s bedroom was not a place you entered without permission but when you did, it was adorned with bright-colored laces, fabric, and headties aka or “nheowonisi” in Ikwerre, “gele” in Yoruba. With utmost admiration, I would watch my parents get dressed in their expensive laces and georges, representing our homeland for their Nigerian parties mostly at Equator Club in Chicago’s Uptown area. I remember suitcases for the switch up because what’s a party without an outfit change or three?
Their parties were one of a kind. Rivers State Association fundraisers came with cultural dances from the women equipped with intense waist shaking a.k.a. the money dance where dollars were sprayed in appreciation. I bet you didn’t know that making it rain isn’t something new, lol. See the Ikwerre women dance! See the women from Okrika, Etche, Kalabari and Ogoni dance! All of these are tribes that made up Rivers State back in the 90’s.
Cultural dances were followed by the wrestling matches and masquerades in the image of a shark at times performed by the men. My culture was being observed and enjoyed by fellow Nigerians, other Africans, Americans, and Europeans alike.
Our culture couldn’t be anything but acknowledged. It was the guiding principle used by my father to remind us before departing from home to remember that whatever it is we do not only represents ourselves, but our family here and at home, and our entire race.
Acknowledgement came in the form of expectations from what behaviors would and would not be tolerated in our household. “A’s” were received with why not “A+’s”? Getting a “C” might as well as have been considered an “F.” Look at your mate. Do they have two heads would be the retort of both parents who wanted to ensure you were just as capable as the next to achieve greatness. I’m sure every African, Nigerian especially, can relate to this. Mediocrity was not a concept that could be entertained and let us not forget the anticipated occupation expectations more so enforced by my Mother of becoming a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or something in the complicated sciences.
Acknowledgement of who I was and where I was from would be further instilled during my high school/secondary school experience when my parents would take matters in their hands and send me “Home” to a prestigious boarding school where my course was reset, values broaden, and respect and admiration planted and nourished.
Going to Nigeria for school would change my life for the better. There were girls there who came in so many shades that ranged from fair to midnight, girls who actually looked like me. One of the prettiest girls on campus was darker than me. Her skin was a beautiful shade of midnight black and her smile was one of the most beautiful ones that I had ever seen. There’s something about an African smile. It’s like warm sunshine that makes things all the better and she had been blessed. Pure beauty before the makeup craze. Pride of self came in the form of uniform upkeep and presentation, neatly braided hairstyles and beautiful teeth that were either gapped or perfectly straight.
Yes, an acceptance of self occurred. In that experience I no longer desired the light skin, long hair, or green eyes. I was a dark- skinned girl who had Nigerian parents from a small village, Ibaa, that was opportune to experience life from two perspectives. This new found confidence was a slow progression with slight struggle through my college years as I returned back to the States.
As time passed, 13 years to be exact, I found myself back in Nigeria. It was as if literally an awakening took place. So many emotions and feelings overcame me at once: growth, change, new, familiarity, purpose and contribution were feelings and thoughts that washed over me. Hence the birth of Ankara fashion and coral bead jewelry adorning of self. No longer was I ashamed to rock representations of my culture.
Today, representations of my culture in fashion, movies, technological and medical advances, music and art has me beaming with pride. It has me embracing what it is I am, seeking to learn more, and with open arms inviting others to join me on this journey of origin, exploration, and experience. To be African is not a trend. It is who I am, so sorry but not sorry if my display of cultural pride offends you. This is a long time coming, and I welcome you to join me on this journey as we learn about the magnanimously rich culture and the greatness that is we!
Signed this Ibaa Ikwerre Queen