On Being Nigerian
4th August, 2015 Writers

Identity, how we define who we are  is a powerful thing. I’ve never really believed in the concept of a singular national identity for Nigeria, the way people say they’re French or Swedish or South African. I don’t believe in an African one either, not the pop culture Lion King safari fantasy way western media paints it. I don’t believe in a label for an identity, the way people think of themselves as ‘Igbo’ Hausa, Yoruba, and it forms a marker for them, influencing what they like to eat, the opinions they form of other people’s behavior  (Igbo people always do this, Yoruba people are just that). I’ve laughed at the jokes (Twitter makes it hard not to) but I have never felt identified with a singular tribe. Partly because my father and my mother is are from different tribes and I grew up influenced heavily by my mother’s tribe. I have biracial cousins and relatives that technically aren’t blood, but who I have always felt to be my family and who have loved me as such.  I’ve always thought seeing oneself solely in terms of something as arbitrary as tribe to be unnecessary, and because of that I’ve never felt the need to define myself based on it. I mean I’m Nigerian, but I don’t see it as some huge marker or determiner of my person. Before I’m Nigerian in my mind I’m a woman, I’m in my 20s, I’m my grandmother’s daughter, and so on, being Nigerian probably wouldn’t make the list of the first 10 things I would think of to describe my identity. I think is the case for a lot of people in my generation and sometimes maybe its related to our common political apathy.

It’s not too much a stretch, we are a nation of at least 250 varying tribes, that resulted from the forced amalgamation of people whose only unifying characteristic was that we shared geographical boundaries. We were the product of a ruthless colonial vision that sought to maintain British imperialism. So when African or Nigerian artistes would try to ‘rep’ a town the same way Drake would ‘rep’ Toronto or Dre ‘rep’ LA it always rang a little hollow to me, and I suspect, to them too: Drake and Dre came up in these places. Those cities raised them, and made them who they are just as much as their parents did, probably even more so. The restaurants they would sit in with their friends after school, the curbs they would hang on and look at girls, the clubs they would try to get into but never be allowed in so they hung outside, those places hold memories that give them poetry, and that poetry forms part of the soul of the individual and that’s what gives them meaning and power. And that’s why you get records like ‘Jungle’ and ‘Straight Outta Compton’. Few Nigerians in our generation grew up in their hometowns. First off 'hometown' in Nigeria is defined as where your father is from, not where you grew up. So regardless of if you spent all your life in Lagos and only went back to your father’s hometown once a year at Christmas for 2 weeks that you spent indoors because your parents didn’t trust their village family that they still spent thousands of naira buying drinks to impress, you had to identify by that village. But one could argue that Nigerians define by tribe, not state so those geographical memories don’t hold here. You are Igbo, Anambra, Owerri, doesn’t matter. You are Hausa. You are Yoruba. Predefined categories. Yet those labels do not inspire the loyalty that hearing an old blues song in Memphis probably would for Drake, because the memories are not there. The history, is not there. The USA remembers the LA riots and what caused them, and that ripple effect spreads out till today. Few Nigerians my age know about the Biafra war, I mean truly know, free of the color of sentiment and tribalism that is handed down from grandparents. Most people’s response varies by tribe, almost comically: ‘It was ndi Hausa’, ‘the Igbos wanted to be greedy and leave Nigeria’ ‘The Yorubas stayed out of the conflict because they were cowardly’. A three year war, one of the direst humanitarian emergencies ever known, summed up and yet reduced in one dismissive generalization. Maybe these things are all true. But like the blind men and the elephant each only tells part of the full story, and telling only part of a story distorts and smears its message. No one talks about the dead Asaba men shot into the river Niger. No one talks about the mothers whose children left their hands once in the chaos and were never seen again. No one talks about the fear, the shelling, ‘afia attack’, blood in the village squares. No one will talk about my great grandmother lying dead on the stairs in front of the house her husband built with her blood staining the stones after a shell fell on the roof as she sat outside. These stories are more important than the snap judgments because it is in them that we can see our commonality and it is in them that we find our Nigerian identity if there ever was one. We have all bled, we have all feared, we have all done unforgivable things to each other. We have killed and maimed and we have been killed and maimed. Simplifying things to Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba disrespects the history we have accumulated as a nation. There IS a Nigerian identity, but I do not believe it lies in Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, or in APC vs PDP. It lies in Ken Saro Wiwa and Christopher Okigbo. It lies in that funny metal spoon with the stars engraved that you find in almost every Eastern home of a certain age. It lies in how Nigerians felt the day it was announced Abacha had died. Our shared experience and history is what gives us an identity. Knowing and owning it is when we can say we ‘rep’ something.

Lagos, Nigeria
  • Some of my thoughts on what being 'Nigerian' could mean

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