From Black Panther to Black Lives Matter, I’ve felt a new sense of identity and pride, that I will pass on to my children
Growing up, I envied those who understood their mother’s native language. Speaking it was admirable, but the very act of comprehension was a beautiful thing to witness. From afar it seemed like a love language, something intimate and secretive spoken between families – it suggested a bond, a closeness that seemed impenetrable.
As a child, it didn’t necessarily bother me that I was unable to understand my family’s mother tongue (my parents are Nigerian, and the language they used in our household was robustly and loudly Yoruba). I was too busy navigating all the complexities of being an adolescent to really notice that my parents actively chose to only speak English to their five children. It’s also fair to say that when I was growing up in the late 1980s and early 90s, I had no friends of a similar background to me – most were from the Caribbean. Certainly, Africa wasn’t deemed a cool destination, so that part of myself was mostly folded away.
In my early 20s, I went to university and for the first time met friends I could recognise myself in. They were ambitious, well-read, adventurous, and by and large they were all West African. They would ask me questions about my life, my parents, my background and I would answer on cue: “My dad was born in Abeokuta, Ogun State.” They were questions I answered on autopilot without any understanding of what they meant. I had never been to Nigeria, I didn’t have any concept of what the country was like. I wholeheartedly believed the real Africa was as portrayed on TV – a place where people lived in huts, surrounded by poverty and flies.
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As I got to know my friends, I realised a recurring theme: the ones who understood their parents’ language were the ones who also spoke with affection and admiration about their home country. They had parents who would regularly visit their country of birth, had kept familial ties, and were active in their communities.
When I visited Nigeria for the first time as a 21-year-old, it became apparent what my sisters and I had missed out on. I did grow up mimicking my parents’ wonderfully thickened Nigerian accents, hearing my Yoruba middle name bellowed when I had misbehaved, and peeling the beans for moi moi, puff-puff and chin chin for sweet treats on special occasions. But with the omission of the Yoruba language as part of our upbringing, we were robbed of huge swaths of ourselves.
Communication in Nigeria is particularly fundamental; it is how you navigate conversations with your elders, how you haggle at the market, how (as the expression goes) you prevent people from trying to sell you. There would be boisterous, colourful and roaring conversations that we couldn’t participate in; we were unable to offer an opinion, we couldn’t simply follow the conversation quietly. It was like being invited to a party but having to watch all the fun from outside with our noses pressed against the window – we couldn’t fully integrate ourselves. There is shame and a sensation of exclusion that accompanies these feelings.
But on life goes. I busied myself with other things: jobs, houses, cars, babies. I married a British-born Ghanaian, and the difference between each of our relationships to our heritage was startling. When we married, we had a traditional ceremony, and when we had our first child a traditional naming was performed, but it was at his family’s insistence. Both occasions were beautiful but I remained a bewildered guest, led by aunties and not quite understanding the cultural significance of it all. Now a mother myself, I look at my children and wonder where this second generation will find their own identities. I worry that as the generational gaps widen, so will their connection to their homeland.
Over the past few years, I have witnessed a calling to the diaspora. In 2019, Ghana launched a Year of Return campaign to commemorate 400 years since the first enslaved Africans were shipped to Virginia in the US. The past decade has seen Afrobeats become one of the world’s most popular genres. Wizkid and Burna Boy are household names, and their songs laced with Yoruba slang have been heard in clubs across every continent.
And when the 2018 movie Black Panther broke box office records, it was Wakanda that resonated. A successful sub-Saharan country, governed by Africans, depicting royalty, success, wealth and strength; we collectively had our arms across our chest shouting “Wakanda forever!” Meanwhile the Black Lives Matter movement has gripped us all and Beyoncé’s visual album Black Is King, released this summer, is an ode to the richness of African history and a call to us in the diaspora to remember who we are and where we came from.
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There has been a continual and increasing call for black excellence; for us in the diaspora to support ourselves financially, to wear our hair proudly, and to tell our own stories without fear. This call speaks to one thing: identity and our endeavour to attain it. It also permits us to feel pride in our history. Yet I feel like I am playing dress-up when I try this feeling on, as if the clothes are too fancy and are not really meant for me.
But that’s the point: they are meant for me. They are my clothes. At some point, it ceases to be my parents’ blunder for not clothing their children in the richness of their heritage. That accountability eventually will fall to me.
I now recognise that it is my responsibility to tell my children colourful stories of their heritage, and to bring their ancestral homeland to life. Although coronavirus has scuppered our plans to visit Nigeria as a family for the first time this year, we are hoping to make a trip in late 2021. I may not be able to give the gift of Yoruba to my children, but knowing where you come from is equally important.
It will probably still feel at times like we have our noses pressed against the windows, but Yorubas love a party. I’m sure we’ll be welcomed in.
• writer is of Nigerian heritage