Realizing Homeland

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When is the point at which you realize your true homeland? Do you learn it by rote along with ABCs and 1,2,3’s in school, or does it come as an epiphany years later after mulling and pondering? In this land where I am classified and colorized, is it wrong to want more than one place to call “back home”?I spent my adolescence with an understanding of Nigeria only as clear as a few moments of video footage, and I could not conceive of its image beyond the three-by-five inches captured in a handful of water-stained photographs. Nigeria was the homeland of my father and for a brief time mine as well, but an unfortunate turn of events had sent us rushing back into the security of the United States. Since then, memories have faded as swiftly as our photographs.

I was raised as an American and, besides the occasional goat meat cooking in our kitchen and the vague sense that my father spoke with an accent, I had no reason to contest that fact. I never learned more than a few phrases in my father’s native tongue, and although we took family pictures in traditional Nigerian dress, I never learned to tie my own head scarf with confidence.

My American mother raised me during the latter half of my adolescence and thus hopes of eventually learning to prepare fufu and draw soup, learning the Idoma language and how to tie a beautiful head scarf slowly faded with time. I lived a more or less “American” life, and only distantly remembered Nigeria as the setting for stories of my grandfather, the chief of Ichama, or of “NEPA” who “takes the light.” Nigeria was the place of my earliest, foggiest memories.

On the morning of December 14, 2004, my brother and I boarded a plane that took us first to Amsterdam, Holland, where I used non-American currency for the first time, and then we continued to our final destination: Abuja, Nigeria.

The reality of Nigeria was overwhelming: the white linoleum floors of the airport, the dark-lipped smile of the immigration officer, the warm winds of midnight, the arms of my cousins, aunts, uncles, and distant “others” that embraced me with equal intensity. They told me stories of my childhood as I tried to memorize their names, and they told me over and over again: Welcome to your homeland.

I spent four weeks in various areas throughout southern Nigeria, and when I returned I realized that I could not package and communicate my experience to everyone who asked. I had returned with certain novelties, such as a newly braided head of hair and gifts and jewelry from merchants on the Lagos beach, but didn’t tote the elated sentiments of a typical study abroad returnee. The trip had been monumental in the sheer fact that I hadn’t seen my father’s homeland since before my first tooth, but the experience had been less “life transforming” than it was “life affirming.”

Being in Nigeria had given life and depth to the people and places of my treasured photographs and allowed me to hear the sound of the voices of my family. I did not experience culture shock-I had known many of the cultural traditions-but I was delighted by the vibrant colors and lively movements of the Omabe masquerade dance, since I had only witnessed such a performance in faded photographs.

Everything felt vaguely familiar, as if I had experienced it already, and despite knowing America as the land of my birth and of my adolescence, I realized that Nigeria was also my homeland.

I had always felt uncomfortable referring to Nigeria as “back home,” as my father did. I felt I had been too Americanized. I didn’t know the people and couldn’t speak the language, and I had been away from the country far too long to consider it my home. However, I came to realize that it is not the number of years spent so much as the strength of bonds cultivated that tie a person to a home. My return to Nigeria revived bonds that had lay dormant for years, and offered me an experience of ease, comfort, and an underlying sentiment of Welcome to your second homeland.

Contact Ihotu Ali ’07 at [email protected]