“The place in which i’ll fit, will not exist until I make it.” — James Baldwin
On the 15th of April 1998, my dad died in Nigeria. Dad was about eighty years old at the time, and I was twenty two.
My dad emigrated to London, England from his home and birthplace village of Orogun, Delta State in Nigeria — in the 1960’s. Dads name was James, I’ve always liked the name James — despite my difficult relationship with the man bearing it. When my eldest son was born in St Thomas’s hospital in Westminster, London ten years later — I gave him my dads name with a slight twist. I named him Joshua-James. Sometimes, I think about that decision, I don’t regret it at all — I just wonder what really lay beneath that choice. Perhaps, I like the name James more than I despised my dad, or maybe in the end — despite our disconnect, I still loved my dad more than I cared to admit. My two sons are the loves of my life, our relationships bear no resemblance to mine and my dads. My sons, are my dads seventeenth and nineteenth grandchildren. They never met their granddad.
On the 7th of December 2006, my mum died in London. Mum was fifty eight at the time, and I was thirty.
My mum emigrated to London, England from her home and birthplace village of Ekakpamre, Ughelli, Delta State Nigeria — in 1973. Her name was Margaret, I’ve never been keen on the name. I do remember fondly how my dad used to call her Maggie — and I liked that a lot. That, was the only term of endearment I witnessed between them, in an otherwise perceived — heartless marriage. I have always called my son Jamesy, maybe I just really like the name James, or perhaps it’s an echo from yesteryear — I always long to hear. Despite a temperamental relationship between my mum and I, she remains my Sheroe. My sons, are my mums third and fifth grandchildren. They never met their grandma.
My parents had already met and married in Nigeria, prior to mums arrival in London. They made a home for us all in our house in Nunhead, South London. All the faces in our house looked just like mine — all brown, Black people inside. Ours was a busy Nigerian household, filled with High-life music, rice and stew, bread and stew, ground rice and stew (yeah, Nigerian stew was a staple, you get it), yams, plantain, pepper soup, hard-dough bread, unofficial aunties and uncles, whew — good times and bad times.
My parents being able to speak two different dialects of the Urhobo language — yet able to understand each other, was fascinating to me — once I was old enough to understand that’s what was happening. Mum told us she used to speak to us in Urhobo, but dad discouraged it. Dad wanted us to speak with ‘the Queens English’ (Quick translation, speak without a Nigerian accent or what was known as ‘broken/pigeon English’). I guess that’s what feeling like ‘other’ can do to a persons psyche sometimes, make them feel like they have to rid themselves of part of themselves by muting their native tongues somehow. I hate to think of the oppression mum and dad went through, but I know it’s important that I acknowledge that it happened.
Reading and education were strongly insisted upon by my parents, I only wish my dad would have had faith that through all that reading and British education system — we would have been speaking ‘the Queens English’ regardless of knowing how to speak in our mothers tongue. Now their language is somewhat lost to me, but sometimes when I speak — I hear some pieces of words and phrases that have been hidden underneath my South London vernacular. Perhaps, my mum put them there for safe keeping. I feel good about that.
When I think about the place in which i’ll fit, I have to consider who I am. I am an Urhobo, Nigerian woman, born and bred in London. I am a Londoner who feels somewhat British — but not English. The faces in London, are every shade of Black and white and everything in between.
I have visited Nigeria once, twenty six years ago when I was sixteen — I felt at home but was seen as a foreigner. I don’t know when I will go back again, but I know — I will return.
Here in London, I feel at home — but I know i’m also seen as a foreigner by many. My parents became dual citizens of Nigeria and Britain, as am I by default, as are my sons — again by default. The year my mum emigrated to England, 1973, was the year that Britain joined the EU. Now, splashed against the backdrop of Britain’s current, so called uncivil war — or the mess that is Brexit, it’s the kind of irony that shows how the personal about belonging is always political — wherever and whoever you may be. Personally, I love my Nigerian heritage, I treat it like treasured pieces of me I’m discovering and rediscovering with some other nuance time after time. I will always remain curious about it — whilst taking long, looks back and forward as its sons and daughters grow. My sons are both keen footballers, my eldest wants to play for the Nigerian national team and my youngest — either Argentina, Spain, England or Nigeria (yes, in that order). I do wish we could do away with geography for awhile, in the hope of just seeing ourselves as neighbours. Somehow, I know the world isn’t quite ready for that yet. To paraphrase a song by the British singer Sting, ‘Oh, I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien, I’m a Nigerian in London’.
Home or away, here or there, If I can keep writing, bleeding words on paper — I can be who I am in any open spaces and make a home out of anywhere. The places in which we fit, they are created for us and by us. My dad built the foundation, but my mum — was my first home. I have been making a home out of me ever since my birth, it’s quite a challenge — filled with frequent, D.I.Y. home improvements. At forty two years old, I think I’ve made a good start on my place.
I am an African woman. I am pieces of continental shifts, part of the border-less diaspora. I am a Writer. I take notes, then dance on paper under the lights with my muse. I am a rebirth, not a new negro, not your negro — another variation of Black life speaking with a tongue marinated in pepper and spice. Writing in pieces of language — now native to me. I want to become a better Writer, It’s the key to making a more honest woman out of me. That sounds and feels, like a good fit.
2nd - 7th January 2019, London
Disclaimer: The song lyric I paraphrased, was Englishman in New York by the singer Sting.