When I’m moved to Nigeria from America at the age of ten I’m already a skilled survivor. I survived the terror of being alone in Denmark at three and being alone in the US from the age of five, I am a survivor already. How I survived is still a mystery to me. I’m told I’m strong, I’m told I’m lucky, I’m told I’m blessed.
I’m a child but no one asks me how I feeel or how I’m coping. I’m told to cope, like I’ve always been told to cope, I’m expected to cope, to keep calm and carry on. There is no electricity, no plumbing, no one speaks English, at least not the kind that I can understand, no … there is nothing familiar.
When I wake up very late the first morning I see bars and chicken wire on the windows and a sea of black faces impassively starring in at me, their hands hooked through the mesh like claws. I feel like I’m an animal in a zoo. I complain to my father. He closes the shutters, shuts me inside the hot stifling little room.
My father asks someone to put an armchair outside for me but every time I go outside a crowd gathers to stare at me, young and old just gather and stare. I can’t understand a word they’re saying. I look around anxiously for my father but he has gone off somewhere to meet with men.
When I tell my father, he laughs, he says they mean no harm they just haven’t seen someone like me before. They call me ‘onye ocha’. I ask my father what that means. “White person” he says. I compare it to being called a nigger, he laughs, says it isn’t the same thing, they’re friendly, he says. I don’t know that.
One day somebody calls me a white monkey, as usual I complain to my father. He summons the fellow and slaps him. Maybe that was going a bit too far, I think. Why is it okay for them to call my onye ocha and not white monkey? It all feels the same to me. It feels like an insult, it reinforces my feelings of alienation and isolation.
Later I start to play tag and hide and seek and other children’s games that require no language with children my age but when the sun goes down and my father is still away with the men I’m lonely even though I’m surrounded by my chattering cousins in the dull glow of the lantern.
The night sky is dark and there is a steady regular buzz in the air. It stops for a minute and resumes again louder than before it seems. At first I think the ringing is in my ears, I think maybe I’m sick. I heard somewhere when I was still in the real world that ringing in the ears is a bad sign. Later I learn its just cicada’s.
My cousins are laughing at the stories they’re sharing, I don’t know what about though. I watch their lips moving, listen to the tone of their voices, alert for changes. They can get very vicious when I do something wrong, I don’t know their ways yet. My aunt was so harsh when I didn’t invite her to come and eat.
I get bored and walk away, across the courtyard back to the bungalow where the room I share with my father is. A hurricane lamp burns on the table. I turn on the battery operated radio and listen to the music. Its modern and reminds me of home. I still think of Pennsylvania as home.
One day I ask my father when we are going back home. He laughs and says we are home. I look around numbly. I see the wide dirt courtyard and drive way, the dusty buildings arranged around its three sides, my grandfathers wife, wearing only a lion cloth and waist beads, slowly making her way to the back of her hut.
I wonder what it might be like to live the rest of my life in this village; bare breasted like all the women are when at home, wearing only a loin cloth around my waist, pounding cassava meal in my thatch hut kitchen for my husband who is away doing things with men, trying to keep my baby away from the log fire.
I have no words for the emotions that I feel.