A week ago I returned to the states from a several days long visit to Nigeria with my family. I’ve been trying to find a moment of downtime since I’ve returned to download and process the impact of my journey. The purpose of the trip was to celebrate the 20th anniversary of my paternal grandfather’s death. He is buried in the village of Agenebode, about a two hour bus ride from the city of Benin. His grave lies just behind the family compound, several paces from the Niger River. When the breeze comes from off of the water, the cool pushes the the heat away for a moment, and there where he rests, is tranquility.
I haven’t been home in 16 years. When I say ” home” I am fully aware that this place, the United States of America is and will always be my home. But in the same way when I visit Barbados, when my feet touch that earth, I am touching the home of my spirit. My ancestral home. And since it’s always far from me, the opportunity to visit isn’t just momentous, it is sacred. To walk in the places my grandparents and great grandparents walked. To eat the foods they ate, and feel the same heat on my skin, holds a sweetness that is almost indescribable. I held my grandfather’s belongings in my grandmother’s home. His rifle and police uniforms are still in tact. The embroidery on the cap he wore on his hajj to Mecca is still brilliant. I touched all of these things and it felt like an introduction to myself, like seeing my reflection for the first time. A long locked door inside the temple of my spirit was cracked and then pushed open. I bathed in the dusty sunlight of this untouched room, at peace with his presence within myself.
To see Nigeria again as an adult was eye opening. Everything felt so much bigger. The heat, the rain, the street noises, the spicy meals, the voices. It felt like everything that could be amplified was. The people move noticeablely slower than I’m accustomed to at home in New York and D.C. which makes sense when you are contending with that kind of heat. But when you land in Lagos, you feel the immediate rush of a non-stop hustle and bustle. You have to have your wits about you, or risk getting swept up in the chaos of it all. In a place where a one way street is mostly a suggestion, you can feel the energy of a population of individuals carving their way through the world on their own terms.
I was surprised to see that in a country populated by almost entirely black people, that the natural hair movement doesn’t seem to have caught on there yet the way it has in the states. The push towards whiter standards of beauty was much more aggressive than I’m accustomed to seeing. You could easily stroll through the markets and find different bottles of body washes and skin creams that offered a lightening effect. I was struck by one that claimed to make you look “half caste”. I couldn’t help but think of the legacies of colonialism that still live on in so much of the world, and how effectively it has managed to shape the psyche of black people world wide.
At one point I was asked by a young woman who was about 17 years old what my English name was. It’s common practice for many immigrants and children of immigrants to take on Anglicized names that don’t immediately betray your ethnicity. I have plenty of extended family members who chose to do so for a myriad of reasons. Sometimes they are religious, sometimes they are social. It was never something I had considered doing as I had always thought my name to function just fine within the American English I spoke. Besides, my name is comprised entirely of sounds we make in English everyday, and when people don’t make the effort to pronounce it correctly it’s a solid indicator for me not to fuck with you. The assumption that I had one though, and that I would be prepared to adopt another identifying group of syllables for the sake of assimilation was new to me.
The opportunity to go far away and spend time with my family was like fresh water for my thirsty spirit. I didn’t realize how desperately I needed it until I was there. Being surrounded by relatives, dancing (so much dancing), drinking beer, and eating food my grandmother made was the perfect antidote to the anxiety and depression I have felt keeping up with American news. My desire to stay woke is always at odds with my desire to stay sane. It was replenishing to escape that, if only for a little while. For ten days I had heat, and history, and suya. And peace.