18 December 2006 (Early Morning, Ugbowo)
Every time I return to Nigeria, I confront an ever-present conundrum in my life. It is enmeshed in my art-making, my intellectual work, and in my cyclical personal struggles with existence. Where is home, and what does it mean to say one is home? I can never rest with this question.
So I have returned to a kind of home here in the Delta. Benin City lies on the western fringe of the Niger Delta region, which stretches East to Calabar. My family lived here in Benin in the 70s and 80s, and we went to Warri on most weekends to visit our grandparents. Warri is where I feel most intimately attached. Perhaps this is because I associate some of my happiest childhood memories. It was where my grandparents were; I played with my cousins there; and we spent our most relaxing times as a family there—weekend retreats, holidays and special occasions.
Perhaps too, some of my being compelled to return has to do with what some poets and writers write about…being connected to the very earth of a given place, or a place being in the blood. Yet, coming here, for me, is like returning to a dysfunctional household. It is at once familiar and unsettling. This is not a home that I have chosen, or one that I would even choose if given the opportunity. It has chosen me.
As you leave Benin and cross the border from Edo State to Delta State (where Warri is located), the patchy savannah quickly turns into lush forests. You pass countless palm and rubber plantations on the freeway, interspersed with villages that are tucked away from the main road. Nowadays these are indicated with little green signs…Ologbo, Okha, Obayantor, Koko; whereas 20 years ago, the only things indicating their existence were abrupt, narrow footpaths. There was an “in-the-middle-of-nowhere” impression I used to get passing by them. What is it about having a sign or label marking them now that makes them suddenly exist in space (and time)? It is curious that these little green signs actually changed my awareness of these villages, which I’ve passed before and which have existed long before I ever did. I made these observations on my way to and from Ogharra yesterday. We went to visit my cousin Jite and his family. Ogharra is about a half hour drive from Benin, a third of the way to Warri. I have not been (home) to Warri yet.
Being away for so long has definitely colored my sense of belonging. It is not the belonging of my childhood, or even the belonging I felt when I came ten years ago. It is now a refracted, even disjointed belonging. It is as if my Americanness has finally settled in, and I can no longer extract it and set it aside while being here. In its settling, it has actually shifted some parts of my Nigerianness I might have taken for granted. Language is the clearest example of this. Even though I understand and even (from time to time) think in pidgin, my tongue is finding it very hard to release the words from my throat. Before, it was only a matter of being around fellow Nigerians for an hour or two, or spending a couple of days here before I would slip in and out of it. Now, not only am I finding it hard to utter the words, but my American accent is so strong that it grips everything I say. I am self-conscious.
I now worry (perhaps irrationally) about how I will wrap my tongue around my father’s language, Urhobo. Urhobo, a language that sounds like water. The Urhobo are a riverine people. The language is full of aspirated consonants, which are highly unlikely in English: vw’s, vb’s, wh’s that come out sounding like soft b’s or v’s depending on the word, rhie’s, rho’s, gh’s, kh’s that are almost swallowed at the back of your throat. It is also peppered with syncopated gb’s and kp’s, sharp t’s and rolling r’s. My grandmother’s dialect is softer than my grandfather’s. My father’s generation learned my grandfather’s more aggressive dialect. It is what I will have to settle with, although I miss the quiet rhythm of my late grandmother’s raspy voice…Mewe’s voice.
My dreams are vivid here too. I can’t tell if it is due to the medication I am taking (Mefloquine is said to cause bad dreams, and hallucinations in extreme cases). These are not bad dreams, but they are vivid. When I wake up it doesn’t feel like I ever left reality. That is another thing I remember from my childhood here: having a very active inner- and dream world. Now, I am not trying to idealize or mythologize this experience in a Joseph Conrad sort of way. There is nothing dark or ideal (as in “primitive Africa”/“mystical Africa”) in any of this. But I do think there is something about the way time moves here, and the quality of the air and ground that facilitate (at least in me, anyway) a heightened sense of awareness. Then again, there are several other possible reasons for this that have nothing to do with time or the air: for example, my outsiderness, the rawness of everyday lived experience here that forces a sensational immediacy.
I suppose this is how nostalgia works. The awareness, connectedness I speak of now, this slipped away over time as I struggled to come to grips with life in the U.S. I was very conscious of the loss. Whenever I return, it is as if I receive little memory packages of the world I used to occupy. It is in the smells, in the flavors of the food, in the quietness of the night, in the air itself…smoky, heavy…dense air. It is as if the weight of the air and the brilliant redness of the earth carry with them a story, or many stories. Words are not adequate. I wish I could paint it for you.