On Citizenship

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14 May 2007

Location: My home, Benin City

Efe and I have had to travel to our state capital, Asaba, to get our Nigerian passports renewed. It has cost us far more than it should at over a hundred dollars each. Efe thought it best we use a middleman in the immigration office to cut through the bureaucracy and expedite the process. It can take several full days spent at that office before one can obtain a passport. Mr. Tijani is our middleman. He is a fair, cherub-faced Hausa man with deep horizontal scars across his face. It is hard for me to decide whether I trust him or not, much less whether I like him. He has taken quite a bit of our money, and even that we negotiated down from what he originally asked when he found out that I was an Oyibo and not a full-blooded Nigerian.

At the immigration office, an albino officer called me in for interrogation. This wasn’t supposed to happen with all the money I had paid. I went in, Efe accompanied me (he was extremely nervous about the whole thing), and the officers didn’t seem to be too comfortable with his presence either. We were all uncomfortable. They asked me whether I was a Nigerian. I said yes. By what right, they asked: was I married to a Nigerian? They glanced at Efe. “No, he’s my cousin. We share a last name because his father and my father are brothers. My father is a Nigerian.” They asked me from what local government area and I answered with ease. They seemed surprised at this. All my documents were correct. We had spent a good couple of days in April going round to get them. I now have a certificate from my local government authenticating me as native to Ughelli South Local Government, as well as a drivers license (obtained by yet another middleman who was much easier to deal with), and an affidavit on my paternity from my cousin who is a civil servant in the Ughelli South Local Government Area.

After some consultation among themselves, the immigration officials called me for further interrogation; this time by a stout Hausa man with a thick accent. I could tell they had settled on making this process difficult. I was seething with anger over this, because Efe informed me in a text message that he actually slipped the Albino two thousand naira (my money) in the hope of getting him off our case. The stout officer began his questions. Why do you want a Nigerian passport? “I am a Nigerian. I should have a Nigerian passport.” But you don’t look like a Nigerian. “My mother is an American, and my father is a Nigerian.” I ventured to ask them, “What is a Nigerian supposed to look like?” He didn’t answer. Yes, but why do you want to have this passport when traveling with your American passport is so much easier? “I have come to do my fieldwork here, and establish my own social and professional networks for my future career. I would like to eventually buy a plot of land here and have a home I can come to from time to time.” Doesn’t your father already have a home? “Yes, but I would like to establish myself independently of my father. I plan to come and go.” He smirked at this. He didn’t seem to believe me. Clearly, he found all this amusing. It is as if it was a joke that someone with the most coveted American passport would consider holding a Nigerian passport (shunned by most First-World nations). Or perhaps it was that I, an unmarried woman, should venture to establish myself independently of my father. After some silent deliberation, he decided that I would need to give proof of my father’s citizenship. I would have to give them a photocopy of my father’s Nigerian passport. This meant speaking to my father, who I had not spoken to in over a year. Is it worth it? I haven’t decided.

I left with Efe feeling so angry at the whole system. So much money lost, and still things are made so difficult. The Albino and the Hausa man watched me walk away, gloating with satisfaction at the frustration they had inflicted on us, swollen with pride in the money they had extorted in the process.

On our drive back, on the freeway leading out of Asaba, we passed a dead, bloating body laying on the side of the road; a man with a yellow shirt. He was just there, lifeless on the side of the freeway. His body had clearly been there for some time, with rigor mortis and the vultures ready to begin their work. It is not the first time I’ve seen a dead body on the side of the road. It is not easy to write about this; not easy to think through. How did these people die, and why had nobody (including me), especially the state, been moved to dispose of their lifeless bodies properly? Efe and I speculated that the man may have been homeless and was hit in the night by a vehicle and left there to die; or he may have been involved with criminals, or perhaps he was involved in the recent politics of the elections. Who knows? Everyone, including me passed this man’s body and we do nothing about it.

I don’t know what this says about the value on human life here…or if it is any indication of value at all. People die here everyday without any claim on, or identification of their bodies. The Nigerian state does not, perhaps cannot, keep track of its citizens. Why bother to get a Nigerian passport? What does it really mean in the scheme of everyday life here, when a person can be missing, be dead and no one (not even the police…and they are ubiquitous on the roads here, busy extorting hard-working citizens) cares to search for him or her? There are more questions to ask, but my anger and despair is choking my ability to think through this further today. How can I claim to belong to such a place?

On Being a White Oyibo

21 December 2006 (late night, my flat in Ugbowo)

More than once in the past few weeks, people have referred to me as “white”…unequivocally, categorically “white.” Now, I’m used to being hyper-visible when I’m here, and I grew up being called Oyibo whenever we were out in public as a child here. The term Oyibo carries sufficient ambiguity, because the term is applied to a whole range of folk. Aside from a white person, Oyibo could apply to any foreigner/immigrant to Nigeria (i.e. Indian, Lebanese, Chinese, etc.) or multiracial people. Mixed-race people occupy a place – albeit a privileged place – in the structure of this society, and have been a part of its fabric for hundreds of years. So, I am hardly an anomaly. Since Oyibo was a term I heard regularly growing up, I didn’t cultivate any hostility toward it. The term “half-caste” does rub me the wrong way, however; and perhaps it is because it has a darker, heavy colonial history than does the locally derived term Oyibo. Still, during this visit, I have noticed that Oyibo is not the term being applied to me. I am “white.” It jars me every time it touches my ears.

At one point I asked Efe if it was that people mistook me for a real white person, that perhaps they hadn’t gotten a good look at me. Efe assured me this wasn’t so; that I don’t even look like a regular “half-caste”. What did he mean, that I didn’t look like a “regular” half-caste? According to Efe, my skin and eyes are too light to be considered an “ordinary half-caste” and I don’t sound like one either. In fact, I should be considered a “one-and-a-half-caste” (someone who has more white than black blood). I am baffled. I now find myself in conversations where it is imperative for someone (usually someone who knows me) to clarify that I am not a full Oyibo, that I am Nigerian…just a very fair-skinned Nigerian. I have never been confronted with this extreme notion of whiteness here before. Perhaps it is yet another sign that my Americanness has really settled in on me.

How crazy, almost twilight-zonish: in the U.S., I am “black” and here, I am “white.” I used to take refuge in the term Oyibo because of its elasticity. It accommodated my social place in-between white and black, native and foreigner. I used to have a place here. Does being “white” mean that I am no longer at least partly an insider, that I am now a full-fledged stranger? It is amazing how fluid race and racial categories are on a global scale, not just across space, but also over time. I was just an Oyibo here before, in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Now, in 2006, I am a white person. It cuts me.

Not for the first time in my life, I am caught up in other people’s gazes, being seen but not recognized as belonging here. I am hyper-visible…out of place…out of the ordinary. It is here as it was coming of age in all-white Minnesota. How does this lack of recognition map to my earlier rumination on home? It doesn’t diminish my personal sense of belonging (I have cherished memories, my earliest ones were made here). Being seen is an external process, albeit one that has an internal effect. I have no choice but to move along, contradictions in tow. By now, I have become quite comfortable with this state of being, at least in the United States. I suppose this place, or any other place for that matter, holds no exception in this regard. I am a part of and outside of here at once. Nigerian society has its own rules and paradoxes. I have to re-learn them; this time as an adult who has become white, whose blood never the less carries this place in her veins.