When I took my husband’s hand in marriage four years ago, my in-laws gave me the name “Ijeoma” which means “beautiful journey.” Thus far, the moniker has been quite fitting as each day has truly been a voyage into gaining a deeper knowledge of the black experience beyond the boundaries of America and American history. A part of that voyage included visiting Africa for the first time. While spending three weeks in my husband’s native land of Nigeria I had the opportunity experience the metropolitan pulse of Lagos, the suburban swing of Enugu and the village vibe of Afikpo. Though each town had its own distinctive tone and rhythm, I witnessed a consistent openness in life perspective and potential, something that often eludes my neighbors in the U.S.
In Lagos, I dined with a cousin who was a die-hard Tupac Shakur fan and sported the t-shirt to prove it. I made the acquaintance of Nigerian-born folks who spoke multiple tongues including some as seemingly random as Hungarian and Swedish. I was the houseguest of an uncle who’d once served as the houseboy to a banker and had grown up to be an accomplished financial professional who owned homes all over the globe.
In Enugu, I watched an hour long program honoring the recently deceased author/poet Dr. Maya Angelou as well as news programs that reported on the goings on of nearly every African nation AND international destinations including Poland, Singapore, Turkey and Venezuela. Each morning I witnessed fitness groups, 100 strong, gather at a nearby park to exercise and jog together. At Ogbete Main Market, a man proposed marriage to me when he noticed how I didn’t engage in a heated haggle session involving my mother-in-law and a shoe cobbler.
On the road to Afikpo, I saw churches for 15 different religious devotions. Within the village town limits, I saw both men and women alike engaged in various types of small business pursuits from selling ears of roasted corn to providing Internet café services. And as I beheld a brilliant moon rising in the night sky over my uncle’s back porch, my cousins quizzed me on my knowledge of all things Nicki Minaj.
Before my trip to Nigeria, my husband insisted on “warning” me about all of the realities of life in Nigeria’s third world such as abject poverty, daily blackouts and a lack of modern conveniences I often take for granted in the U.S. Though all of those elements were present, the aforementioned vignettes and other experiences proved to me that so-called “third world” Nigerians lead a far wealthier existence than my fellow Americans simply because Nigerians expressed and acted upon a deeper curiosity in the world around them. I don’t know how many times I’ve encountered an American who has never physically or mentally ventured outside of his/her own neighborhood, who cares and knows nothing about the world beyond their own four walls, who wouldn’t listen to or behold any type of art beyond their own discriminating notion of what art should be, who refuses to notice or acknowledge anyone or anything that dares to be different. In Nigeria, the pursuit of knowledge of all forms is so present and bountiful, which is why I can’t help but see a brilliant future for the country.
When I returned home, as soon as I set foot in the airport I noticed the stark difference between black Americans and Nigerians. The people I’d known all my life appeared beaten down, doomed as they went about their business. I wanted to hug the man who swept the airport floor and reassure the TSA agent that there is a different way. I wanted to take them and so many others back to Nigeria with me and show them the pride I saw on every face, the upheld chins and straight backbones which all seemed to silently proclaim, “I know who I am and exactly what I’m capable of.” I wanted to remind my fellow black Americans that they came from pioneers, inventors, entrepreneurs, chiefs, princesses, teachers and creators, not slaves. I wanted them to learn what I had learned in just a few weeks in Naija.