Memoirs of a Naijamerican Bride V: I Contain Multitudes: On Identity & Traditions
When a Nigerian asks another Nigerian “Where are you from?”— A very specific answer is sought. In Nigeria, a person is from the state and tribe his/her father is from, which turns on the state and tribe his/her father’s father is from, and so on and so forth. This is in contrast to some Western cultures like America, where a person can be “from” a variety of places, including where the person was born, has lived the longest, has a valid driver’s license, owns property, etc.
During the process of my wedding, the question of where I am from took on a new significance, because the answer would dictate how my various traditional wedding ceremonies were to be conducted. Technically, where I am from is straightforward: my father is from the Idoma tribe in Benue state, so I'm from the Idoma tribe in Benue state. Yet, telling you I’m from Benue, tells you nothing about me, and little about my father for that matter.
My father was born in Niger state, and raised and educated in Kaduna state. Like many Nigerians have done and continue to do, his father migrated for better career opportunities. My parents met in Kaduna state, where my mother is from. Specifically, my mother is from the Bajju tribe (yes, there are Christians in Kaduna state, and no, not every Northern Nigerian is Hausa/Fulani). My maternal grandmother was initially very resistant to the idea of my mother marrying someone from a different tribe, so my parents got married in America, where they had me, making me an American citizen. During my early years, my parents spoke Hausa in our home when they were discussing things they didn’t want my sister or I to understand. Ever the spy, I learned Hausa by listening to these conversations and decoding the secrets my parents shared. As soon as both parents were done gathering the degrees they went to America in search of, they moved back to Nigeria. For a year, we lived in Kaduna, where my grandparents were, before settling in Abuja. When I was teenager, I moved back to America. Give or take a couple of years, my life has been evenly spread between America and Nigeria. There is a whole different conversation about global identity, and author Taiye Selasi’s TED Talk does a great job of addressing it. Here, I am more concerned with national identity, and my Nigerian self.
In Nigeria, Abuja is my home and Kaduna is my history. Abuja was mostly dust when I moved there, and in many ways, I feel like we grew up together. It is the city that holds the sights, the sounds, and the smells of a great deal of my memories. It is the birthplace of many of my dearest friendships. And when I want to learn about my parent’s memories, Kaduna is where the plot begins and thickens. This is why saying I’m from Benue feels false, and almost like appropriation. How can I come from a place I have never known?
While the Nigerian identity framework is patriarchal, my sentiments are not gender specific. A few days before my wedding, I was in a café in Abuja when I overheard a conversation between a man and presumably his date (I told you I’m ever the spy). He bemoaned the fact that he was required to list a specific state as his state of origin on a government form, when he knew nothing about that state. His is the story of the multitudes of Nigerians who are transplants; whose parent’s parents left home for a better life elsewhere; whose fathers chose brides from different tribes. Perhaps this is why I am shocked by the stigma that still surrounds inter-tribal marriages in Nigeria. This is probably why so many Nigerians were appalled when the Oba of Lagos threatened to deport Igbo residents of the state. What makes the Igbo residents of Lagos, many of who have resided in Lagos for generations, less Lagosian than Yorubas? What makes a place home?
This is not to say Nigeria’s current identity framework is without utility: every time I write Benue as my state of origin on a Nigerian form, I am reminded that part of my soil is there. Traditions have their sacred value: they preserve history, and protect cultures from erosion. But maybe, Nigeria is at a point in its consciousness where identity narratives can be expanded. Perhaps, the questions of what we are (ethnicity) can be separated from where we are from (experience). Our bloodlines matter, but the lands that we have nourished, and that have nourished us, should count for something too. And maybe, just maybe, expanded definitions of identity are the parts of the dialogue that are missing from calls for national unity in Nigeria.
My traditional wedding ceremonies, gave me the opportunity to begin to reshape my narrative. I was adamant that the northern part of my culture be represented. My introduction ceremony (the ceremony where a man and his family formally ask for a woman’s hand in marriage) was conducted by my Bajju aunts; while my bride price ceremony (held the morning of my traditional wedding), was conducted by my Idoma uncles. The third ceremony (it takes a lot to marry a Nigerian woman!) was my official traditional wedding celebration. For my first traditional wedding dress, I chose to wear an Idoma head tie (called Illi’ Idoma) and Idoma colors (red and black), with a northern style dress. For my second look, as is Nigerian custom, I wore an outfit to represent my husband’s tribe (Yoruba).
Marriage has given me an additional culture to embrace (Yoruba), and two new places to call home: Lagos and London. This is the beauty of identity: it is fluid. Who we are, and where we are from, can and often does, shift. Or in the words of American poet Walt Whitman: I am large, I contain multitudes.