I Am a Proud Child of Africa, but Sometimes Home Feels Foreign to Me

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So much of my culture is alien to me — I’m not fluent in the language and I’ve only ever spent 3 weeks back home. Am I an outsider?
Izin Akhabau

One evening I decided to join my mum and sister for a movie night. We had decided on Invasion 1897, a highly controversial biography based on events that transpired during the British invasion of Benin. At the end of the film, I felt heavy with how much of my culture was alien to me. I don’t speak my home language, and I have only visited this home once in my life for three short weeks.

I immediately began to interrogate my mum about why she hadn’t taught me my language. I also wanted to know why I could not understand which soups and dishes were specific to my tribe, and not just popular throughout Nigeria. I asked her why, if it wasn’t for this shoddily produced film on Netflix, that we might never have even discussed the Benin Expedition. As it usually is when I get annoyed, my mother’s response was calm and simple. She would have told me before, if I had asked her before. The film had struck a nerve; I was hit by the enormity of everything I did not know about the place that I still see as home. I couldn’t shake the idea that I was somehow an imposter. For all my talk of being proud to be black and African, where was the substance?

"I hold on to Edo State as home, as a place I can belong, as a place I can be proud of, and as a place I will one day return to. I hope that all the other proud children of Africa across the diaspora know that they can do the same."

This was not the first time I’d experienced this type of dissonance, many of these realities hit me upon coming to university. Sitting in a seminar on African politics and being taught my history by a well-meaning white woman unsettled me. I couldn’t help but think: are we both the same? Are we both outsiders looking into Africa with Western eyes? My initial interactions mixing with students who were born and raised in Nigeria made me feel like a fraud. In my 21 years of living, I have spent just three short weeks in Nigeria – and because I was young, my memories are hazy; my grandad’s house servants struggling to understand my British accent, my little sister’s fascination at my grandma’s toilet in the village, and haggling in the market for a handbag that I treasured for a long time afterwards.

I think all children of the diaspora have a choice to make at some point; be proud of your African heritage or avoid it. Simple questions like ‘what is your name?’ and ‘where you from?’ have become somewhat entrenched in politics. In my case, I chose to be proud. However, being born in Britain a hundred years after the Benin Expedition, I have had to redefine what being a proud child of Africa means for myself. There’s more to it than knowing the language and the history. Of course, we should all work harder on these things, but some of us are starting from behind because we are second generation immigrants whose parents never felt the need to teach us. Others are the descendants of enslaved African people. Nonetheless, all of us have the right to call ourselves proud children of Africa if we choose to.

For me, it is the only way I can hold onto a sense of pride. For sure, Britain has offered me a lot. My experiences here provided me with the opportunity to become one of the youngest people to report on a national news channel. Yet, despite this accomplishment, I’m still well aware that the broadcast news in this country has horrible stories of racism, and I know first-hand how trolls continue that proud tradition. Just this year, the British Treasury boasted that British taxpayers were still paying off the bill for reimbursing slave owners up until 2015. That means direct descendants of enslaved people helped pay former slave masters off. The precious artifacts looted from the Benin Kingdom, where I descend from are still in the British Museum today.

Being black and being in Britain, there are prices that we have to pay. We’ve lost a lot of our connection to the continent due to immigration, colonisation and the trade of enslaved people. But we’ve also created a lot of beautiful culture and connection too. Just research the richness of black culture in the United States, Latin America or Britain. Black people have an unmatched talent for reclaiming and reinventing ourselves. In Britain, we have Afro Bashment, a whole new music genre championed by the likes of Maleek Berry, MoStack and J Hus. We have a dialect of our own that is constantly evolving. Once more, there are very few things that complement each other better than jollof rice, jerk chicken, and plantain––a product of black cultural exchange. A lot of the points I’ve made in this piece are up for debate, but that is not one of them.

I am proud to be from Africa. I am proud to be from Nigeria. I am proud to be Ishan and hail from Edo State. I cannot explain in words, how precious and important that heritage is to me. As I carve out the life in Britain that my parents wanted when they set out here, no doubt there will be many more moments that remind me home is so very far away, that it will seem almost foreign to me. Still, there are many moments where I get the strongest sense that Britain can never be home either. Stepping outside of the Black British bubble can be a real culture shock; there is the racism, xenophobia and persistent microaggressions.

At the end of the day, I choose Africa. I hold on to Edo State as home, as a place I can belong, as a place I can be proud of, and as a place I will one day return to. I hope that all the other proud children of Africa across the diaspora know that they can do the same.

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Based in London, Izin Akhabau splits her time between freelance journalism and university studies. She is interested in all untold stories; but especially those of black women.