“Where are you from?” I ask, directly, for this is what I have learned to do in North Carolina whenever I hear someone from West Africa. She answers, “We live in Cary,” once a town outside Raleigh but now a tidy upscale suburb.
But this isn’t what I mean. “No,” I correct her. “Where are you from originally?” And she sturdies herself. “I am from Africa,” only it’s more like Ah-free-ka, with the emphasis on the Ah and the ree vibrating on her tongue. Still she doesn’t take me seriously. “No.” I venture, more sternly this time, “what country?” And now she says, relaxing, “I am from Nigeria.” She draws it out: Nigh-jyyy-rria.
Tears come to my eyes and then my body warms, as if I have had a transfusion. “I know,” I tell her, I was born in Ogbomosho.” Every Nigerian knows Ogbomosho, in Yoruba land.
“Ah,” she replies quietly, as if this is a mystery, and we stand for a moment in recognition of a kinship impossible to speak. She is from Ibadan, just down the road from my original home. Her name is Joanna. Finally her husband approaches, for he is in no hurry at all; he wears one of those West African print shirts with the embroidered necks and sleeves to the elbows, and you can see his stomach protruding slightly. “Johnny,” she calls out, “this woman is a Nigerian.” I am as happy as the child was moments earlier.
So few people know me. I am white. I have blonde hair and blue eyes. I teach American literature in the English department of North Carolina State University. No one in my neighborhood would imagine that I grew up in Africa. For years, even I forgot where I am from. So I am thankful for Joanna’s discernment. In Nigerian thinking, anyone born in Nigeria is Nigerian. She may be a bad Nigerian or a lost Nigerian, but she is still a Nigerian.