Home for Two Weeks
My friends and relatives don’t think Nigeria belongs to me completely. They are partly right.
Before 2019, it had been five years since I last returned to Nigeria. Five years dreaming about gida, tracking ticket prices obsessively, shopping with home always lingering in our thoughts. The construction of our mom’s house was finally finished after four years of hard work and toil. Every so often, long after everyone had fallen asleep, she would look at me and say, “I think I’m just wasting my money.”
I assured her that it was a worthy investment and that she would see worth in the fruit of her labor. She persevered and, in her words, built a home to show that she had accomplished something in her life, something tangible to represent the years of labor. We were excited and proud, so we browsed Ross, T-J Maxx, and anywhere else to get decorations for it.
But even before we had a house in Nigeria, we had a home.
Contrary to our relatives’ beliefs, we weren’t made uncomfortable by Nigeria’s blistering heat, or anything else really for the most part.
We stayed in our grandfather’s house every time we came to Nigeria. My grandfather died almost fifty years ago, so I knew it as the house of my grandmother and her co-wife. It was the main house in a compound that contained four other houses, including what would later become ours. Staying in our grandmothers’ house was seen as a hardship for us by many. It was a home built using the methods of traditional Hausa architecture that fell out of style decades ago and even still had walls of mud-brick in some places.
The house looked better than many other houses, in my opinion, but people thought it wasn’t good enough for us, coming from “the abroad.” Too old, a relic of the past that ought to be bulldozed and rebuilt the way other people did. The cracking cement courtyard in the summer meant our feet would burn if we didn’t wear sandals. The single tree in the courtyard did not have any leaves, providing neither shade nor breeze. Still, there would be birds perched on the branches, humming and singing. Their house may not have provided much for them, but they made a home out of it.
Contrary to our relatives’ beliefs, we weren’t made uncomfortable by Nigeria’s blistering heat, or anything else really for the most part. If anything, the heat reminded me of our house in the States which was built in the 1930s. My father didn’t do any major renovations, so we weren’t used to central air; the heat in the summer and the cold in the winter made themselves feel at home. The heat wasn’t a stranger, just a familiar thing in a different setting. We were home.
We spent two weeks trying to stretch out the time we had, hoping that by cherishing every minute, it would feel as though we had been at home for longer. My mother was relieved that she had a chance to see her aging family and friends before it was too late. Most days we left the house early in the morning, coming home only after Maghrib, as we spent most of our day in automated rickshaws visiting relatives from house to house.
I didn’t have the same connection to most of my family as my mom, but still, I didn’t experience any of the alienation I felt in America. Though it has been five years since last seeing my cousins, our conversations continued where we left them off last. I took advantage of the family compound and split my time talking to my grandmother about her life, learning how to make northern Nigerian caramel with my cousins, and wandering around the neighborhood with even more cousins. I felt right at home gossiping and joking, playing with my little nieces and nephews, going to weddings and parties.
I didn’t have to prepare to answer a dozen questions about my identity every time I met someone new. There were none of the stares I was used to getting in America. And while there were plenty of questions as my family got to know me, no one had questions about my faith which, as a Muslim, is the one thing that would set me apart everywhere I went in the South. In the sandy streets and busy markets, I had finally found a place where I belonged.
As a Black Muslim, the white American South doesn’t really want me here no matter how I try to assimilate.
My friends and relatives don’t think Nigeria belongs to me completely. They are partly right. I am used to hanging out at Walmart at night, taking the Southern country road to the city, spending quiet summer nights cursing the heat and praying for rain, parades and loud bands that rattle my windows, deep accents dragging out each syllable because we have all the time God has given us. I am used to the ways of the South, I know the Southern life like I know the back of my elbow; it is familiar, but I will never quite know it all.
The South has given me most of my friends and memories. But when it comes to understanding me, I find that though our accents are the same, we don’t speak the same language. The South doesn’t hold the people I hold dearest in my heart. It doesn’t have my little cousins running around and screaming, or seven people squeezed into a tiny car. It doesn’t have my aunts and older cousins making sure we are comfortable and have everything that I need.
As a Black Muslim, the white American South doesn’t really want me here no matter how I try to assimilate. I am reminded of that daily by TRUMP 2020 bumper stickers, suddenly having whole aisles free to myself when I’m shopping, and the whispered names of sundown towns. I am just being tolerated for some time as we play tug of war of who will eventually change for whom.
Even when I’m not subjected to casual racism, the cultural norms of the South make me feel like I’m an outsider in the town I grew up in. Tailgating, fishing, and riding four-wheelers are all part of Southern culture, but when I attend these events, I feel more like a cultural anthropologist than a Southern girl. Though these traditions represent the beautiful community and culture of the region, it cements the fact that I will never feel at home in my own home. A place that continues to evade my understanding, as I attempt to belong to unfamiliar land.
But then again, I don’t really know Nigeria either. I don’t know all of my family or my city. Hell my mom still won’t let me walk around the neighborhood without someone accompanying me. Still, a certain familiarity that defines a home is always embedded in Nigeria. No matter how much a house is rearranged, and the streets change, you will find your way home.
While the South will never release all its secrets to me, my square of Nigeria will give me a chance to learn it, at least, I hope. It is familiar in the good, the bad, and the unspeakable. The weird and the scary. I will never be treated as a real foreigner in the country of my ancestors. And that’s what makes it home.
Jummai Umar is a writer and poet from the South, although Nigeria is home. She likes reading about social issues affecting West Africa and the Sahel and the Black Muslims. In her free time, she likes to write, laugh, and listen to music.