Choosing to return to your family’s homeland offers as many enlightening moments as it does challenging ones. Itoro Bassey shares her experience returning to Nigeria to offer you insight.
I’ve been getting a lot of questions about what it means to move from a traveler to a resident in a new location. Specifically, with everything going on in the world (two global pandemics—corona and racism) for some of us, the question of travel is an urgent matter.
Travel is political. So it’s with this understanding and framing that I speak about the five things I’ve learned since leaving the U.S. and returning to Nigeria.
Disclaimer: After being born and raised in the U.S with little connection to Nigeria, I made the decision to return to my ancestral homeland and learn more about where my parents were born.
Lessons Learned Returning to Nigeria
1. Move Beyond the Fantasy
My nostalgia for endless amounts of jollof rice, ankara dresses, and a sense of belonging was only the start.
Moving past nostalgia requires you to see the reality of a situation for what it is and get specific.
In Nigeria there were things to consider: learning how to understand Nigerian pidgin, navigating cultural expectation, living in a more conservative area…it involved a commitment to paying attention to nuance.
The work of returning involved actively listening to the experiences of the people who took the time to share their lives with me.
Perhaps to get to the heart of a culture, you have to acknowledge the nuances of the individual.
Many ideas exist within the Western imagination when it comes to the African continent.
It’s not to say that some of the symbols representative of a culture aren’t true or can’t be points of connection. But it’s important to remember that these markers are not the only identifiers of an entire continent.
With 54 countries, complex histories, and the extraction of Africa’s resources for capitalist greed, it would be impossible to view this beautiful continent as a monolith.
Negating this truth makes it difficult to deal with individual people and their challenges in real time.
2. Create from Your In-Between-ness
It’s difficult to fit into a place that you share an affinity with, but yet you’re not completely of that place. This particular heartache can be incredibly subtle.
In my first month of work, I watched how the women at my job sauntered into the office with heels and long-sleeved blouses after walking through intense heat.
They glided through the office, wrote reports, and managed all the housekeeping.
They never seemed to break a sweat.
Even five minutes of intense heat caused me to sweat, uncontrollably. I never sauntered into the office. I stumbled to the A/C for a cool down wearing my flimsy sandals.
One day, one of my female colleagues observed me taking in the cool air and asked, “Why are you sweating?”
Then, there was the laundry list of things I couldn’t quite get: the strict gender norms, the Nigerian pidgin that was too fast for me, the way I kept mispronouncing words because my intonation was off, and the fact that I was a Nigerian American woman of marriageable age unconcerned with marriage.
3. Determine Your Intention for Returning
I had met a few Nigerians who returned through volunteering in the National Youth Service Corps (the cut off for volunteers to serve is age 30 unless stated otherwise).
Other folks land a high-paying international job. Some decide to live with their families for a while, while some (like myself) get a ticket with little planning and say, “Let’s go.”
It’s important to understand your intention behind returning because it sets the tone for the journey you will have.
Of course, you can take detours. Challenges are sure to arise no matter what you choose, but the why behind your return means everything.
I returned to my country because I wanted to find a meaningful way to give back and see where my parents came from.
I decided to come back and live a mix of a local and expat life. It worked for me and allowed me to meet all types of people.
It also meant that I had particular freedoms and struggles that I had to navigate. But, because I was clear in my efforts, I learned how to stay the course.
4. Build and Sustain Your Communities
In the age of COVID-19, building community is a bit tricky. But I was able to connect with people pre- and post-lockdown and all I can say is that I’m grateful for these relationships.
Navigating a new place, even if it’s your ancestral homeland, is not easy.
I was able to build on the few friendships I had made before the government went on lockdown. I also maintain the relationships I had abroad.
It was vital for me to have these connections, as sometimes I actually needed the nostalgia of what my life was like in the West to manage some of the challenges I faced.
Primarily through talking to close friends, I remembered that although I didn’t fit in with Nigeria, my perspective and life was of great value.
I knew that no matter what happened, there was always someone I could call, and someone who was willing to be there for me.
And it was an honor to show up for the people I loved when they needed support too.
5. Do Your Inner Work
When speaking to another returnee coming from the U.K, she talked about how important doing her inner work was to keep perspective while managing the highs and lows.
The truth is that the place you’re returning to may not have the best infrastructure, or might not share the same beliefs you do, or [insert whatever it is here].
With so much happening on the outside, it’s important to know who you are on the inside, so you don’t betray yourself. Especially if you decide to return or travel by your lonesome.
Shifting and expanding into a new way of being takes a level of self-awareness. It takes a commitment to observe yourself and to tell yourself the truth.
No wonder some of the most poignant self-reflections come from those who decide to travel or return.
I hope that in some small way this list of lessons I learned returning to Nigeria helps you navigate your own life transition.
Of course, I’m eager to hear from more people who have returned or travelled and picked up some great lessons along the way.