After celebrating my birthday sometime ago, I was impressed to pencil down a couple of things about my experiences growing up as an African woman in Nigeria. Before you end up disappointed, may I warn that this piece is not on any harrowing experience you might be accustomed to reading on the African woman; heart wrenching details of female genital mutilation, forced marriage, Vesico Vaginal Fistulae (VVF), Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), hunger, deprivation, rape and other forms of degradation by the male folks.
Without denying the onslaught of these malaises on the continent, I hasten to add that the world has erroneously focused attention on them and completely ignored the triumph of womanhood and the celebration of the extraordinary brand, called the African woman.
My earliest memory was of me in my house in the evening, surrounded by relatives – the ideal African family – listening to their stories, playing games that tested my wit, and learning proverbs in my mother tongue. I remember being passed from one plate to another, feeding from the loving palms of family members and being teased for my generous appetite.
As I grew older, mealtime became my sister, brother and I dipping hands inside the same plate and fighting over who scooped the larger quantity of soup, this was usually before the major bout at the end of the meal about how to share the meat. Several times we went teary eyed to our mother to solicit for separate plates of food, and perhaps a piece of meat each, pledging our Christmas gift to buy the plates and to wash up as soon as we finished eating, but mother would not hear of that. She was ever willing and ready to settle our differences every mealtime, though most times she allowed us to fight and settle ourselves. It never made sense to me. There we were, obviously well above the middle income bracket and yet not being allowed what I considered the least of all luxuries; eating in quiet and privacy, and being able to eat without sharing a thing.
Fortunately, that has been me all my life; very closely knit with my siblings, disagreeing, only to end up agreeing with people around me and always on the lookout for who to share whatever I have with, because I was brought up to dip my hand inside the bowl in unison and never alone.
We also spoke our native language at home. I remember staring jealously at my mates who were brought up with English language and who bore English names. They derogatorily considered those of us who spoke our mother-tongue at home, acting as though speaking English was the sole criterion for success in life. At a time I began to insist on being called my English name and even made enquiries as to whether I could bear my father’s English middle name instead of my indigenous surname. Subconsciously, I detested my parents for raising us with vernacular and lied severally to my mates that I didn’t understand my mother-tongue and that we spoke English at home. I was ashamed of being labeled a ‘bush girl’.
That knowledge of my indigenous language I had mastered is now one of the best gifts given to me by my parents. I can think from two worlds. I have a deep understanding of my culture and environment of birth, rare – I have been told – for someone of my age. I can write my unique experiences and share something in my language and culture that the English-only speaker cannot fathom. Just like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Wole Soyinka, Ayi Kwei Armah, Chimamanda Adichie and several others.
Yes, it is that same knowledge of so-called “vernacular” that has enabled Chinua Achebe to craft Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God, Man of the People and other bestsellers. The same knowledge of native language stands out Ngugi Wa Thiongo’s The River Between, A Grain of Wheat, Weep not Child and other works. Yes, I do not think my contemporary, Chimamanda Adichie would have been such a successful master of the wordcraft if she is not able to understand her indigenous language syntax. I doubt, I very strongly doubt if I would be the person I am today, and the person I aspire to be tomorrow, if my world was restricted to only one English language.
I am also grateful for my name; Chika – greatest God. In any part of the world I find myself, whenever that name is called, it reminds me of my pristine roots. I am jolted to the realization that wherever I may find myself in life, I must not forget that I represent others unknown to my immediate environment. That I must learn from others, but never copy them because I owe it to the world to make my originality and uniqueness felt. I remain grateful that I am not Chantal, Belinda or Daisy.
My mum, a great story teller would tell us bedtime stories about the tortoise, about the history of my village, of my people, about things that happened in days past; before and during slavery, colonialism and the present post colonial era. She told it, according to her, exactly as it was told by her own mother who herself learnt at the feet of my great-grandmother. The story was often punctuated with deeply inspiring proverbs, brilliant idiomatic expressions and exciting poetry all flowing in one smooth prose. Without realizing it, I was being taught psychology, history, politics, sociology, international relations, geography, literature, religious studies and all in the most loving setting.
At the feet of my mother, I learnt that Africa had a great history prior to slavery and colonialism, that the Igboukwu bronze pot and other artifacts remaining after the plunder by the West was carved with technology and expertise comparable with any available in the present civilization.
Mother taught me to believe in myself, to believe in my people, to be proud of who I am, where I am from, what I do and what I want to do. Knowing my roots, I began to be cautious about my words, actions and thoughts. I gained the awareness that I come from a lineage of achievers; that I descended from the loins of great men and women who conquered territories and amassed great wealth and that I must not scuttle the hierarchy but pass on the baton of greatness to my own offspring. After all, the kid goat is never taught how to chew the curd but looks at the mother’s lips and begins to do same without prodding.
I have grown up with the knowledge that I have a place in this world, that I am Igbo, Nigerian, and African who can stand her ground with anybody of any class, colour and creed. I confirmed this upon my sojourn to the West to get the much acclaimed world class education. There, I realized that back home in Africa I had already been taught the fundamentals of whatever the Whiteman was teaching me; from the lips of my mother, father, elders and relations, dripped the necessary knowledge and wisdom, and I only needed to apply my mind to these principles in order to bring out the creativity and the innovative spirit in me.
As I celebrate my birthday, I have a story of triumph to tell about Africa and the African woman. It is a story of pride in one’s self, of resilience in the face of every imaginable challenge and of a realization that even though slavery and colonialism might have destabilized the black woman’s psyche, her spirit still waxes strong. Although the centripetal forces of Western imperialism might make the average African woman seem battered, gullible and naïve, the truth as evidenced by history negates that image.
As long as the past explains the present and predicts the future, the prognosis is extremely bright for the African woman. The African woman will only be a role model for generations to come and though she is cast as the victim today and portrayed as an object of pity by the media and the world, she is one of the strongest and most graceful creatures ever to thread upon the face of the earth.
First published by NewsAfrica London.