Notes of a Nostalgic Nigerian When Migration Is a Gesture of Love
In Nigeria, I grew up to see what difference a generous family member abroad could do for their loved ones back home.
This is Notes of a Nostalgic Nigerian , a column by Ucheoma Onwutuebe about emigrating to the United States.
On the night before I left Nigeria for America, my mother called me into her room, locked the door behind me, and pressed a wad of crisp notes into my palms. Dollars.
“Count it,” she said. I licked my thumb and leafed through my latest fortune, fumbling. My fingers quivered, weighed down by the gravity of the moment. My mother watched me like you would the recipient of your kidney, daring them in the silence of your generosity to live recklessly. It was a massive chunk of her life savings, those bills.
Why did she need me to recount it? Didn’t she already know how much she was saying goodbye to? Nigerian mothers are given to drama and flourish, and mine was no exception: the door firmly bolted behind us, her standing gravely beside me, waiting for me to arrive at the sum. When it became apparent that I would never get through this task, she collected the money from me and counted it loudly. Materially, this was the biggest gift I had ever received. Enough to keep me afloat in a new country till I found my feet. I was so moved by her kindness that even the thank-you I muttered afterward seemed pale, a cheap response.
Still, I was not shocked she had made this provision for me. My mother is someone whom life never takes by surprise. She always has stashed the right tools, the right objects for unforeseen circumstances. She knows the right person to call to get things done, and if that contact doesn’t work, she knows someone else who does have the right contact. Days before giving me the bills, she had combed through her phone list, dialing the bank managers in Umuahia, looking for who would give her a fair exchange rate.
I was moving to America for graduate studies in creative writing. However, this move did not inspire in me a great sense of joy or pride. My dream was to become a successful writer right there in my country. I had no desire to leave my loved ones and the place my stories were set. I side-eyed the mass-migration bandwagon and was determined to brave the economic realities that were actively evicting young Nigerians like me out of the country. I watched and read about racism from afar and knew I didn’t want to be touched by that nonsense. I preferred the honor attached to the writer who educated herself with the books in her parents’ collection and in the state library. I wanted the bold testimony that read: In this hard place, I thrived.
I was moving to America for graduate studies in creative writing. However, this move did not inspire in me a great sense of joy or pride.
But as the cost of living climbed and my paychecks remained stagnant, the things I could once afford years ago became luxuries. Moreover, my mother was retiring soon and I worried for her, considering how poorly the Nigerian government treated its pensioners. In Nigeria, children are often their parents’ retirement plans because pensions rarely come, and even when they do, they are abysmal.
I wasn’t sure I’d be able to take care of my mother, to make meaningful contributions to her well-being alongside my siblings, if I remained in Nigeria. My unwillingness to leave home was a dream with no value, and I had no option but to discard it.
My pay as a freelance Nollywood scriptwriter could not foot the bills for my journey. There were visa-application fees, passport fees, my airfare to the US Embassy office in Abuja for the visa interview, and finally my fare to America. When my savings were completely swallowed by the process, my mother supplied the rest of the money I needed.
My move had been decided in January, six months earlier, over morning devotions.
Saturday mornings are for these meetings that masquerade as family prayers. We assemble in my father’s room—my mother, my sister, and my brother. If my elder sister and her children are visiting, they join us, and half the time is spent keeping the children’s little fingers away from tearing pages off the Bible and hymn books. My mother facilitates these devotions now that my father is dead. When the children get out of control, when they have finally ripped a page or a fight has broken out over who will sit beside grandma, we miss my father and his military presence. In these meetings, we squash family beef. We gossip. We cancel people. “Whenever this person visits,” my mother might warn, “tell them I’m not around and you don’t know when I’m coming back.” In these meetings, we also worry over troubling headlines of another killing, another kidnapping, another armed robbery—headlines affirming how unsafe Nigeria has become. We lament the rising cost of living and discuss how to tighten our belts. But most importantly, we address pertinent issues.
That morning, as we struggled to maintain solemnity in the presence of unruly children, my mother asked, “Don’t you all think it’s somehow that all of us are here, all of us in this country?”
We nodded. It was indeed “somehow” to have all her children under one roof, in one town, in one country. None of us were abroad. None of us had a different flavor of problems.
“We should spread out,” she said. “At least one of you should leave the country. Establish the family branch elsewhere. It’s not good that we are all chooking our heads in one place. That’s why we have to pray harder for Ucheoma’s desire to go to school in America.” By declaring this to the entire clan, my mother made it a collective family problem, rather than a cross I had to carry alone. There was comfort in knowing that my family was interceding for me.
So that morning, we all knelt down and prayed.
These devotions are not peculiar to my home, and neither are these meetings with the agenda of sending a family member out of the country. I am certain that, just at the same time as my family mulled over my potential departure, the same topic was deliberated in another Nigerian home, and prayers and plans were made to disrupt that family’s equilibrium by encouraging the migration of one of its members. Economic hardship and few employment opportunities left lots of people despondent, and migration by whatever means became a clarion call.
For many young middle- and lower-class Nigerians, moving to a new country is a family venture even if only one person is making the trip. Like a family house, everyone lays a block; a kobo here, a naira there. Sometimes an heirloom is sold. If your family is capable, they will give you what they can, as my mother did for me. And if they are not, you are only handed a litany of prayers, loaded with blessings and a list of advice such that when you finally reach your destination, you are heavy with the intangible hopes of the ones you left behind.
Our desperation to leave home by any means, through routes safe or dangerous, is not a marker of the headiness of youth, nor are we leaving simply because we desire a change of scenery. Our migrations are motivated by a sense of hopelessness in our country. Our move is triggered by a need for survival, to escape the dire economic conditions at home and to flee the toppling effects of failed governments and policies. By this year, the unemployment rate had grown to an alarming 33 percent, the second highest in the world , and inflation wasn’t helping the naira retain what little value it still held.
This isn’t the first time Nigerians have left the country en masse. In the 1970s and 1980s, a wave of brain drain swept the country. Young and middle-aged professionals with growing families refused to subsist on the scant resources created by the government’s austerity measures, a strategy adopted to recover from the losses of the fickle oil market. The IMF had insisted that the country devalue its currency, and this encouraged the government to hike the prices of food items. As the hardship increased, professionals packed their bags and skill sets and left for America, Europe, Australia, and Asia.
Their families at home did not have to wait for the failing government to deliver on their promises—their children overseas were doing the heavy lifting. Now younger ones could go to school without being chased out for delayed fees. Pensioners didn’t need to queue in the sun for their delayed gratuities; a trip to the MoneyGram kiosks settled monthly expenses.
My peers and I grew up to see what difference a generous family member abroad could do for their loved ones back home. The kids in school with a relative overseas had shinier things. The elderly with successful children away were prouder and more at ease than those whose children were in Nigeria and unable to provide in that capacity. In a country where hardship calluses the body and the spirit, watching some of my family members and friends in a state of perpetual neediness was enough to push me to abandon an established career and press the reset button on my life, applying for graduate programs in more promising countries.
I was convinced that I would make it in this new place. I would alleviate the poverty at home from far away just like I had seen others do, and I would send warmth to the hearth that forged my bones. Leaving home was a chance to prove that love ought to have tangible dividends, should be felt, should have three dimensions.
It is not a difficult decision to leave a country that never runs out of hard things to throw at you—hard things that blunt the edges of your patriotism. Because to live in Nigeria is to suffer many things, to endure a heartbreak that may never heal in this lifetime.
So the calculation is simple: Developed countries require a migrant labor force. When I arrived there, I’d work long hours, get established, spend little on myself, and send the rest of the money home. When she converted the hard currency to naira, my mother would whistle and bless me from afar. On the night before my departure, I knelt before my mother in prayer for prosperity, for grace, for good fortune. I can still hear her voice as it rose from the pit of her belly: “May you prosper beyond your dreams, and may the road be kind to you. If danger is in front, you will be at the back. If you walk through the desert, it will not dry your bones, and the sea will not swallow you.”
To live in Nigeria is to suffer many things, to endure a heartbreak that may never heal in this lifetime.
My amen mingled with tears and rose from the same place as her prayers.
My visa interview happened on a Thursday in July of last year.
“I’m sorry,” the consular officer said, as she issued the blue 221(g) refusal form to the young woman in front of her. “You do not qualify for this visa.”
The young woman gathered her papers and walked away, shoulders hunched and eyes brimming with tears. In the waiting hall were other Nigerians bristling for their turn to be called to the glass interview window. We were mostly young, and the room felt thick with apprehension. A refusal was not just evidence of personal failure or a denial of starting a new life in America. The disappointment is communal, especially when you consider all the money your family may have invested up to this point. A question answered wrongly or with stammering lips could topple all the hopes they have placed on you.
My turn was fast approaching, and I was shaking like a reed in the wind. I could hear the consular officer, a white woman, from the bench where I perched with three other supplicants in the cold hall of the US Embassy in Abuja. I was the fourth in line. The next girl went forward to the interview window and in two minutes her hopes were dashed—another blue rejection form. I held my breath. The third girl went forward and my heart became a talking drum, talking to the God of my mother, muttering to him to turn the tide around for me, to break this streak of rejections. Baba God , I prayed, run this show for your girl abeg . I know that palpitations and nerves are common in every interview. But this was not just any interview . The burden of establishing a family branch in a better place rested heavily on my shoulders. The outcome would affirm if the God my mother prayed to really heard, if he really cared. I thought of my mother and what a refusal would mean to her. She had already spent so much. I thought about starting this process all over again if I was denied a visa, and I wondered if I had enough faith left in me to toe this path again. At home, my siblings and my mother also waited with hushed breath. I imagined them like the soccer fans at the stadium, hearts in mouths and at the brim of breaking into joyful noise or pained cries as their player prepared for a penalty kick.
When I came home after the interview, I met my mother in the kitchen. She was making catfish stew.
“For you,” she said to me.
I handed her my passport.
“Wait, let me wash my hands before I rub stew on it.”
When she dried her hands, she flipped the pages till she saw the glossy American visa and read the page word for word. She danced and danced, sang, ululated and wriggled her big behind for her God. She hailed him: Omemma, Ekwueme, the Husband to the widow, the warm hands that hold the widow in the middle of a cold night. The One who wipes her midnight tears, the God who perpetually disappoints her enemies.
She turned to me and asked, “So you’re really going to America to study?”
I found her question amusing, like it just dawned on her.
“Yes,” I laughed. “I’m going to America.”