“You may not remember, but you haven’t forgotten.”
Connecting the Dots
“You may not remember, but you haven’t forgotten.”
It’s the summer of 1988 and I am 12 years old. My mother and I were visiting Nigeria for the first time since we left when I was four. Of course, I didn’t recognize anything or anybody. Especially the many uncles and aunties who surrounded me, urging me to remember them, reminding me of sweets and songs. Many of them attempted to engage with me in the language I packed away and forgot to bring back with me. “Wolidiyan?” they’d ask, first gently and then with increasing urgency, “ Wolidyan?” My face would remain unmoved, my blank eyes darting around for my mother or anyone who would help me understand what was being bellowed at me. I knew the response was there. The word itself was buried underneath the English I’d wrapped around myself like a comfort.
“WOLIDIYAN? HOW ARE YOU?? Ahah! MMABASSEY! Heeeeeeey!”
Their disgusted faces looked like crumpled origami. The parting blow, “Ame-ri-ca! Na wa!” spat from their mouths with bitterness. They walked away, and the response “ayeah, I’m fine” came too late to satisfy anyone.
My favorite auntie saw the shame shadowing my face and pulled me away from the angry, disappointed looks. “They think that if you forget the language, you have forgotten them,” she explained, rocking me against her chest. “But you have not forgotten, have you, Nyono? You may not remember, but you haven’t forgotten.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I nodded anyway.
I stayed away from the rest of the party, choosing to hide behind the compound on a makeshift bench hidden by trees. I’d hear my names being called and draw my hard twelve-year-old knees closer to my face, resting my soft cheek upon them, willing myself to disappear or transport across the ocean back to what was familiar—back to the language I didn’t need to force myself to remember.
It wasn’t long before someone found me beneath the tree. I felt the bench sink under the new body. I braced myself, waiting for the next, new way I could disappoint.
In soft, hesitant English, he said, “I’m your father’s third brother’s eldest son. I am your brother Otu.”
Third brother could mean uncle, and there was no word for cousin in Yakuur. No term for “distant relative.” It was only colonization that introduced the English words to separate these relationships. I noted that he pronounced “brother” as “brodda,” so in my head, he became Uncle Brodda.
“People want to see you,” Uncle Brodda said, his voice barely a whisper beside me. “Your father is a great man.”
I nodded into my knees and watched the wind and moon play with leaves. I waited for the rest.
When he didn’t continue, I finally looked up and found him watching me. His eyes were kind. I could see my father’s side of the family in them. Part of his face was dark like the color of the sky after the sun disappears to make room for the moon. But patches of his skin were like the moon itself—pale, with a half-crescent shape around his eyes and cheeks, as if God had forgotten to color in this abstract painting of a face. I must have stared a bit too long, something he seemed used to.
“The English doctors call it vitiligo. Some of our people have it.”
I wanted to ask him, Does it feel like you’re melting? When you wake up do you find bits of yourself coating your pillow? But instead, I simply asked, “Does it hurt? How does it feel to lose yourself?”
Despite the communication gap, Uncle Brodda did his best to answer. “It does not pain me. You notice, small small, that you are no longer the same. I can no longer cry. It is a part of who I am now.”
It is part of who I am now.
I thought about the disappointment I’d become and listened as the language I had lost spilled from the windows. I heard my mother’s laughter rise above the confusing hum. The entire village seemed to fill the house, welcoming us back home. They were so proud. They had all wanted me to go to America to “be better”; I was the first to be born amongst them and leave to be trained up in “the abroad.”
Now that I had returned, I was too American. I was too different. I couldn’t even tell them what I knew. I couldn’t explain to them why I’d changed. How difficult it was when we first arrived. How my “otherness” lived on my skin. Why “forgetting” was survival.
That evening, after everyone had gone, I sat on the bed in my auntie’s hotel in the village with a torch and examined my body. I searched for any hint of discoloration, anything that would grow into a patchwork on my skin. What story would I make up to explain my own? Would I tell people that I watched the brown slide off my face and crawl away? Would it just disappear one day? Would it be easier, then, to explain the kind of different I’d become?
After about an hour of searching with the torch, I found the dot on the back of my leg. This one is light, a reversal of all the other dots speckled on my body like black paint. I thought of Uncle Brodda and how this white spot could grow or show up on other places on my body. I told my mother the next morning. She said, “Don’t worry. That one is your father’s side.” She said it as if I had somehow sprung whole from her. I have her mother’s face, the one she gave us all, so it could have been the truth. I left it alone, checking every few years to see if the white spot had grown. It has been the same size since then. It hasn’t moved.
When I think about these stars that litter my skin, when I think about the dot that defies all of those black marks, I recognize one thing—that even my body defies itself. My skin is a star-filled night of moles and marks, and there is one that chose to lighten. These collections of dots and marks tell a story of who I am. How I became. On the days when it feels like my skin is a prison filled with flaws and insecurities, I think of Uncle Brodda.
I returned to the village years later, on the verge of starting college. This time, the anxiety I carried came also with threat of depression I couldn’t name. I looked for Uncle Brodda. I had more questions about the way we change, but he wasn’t around. He had left the village for some place that knew him as he is, and not a reminder of how he’d changed. I think of how we both hid beneath the trees, that night, and how he spoke the language of acceptance.