Migrations This Hell Not Mine: On Moving from Nigeria to America
“This is where I’ve come, to the America of lights and dreams. And if I am better off I cannot tell.”
The thing with hell is that often it is not. When its fumes are your air and its flames the light you see by, hell is the existence, your everything that is and could be. You become such a part of the inferno that you no longer see it, feel it—it becomes subliminal. In this hell one boils, like a toad in cauldron, oblivious to the end. Except if the have-beens get to you. They are the escaped chinks of light who have been out to other realms, have seen better things, better promises, but now are back with tall tales of other hells closer to heaven, sowing questions. Misery results from listening to them.
We were the shackled miserables in Plato’s cave. Because there was no difference to know, we abided our chains and shadows, confident and moored in our illusions. With the have-beens came knowledge and possibilities of doubt, and pain. And as our existence became branded, our air became fumes and our light scorching flames.
Down there and farther back in the Nigerian hell, the seeds the have-beens planted did what seeds do and on their tendrils I clung till they grew me out of our hell and into the searing, naked light that is America. And the light burned through me in waves of depression: How could we not have known that our hell had wheels too and could have been moved up the rail toward heaven?
America, at first, did not look like hell. Its heat was subtle and creeping and polite with smiley pretensions, and its light a dazzling distraction, inoculating all to an indifference toward demise. But it was outside and ahead of Nigeria, which is what heaven always is to the inhabitants of lower hells.
I lived in Lagos, a haven of have-beens and once-weres, of pockets of light that give claws to darkness and red eyes to gloom. To live in Lagos is to want, forever grasping, groping for opportunities that blink away; a city of near-misses that keep you trying, reaching, harpooned by hope. Lagos is a tease. Hope is its curse. The aroma of food to the famished who cannot feed.
I had enough. I and others, we had enough.
So we sought escape, convinced that to leave was to live. We fled for dry eyes, for a sigh, for firm handshakes and raised heads, for two closed eyelids, we fled. For our babies and grannies. For light. We fled for those we left behind. In search of a better country whose builder and maker was God.
Millions now we are, half dead: trekking through the desert, on foot through Morocco, Libya, on congested floats across the Straits of Gibraltar to Spain, Italy, to jails and through refugee camps.
And all for this?
I’d never needed pills to pull the shade, nor lacked excuses to want to live. I had no doctor in Nigeria. My doctor in America said many informed things. Nice dude. But I wished my money back. Adults with responsibilities seldom wake up at dawn adorned with joy. I am fine. I guess I am fine.
But America kicked harder with those questions that open archways to depression: meaning of life; now what and what next; thoughts of time missing by; of luck and determinism; the pointlessness of all things; doomsday. What’s wrong with suicide? We wrote on this and forgot in philosophy classes at the University of Benin. At first, I thought it was a change-of-scene syndrome that would pass. Then I was sure it was a depression caused by the twilight of America clashing against my home country. The offending news bites I thought would be easy to nix: mute, block, unfollow, unsubscribe.
The obscenity of humanity is that we often seek heaven to find hell.
It is impossible to avoid the flames of America. In this new hell were more unique pains than Nigerian demons could ever conjure. In America, apocalypse ticked minutes away. Here, suicide, homicide, and wrong sides blindside millions. Misery climbed out the news to hug you close: My friend’s nine-year-old, normal kid, shot himself and left a note; one minute we were playing Call of Duty: Black Ops , the next minute the police were hefting Jared to jail life; this week at a wedding, a month after the honeymoon, the groom’s got cancer—terminal, only twenty-one years old.
These tragedies used to happen to some other people in distant places twice removed. Drugs, the busts and the overdoses, were reserved for screens and pages. Everyone in America seemed to have a diagnosis and a prescription. Everyone was in debt. And then cancer, of race, of politics, of offenses. And all these little kids at home in hospitals, suffering ailments with names long as paragraphs. In the hell I just left, lives thrive beneath a dollar; here, one hundred dollars is a sentence, with hard labor.
There may be freedom in America but it is not for me. In Nigeria I could do anything, drive wherever; here, there are eyes on my shoulder ready to sue, to pull me over, there are offenses on every corner waiting to be incensed, illegalities known and ridiculous, triggers ready to be tripped, pulled with no warning. Should there be this many consequences to freedom? I miss Nigeria, the land of the free and lawless, where the police are your friend and you can hand them beers and bribes as you drive by with no papers. You might be disturbing the peace if you laugh too loud in America, you might be in trouble if you keep too straight a face. America is a tightrope, and even the best slip sometimes. Every day I feel like a boy again, in the presence of a heavy-handed parent with good intentions. How would I offend today? These are my chains in this land of the free.
I flew into America on the wings of literary promise. I was chasing literary heights that all the lights said were closer this way. But fantasy is a genre of fiction, and wands are hard to come by in any hell. I think now, daily, of what death said to the drowning girl: “You drown in three feet or in six, matters not to me.”
But would they listen, those beer-clad young writers in Lagos’s Freedom Park, when we tell them that where the grass is sparse means more could grow? Would they believe that the New Yorker, Paris Review, Best American Shorts that we burn to have in Lagos, lie here in the library, issue after issue, year after year, unopened, unread? That the American writers we worship, we alone worship? Would they believe, those dear unschooled, unpublished, and uninitiated writers in Lagos, that their level of literary discourse and engagement is on par with grad and postgrad literature degree holders in America? They would not. I did not. What does it mean that I, yet alive, now speak the words of long-dead Dambudzo Marechera? “I was now actually on the soil where all these writers I had been studying had lived and died, and the reality was so disappointing.”
In this new hell exists white denizens and black spirits, brown souls and unknown bodies, and trans and cis and more. All suffering from the other. These were not brands where I came from, but now here I am, suffering the consequences. Now that I am black, I have found that there are different shades of this hue, some to honor and others to dishonor.
To the well-adjusted whites in this hell, my accent means I am the other kind of black, the perhaps safe, exotic Mandingo warrior raised on a tree but good in bed and fluent in lionese. I am a closer breed to nature, can understand thunder and divine rain. I am the aww, and sometimes the cool. I am the vast arid plains, the grass. I am the Serengeti. They will cry for me and storm Twitter and the school senate on my behalf. All out of pity informed by the likes of CNN and encouraged by my kinsmen who come here spewing yarns of being former child soldiers, sex slaves, of being gay and hunted by an entire village. You cannot pour sand in the garri of your own kinsmen because their lies are almost true, if not to them, to some back in the motherland. But it hurts to be pitied and sorrowed over by people, some of whom are no better in health, wealth, and mind, on account of the single story.
In Nigeria, today, are many who believe that white people are constructed of missionary parts and can be trusted to be kindly and benevolent. And there are premises for their conclusions—J. D. O’Connell, my secondary school principal, was turbaned last week for “fifty years of meritorious service as principal.” In all that time, since 1967, O’Connell must have left Minna four or five times to visit his country Ireland. Black missionaries saving white worlds are not well known.
Every African visitor or immigrant know of that white family who would seek your adoption and treat you like their own. This magnanimity they also extend to stray dogs and cats and iguanas. But an African with tales of woe stands a better chance of getting a room in the basement.
There are no reasons left to be a proud Nigerian, but still it is hard to suffer the indignity of pity. Especially as an artist. Art revels in its appreciation and acknowledgment, but there’s nothing so diminishing as validation tainted or expressed from a place of pity. The gushing emails from some of your professors, shocked and awed by the quality of your output, soon begin to grate because you suspect you are being viewed through the lens of pity, appraised with considerations as an “other.” There is such a thing as excellence despite being African. It is not a good thing. To the usual uncertainty and self-doubt of most creatives comes this new one: Are you a good writer because you are, or are you a good writer for an African? These depressives turn malignant in America.
In the American hell are many burdens new and unique to the fresh Nigerian. As a Nigerian in a place like Utah, I am the voice of the underworld. My opinion must be heard in every class, sought in every discourse, because ideas from the underworld are necessary for robust thoughts, for balance, for the edification of the white mind. It is very easy to succumb under the weight and tell people what they want to hear.
This is where I confess that I too have disgraced the ancestors by telling some unpalatable truths of Nigeria and Africa. For this, I die daily, reviving somewhat only to enjoy the shock and trauma that these African tales extract from my white listeners. I have told about the fourteen-year jail term for homosexuality in Nigeria. I have retold the testimony of Julius who claimed to have been a child soldier in a Nigerian city with no war. These tales move America.
The legend is that one of every four black people on earth is a Nigerian. The ship of the black race, therefore, cannot sail, the flag of black pride cannot fly without Nigeria. Hundreds of blacks returned to their roots, to Africa, to Nigeria during the black pride movement of the ’70s. They could not stay. The ship was sinking with Nigeria at the helm. “I am not happy with Nigeria,” said Nelson Mandela, “black people of the world need Nigeria to be great as a source of pride and confidence.” This sentiment is still shared in the black world, especially these days when no good news is Nigerian. I am burdened then, with the guilt of much that is wrong with the black race.
In conversations with African American friends I try to defend, to explain Nigeria away, to argue that no, we are not a scourge to black pride. I sound sillier each time. And each night after these conversations, after another display of shame from my home country, I weep for the race, I mourn for the era when the black pride would be more of fact than blind faith. I know my country is an idiot, but I do not know what excuse other black nations have. Were I an African American, I too would be resentful of the African nations.
I have yet to learn the dangers of the American inferno. How do I learn to feel black? How do I not treat Black Lives Matter like All Lives Matter? When the American blacks rage about their black experience, do I have any rights to speak? How do I remember to react when a white person uses the n-word in my presence? When is a white person just doing their job, or having a bad day, or just being drunk and not being racist? When are whites just being kind? How do I know that my failures and denials had nothing to do with my skin color? Would I need pills to shoulder the knowledge of these answers? The other blacks, the African Americans that have been here longer, they know the rules and see the threats coming. They have extra oil in their lamps. I am not angry enough to fight this war I just woke up in; I may yet embrace the enemy as a friend.
So I am sitting on a long thing—on the colored fence dividing America—buffeted upright by the shots from both sides, and I cannot fall to any side.
This was not the dream.
Oh, that life would be lighter. My nights would be shorter and my mornings would come adorned with joy. I long for the recent old days when there was no excuse to wake up and no reason to fret about it. Bring back the days when suicide was inconceivable and as distant from thoughts as the instances of its occurrence. But I see now that I am still harpooned by the curse of hope. And I do not want its pain.
This is where we’ve come, the legion that escaped one hell for another. This is where I’ve come, to the America of lights and dreams. And if I am better off I cannot tell.