Mother Tongue

What is something about yourself that is essential to understanding you?


"Do you speak African?" I feel the question sear into my flesh; a malignant, flaring rash. With a measure of composure that has taken several years to acquire, I invariably reply: "Do you speak North American?"

A baffled expression. A hint of scorn. Then realisation, slow but steady, brings crippling waves of shame and washes the mask of ignorance away. On fortunate occasions, I thus convey the importance of acknowledging the diverse spectrum of cultures that exist across a land mass nearly twice the size of Russia. On other occasions, I am given a condescending lecture on the independence of the United States of America; shouldn't I know?

I do. I spent much of my childhood in the colourful lands described in my Social Studies textbooks. Stories of wars fought across newly discovered territories and peoples who rose against gluttonous monarchs gripped my attention far more successfully than any fairytale. However, I naturally assumed that others would ascribe the same regard and fascination to my culture as I did to theirs.

My stay in America has been plagued by assumptions that my heritage is defined by poverty and neolithic customs. The truth is this: I am Nigerian, and proudly so. I relish a hot meal of jollof rice and...

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