Naija Girl This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

January 1, 2011
Custom User Avatar
More by this author
The infectious pounding of the ceremonial drums fell into the rhythm of my beating heart. Black, red, and green masked faces blurred in front of my eyes. I tried to distinguish the individuals yelling my name from the palm trees and cocoyams in the distance. “Dance, American girl!” they yelled in Igbo, our native language. “Can't you move your yam legs and dance?”

My legs turned to blocks of lead as embarrassment flooded my body. My mother had failed to mention that utter humiliation would be part of this trip. The yelling turned into taunting laughter; I searched the crowd for my cousin and siblings. One of the voices pierced my mind. “Dance, now. Aren't you a Naija girl?” I stopped moving. Not again. It was one thing not to dance well enough, be fast enough, or even black enough, but I refused not to be Nigerian enough; it was one characteristic I could not compromise. Not again.

My life has always been a giant oxymoron. Opposites, in my case, tended to attract nicely. I was a nerd who enjoyed discussing the socioeconomic issues of To Kill a Mockingbird as much as listening to hip-hop songs whose AutoTuned lyrics stemmed from the very same issues. I was a snob about indie music and films, yet had an undeniable weakness for “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” I felt closer to authors like Amy Tan than Stephenie Meyer, and despite my glowing ebony skin, I had the voice of a commentator on NPR's “All Things Considered.” Although I lived happily within these various juxtapositions, one I could not shake was my culture.

As a first-generation American, I often struggled with my Nigerian heritage and the American culture I had grown up in. Although my parents instilled our Naija culture in my siblings and me from a young age, it often conflicted with American customs. I
do, first and foremost, consider myself an African-American, with both my African heritage and my American upbringing playing equal roles in my life. This often felt like a game of tug-of-war, with me being pulled in two different directions, toward two lifestyles.

Out of traditional respect, I ate Naija foods like fufu, Jollof rice, and Ogbono soup with my right hand at home and chowed down on Chick-fil-A sandwiches with both hands with friends. And while my friends went out on dates, I stayed home watching my younger siblings and cousins. I usually didn't complain; I was used to it.

One thing, however, that I wasn't used to was
my Nigerian relatives considering me “not Naija enough.” Outwardly, I was a typical Nigerian: thick, textured onyx hair, tough hands, and a slightly larger nose. However, my lack of Naija accent and mannerisms prompted constant ridicule from relatives. “What type of Nigerian are you?” they would ask, stifling their laughter.

Being Nigerian on the outside and American on the inside was one oxymoron I would not allow myself to be identified with. No matter how hard I tried, I felt like I couldn't live up to relatives' expectations. So, when my family traveled to Nigeria for Christmas vacation, it was the perfect opportunity to prove them wrong. I would rekindle my Nigerian roots, ­regain their respect, and be a Naija girl.

I had visited Nigeria twice before, but this time it felt as though I were seeing it for the first time. Although it was December, it seemed as if the sun was shining all 98 degrees of its heat on me as we arrived at the Port Harcourt International Airport. I fanned myself discreetly, trying to hide the fact that I was sweating through my hair follicles and act like the locals, who were used to the heat.

After collecting our luggage, we met our relatives. Lightning-fast Igbo phrases meaning “Welcome home,” “Thank God you made it safely,” and “You've gotten so big” rushed past me as I tried to hug and kiss as many people as I could. My uncle Julius grabbed me by the shoulder. “Are you enjoying the heat?” His voice sounded amused, not condescending. I told him I was.

While driving to my father's village, my uncle mentioned that the yearly Christmas masquerade was the next day. These are traditional celebrations where the young men of the village dress in large, exaggerated masks and dance to drums. Just thinking of the drums made my foot tap. I was excited and eager to participate, despite my jet lag.

The next day I awoke to five new mosquito bites and the synchronized beats of the rehearsing drummers. I went to help my aunties with breakfast, but they shooed me away because, in their words, “I was on a holiday.” I took the opportunity to catch up with my cousin instead.

We prepared for the masquerade by tying wrappers of colorful African fabrics around our waist. Then we all walked to the village center, where the masquerade was being held. Eyes followed us as we approached; it was pretty obvious we were American.

Suddenly the drums began, each beat punctuated with clapping. Men wearing elaborate masks bounced to the rhythm; the bells around their ankles sounded like Christmas itself. Small children danced, their bare feet kicking up sand, while grown women used this as an excuse to dance as they had years ago. My cousin pushed me to the center of the circle.

At first I was enthusiastic and animated, moving like the women I had seen. Then the laughter began. The circle seemed to close in, suffocating me. Despite the jovial jabs, I stopped, afraid. This was not happening. I am a Naija girl, and instead of fearing it, I should start acting like it.

I continued to dance, using my instincts to pass the rhythm from one foot to the other. I lifted my arms over my head, clapping to the drummers' cadence, and let the beat take over. The laughter turned into clapping and hooting, matching the pulse of my beat. I smiled as the circle pulled toward me as a sign of ­acceptance. I finally belonged.

Traveling to Nigeria gave me the confidence to characterize myself as a true Nigerian. As I looked up at both the sun and the moon in the afternoon African sky, I noticed that the two opposites, like those in my life, corresponded beautifully with one another.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

Join the Discussion

This article has 7 comments. Post your own now!

Love said...
Jun. 14 at 5:43 pm
Cool cause am also a nigerian that just mobed to america.not like just moved but it is difficult for me especially in school
Love replied...
Jun. 14 at 5:44 pm
Moved i mean
Love replied...
Jun. 14 at 5:44 pm
Moved i mean
Love replied...
Jun. 14 at 5:44 pm
Moved i mean
laudableshrimp said...
Apr. 20, 2013 at 12:28 pm
In Ghana we eat fufu and jollof rice! I thought it was Ghanaian food. I find it hard to assimialte into American culture since I moved from Ghana to America.
iluvwriting This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Apr. 19, 2011 at 8:57 pm

I wish i had an interesting culture like that...

Your story is captivating, I love it!

luckyislike13 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
May 3, 2011 at 7:12 pm
thanks so much!
Site Feedback