YCteen publishes true stories by teens, giving readers insight into the issues that matter most in young people's lives.
What's New
Email Newsletter icon
Write for Youth Communication: Video
Behind the Scenes: Teen writers describe what it's like to work at YCteen.
Follow us on:
Share Youth Communication Follow Represent on Facebook Follow Represent on YouTube Follow Represent on Twitter
Follow Represent on Facebook Follow Represent on YouTube Follow Represent on Twitter
Visiting Nigeria Made Me Proud of My Culture
Peace Titilawo
headshot

My family and I came to the U.S. from Nigeria when I was only 3. Ever since, my parents regularly told my siblings and me, “You shouldn’t forget your culture just because you are in America now.” However, I’d never taken the time to fully digest the essence of those words until the summer of 2009, when my dad decided that he wanted to take the whole family back to Nigeria for a visit.

My four sisters and I almost immediately dismissed the idea. “You can’t do this to us. We absolutely cannot live without electricity,” I exclaimed dramatically.

“Where did you get the silly idea that there is no electricity in Nigeria?” my dad asked.

“Dad, you don’t have to hide the fact, I’ve seen Nigerian movies,” I said with a wave of my hand.

“Well, how would you really know if you don’t go and see for yourself?”

I thought for a moment—how did I really know? Anyhow, we didn’t have a choice because my dad had already paid for all seven of us to go for the month. My summer plans of hanging out with friends in Brooklyn were vetoed.

My sisters and I were skeptical about Dad’s promise that we’d have fun, mainly because we were so used to America. The food, the clothes, the traditions, the music, and even the language had long ago become second nature to us; being American was like breathing. We had not set foot in Nigeria since we came to America in 1998. My sisters and I didn’t remember anything about it.

We’d become more American than Nigerian. For instance, when my mom would ask us if we wanted to eat pounded yams, also known as Iyan, with okra and collard green soup, we automatically refused and asked for spaghetti and meatballs instead. We would insist on wearing a dress shirt and skirt to a traditional wedding instead of an Iro and Buba, traditional African clothes for a girl. And when my parents would ask my sisters and me something in Yoruba, our native language, we answered them back in English. These little habits concerned my parents and they hoped that taking us all to Nigeria would help us become better acquainted with our culture.

The Unforgettable Trip

We boarded the plane at about 10 p.m. and it took us almost two days to reach Nigeria because we had to switch planes in Frankfurt, Germany. My dad’s brother came to pick us up at Murtala Mohammed airport in a town called Ikeja, where we landed.

We were eager to get to our house. My dad had it built for us after we moved to the U.S. so that we’d have a place to stay when we came as a family to Nigeria. My dad had frequently returned to Nigeria to check on the progress of the house, which the rest of us had seen only in photos. It was his vision for all of us to come there one day, and now we were actually doing it.

Looking out the window, we were afraid for the people walking in the middle of the street, among the moving cars, trucks, and bikes. There were no signs or streetlights. They just moved at their own leisure, knowing that any vehicle could just run them over.

Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!

Our first night at the house was kind of uncomfortable. Even though the newly built house was huge, with seven rooms and three verandas, there were no beds yet, so we had to camp out on the floor. Nevertheless, we all stayed in the master bedroom, which made it homey. Plus, it was good to know that there were lights in Nigeria—at least on our side of town.

image by Andres Fuentes

What my sisters and I weren’t pleased to hear was the rooster’s call as soon as the sun rose. “I guess that’s a Nigerian alarm clock,” I thought as I struggled to go back to sleep.

We started getting ready for the first day of meeting new people and going places.

“Mom, there’s no water in the faucets,” I called out from the bathroom.

“Surprise! You have to go get it from the well downstairs,” she said, laughing.

My 15-year-old cousin Tosin helped me draw water up with buckets from the well. The well was probably about 20 feet deep, and I was afraid to look down at first. As I lowered the bucket into the well with a rope, I saw my reflection. “What if the rope falls in the water? Would I have to go get the bucket? And what if it’s dirty water? What if I fall in the water?” I thought to myself.

After waiting for the bucket to fill, I started pulling and pulling as my cousin instructed but it felt like it was filled with cement. I had never appreciated faucets with running water more in my entire life. Tosin laughed but helped me get the bucket up.

Learning Yoruba

Soon after, my dad returned from running errands and Tosin came up to greet him.

“Ekaasan ma, ekaasan sa,” he said while slightly kneeling, a form of respect in Nigeria.

“Ah, Omo mi bawo lo se n’ se,” my dad responded, while beckoning him to get up.

“Mon se daada sa.”

I knew they were conversing in Yoruba, but I was surprised that my cousin, who was 15 just like me, was fluent, especially since Nigeria’s official language is English. It made me feel left out and ashamed that I didn’t know the language well enough to fully understand. My parents always made an effort to teach my sisters and me when they had spare time, but frankly, we didn’t really want to learn. Tosin, on the other hand, knew three languages fluently now; English, Yoruba, and French (which is what he was learning in school). Consequently, I asked him to teach me a little Yoruba each day. I wanted to surprise my parents, and now I actually had the desire to learn it.

‘Don’t Forget Your Culture’

Later, we went to see my grandma for the first time in 11 years. I didn’t know what to expect. As soon as we entered her house, it was like a family reunion; all my uncles and aunts, their children, closest friends and more were there. Although I didn’t recognize anyone, I immediately felt at home. We approached our grandma and at first she just stared at us for what felt like forever. Then she broke into tears of joy as she hugged each of us. After introductions, we heard stories about our childhood and then played with our cousins, who wore African clothes in beautiful vibrant colors. I suddenly wanted some of those clothes. I had to admit that I was really starting to enjoy Nigeria, but it wasn’t long until I heard the usual refrain:

image by Andres Fuentes

“I hope you didn’t forget your culture now. I don’t want you to say that because you live in America, you don’t have to learn how to speak Yoruba or dress in African attire,” said my aunt.

The difference this time, though, was that it didn’t go in one ear and out the other. This time, those words settled in my head. The atmosphere and the people made me yearn to learn more about my culture, especially after hearing my cousin speak flawless Yoruba, and seeing how my own extended family—male and female, young and old—wore the attire.

Time to Leave

As the saying goes, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” And that’s exactly how the remaining days passed. We went to the markets where fresh produce was sold. It was crowded but lively. Unlike in New York, both the customers and the sellers were having a good time and socializing. We ate at several restaurants, and surprisingly they were somewhat similar to American restaurants; it was just the variety of food that was different.

We visited more family, went to the beach and the big waterfall, and also watched movies at the town’s film house. We went into Lagos, the biggest city in Nigeria. The streets were busy, and the buildings were colossal just like New York’s. We saw animals like cows that were much more slender than the cows you see on an American farm, I guess because all they are fed is grass instead of hormones. I was really glad that my parents insisted on this family vacation. It felt great to experience all these new things, and it made me grow as an individual.

However, no matter where we went people must have figured we came from the U.S. because we looked different from all of them. Even though Nigeria was becoming more sophisticated, we still couldn’t quite blend in. While others wore replicas of name-brand clothes, we wore the real thing. I still felt very American, but I was starting to feel Nigerian, too.

‘Different’ Isn’t Terrible

When we came back to Brooklyn, my sisters and I all had a newfound respect for our Nigerian culture. Almost every day, my sisters and I would ask for my mom to make Iyan and okra soup. Also, Tosin’s lessons paid off, allowing me to finally be able to answer my parents when they asked me something in Yoruba. And there were days when we would just enjoy going to Sunday services and traditional parties wearing our Iro and Buba, which had been made for us right before we left Nigeria.

At Nigerian parties, it is a tradition that whoever dances the best receives money. Now we could dance like we were taught to in Nigeria and money would just fall at our feet in a pool of green. Before my trip, I would be the one sitting alone in the corner just watching, because I didn’t know how to dance like the other girls. I think we were all trying to relive our time in Nigeria; we didn’t want to forget it.

I finally realized that real Nigerian culture and traditions weren’t entirely what African movies portrayed. Even though everything in Nigeria was different to us at first, visiting had made us curious about where we came from, and we realized that “different” isn’t so terrible after all. In fact, we realized that having two or more cultures is a privilege, because you’re not the same as everybody else.

I Want to Go Back

This trip was more of an extended metaphor than it was a vacation. Nigeria was a food I thought I wouldn’t like until I tasted it. It made me realize a lot of things. For one, I don’t have to worry about my parents or my relatives lecturing me about forgetting my culture anymore. In fact, my aunt was quite surprised when I greeted her in Yoruba one day. She had to ask me to repeat it again to her. It was exciting to see her at a loss for words.

I’m counting down the days until we go back to Nigeria as a family again. Now that we know that our house is built and our family car is parked in the garage of the house, I think visiting will be a regular thing.

“Dad, when can we go back to Nigeria?”

“There’s nothing that I want more than to take everyone back, Peace, so as long as everyone is not busy, there’s no reason why we can’t go back. I’m glad you liked your stay in Nigeria,” he said smiling.

Whether we accept our culture or not is our choice, but culture helps define us. For that reason, you should never let go of your culture, because it is more than just a “way of life”—it is you.

horizontal rule
(NYC-2012-01-14)

For Teens
Visit Our Online Store