As a child, Chibundu Onuzo was obsessed with anywhere that wasn’t Nigeria. An English boarding school (and a shocking language class) made her reconsider her roots.
Editor’s note: This article contains multiple uses of the n-word.
I grew up in a quiet neighborhood in Lagos, Nigeria, quiet enough to play on the streets. There were about 30 houses in the walled estate. There was only one entrance, a gate manned by security guards. They weren’t armed, but they were gruff with outsiders.
“Yes? Who are you here for?” they would ask drivers without a residence permit. The guards would pop open visitors’ trunks and peer into their backseats.
There was no traffic in our estate, no noise, almost no crime. Although there were loops of barbed wire around my house, we left our gate ajar sometimes. To step outside the estate was to step into ’90s Nigeria—a military dictatorship, political assassinations, petrol scarcities, university strikes—but inside our bubble, we were mostly safe. We were ferried to school and ferried home again. We never stayed out late. Unless we were visiting someone in the estate, we were home by 7 p.m., even the adults. Once, I saw a dead body on my way to school. “A madman,” the driver said, as he swerved to avoid the corpse’s dreadlocks.
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Even though the streets were quiet, we stayed indoors and watched American television. There was a TV in my parents’ room, connected by wires and cables to a satellite dish perched on the roof. We watched the shows that children in Iowa and Wisconsin watched, Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry. A favorite was Dexter’s Laboratory, about a boy genius with a Russian-sounding accent who conducts experiments in his secret lab while his American parents remain oblivious to it all.
I started writing my first novel in this period. I was 10. It was set in America and the protagonists were white. I wasn’t very interested in Nigeria. The world, it seemed, was happening elsewhere, hurtling forward in the places that I saw on Nickelodeon and CNN. Lagos, a city of four million people at that time, was a province, a backwater that I couldn’t wait to escape.
We all wanted to go abroad. England would do but America was the real Promised Land. And if you couldn’t make it to either one of those two, then somewhere in Europe: France
, or sliding further down the league table, Poland
or the Czech Republic, or—consolation prize of all consolation prizes—Russia. What if you couldn’t speak the language? Then you would learn, and find a job, and send money back home every month. Almost everyone had at least one relative or friend somewhere abroad, sending home foreign currency, money stronger than the Nigerian naira.
We were fortunate enough to have traveled abroad on holiday. We went to England and America and once to Paris
. We went to Disneyland in California
and drove across the Golden Gate Bridge. We posed by Naomi Campbell in Madame Tussauds and screamed in the darkened rooms of the London
Dungeon. And when the holiday was over, when we had to pack our bags and our shopping items and go back home to Lagos, I was sad. I was leaving the sun and heading home to a distant star.
I got my wish when I was 14. My sister and I stayed behind in England one September instead of heading back to Nigeria. We went to an all-girls’ boarding school in Winchester—hardly a booming megacity, but I’d done it. I’d escaped. I was rechristened on my first day. Chibundu was too difficult to pronounce. What about Bundu? Chibu? Chibs. Chibs would do. The girls were surprised by our English, the quality of it, the extensive vocabulary, even the accent we put on that mimicked their own cut-glass, Fawlty Towers accents, a parody of a parody. We were surprised by their surprise. We were surprised by their ignorance.
Ignorance was what it was mostly. Do you have lions in Nigeria? Do you speak Nigerian? Are you an African princess?
I didn’t mind that one too much. They made other assumptions. “In Africa,” one sage opined, “we’d all be superwealthy, but here in England, we’re just upper middle class.”
“Where in Africa?” I asked her. Not in Lagos. In Lagos, the superwealthy moved around in yachts and private jets. I knew for a fact that the girl’s parents did not own a yacht.
It was very cold in Winchester. There were fields all around the school, open, green countryside that stretched for miles—William Blake’s Jerusalem. The wind cut through all that pasture, cut through my teeth, turned my skin gray and ashy. I learned how to play field hockey bent over at the waist like a rice farmer, guiding the ball with the stick and hitting it with a satisfying whack.
Once, in an English language class, the conversation turned to “taboo words." We began with the obvious suspects, the four-letter expletives. Then a voice piped up, “Why can’t we say the word ‘nigger’?” I was the only black person in the room. I could see the teacher at the front, torn between upholding the Western values of freedom of speech and upholding common decency.
“Yes, Chibs, why can’t I say ‘nigger’ when you can?”
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The question was volleyed round the room, an academic discussion centering around nigger, nigger, nigger. What did they mean by it, these well-mannered white girls, so desperate to use this ugly word? To refrain from using the N-word was to trample on their rights, their freedoms. To refrain was to obey a rule that a white person had not created. Even then, without realizing it, they recognized no authority that was not white.
At 14, I didn’t know why they couldn’t say the word “nigger.” All I knew is that I didn’t say it myself, because although I was black, I was not African American, and the word did not have the same historical resonance for me: I could not reclaim something that had never belonged to me. The N-word was taboo for me also. I was a black African. I shared a common ancestry with African Americans, but our stories diverged, having the same roots but separate branches.
I’d never had to think much about defining myself, but now the issue had been forced: Identify yourself or have someone else label you, project your story or be projected upon. I came from Lagos, not America. My origins were in a cosmopolitan city, a city that faced the ocean, connected by trade to ports all over the world. I came from a city of lawyers and doctors and bankers, of big business and small-scale hustles. I came from an unequal city, and it was this last fact that began to draw my attention.
I began writing about Lagos. It became more interesting to me than any sitcom version of America. I tried to capture all the things I had failed to notice when I lived in Lagos. The pace and energy of the city. The way stories leapt out from all angles, if you would only look. The seven-year-old girl selling bottled water on the side of the road: Where did she sleep? And that brand-new Mercedes with the personalized plates BIG BOY and the tinted windows: Who was inside? I tried to pin down the logic of the city, to express Lagos in my own words: its ruthlessness, the endless striving to get ahead, the grasping for status symbols. And yet the kindness of strangers, the passersby who would spring to your aid if ever your car should break down . . .
From my room in Winchester, I wrote about Lagos in short stories and novels that I started and abandoned. I wrote about class, suddenly obsessed with the contrasts I had so easily ignored, the large mansions juxtaposed with the vast territories of the unemployed. I wasn’t writing to change people’s views about Lagos. I was writing for myself, to articulate Lagos to Chibundu. I was from somewhere. It was a place I had not valued when I lived there but that I now understood was worth knowing and worth writing about. The stories were for myself first and then anyone else who might be interested.
I was 17 and still in Winchester when I began my first published novel, The Spider King’s Daughter
. It told the story of two teenagers in Lagos. One was a hawker selling ice cream on the road; the other was a rich man’s daughter, trapped in a life of privilege but no love. After a year living in Winchester, I understood that even seemingly distant, provincial stars are suns in their own solar systems. Lagos was its own hub with planets that revolved around it. My second novel, Welcome to Lagos
, which I wrote several years later, told a story of the city and five people trying to find their way within it.
Early in my career, a well-meaning friend advised me to put more white characters in my novels and to set my fiction in more “international” locales, so my readership would extend beyond Nigerians. He was wrong. My novels have traveled, and I have traveled along with them—to Bangladesh, to South Korea, to Italy. In all these places, I have met readers interested in the characters I have created and the city they live in, a place I was once so desperate to escape. I didn’t need more white characters. I just needed to go home.>>Next: Travel Tips From an Adventurer Who Walked 7,456 Miles Across Africa