It took a stolen wallet and the loss of my consular ID card to initiate one of my rare trips to the Nigerian embassy in Dakar. In these days of heightened security being caught without ID is not a particularly good idea. I needed to replace it immediately. But in the end, that trip made me question my identity.
The line snaked all around the building. Short and stocky, tall and wiry, they all seemed to be business men. They didn’t want to get into any great detail about what sort of business they were in exactly. If you don’t want to reveal anything about yourself, then why be so chatty? I traded banter with those immediately in front and behind me while listening to others chat among themselves in Yoruba, Ibo, French and Wolof. I wondered what held us together, what we had in common, apart from our shared passport.
When I finally made it to the front of the line, I breathed a sigh of relief. I would be heading home soon, I hoped. A woman in her early fifties sat behind the counter with a pained look on her face. It had been a long morning and I had no doubt she had enjoyed this morning’s queue as little as I had.
‘Good morning Ma,’ I said slowly nodding my head and slightly lowering myself to show respect as I learned to do growing up in Nigeria. I handed her the form that I had filled up and explained to her that I was there because I had lost my ID.
‘Ogun State.’ She read out loud what I had listed as my State of Origin. Although I was born in Lagos and had never actually stepped foot in neighboring Ogun State, in Nigeria, when asked what state one is from, one usually answers by stating where their parents are from.
She thought that we would have a shared language, shared references and even shared experiences.
‘Yes Ma, my parents are both from Ogun State,’ I said sheepishly. I wasn’t expecting to be quizzed about my responses in the form. I immediately began to wonder if I had taken enough time to fill it up carefully. Perhaps this trip to the embassy might take a little longer that I thought. My brow furrowed and I even considered asking her to return the form to me so that I could take a second look.
‘Where in Ogun State is your father from?’ she asked. She seemed to brighten and if I wasn’t mistaken I could trace a light smile on her face.
‘Ijebu-Ode.’ I felt nervous still not sure where this line of questioning was going. That was about all I knew about my father’s city. He himself had moved to Lagos as early as when he was in secondary school. If she had any more questions about this I simply wouldn’t have any answers.
‘I am also from Ijebu-Ode,’ she said excitedly before switching to Yoruba. I could make out enough of what she was saying to know that she had just asked me a question.
I saw in this woman immense excitement to meet someone from her corner of the world. She thought that we would have a shared language, shared references and even shared experiences. I knew the next words that would come out of my mouth would deeply disappoint her.
‘I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Yoruba’ I said.
She switched back to English. ‘I recognise your last name, you come from a well-known family in Ijebu-Ode,’ she said, clearly peeved. ‘How is it that you do not speak Yoruba?’
This was not the first time that I had been chided for being unable to speak Yoruba. I am in fact accustomed to it.
The profundity of the question hit me immediately. I was in line to replace my lost ID and in the process I was being interrogated about how I had managed to lose my identity.
This was not the first time that I had been chided for being unable to speak Yoruba. I am in fact accustomed to it. Each time however, I understood that I wasn’t being judged simply for my failure to grasp the linguistic and grammatical intricacies of a particular language, but for something much deeper. Not knowing Yoruba was interpreted as confirmation of my lost roots, proof that I had lost hold of the intangible thread tying me to centuries of shared culture and knowledge.
I could tell from the disapproving gaze of this woman sitting across from me, fittingly garbed in traditional Yoruba attire, that any attempt at an explanation would ultimately not suffice. I had let her down on a deep level and explaining to her that I didn’t grow up in Nigeria was not going to let me off the hook. My failure to communicate with her in our local language was inexcusable. I had deprived her of a chance perhaps to reconnect with memories of her hometown. A chance to reaffirm her own identity.
I felt she pitied me for losing my identity and I suddenly felt defensive.
I could have tried to explain to her that I left Nigeria when I was three and although I returned at age nine for a short spell, I left again at 14 and have lived outside of the country ever since. I could have added in my defense that though I failed to learn my mother-tongue, I am nevertheless fluent in French and conversant in Spanish, and Filipino. And that I am now currently living and working in Senegal where I am (slowly but surely) picking up Wolof.
But of course I didn’t say any of these things. I smiled apologetically. Others behind me were peeking their heads over my shoulder to figure out what was taking so long. ‘My parents didn’t speak to me in Yoruba growing up,’ I said, throwing my parents under the bus to cut short the awkward conversation. I didn’t feel comfortable holding the queue up any longer; it should satisfy her curiosity.
‘Ah… of course,’ she replied curtly. No more smiles, no more excitement. She shuffled some papers and asked me to pay the fee to replace the lost ID card. ‘You can pick up your new card anytime this afternoon’.
From her new tone I ascertained condescension, which I didn’t mind and am even used to, but I could also sense something else – pity. I felt she pitied me for losing my identity and I suddenly felt defensive. I wanted her to know that though I may have failed to learn Yoruba, I never lost my identity. I wanted to tell her that although I may not know all the ins and outs of the proud culture of my ancestors, I am nevertheless fiercely proud of the particular nook of the world I was born in, the colorful traditions and the beautifully expressive language of my parents. I needed her to know though, that my identity does not solely hinge on these factors. My identity has always been more complex, influenced as much by my place of birth and ethnicity as by the fact that I have lived on three continents, have called five cities home and a thousand other factors.
All of this would have to go unsaid. I was happy to finally be on my way
‘Thank you Ma,’ I said respectfully as she handed me my receipt. I wasn’t going to wait around until the afternoon to pick up my new identity card. I would head home and come back the following day to pick it up.
My my new ID card being forged will be plastic and small. It will be easily breakable if put under enough pressure. It will be possible for it to get stolen or to simply get lost. Thankfully my identity is exactly the opposite. It is broad, malleable and impossible to lose or misplace. And no matter how many languages I may or may not be able to speak, and no matter how many condescending comments and pitying looks I may receive in the future about this, I know my identity will be just fine.