You ask, what would make a young, black American woman in the 1950s decide to relocate to Nigeria with a young African man? Yes discrimination still held some sway even in Washington in those days, civil rights movement notwithstanding. But the idea of Africa was daunting. My son describes me as something of a pioneer. I don’t know about that. This is not what a homecoming queen would do but my sister says I was always different even when we were young. My answer to the question is simply: Love.
I was a nurse and he was a doctor and we met while working at Freedman Hospital in Washington, D. C. At first, I remember us being very cordial and professional with each other. Soon a friendship developed. I liked him. He was polite, well-spoken, smart and handsome. I also admired him. He liked me too but he was returning home after his training so he decided to keep things between us on a professional level.
But one day he asked me to coffee and I said yes. I told myself he was just being friendly and it would be rude of me not to accept. It was a simple … well, I won’t call it a date, a half hour break in the hospital’s cafeteria … but it was the first of many.
We were both surprised at how much we enjoyed each other’s company. He told me later that by the time he got home that first night, he was confused because he didn’t know how he was going to persuade me to go back with him to Africa. Little did he know that soon after, I started imagining myself going back with my debonair African prince.
Ours was a simple wedding in a small church in Washington. My entire family flew in from North Carolina and his best friend, a fellow doctor at the hospital, was his best man. By now my family had come to accept my decision even though every one of them had tried to persuade me to reconsider as they were afraid of what I would meet over there. It’s one thing to long for the motherland. It’s quite another to actually relocate to make a life there. But I think they knew that once my mind was made up, it was made up. I would listen patiently and politely but all you said would be your own business really or in Nigerian parlance, from your own pocket.
After we were married, we moved to New York and into a small flat in Harlem where our first was born. He was finishing up his training and I found work at the same hospital in New York. I made a home for us and we started to build a life together. But soon it was time to go back to Nigeria. His training was complete and he had to go back to take up the appointment that had already been offered to him by the Nigerian government.
I was nervous but I tried not show it. Don’t get me wrong. I loved my husband and son and despite the little spats here and there that were partly due to growing pains and partly due to getting to know each other, I liked the life we had and wanted the life we would build together. Yes I was nervous. But I was also ready.
At the airport in Lagos we were welcomed by his closest friends and nuclear family. At that moment and for the first time, I got the full import of my decision. Yes we are all descended from Africa. Yes we are all black but in terms of cultures, societies, family structures, manners, beliefs, and values, how alike are we, really?
But I embraced them as they embraced me. Notwithstanding my non-nativeness, my husband, his friends, and his family, tried to make me feel at home. Sometimes, maybe too at home. We settled into a small flat in Ikeja and he immediately began his appointment. I had got a job with the Peace Corps in Nigeria and I took it up once my husband and child were settled.
Later, I worked at a small clinic owned by a white doctor. I also ran a small business out of our home. I bought my first car, a volkswagen beetle, but due to our family’s size, soon I had to trade it in for a station wagon. Our family was growing, we had four boys and another child on the way. While I was committed to my profession, I was more committed to my family. For my fifth pregnancy, I remember hoping it was a girl and so did he. But I knew I would be happy so long as it was healthy.
I can’t say I got used to the Nigerian way but I adapted. For example, even though I had a driver at my disposal, I would drive myself and my kids everywhere. I loved spending time with my boys. I may have been a bit over-protective of them. Only sometimes would I allow the driver to pick them up from school.
I must have influenced my husband because unlike most Nigerian men of his stature, he drove himself at least half the time. I didn’t like strangers in my car, and soon he would be telling the drivers not to give rides to just any “Tom, Dick, and Harry”, a phrase he picked up from me. That must have seemed odd to his family, as there were always relatives and friends, and friends of relatives coming out of the woodwork.
I immersed myself in the culture. I would wear iro and buba and tie gele on occasion. Once you get the hang of it, it’s quite easy. I learnt to cook some dishes but I did not cook often. We had a cook but on certain occasions I would cook. I loved making casseroles and my husband and sons loved my casseroles. I understood some of the language but I did not speak it.
I still had to deal with my in-laws. Some of them took it upon themselves to find a more suitable Yoruba woman for my husband. They felt that as a prince and the heir-apparent, he could not be married to a foreigner. They did not consider whether he was happy. Sometimes, my older sons would find me crying in my room and I would confide in them. But bless his heart, my husband quickly put paid to that idea. He warned them to either respect his wishes or lose their relationship. They immediately conceded and let’s just say, we learnt to get along.
Although I enjoyed spending time with my boys and had my own interests, I enjoyed tending my garden, reading and sewing, I also had good friends. Unlike other foreign women in the country, I did not seek just my own kind. After all, I was married to a Nigerian and my children were Nigerian. So I made very good friends with Nigerian women, the wives of my husband’s friends and family, and other women too. My best friend was the wife of my husband’s cousin. We would talk every day, sometimes several times a day and we were in and out of each other’s houses. We founded the Ikeja Ladies Dining Club together to provide family and career support to the wives of government officials.
Lagos in those days was fun. It was the days of the end of British rule and colonization and the transition to self-governance. It was the days of highlife a la Victor Olaiya, juju a la Sunny Ade, and Fela’s Afro Beat. My husband and I were also avid horse racing fans and owned several horses including “Seven Sons” and “No Daughters” – his idea. He had a sense of humor that way. The horses were kept at Race Course. But it was also the days of the civil war and he enlisted. I was scared for his life and I was scared for my boys. I was a foreign woman in a foreign country in the throes of a civil war.
I could have returned to the States. My family was worried about me. But I didn’t. I stayed because I had vowed to love and to hold, for better and for worse. I volunteered with the Nigerian Armed Forces Medical Corps. I figured I could make myself useful and it would keep my mind from worrying. Besides, they needed the medical help. Thank God he came back and we must have missed each other, because we had two more sons in quick succession.
I did go back to the States but only for a visit. I visited my parents in North Carolina and my sister and her family in New York. I also saw other siblings who could come to see me in New York. My sister had come to see me a couple of times in Lagos and we all kept in touch regularly by telephone, but it was not the same. Even though I had returned with my husband previously for his post-graduate fellowship after we first moved to Nigeria, I missed my family.
He was the one that insisted I make the trip. When he returned from the war, he realized what a terrible toll it had had on me so he suggested I go visit my family. It’d give me a chance to see them and also to rest, he said. He was right. But I was pregnant and it was while I was in New York that I delivered our seventh son. I was glad to return home to my family though once I and the baby were able to travel. It was not until I was back in Lagos after that trip that I realized how much I had missed my family, my friends and my new home. That was when I realized that Lagos had become my home. I was no longer American, I was Nigerian and Nigeria was now my home.
Each of my boys is special and has their own unique characteristics. I knew what would make them smile, what could make them upset. What they liked and what they didn’t like. I knew who was the peacemaker and who was the troublemaker. They were all very good boys. Respectful, tenderhearted and loving boys. I saw their father in each one of them. I may have wanted a girl but I would not have changed my life for anything in the world. I love each and every one of my boys.
When I got pregnant again, I wasn’t expecting it. Neither of us were. From the beginning, the pregnancy was not an easy one. For one thing, I was tired a lot. For another, this pregnancy felt heavier than any of the previous ones. At first, I attributed it to the pregnancy but later, I knew something was wrong. I spoke to my doctor and we discussed options but I did not want to do anything that would jeopardize the baby. I didn’t tell my husband because I didn’t want him to worry. I cut down on my activities and concentrated on just my job and home. Soon I had to give up the job because it became too strenuous to manage as well. I told my husband I was tired and that the doctor had ordered bed rest.
I prayed for a healthy baby and a safe delivery. I asked God to be with me because I couldn’t leave my babies behind. Where would they be without their mama? Who would take care of them? Their father would be busy and besides, children need their mothers for nurture. But I knew God would either answer my prayers or He would have a better plan.
The birth was a difficult one and even though I was not out of the woods yet, I was more concerned about the baby. I asked the doctor if the baby was alright and he assured me that it was. I asked my husband and he said the same thing. Yet I could not but feel anxious at the surreptitious glances that passed between the nurses and the doctor and even my husband. Though he would try sometimes, he never could keep secrets from me for too long. I worried and this did not help because my blood pressure shot up. They had to sedate me to calm me down and I was in hospital for a few weeks.
A nurse eventually brought my baby but he was asleep so I rocked him as he slept. He looked so beautiful and so peaceful. Soon we could go home. After the birth, I was still fatigued and some days were so bad I would be in bed all day. One day, I was rushed back to the hospital.
As the doctors and nurses rushed me into the intensive care unit, I felt a deep peace settle in my soul and for the second time, I felt ready. I looked up at the deep furrows on my husband’s brow as he raced along with my gurney and I wanted to tell him that he had been a good husband, a good father, and that we had had a good life together. That he had made me happy. I wanted to tell him that he didn’t have to worry because everything was going to be alright. I love you. You’ve made me happy. The boys will be fine. My sister will help.
As they rushed around with machines and needles, in white coats and green tunics, I closed my eyes one last time and prayed this prayer: Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change … Lord help my boys. Show them love. Nurture them. Help them grow to be strong, loving and good men. That whatever they decide to do, may they be happy and successful at it. Teach them your faith. Teach them your love. Give them your strength. Give them your spirit. Let them have peace, joy and love in their hearts and in their lives. Thank you Lord. Amen.
And that’s my story. Now I watch them from heaven.