Read Caleb Femi’s essay in an exclusive extract from Of This Our Country
In Home History, the Nigerian poet, filmmaker and former Young People's Laureate for London dissects the impact of British colonialism on his home country, in a book which brings together some of the diaspora's brightest voices.
I left Nigeria at seven years old to join my parents and siblings in London. When I returned for a holiday at the age of 10, my limbs were longer and my eyes could see clearer. The buildings I once knew had shrunk and the distance between places didn’t seem as far apart.
I had grown into the physical expanse of Nigeria, I could see the spirit of the land in its entirety: the cracks, more variation in the shades of its colour. It became apparent that I didn’t know my home country as well as I thought. Nostalgia is a wicked thing, isn’t it?
My childhood memories of living in the compound might make you think the country was a utopian fairy tale. But memories made with juvenile sensibilities are easily manipulated by nostalgia.
Turns out I had taken with me to London the effulgent memories of Nigeria and left behind those that were darker. And in the dark is where I’ll leave those memories; why add more traumatic imagery to the brimming well of violence and sorrow that make up much of the collective memory of many Nigerians?
My return to Nigeria sparked my interest in the country’s history and politics, and upon returning to London, I had questions. Who was Abacha? Who was Obasanjo? What was the Biafran War? Why were we living in London?
It took years to really piece together the answers to all of my questions. My mother, bless her heart, indulged me by telling me child-friendly versions of Nigeria under the regime of past presidents. It wasn’t until I employed stealth tactics, by silently creeping down the stairs after my bedtime to perch outside the living room door, and eavesdropped on my parents – who talked on the phone or with visitors – that I was able to learn about my intimate connections with Nigeria’s historical events.
When I asked about the Biafran War, my mother gave me a matter-of-fact answer: she told me about the sides involved, their respective motivations and the outcome of the war. But in dimly-lit pockets of the hallway where I avoided creaking floorboards, I strained my ears and heard my mother, an Ukwuani child at the time, talk of the famine created by the Federal Military Government’s blockade during the war.
I heard her talk about the starvation she and her family endured which, by the end, had claimed the life of her younger sister. When I returned to my bed later that night, my grief ushered away sleep until the small light of the following day ebbed through the heavy curtains.
My mother had never told me she had a sibling other than my uncle, so for an aunty to be given and taken away from me in the same breath was tough to process. It was the thought of my mother, who would have been younger than I was at the time, dealing with such unspeakable grief that broke my heart.
Something shifted in me after that night: there was a new understanding when she spoke to me or my siblings, layers of meaning in her instructions I hadn’t perceived before. Much of my childish complaints, like why she’d always served my siblings and I excessively large portions of food, had quelled. It’s one thing to know the history of your home country. It’s another thing to know your home’s history of your home country.
As the years went by, my understanding of Nigeria and Nigerians deepened. I understood more of the tensions between tribes as well as the role Britain had and continues to play in the governance of the country.
I saw that Nigeria was a mapped land birthed from colonial pillaging, from greed gift wrapped as a business deal. And, perhaps most importantly, that the spirit of its people thrived in spite of its colonial contamination and its corruption.
The more I dove into my family history, the more it drew parallels to the history of Nigeria. The most poignant parallel was discovering that my parents’ respective families vehemently opposed their marriage. My father is a solemn man, when his heart is set on something there is no changing it. A trait he inherited from his mother, who raised me in the compound in Jos. When he was a young man running the streets like young men do, his friend took him to the training camp of the Nigeria women’s national basketball team to sit and watch a training session.
Turns out, his friend was seeing a player on the team and wanted my father to accompany him, later that day, on a double date with the best friend of the woman he was dating. This is how my father and mother met. From that day on, my father was set on marrying her.
A year or so later, the two made their union official despite the strong opposition of family and friends who were against intertribal marriages. Forty years later, in a marriage that – according to some – should not have been, my parents have built a good life for themselves with five happy children. The union of my parents and the union of the territories in the Niger area are by no means politically or contextually the same. For me, the parallel is in the fruits of happiness and hope that were born from the respective unions. The Nigerian people, like my siblings and me, are beautiful children of a conflicted union.
In 2016, I was appointed the Young People’s Laureate for London, a role in which I would use poetry to be of service to the social and welfare needs of young people in the city (and by extension, the country and the rest of the world).
The appointment was reported in national newspapers as anticipated (embargoed interviews and PR campaigns), but I was pleasantly surprised to see it appear in Nigerian publications.
After decades of no longer living in the country, it’s easy to feel like word of your achievements is contained within British shores, but I felt a loving embrace by Nigeria, like a son proud to be recognised by a mother(land).
Of This Our Country: Acclaimed Nigerian writers on the home, identity and culture they know is out on 30th September. Order it here.