Why am I a citizen of a place people are glad to escape? – Ucheoma Onwutuebe
Airplane selfies are a tacky younger sister said to me. Don’t post that. I shelved the offending picture that would never make it to Instagram. It was taken a year ago on a flight to New York, my first international travel. When I packed my bags and readied for that trip, my friends advised, Don’t come back. They knew I only had a tourist visa that permitted capsules of visits, yet they were unrelenting in their request. Run. Find a white man and marry him. That was what my aunty did, that was what my cousin did. I wasn’t surprised. They knew relatives and friends who followed this method of migration. I knew people who did too. When my residency was over, I returned to Nigeria to my friends’ dismay. When they pressed for reasons for my cowardice, I told them that no matter how dismal home was, it was preferable to existing in a land where I’d constantly have to look over my shoulders.
During my stay in upstate New York, when the fever of a new place had died and I was no longer keen on taking pictures and documenting my sojourn, a longing for home hovered round me and perched on my shoulders like a bird. Its hold was slack at first, only aroused by a random picture of Egusi soup or jollof rice. Weeks later, it became an acute ache, a pang that often woke me at night. But soon as I arrived Murtala Mohammed International Airport on a hot Tuesday afternoon, my disdain for home returned. Our luggage were flung on the floor and trampled on. A cluster of idle men harangued the motorists parked outside. There was a brawl in a corner between a passenger and a man in uniform. I searched and searched for my bags, thinking, so this is what I rushed back to? I was a lover returning home to an apathetic welcome, returning to a land whose soil was too hard for love to bloom.
A friend travelled to America a week before the ports were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He was there when George Floyd was murdered. I saw the riots and the protests on the internet and on TV. I worried for him. When I called, his voice was hearty. When are you coming to join me? He asked. I told him I was undecided about this relocation business. He hissed, My friend, better find your way here. It’s a million times better than where you are even in the midst of chaos. Aren’t you tired of that place? I didn’t respond even as he flung a question. Haven’t you lived there long enough?
Six months ago, my sister was invited for a job interview at the University of Agriculture, Umudike. There were over a thousand candidates present for less than a hundred openings. It was a week-long exercise, this interview. More candidates would arrive the next day and the day after. I won’t be surprised if those jobs have already been given to people who aren’t even present, my sister complained. For days she whined about the desperation and hopelessness she witnessed, but it was the older candidates she pitied, the middle-aged men and women with manila envelopes under their arms. Etched on their faces were lines of suffering, wrinkles of despair. She wished they would get the job. They needed it more than she did.
A woman comes to clean my mother’s house every weekday. My son just graduated from the university, she said to me one morning. How can he travel abroad?He is frustrated at home. I inquired about his grades and if he had any special skills, and even as I asked, I knew there was nothing I could do to help. These things weren’t formulaic. I encouraged her to stay hopeful, to keep her son from crime. Boys like him are prime target for illegal migration.
You must have seen the popular picture of migrants huddled in a dinghy, drifting from Libya to Italy as they made the desperate journey through the Mediterranean Sea. These are the remnant of a number who have died in the Sahara desert or at the hands of smugglers and bandits. Days ago, Greece loaded a boat full of illegal immigrants from Africa and Syria and abandoned them in the middle of the sea. Yet as you read this, there is a family somewhere in Nigeria, laying hands on a member in prayer, bidding him Godspeed as he sets forth on the precarious trip through the desert. He knows what peril lies ahead. He believes he’d be lucky.
I remember my hairdresser, Mummy Precious. An adept and jovial woman who told me stories to fill the pregnant hours of braiding. I use to live in Dubai. Was she a hairdresser there? Partially, she said. I also did other things. She would not say what those things were. I deeply regret that journey. I had a thriving salon in Benin City. I had girls working for me. Until a woman came to my salon and convinced me I could make ten times my profit if I’d sell my things and follow her. I sold my hair driers and my wash basins. I sold the weaves and the hair clips. But when I got to Dubai, what I met, my mouth cannot say.
There was another hairdresser, male. His name was Abraham. He is dead now. When he arrived Umuahia from Ghana, his salon teemed with women of impressive caliber. Those days, there were many Ghanaians in Umuahia. Some were laborers, some were English teachers. Many were hairdressers but Abraham excelled them in fame. He was gifted. You had to go to his salon early on Saturdays to make a booking or forget the day’s appointment. My mother took me and my sister to Abraham’s. He, however, had a penchant for watching the television for too long. He’d freeze in the middle of stitching a weave, needle in hand, his mouth agape. To bring him back, you’d clear your throat or nudge him. One day he told us a story. He was travelling to America in search of a better life. During a layover in Paris that lasted hours, he decided to look around. From looking around he began walking, from walking he loitered. His connecting flight was announced in his absence. When he came to himself, he ran back to the airport and narrated his ordeal to the airport authorities. They checked his papers – they were forged. They deported him to Ghana. He never made it to the other side of his fortune.
America guards her borders like the skirts of a nun. But for the hundreds of us who thronged the US embassy that Friday morning, we were desperate to catch a glimpse of her petticoat, willing her to loose guard, to spread her legs a little that we may enter.
That morning, it felt like the wrong hour to be Nigerian. The crowd was a token of the truth that war was not the only reason people choose to flee. Desperation, hunger- not just of the belly but of the spirit; inner turmoil and disappointments can devastate a soul much more quickly than bloodshed and unrest. I stood in the line and observed the eagerness on people’s faces, arms heavy with important papers, most of it fake. Beneath the eager front and propriety of the embassy, something shameful and hopeless bubbled. It was not a place you wanted to run into someone you knew because there were no ready words to describe your presence amidst these people of shriveled hopes, these people longing to transplant themselves to soils fecund enough for their dreams to blossom. And the cloying glee of getting a Yes, the heaviness of a No. I asked myself, why am I citizen of a place people are glad to escape?