Where does your identity come from
What you should really ask me instead of "Where are you from?"
Throughout my life, the question of where I come from has been with me. "From a village near Stuttgart" was rarely enough as an answer for my counterpart. My hair is too frizzy, my lips too thick, my diastema too wide. There's a lot of speculation: I look like I'm from South Africa or Brazil, or New York, they said. I was sure of the attention, always. Did I want her? Never.
I was born here and therefore speak fluent German. When asked “Where are you from?”, It always means: “Where do your parents come from?” My father is Nigerian. He came to Germany in the late 1970s to study mechanical engineering and electrical engineering and to learn from - in his view - the best. At that time, the oil boom in Nigeria ensured the country's economic rise. So for many there was no reason to leave the country. On the contrary: around one million Ghanaians came to Nigeria to participate in the growth. It was also clear to my father that he would only stay in Germany for the duration of his studies. In the early 1980s, after graduating and shortly before leaving, he took part in a program in southern Germany that was supposed to prepare him for future work in his home country. The course took place in a hotel where my mother worked. You and my father met there at least nine months before I was born. The two had an affair and I was the result.
My mother wanted to keep the child. My father wanted to go back to Lagos as quickly as possible without an attachment. Both successfully asserted their interests. Years later he once asked my mother if she would have come to Nigeria with him. She said: no way. He replied that there was no way he would have stayed in Germany. Neither of them considered the possibility of an Ikea catalog family. When more specific questions came to my father, I mostly answered truthfully: “I grew up without my father and I never saw him”.
Photo: Lisa Bizenberger / Anna Baur
Most of the time, the conversation that has become very annoying to me is continued like this: “What, have you never seen your father? Don't you feel the need to get to know him? ”. For a long time I replied that I can't miss someone I don't know. For me there was no need to change the status quo. My mother showered me with love and I never lacked male caregivers.
Over the past few years I've moved and traveled to ever bigger, more multicultural cities. The questions became more specific: "Which do you prefer Fufu or Yam"? "Is your father Yoruba or Igbo?" I didn't know. If someone can throw in the Igbo or Yoruba question, he or she usually also knows how important belonging to their ethnic group is to Nigerians. Igbos and Yorubas have different cultures and languages. Imagine that you cannot answer whether your father is from Germany or the Netherlands. What a faux pas - how are you supposed to position yourself when it comes to football?
Regardless of whether my relationship with male caregivers was good. Whether the unconscious, which according to Freud guides us, led my most important relationships to be men - and to a large extent still today - who became fathers at an early age. Regardless of whether my father's absence had an impact on my psyche and thus on my life, I felt that the answer “I don't know whether my father is Igbo or Yoruba” was no longer enough for me. I felt ignorant, dull, disinterested - like someone who calls all Asians Chinese.
Dislike of my own ignorance wasn't the only reason I decided to visit my father in Nigeria early last year. There were still some recurring thoughts lined up:
1) I was never the biggest fan of being an only child and knew that my father still had a family in Nigeria.
2) My father is now around 70 years old. He won't live forever. I asked myself if I would be able to cope with never getting to know him - and I said no to the mind game.
3) How much of my father's personality has carried over to me? The trip should serve as a sociological experiment to find out whether socialization or genetics have more influence on character traits.
4) The father-daughter film dialogue between Nicole Kidman and James Caan in Dogville. The passage about arrogance? Mindblowing! Perhaps my father has similarly interesting knowledge of peto?
5) The weather in Abuja - my father now lives in this city - is much better in January than in Berlin.
6) My general thirst for adventure.
After hours of waiting in the Nigerian embassy, a 100 euros lighter wallet due to the visa costs, an eight-hour flight and the subsequent loss of luggage, the time had come. I met my Nigerian family for the first time. My father came towards me on the gravel path of a parking lot on the edge of Abuja airport. Calm, serene, with a beaming face. Solemnly dressed in a fine caftan and a red hat, which, as he proudly told me a short time later, stands for tradition and authority among the Igbo men. (Attentive readers will have noticed at this point that this information contains the answer to the Yoruba-Igbo question). We hugged each other warmly. Nobody cried, screamed or collapsed. Kai Pflaume would have been disappointed. My 19-year-old sister Cynthia summed up the pathos-charged scenario: "Fortunately, you are funny, otherwise it could have been really embarrassing."
Over the next few days I noticed that it wasn't just my family who were blessed with diastemas in Abuja. The airport clerk at the baggage claim had one. The woman at the front desk had one. All three women in the back seat of the car sharing had one. The popcorn seller at the movie theater had one. My diastema, which every German dentist had seen as a disturbing factor that had to be corrected immediately, is the norm in Nigeria. Not a blemish, but an ideal of beauty inherited from my father. And that's not the only thing that binds us together. I could hear my father's twin sister laughing and calling out to him how obvious it would be that I was his daughter. I was irritated by the biological similarity to my father on the one hand and the profound differences in our conversations about religion, refugee policy and homosexuality on the other. I sat between two chairs again. This time, cultural differences separated me from sitting on the Igbo chair.
I flew to Abuja to meet my father and siblings. We looked a lot more alike than my German family and I. My father told me that in his tradition the national identity of the child depends on the nationality of the father, so I would be clearly Nigerian. It's not that easy for me. Culturally, there seem to be worlds between me and my Nigerian family. I was born and raised in Germany. In a German family. My mother's family. Still, I have different hair. Another face. Another bottom. Outwardly I cannot identify with my German relatives. But I was socialized in German. Where do I come from now? I don't feel German or Nigerian. I can say that my mother is from Germany and my father is a proud Igbo man. But what does that say about me?
What if we asked, instead of "Where are you from?" - "Where are you a local?" This would tell us so much more about who and how similar we are. Tell me you're from France, and I see what, a set of clichés? Adichie's Dangerous Single Story: the myth of the nation of France? Tell me you're a local of Fez and Paris, better yet, Goutte d'Or, and I see a set of experiences. Our experience is where we're from.
Photo: Lisa Bizenberger / Anna Baur
I can understand your argument very well and my answer to the question of where I come from will always be: “From a village near Stuttgart”. If the question is asked abroad, the answer could also be “Berlin”, since that's the city in which I currently live. I don't want to and don't have to put my family history and identity issues on the table in a small talk. It would be good if the images in the minds of the general public slowly expand. Not all Germans look like they have come from a Leni Riefenstahl film. Where my parents come from, where I am now and where I want to go, we can then discuss at a third or fourth meeting.
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