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Trapped between cultures: Nigerian parents in the US, UK, devise ways to save kids

Source: Punch Newspapers Nigeria. Saturday, November 17, 2018

Born and raised in lands thousands of kilometres away from their ancestral homes, many Nigerian parents in the Diaspora are finding new ways of reinforcing indigenous cultures in their children, writes ERIC DUMO

Jesus na you be Oga, Jesus na you be Oga, all other gods na so so yeye, every other god na yeye dem be," gushed out of 12-year-old Amaka's mouth in disjointed Pidgin English as she made for the door. It was a dry afternoon with wind blowing at top speed across most parts of California, yet the excitement on the little girl's face was as moist as a sweaty palm.

Born and nurtured in the United States, young Amaka only got to visit her parents' country - Nigeria - for the first time last December. She had heard so much about the place - many of those tales were gory presentations of what Africa's most populous country looked like. The little girl was only Nigerian in nomenclature but American in spirit and soul. When she jetted out of the LAX International Airport in California together with her father - Mr. Isaiah Uchendu - and mother, Ijeoma - on December 13 last year, she was unsure of what to expect upon arrival in Orlu, Imo State - the home town of her parents. Tales of blood-sucking demons running riot and huge man-eating apes jumping from trees to rooftops had created a dreadful picture of Nigeria in the days preceding the long voyage. It was the beginning of the end as far as she was concerned. But 11 months after that historic trip, Amaka has a different idea of her fatherland and the amazing culture of its many peoples.

Experiencing Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Calabar, Owerri and her native Orlu in the five weeks she
stayed in the country, the little girl not only realised how wrong her earlier ideas were but also what she had been missing all along. She wished she could turn back the hands of time.

"I thought we were heading to a jungle in Africa but I was surprised when the airplane landed in a place called Lagos, a big city with cars and houses," the 12-year-old recalled as our correspondent played guest to the family at their modest three-bedroomed apartment in San Bernardino, Los Angeles, California, during a recent visit to the United States.

There are about 23,302 Nigerians in the state of California alone, according to a 2016 American Community Survey. While many have lived there for decades, acquiring citizenship status in the process, the pursuit of a new life amidst crushing poverty and widening economic inequality in Nigeria has driven dozens more there.

The Uchendus moved to this bustling city a little over 12 years ago - shortly before Amaka's delivery - their first and only child. The couple, despite now fully entrenched in the American way of life, has not forgotten their roots. Each year, one of them makes the long trip home at least once to see and meet with family members, relatives and friends. The tradition has not only helped them to keep in touch with happenings in their home community but also helped them put to good use their hard-earned savings in the United States. Isaiah works as a driver at a delivery company, while Ijeoma is a senior sales executive at a popular chain store. But while they have plenty of 'Nigeria' in them even in America, Amaka only knows little about home - a situation the couple are desperate to change.
"My daughter used to have weird thoughts about Nigeria and Africa in general and that bothered me and my wife a lot," the 42-year-old said, clutching tightly to the little girl on the three-seater sofa they sat. "Initially, we didn't pay much attention to this but as she began to grow older, we became more concerned. We wanted her to know more about home - about our hometown, Orlu, and our culture in general.

"We saw how other Nigerian parents were beginning to seriously introduce and instil their indigenous culture in their children, so we became more interested in doing the same.
"We began to take her to more Nigerian events in California and started making her take active part in the activities just like the other children.

"As time wore on, she started to show more interest and in fact wanted to know more about Nigeria and her many cultures. My wife and I, at that point, thought that it would be nice to finally take her home to witness things for herself.

"Interestingly, since we came back from the trip to Nigeria at the end of January, Amaka has not been the same person again. She has been yearning to visit Nigeria again," Uchendu said as his wife flashed a warm smile at the reporter as if to validate the claim.

To help the 12-year-old understand and learn certain elements of the Igbo culture faster, the couple bought loads of movie and audio CDs while returning to the US in January. Many of the materials packaged in flawless Nigerian pidgin and Igbo language with English subtitles, have not only assisted Amaka in covering several grounds in her pursuit of mastering the culture of her fatherland, according to her parents, it has also raised her level of curiosity.

"I am very happy I finally got to see Africa where my parents come from last year," the little girl said in pure, undiluted American accent.

"It was an amazing experience for me. I got to meet grandma, who is very old now, and several other people who treated me nicely. I was taken to several important places and learnt a lot about the Nigerian culture, food, weather and people.

"I wish I could bring many of those things I saw with me to America. I loved the music and the sight of people always greeting one another. It is a place I would like to visit more and more," the 12-year-old added as her mother signalled to her that she had two friends waiting at the veranda.

Uchendu, who told our correspondent that his daughter's manners had improved since their visit to Nigeria, also gave part of the credit to her exposure to the audio-visual contents from Nigeria. He disclosed that they were planning to make another trip to the country for the next New Year's Day celebration - an opportunity he believed would put Amaka on the path towards growing into a well-groomed Igbo woman.

"Even if she will live here for the rest of her life, my wife and I just want her to understand our culture because we believe by so doing, she will be able to take care of her home properly when she gets married in the future," he said.

"Already, she is learning fast and even eager to know more. There is hardly any Nigerian gospel song that is trending that she cannot sing now even though with American accent," he added.

Across town in Orange County, another part of California popular with Nigerians, our correspondent met another family also doing everything possible to have their children master their indigenous culture. Living in the United States for about 19 years now, Mr. and Mrs. Seye Adetiba from Oyo State, told Saturday PUNCH that apart from taking their three children to visit home at least once each year since 2010, they have also ensured that all of them speak Yoruba in the house. Though still a Herculean task for the children, the eldest - 15-year-old Damilare - disclosed that they were learning the dialect fast. According to him, understanding some aspects of the culture has helped him to be more focus in life.

"I used to be a very playful kid, running around with the other boys in the neighbourhood for most part of the day after returning from school.

"But I developed a different idea after we visited Nigeria six years ago and saw kids my age working hard to support their parents.

"My father, uncles and grandparents told me that if I wanted to succeed in life as a man and, especially as the first child, I had to work very hard and stay focused.

"Those words really struck me and I have been trying to live a disciplined life and also help my younger siblings to behave properly at all times.

"Our parents have been teaching us a lot of things about Yoruba culture. In fact, we only speak that language when we are at home. Even though we can hardly speak it correctly, mummy and daddy seem to understand perfectly what we mean or mean to say at every point. It has been very interesting for us," he said.

Mrs. Adetiba, who spoke for the couple that afternoon, told our correspondent how happy they were that their children had fallen in love with their indigenous culture despite being born and raised thousands of miles away from home. She said that apart from making Yoruba language the official means of communication at home, they had downloaded several materials on the Internet which were helping their understanding of the culture.

"There is hardly any day that I don't download and print out useful materials from the Internet that would help our children understand Yoruba language and culture better," she stated. "Despite being born and raised here, we want them to know their roots because you never know what could happen in the future.

"Citizens of other countries who live in America all teach their children their language and culture. It's Africans, especially Nigerians that don't take this seriously.

"We don't want such for our children, we want them to grow up proud of their Yoruba roots; that is the reason why we are exposing them to the culture by all means possible," the 40-year-old woman said.

Apart from their English names, the other two children - Stephanie and Joshua - 12 and 10 respectively - both have Yoruba names - Yemisi and Dolapo - that they are quite proud of and which advertise their Nigerian ancestry.

In the state of Nevada, also in the US, it appears that more Nigerian parents are devising all sorts of strategies to ensure their children stay in touch with their indigenous cultures. Apart from organising regular events where nationals come together to discuss key issues affecting them, various groups also stage cultural events to provide a platform for interaction among children.

While disclosing some of the ways she had adopted to teach her children the Nigerian culture, President of Nigerian Association of Las Vegas, Dr. Evarista Nnadi, told our correspondent that she sent her wards to Nigeria for about a year and a half when they attained a certain age for them to understand the way of life there. According to the medical practitioner, despite the organised nature of the American society, they could not afford to allow their children grow into adults without giving them the opportunity to experience the Nigerian culture. She said watching her children - Ifesinachi, Ugo and Munachimso -now being able to cook several local delicacies gladdens her heart.

"No feeling compares to watching my children, especially the girl, being able to cook Nigerian foods well," she stated during the encounter with Saturday PUNCH.

"At that point, I knew I had passed as a parent. As a way of making them understand our culture, I took my children to Nigeria for one year and a half for them to learn. They only returned to the US when it was time for them to go to the university.

"That experience really improved their understanding and love for our culture. As a matter of fact, my second son, who is a lawyer, now likes to speak Pidgin English very often.

"As a community of Nigerians in Las Vegas, we have been trying to promote the culture in the best ways we can. We are presently working towards buying our own building which would serve as a multi-cultural centre.

"We believe this would afford our children the opportunity to understand and learn our culture the more," she said.

Jerome Nwokike is another Nigerian living in Las Vegas - a city fondly dubbed casino capital of the world. Now in his 20th year in the US, he told our correspondent that he never missed taking his children home at least once a year for them to "know what is going on there".

According to him, their improved understanding of the Igbo culture has further tightened the knit bonding them as a family. The medical practitioner is, in fact, hoping that his children would settle for Nigerian husbands when the time comes.

"To be honest, I would be excited if my children marry Nigerians when that time comes," he said.

"I have three daughters and all of them have been learning the important aspects of our culture as Igbo. They go to Nigeria every Christmas while I go twice a year. This is a deliberate attempt to make them learn more of our way of life. Now, they look forward to visiting Nigeria and meeting their relatives."

Operator of a prominent Nigerian restaurant in Las Vegas, Maduka Enemuo, told our correspondent that while he also brought his nine-year-old daughter to Nigeria annually to understand the culture, his 'joint' had created the platform for fellow countrymen and women in the city to network and help improve each other's understanding of the tradition. The place, over the years, has also become the spot where most young people come in contact with local delicacies like eba, pounded yam, fufu, catfish pepper soup and several others.

According to the father of one, who also runs a market where raw Nigerian food items are sold, handling a business that helps promote our culture abroad makes him very happy and proud.

"I have been operating this business in Las Vegas for about nine years now and it gives me great joy to see the type of impact and contribution it has had made towards helping many young Nigerians understand our culture. The place has become a rendezvous where many Nigerians and Africans eat, relax and network. Nigerians abroad use restaurants like this as rendezvous for connecting with home.

"Since I came into this line of business, I have felt like a different person. The joy in solving the need of fellow countrymen and women gives me so much fulfilment.

"Though many of the children are still stuck with the American accent, they are gradually learning how to speak many of the Nigerian languages. It is a positive and encouraging sign for us," he said.

Beyond the United States, Nigerian parents in other parts of the world are also devising all sorts of means to keep their children in touch with the culture back home, according to findings by Saturday PUNCH. While some prefer to have their own parents live with them and help transfer all aspects of indigenous culture to their children, others fill their homes with Nigerian movies, music and literature in a bid to achieve this target. The rise of Nigerian religious houses, dance and drama groups have also contributed significantly in exporting and reinforcing indigenous cultures to foreign lands.

For example, Mr. and Mrs. Kolapo Jegede, a couple from Ondo State living in Manchester, United Kingdom, told our correspondent during a telephone conversation that they had a habit of bringing in one of their parents from Nigeria from time to time to help take care of their children and also instil the culture in them. According to 40-year-old Jegede, who has lived in the UK for 11 years, their three children - Mayowa, Abiodun and Sade - have almost mastered the Yoruba language and culture despite only visiting Nigeria on four occasions. He said that having one of his or wife's parents to live with them at every point in time has contributed a lot in helping the kids "remember home".

"We realised that whenever any of our parents were around with us in the UK, the children learnt a lot about our culture back home," he said. "Even though my wife and I teach them so many things about our way of life, it does not seem to have the same effect as what the presence of our parents does to them.

"Although, we have visited Nigeria on four occasions, we agreed to have one of our parents live with us from time to time. This has really helped the children.

"Today, they speak Yoruba very well even though their accent is quite different from ours. They also know many places in Nigeria, including the food and tribes.

"It is not as if we are trying to impose our culture on them, we feel that it is good for them to have an identity, especially that of their roots," he said.

Also adopting this strategy is Bimpe Oladejo, a mother of two based in Pretoria, South Africa. She has brought her mother to live with her over the past eight years so that her children can learn more about the Nigerian culture, morals and value system. According to her, apart from the presence of her mother that has proved priceless in this regard, indigenous movies, music and literature have equally exposed them to her way of life. That way, she reckons that Ibukun and Kikelomo - 10 and eight - have been able to know so much about home.

"There is nothing you tell my children about Nigeria that they don't know about," she revealed proudly.

"This makes me happy a lot because I don't want them to lose their identities. My mother has really been of great help; her presence here with us in South Africa has ensured that the children don't miss out on anything.

"The Nigerian movies, music and books they are exposed to have also played vital roles in helping them understand our way of life as well. I buy these items regularly just for their benefit."

Constantly on the move in search of better lives in other parts of the world, it is believed that there are around 15 million Nigerians scattered across the globe today. In a lecture delivered at the Island Club, Lagos, in March 2017, Senior Special Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari on Foreign Affairs and The Diaspora, Mrs. Abike Dabiri-Erewa, gave the figure.

"We have found out that there are currently about 15 million Nigerians in the Diaspora," she said at the time.

"We have Nigerians in different parts of the world; Nigeria has proud stories to share of many of her Diaspora nationals," she concluded.

However, while a fraction of that population understands their culture quite well and in fact practise it even in their new societies, a sizeable portion are completely detached - trapped in the middle of nowhere - it appears.

According to a sociologist, Bambo Ogunbiyi, the situation is worse for children of second-generation Nigerian migrants, who marry nationals of their host countries. She described the chances of such persons ever getting to learn the culture as very slim.

"There are many children of Nigerian migrants who are married to citizens of the country they live in today. It will be much more difficult for kids produced from such marriages to learn of our culture because in such homes, Nigerian language will almost certainly not be spoken.

"Even though life will go on smoothly for these children, you will find out that at a point in their lives, they could be dealing with identity crisis. I have seen many of these cases in the course of my career and I feel so sad.

"That is why in my opinion, it is very important for every Nigerian parent to teach their children about our culture and tradition regardless of where they gave birth to and raised them," she said.

Social commentator, Dunu Okigbo, posited that though the wish of many Africans in the Diaspora was for their children to be familiar with their roots, the enormous influence of the dominant culture in their host societies had made it very difficult to achieve this target, hence the need for a stronger push.

"Not only that culture is learned, it is also best learned in its original environment.

"There are many impediments to the learning of a secondary culture while in a foreign land and they have hampered our children's capacity to learn the Nigerian culture.

"In teaching the culture, we must avoid misinterpreting or ignoring cultural signals that may create an environment for a cultural clash.

"Culture is part of who we are and it deserves to be passed on from one generation to another.

"For Nigerians living in the Diaspora, the enabling environment their children need to internalise the Nigerian language and culture is non-existent and should therefore be created by the parents," he said.

Speaking on the negative consequences of this on affected persons, a psychologist, Michael Ikile, said that the loss of identity could drive such persons into deviant behaviour.

"Many Nigerian children in the Diaspora today can be labelled as a lost generation. Such children have identity problem.

"The psychological burden borne by these children is capable of leading them to a host of negative attitudes. This problem is a very serious one. Every Nigerian parent should make out time to teach their children our language," he said.

A former Director, Institute of African Studies, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Mr. Biobele Georgewill, said except concerted efforts were made towards teaching young Nigerians in the Diaspora indigenous culture, the country would continue to lose some of her best human assets around the world.

"There is a need to pay attention to this issue because many of these young people in the Diaspora are among the human resources Nigeria needs to compete with the rest of the world.

"Having been brought up in functional societies and fitted with skills relevant to survive in today's world, Nigeria needs people like that to get on the path of full development.

"But we cannot attract our best minds in the Diaspora if we don't instil our culture in them. There has to be an attraction for them to come back home and our culture is the main way to achieve this," he said.

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