White Monkey

I roughly remember the first time I ever felt different. I’d guess I was about 4 and I was playing in a sandpit with a girl my age when I saw her mum sprint towards us and swiftly pluck her away. I can barely remember anything from around that age but the image of that woman taking her child away from me as if I were contagious (I mean as a boy I probably had cooties but still it was an over-reaction) has stayed with me.

Fast forward about 8 years…

If my life was represented by the below blank page, I think the slight imperfection
(dot) would preoccupy my attention.

(Okay if that sounds like I am just trying to sound profound, let me land 😅). All in all, I loved my time in Nigeria. I came to see it as ‘home’ but like my earlier analogy, the bad sticks out in my memory.

Secondary school in Nigeria was hard at times. My first year was tough because my difference was on full display. I didn’t really get on with most of my classmates but luckily I had a friend in the year above me so I hung out with him and his friends. This only worsened things with my classmates. Events came to a head one day at lunch and although the memory of the argument itself is foggy,  I remember the words that really set me off.

‘White Monkey’

I can’t adequately describe how I felt in that moment. My Nigerian JS2 (year 8) classmate had just assigned this insult to me and honestly, I don’t remember much of the events after. I only remember the rage, the sweat on my brow, the tears in my eyes and my clenched fist as I contemplated striking my classmate with everything I had.

I’ve only now come to realise what I felt- betrayal. You see I had left the comforts of the West to come back ‘home’ only to be told that I wasn’t welcome, I was still different. I wasn’t seen as authentic and thus began my personal struggle with the African diaspora. To me it’s a feeling of simultaneously being Nigerian but foreign, being British but not English.

(Side note, I know some may argue that to be English you have to be Anglo-Saxon but grammatically and in my opinion someone from France is French, one from Spain is Spanish so logically someone from England is English).

(Another side note, I dislike how your success determines how English you are. If you play football for the nation, you’re English. If you are caught in a scandal you are suddenly a Nigerian or Ghanian-born malcontent. But I digress…)

That feeling of being different followed me ‘home’.

You see coming back to the UK wasn’t as easy as I imagined when I would lie awake those first few days in Nigeria when I wanted to be back ‘home’. The reality was that it was new to me, different and I too was different. The air felt colder, the roads bigger (and this is strange to say but I wasn’t used to girls my age wearing so much makeup. I’m not against it, it was just quite a change from my Nigerian secondary school days where even lip gloss was taboo 😇. But again I digress…) and the family I had left behind had also changed, or had I? I’ll never forget when one of my cousins said I sounded so ‘African’. I laughed along but the joke cut deeper than I wanted it to.

One of the most common questions I got from other Nigerians upon my return was,’so do you speak Yoruba now?’ (Quick lesson; Nigeria has more than 300 tribes but the largest 3 are Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. And although English is the official language each tribe has their own such as Yoruba. Got it? Great Tell a friend 🗣) I’m always embarrassed when asked this and thus say something to the effect of I know a bit. The truth is I didn’t learn much more than the very little I knew before leaving.  I didn’t learn at home as I live with my Mum who isn’t Yoruba, she’s from Delta. So with that, I hope you can understand how embarrassing it is for me at family gatherings when Yoruba is spoken and my cousins who never left the UK understand and reply while I sheepishly look on and silently contemplate being swallowed up by the earth.

It’s frustrating because even though it was enjoyable, my time in Nigeria made me feel more British and less Nigerian. The opposite is true in the UK now as I feel more Nigerian except when I want to, i.e. when around other Nigerians (My girlfriend’s Mum always asks me if I eat Eba, a Nigerian staple food, even though I have been eating it since before I had teeth 😭).

Maybe I need to stop internalising what I imagine people think about me over my own opinion. I am Nigerian and I am British. I feel comfortable in my skin and within the cultural overlap, I find myself. At least I do usually…

If any of this resonates with you (hopefully I am not the only one heap has ever felt different) please talk to me about it in the comments below and let me know how you see yourself, or would like to be seen.

Peace and Love,

Aharoun the Author

7 thoughts on “White Monkey

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