Who am I?
What is this place?
Where do I belong

I grew up in two worlds. One was realistic, inferior and archaic. The other was an object of fantasy. You know, the kind of superior reality that you can only see in televisions, the kind you read aboutin books about foreigners, the kind that you cannot quite fathom, the kind that only white people will always understand. I lived in that other world through movies and TV shows I watched.

Of course, my body was stuck to this hellish place called Africa but my ambitious mind always belonged to that foreign place. As a child that foreign place changed names, depending on whatever the adults around me said: America, US, London, Manchester, UK. I was not sure if it was the same place with different names. I always wished I could be friends with Peter Pan or Harry Porter. I sometimes liked to pretend we were buddies. The boys that lived in that other world, the boys I read of in books. Chinedu and Okolie that lived near me were not good enough. Their skin was too dark, their English was too crass, they were too ethnic. My mind just could not place them as being equal to Peter and Harry. As I grew up in Africa, I continually became disenchanted with it and mentally began to long for America, for snow, for the touch of white skin, for the feel of Christmas.

My uncle told me that those boys were better. Those white boys. I believed him. After all, they ate cereal, made snowballs in the winter and had pale skin unlike me. I was forced to eat Mother’s local amala and gbegiri , the sun caused rashes to spread all over my back, my skin was black. Black! It was the curse I had to bear. Black! I will never be the knight in shining armour in a children’s cartoon. Black! I will never be Santa Claus. My uncle said the white boys were smarter. They had to be. I could never be as brilliant as a white person. He said, “if white people were not smarter than us, how did they colonise us?” My pan-African (whatever the hell that means) aunty was saying something about the white men being able to conquer us only because they had superior weapons and not necessarily superior cultures. But I didn’t listen to her. She was too black, like my school headmaster always said. She was one of those foolish black people who would not accept their inferiority and just bow down to the ways of the white people. “The white man brought us religion and democracy, he saved our barbaric souls!

Speaking of headmaster, he really helped us in that aspect. We were just little boys in oversized school uniforms, proud to finally be having our chance at studying like the white boys and rising out of our raw blackness. My mother registered with my Yoruba names: Adekoya Adesina and I was angry. I cursed her under my breath. Why couldn’t she have named me after a white person? Why didn’t she name me Gate, Head, Bread, Duck, Cook or other fancy names the whites had? The headmaster was nice enough to let me go by a nickname: Bond. I was one of his “spies”. Whichever boy or girl I saw in school speaking Igbo, Hausa or Yoruba had to be reported. They were committing a crime! Speaking their native language in school premises. Disrespecting the name of formal education with their local degenerative vernacular. I remember Sayo. We were ten. We used to make houses out of clay together. I kissed her once and she slapped me and said, “Don’t do that again,” and she smiled. Anyway, one day I caught her praying in Yoruba and I told the headmaster who punished her by making her crawl round the school with her bare knees. I loved her but she had to pay for her sins. Why would you speak Yoruba in school? Slowly, I became an enemy of my culture and the headmaster made me proud of it.

As for my sister, my dear sister. She was unlucky. She was as black as coal! She was not even a little light-skinned like Mother, a little like the whites – the ultimate standard of perfection. But she read story books about characters she could not be familiar with. About white princesses, with long curly blonde hair, blue eyes, natural red lips and phosphorescence skin that could reveal the flush of blood. These princesses became her definition of beauty. So, she fixed artificial blonde hair, fake eye lashes and contact lens. She applied red lipstick and pink blush to her coal-dark face. She really tried to look white. But she failed. Too bad for her, cursed to be black forever.

I got to secondary school and learnt more that “formal” and “official” were words used to describe foreign things, things that we were taught to see as the epitome of validity. We were taught about American history, Greek mythology and so on. I hardly knew anything about ancient African legends. All the great people our teachers told us about were white and therefore, I concluded there were no black people that did great things. I rued my race! They told us about Einstein, Napoleon Bonaparte, Aristotle, Alexander the Great and so on. Never was I taught about black people. All they told us was about our primitive culture before the white Messiahs came. About twin infanticides, human sacrifices, idol worshipping, dictatorship and incessant wars. They told us we did not really have a stable political society and the white men brought civilisation to us. I wondered how we had towns and cities before the white men, if we were not civilised. I wondered how come our people had survived for centuries before the white man’s arrival, if our culture was all about negatives. But I shrugged it off. Our teachers were right. They had to be, they had gone through Western education after all.

But today, I stand between the two worlds, confused. I’m too Westernised to be African and too African to claim European heritage. I stand in the middle of an open field, finally realising my miseducation, and screaming to the world: Who am I? What is this place? Where do I belong?

•Kanyinsola Olorunnisola

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