It’s in the Way We Speak

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Returnee

When you step out of the plane into Murtala Mohammed International Airport, the first thing you will experience is the atmosphere. The air in Nigeria is different. It is thick, blanketing you in heat and welcoming you home. Oyinkan Braithwaite writes

But Nigeria is not home for all Nigerians. We are spread out far and wide across the globe and many of us have no intention of ever returning. But for those of us who do come back, we realise that belonging somewhere is about more than just being a citizen of a country or sharing the same skin colour; it’s in the way we speak, the fears we share, the idiosyncrasies we cultivate. We don’t know we are doing these things, but to a returnee – a Nigerian who has spent a significant time abroad and has just ‘returned’ – these traits are significant.
“How was your night?” a returnee friend blurted, grabbing my arm. “Don’t you hate it when people ask how your night was?” then he paused, waiting for me to prove to him that I shared his distaste for the phrase. When you ask a person how their night was, it is as though you are asking what they got up to during the night – which is an impolite question at best. But what most Nigerians mean is – did you sleep well?
Because I understood this, the phrase did not irritate me. But there is a phrase I cannot quite wrap my brain around and when an individual says it, I begin to rant. This phrase is – “Come and join me.”
‘Come and join me’ is a statement that is made when an individual is about to eat his/her food. Its intention is politeness, but because it is a phrase said out of politeness, it is often also false. My understanding of the statement is threefold:

1) ‘Come and join me’ is a statement made to family, friends, colleagues and sometimes near strangers. You are inviting someone you barely know to take part in your meal. Only, you are not offering them a little on a plate of their own or a spoonful from the pot, rather you are inviting them to take a spoon (which is the most used utensil in Nigeria), or even use your spoon and partake in your meal with you; which is unsanitary, and well, a little strange.

2) Nine times out of 10, the person who invites you is expecting you to politely refuse. So, if you do not in fact want anyone to join you, why do you ask? I have promised myself that one day, when someone asks me to come and join them, I will take a fork and carry the biggest meat from their plate!

3) I have come across a handful of individuals who insist I must partake. But I would really rather not. Remember when your mother used to give you that stern look when you asked for food outside your house. Well, now I am not accustomed to eating other people’s food. And it is not a situation I ever came across in England.
Another question of interest to me is – “Have you eaten?” This question has been attributed as being the most romantic phrase in Nigeria. To a returnee, ‘have you eaten?’ is just a question about food and timing. If you ask me, I will answer yes or no and that will be the end of that. You will not get any extra points for having asked me what I ate and when. But in Nigeria… it is a question that shows you care. I cannot count how many times someone has accused me of not asking them if they have eaten. But I genuinely thought that was only a question you asked children!
Whilst we are on the topic of love, I’m at that wonderful age where I am told – ‘Your own too will come’ – at every wedding I attend. My dear aunties and uncles, when I go to a wedding, I have gone to celebrate the coming together of two people. I am not there to ponder my status as an un-married woman.
Whenever I am told ‘your own too will come’, I suddenly feel as though I should be pitying myself. I know it is supposed to be a blessing, but I am not accustomed to this phrase. When I said congratulations, all I was expecting was, ‘Thank you.’
Another opportunity to show care is by enquiring after members of the family – “How is your mummy? And your daddy? And your siblings? And your dogs? And your uncle?” – These questions are not unusual questions or ‘Nigerian’ questions. However, the way we ask, the receiver is forced to answer ‘Fine’ or ‘Thank God’ over and over and over. Wouldn’t it be easier to ask – ‘How is your family?’ The question is faster and achieves the same purpose, especially if you have never met any of the members of the person’s family and you are just asking out courtesy.
Nigerians pride themselves as people who say what they mean, who do not ‘front’ but I do not find this to necessarily be the case. And after careful contemplation I have a better appreciation of what irks about all these phrases, questions, comments – they are all invasive. They are phrases that shock my British sense of privacy and boundary.
But this lack of understanding and poor communication goes both ways – when I don’t say come and join me, I look stingy. When I don’t ask if a person has eaten or how their night was, I come across as cold and uncaring. If I don’t ask how someone’s weekend was or ask after their mum or dad, I appear distant and unfriendly. And this is not my intention.
To a Nigerian, invasiveness and love go hand in glove, and the sooner returnees understand this, the easier it will be to navigate our journey as Nigerians who have come back home.