“Everything that’s happening now has never happened before. Things are really strange.”
That was the rough translation of what my grandmother said in regard to what Nigeria was like now versus during her childhood. During my long-overdue interview with her, she made plain declarations like that — reflecting on how much her country had altered and the ways it shaped her life. Little did I know how much this conversation would transform our relationship.
Not long ago, while in quarantine during the coronavirus pandemic, I had obsessively watched the reality show “Iyanla Vanzant: Fix My Life.” There’s something about watching other people work out their problems on TV that brings me immense peace.
A large part of the show’s purpose is to help illustrate the various patterns and pathologies that a person can engage in — a generational cycle of drug abuse, for example — if they don’t know their family history.
While watching what had to be my umpteenth episode, I realized something in a state of shock: I knew almost nothing about my own family history, meaning I knew very little about myself.
As a first generation American (my parents immigrated from Nigeria in the 90s with my Ghanaian-born sibling), my family history is not as accessible as other people’s. I can’t skip over to my grandmama’s house for baking and a trip down memory lane.
First, for as long as I’ve known her, my grandmother has lived in Nigeria. It’s a country I’ve only had the privilege of visiting once. Secondly, despite English being the official language in Nigeria, my grandmother only speaks a handful of words — namely, “hello” and “goodbye.” Any “catching up” we do is constrained to dusk or dawn phone calls using an international phone card (Nigeria is 6 hours ahead of Chicago — my hometown).
Under any circumstances, intergenerational relationships can be hard to start and sustain. Under these circumstances, speaking with my grandmother feels arduous, clinical, and rushed.
My non-existent relationship with my grandmother made me feel guilty for a number of reasons. I had failed to learn about my own history through my living elder. My grandmother is in her mid-80s, yet I didn’t take the time to hear her story, her truth of being a woman.
I knew little about my grandmother’s story of being a mother of three, and sharing her husband with a second wife. Instead, I relied on eurocentric stereotypes (that she was a puppet for colonial, Christian influence) to fill in the gaps.
Another part of me was scared to learn the truth. I knew that my family tree was laced with trauma that ran straight from the roots. I had trouble preparing myself to hear stories I assumed would be heavy with deep sadness. I feared what gut-wrenching family secrets I would unearth and how I would cope with knowing them. I was convinced that any details I sought would completely alter the way I already viewed everything.
My grandmother, born in the 1930s, had lived in colonized Nigeria and watched the country gain its freedom. Of course, I was curious about how she witnessed the birth of a nation and the wars she survived. But what if my questions flooded her with traumatic memories of loved ones passing? Our time together was already so limited; I was nervous about ruining our longest conversation with wayward questions.
It was the pandemic that revealed my privilege of nonaction. So many people were losing their loved ones, and mine was a telephone call away. I thought about my grandmother and how time can’t be taken for granted. I wasn’t 12 years old with the luxury of dreading awkward conversations. I was a woman connecting with another woman who held the story of my family’s past.
The evening I called my grandmother, my dad sat in as a translator. It was a sad reminder that our communication would always feel just a bit incomplete. I’d nervously written out the questions I’d wanted to ask her. Part of me felt significantly less like a leech, considering most of my questions weren’t about Nigeria or my family. My questions were about her and the life she lived.
I waited until 10:00 p.m. Nigeria-time to call. On the fourth ring, she answered, greeting my dad in Yoruba. I listened respectfully, before asking my first question.
Over the next 30 minutes, I listened to my grandmother talk about her life and her perspective of Nigeria’s history. She talked about being born in a rural town, not knowing her exact birthday because there were no hospitals or records. She was adopted by a woman who was barren — a woman whom she loved deeply throughout her life. She went to Bible school but never finished.
She was married at 16 to a man she originally turned down so she could have children, at the instruction of her mom. Her husband cheated as his business (the one her mother founded) grew more profitable. After his second wife left him, my grandmother raised all the children. Today, she’s a farmer and the village’s matriarch.
Before the emergence of coronavirus, I had placed some emotional barriers between myself and discovering my history. Only in the pandemic was I able to see the value of what was at my fingertips.
Yes, stories of love and loss are present in my family tree; as are patterns and pathologies of women in caretaking that I had been repeating my whole life.
But, I was able to challenge my own reductive stereotypes about my heritage through my grandmother’s wisdom. While quarantine has been tough mentally, the opportunity to really talk to my grandmother, a woman of impossible strength, has lifted me in ways I couldn’t fathom before.
What a gift I had been given, to connect with the one person who would help me to know myself better.