A Conversation at the Airport (Which Represents 99% of the Initial Exchanges I Have with Nigerians)
– Begin Scene –
Me: Good Afternoon
(I hand over my passport to security check and brace myself for the interrogation that’s sure to follow…)
Officer: Mmm. (Doesn’t look up. He studies my passport seriously for a moment, then…)Where are you from?
(He can see it. It’s on my passport. But he asks anyway, because he wants us to bond over our ethnic groups.)
Me: Delta State.
Officer: Ehhh? I am also from Delta.
Me: (feigning surprise) Really? So you are my brother.
Officer: (Finally looks up, his face warmer, a small smile breaking out across his face.) Yes, my sister. You are from Agbor?
Me: Yes, my father. My mother is from Abia state.
Officer: (He lights up even more, cocks his head to the side for dramatic emphasis.) Na true? My wife is from Abia state oh.
Me: Great… (I smile politely.)
Officer: You know Abia women are very beautiful.
Me: (I laugh nervously. This is beginning to get awkward. I just want my passport back before…)
Officer: I’m from [insert name of town I don’t know, here]. You should know it. It’s not far from Agbor now.
Me: Oh okay, is it [insert name of town I don’t know, here]? By….
Officer: Just one hour, not even up to, by road.
Me: Eh, I know it now. (A lie.)
Officer: Eh hen! So you see we are relatives. Kedu? (“How are you?” in Igbo)
Me: O di mma (“Fine” Please don’t ask me to say anything else.)
Officer: (Speaking more Igbo)
Me: (I shake my head, smiling) My brother, I don’t understand oh.
Officer: (exaggerated look of horror) Ah, you no hear Igbo? How come? Your said your mother is Igbo now. Your father is from Agbor!
Me: I knooow! My parents didn’t speak the same language growing up. (A half lie – it’s proven efficient at evoking sympathy vs. a full on lecture)
Officer: Ohhhh. So you don’t speak? Not at all? (It worked. He pities me.) That is not right!
Me: (feigning disappointment) I know, I know. (Please just give me my passport so I can be on my way.)
Officer: Ah, but your parents should not have done that. (More pity.) So, okay, what about you? (Now comes the challenge: are you really Nigerian or not?) English is not your language now. You should have learned to speak Igbo by yourself now. Why haven’t you learnt it?
Me: (Deploy damsel in distress followed by light does of flattery) No one has taught me oohhh. I’m always asking people but nobody wants to teach me. Also, I wasn’t living in Nigeria. But now that I’m back and you are my brother, you will now teach me, abi?
Officer: Ah but of cooourse! Anytime. Because you must speak. You can’t say you are a Nigerian if you don’t speak. You should be speaking Igbo by the next time I see you. You hear?
Me: (laughing, subtly, as I gesture to my passport.) Yes, yes. I really want to learn. (That part is true, though. I want to learn Igbo, for myself, not for the benefit of appeasing cultural gatekeepers at the airport, bank, in taxis etc.)
Officer: And you must learn. Ah ah. You are a daughter of Delta State, Iboland. You must hear Igbo. This is not America. You must speak your language! Or how will you find your husband? No, you must speak Igbo, and you must teach your children to speak Igbo. (He hands back my passport, laughing).
Me: (I swallow the response I would have loved to give him for that last diatribe…) Thank you.
Officer: So when I see you next time, I will greet you in Igbo. Only in Igbo!
Me: (I go for the conversation-ender as I turn my back to him, walking away from the counter.) By God’s grace!
– End Scene –