JOSEPH is a Nigerian. It is the only country he has ever lived in. “The approximately equal portions of time I’ve spent in different regions of the country,” he says, “entirely define who I am.” And looking at his life’s journey, it’s easy to see why! He was born in Port-Harcourt, went to primary school in Lagos, secondary school in Abuja, university in Enugu, and embarked on a career in Kaduna—which has now been his home for six years.
“In what ways has your domestic exposure shaped you?” one asks Joseph. He responds with pride, “I speak Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo and English. And my multi-lingual ability is just one frontier of my diversity, because I’m also familiar with the cultural practices and behavioral traits of each ethnic group I’ve lived with. They are customs that have informed my life so greatly I consider them my customs too.” What about Joseph’s parents? Joseph’s parents had less traverse-laden lives. Both grew up in their respective indigenous communities, never leaving until the time came for university, in Port-Harcourt, where they met. What is diverse about his parents is that they come from different parts of the country. His mother’s family are indigenes of Rivers State, being members of the Kalabari tribe. His father’s lineage are member of the Igala tribe, hailing from Kogi State.
Currently, the Nigerian society takes the responsibility of defining Joseph. He is not allowed to do so himself. An antediluvian custom informs the way society classifies the multifaceted nature of Joseph’s green-white-and-green experience, by twisting the richness of his life to fit the lenses of a rather myopic ideological spectrum—a customary, not constitutional, one. There are two issues that cause Joseph utter discontent about this phenomenon, which ho calls an “identity imposition.”
First, is that he is made by the “system” to align himself with just one ethnic group for the purposes of defining his “legal” personality. “No one ethnic group offers a symbolic box that would fully define me if I stood in it,” he says. “But they ask me to make that false choice. It’s supposed to elucidate matters for the system, regarding where I stand legally, but it is a box that reveals next-to-nothing about me!” This information, regarding which tribe he belongs to, is asked of Joseph (and all Nigerians) on form-after-form—from the monumental passport applications, and political office aspiration forms, to more mundane driver’s license and university dormitory application forms. ‘There isn’t a form I haven’t seen it on,” he reflects. “Sometimes the questions of tribe is slipped into the form, so out-of-place and brazen, that I am suspicious of its true usage.”
Second, is that the ancient cultural custom, tells him he must align with his father’s tribe. So applying the principle created centuries ago, Joseph is from Kogi State. He must define himself as being a member of the Igala tribe. The problem? “I don’t know anything about Igala culture,” Joseph cries. ‘Not even the language. I have nothing against Igala people. It’s just that I’ve spent more of my life not being Igala. And moreover, I don’t want to be told how to define myself. Asking me to define myself as Igala is asinine, especially when I have stronger ties with other ethnic groups.
For example, I could easily pass as an lgbo man—people told me so in Nsukka all the time. But take me to Kogi State, and I can bet that the people will tell you I’m not a true Igala man. I’d stand out like blood in a swimming pool. I would be as far removed from native Igala society as the Sun is from Pluto. Why must the system in my country put me through an identity crisis?” Joseph has strong feelings toward those who would undermine the diverse fabric of his life by proffering a curt solution, “And don’t tell me the solution is to go back to ‘my roots’, and learn about ‘my people’ and their ways, because I’m happy being who I am now. I’m asking the system to respect it.”
Most Nigerians have never given much thought to the “identity imposition” issue. For so many, answering the tribal identification question, whether on a form or in person is automatic, painless and thought-free. “It’s not as thought-provoking for most,” Joseph says. “Because they’re unlike me in two regards. First, most of the population tends to live in their community or tribal land until they are formed adults—formed by their tribe on language, cultural, ideological and religious fronts. They are a product of the tribe, any subsequent exposure after this “formation” does little to alter their sense of identity.” Said another way, people are still living the sort of life that Joseph’s parents did. Their formative years are spent living in the land of their “roots” and then their careers may allow them to live in different parts of Nigeria as adults. But this pales in contrast to bring a child who has different parts of Nigeria living in them—a product of the travels rather than an observer. So picking one tribe to identify with, a tribe detached from the child’s personal journey poses an emotionally tugging decision.
Moreover, Joseph’s parent’s relatively adventurous tour of Nigeria, as working adults, represents what is still the experience of a minority of Nigerians. Most don’t have the same pause Joseph does because their parents remained in their indigenous communities as adults, perpetuating the cycle of being “formed tribally”, passing it down to their children.
And worth noting, fleetingly, is it that even for the vast majority of kids like Joseph, who grew up outside their “original” tribal lands, they are still products of their parent’s tribe. How? The tribal influence exists, in these contexts, not because the child’s values and sense of identity is formed in his village of “origin”, but because their village of origin lives within the four walls of their home.
The parents, feeling anxious their child might be “tribally rootless,” become eager to ground them in the language, cultural, ideological and religious beliefs of their ethnic group. The result? “They may even produce a finer pedigree of the tribe than those growing up in the village,” Joseph points out. “Because the child has greater opportunities to compare and contrast her tribe’s people with the individuals she sees around her on a daily basis, especially in school. I find that these comparisons often result in a bubbled perspective and alienated sense of self, emphasizing the child and her tribe as different creatures to the one hosting them.” Joseph tells how he managed to escape this, “My parents didn’t have much opportunity to tribalize me,” he says. “Even in primary school, I was in the boarding facilities. So there’s little chance to be indoctrinated at home when you’re spending all your formative years in school. Especially in schools made up predominately of people from the tribal lands I was living in—the sort of people that would allow you come into the fold, as a result of the barrier-free mindset concomitant with innocence.”
“The second main difference, which makes this crass classification easier for them to accept, is a biological one,” he points out. “Most Nigerians are not what I call ‘ethnically diverse.’ Their parents are almost always from the same tribe. Often, both mum and dad are even from the same state, and also not unusual, from the same village. “Some marriages are so strictly constructed within inter-clannish boundaries,” Joseph tells us. “I wonder how the pair is not related. Actually, I should say in the interest of full disclosure that biological cousins marry all the time in certain parts of the country!” In all these instances, asking the child of a couple with the same ethnic- genetic-coding to identify with their father’s tribe is like asking them to identify with their mother’s. It’s a conundrum that’s free of thought or scruples.
Coming from a background with his dual-ethnicity however, Joseph was further able to escape in-home tribal formation, when he was with mum and dad. “I think it’s safe to say have relatively detribalized parents,” he says. “Considering that the choice of a partner-in-marriage is of stratospheric importance in Nigerian cultures, and most marry in the way I have detailed above, finding a knot that is tied across village, state, tribal and regional boundaries is ipso facto not one tied by average, tribally rooted, members of society. I don’t know how they managed to do so, but they flew out of the tribal cage they were raised in like free birds. And that’s rare.” Joseph says bring a product of this marriage was of special significance to the time he did spend at home. His parents did not teach him either of their distinct tribal languages, or programme him with any deeply placed tribal sentiments. “Since they came from different tribes, and are gender-equality-believing, it would have been a question of, which one tribe do we tribally immerse him in? And since I was home so little, immersing me in both was impractical. I was brought up Nigerian.’
The intention of this inquest is not to fault the children of ethnically homogenous marriages. Neither is it to impugn the choices made by individuals, to live in their tribal lands or communities, nor question the decision to have their children grow up in such environments. It’s a beautiful thing. Joseph’s sentiments are in tandem, “It’s a choice our constitution gives everyone a right to. Freedom of movement. The right to family life. Many Nigerians love the notion of identifying with their father’s tribe, and I respect that. It would seem that, on one frontier, a logical solution would be to give people the choice to identify with the state or tribe they wish—their father’s state, or mother’s state, the state of their birth or the state of their longest residence.
Having people respect that decision would really create a utopian society.’ In the Western world, individuals define themselves along ethnic/racial lines too, mostly on forms. But there, the difference is that the system provides a non-exhaustive list of boxes for the person to select from, and then places in one final box-option, “Other, please specify/explain.” This box-option, is effectively the same as saying, “We respect the fact that people don’t always fit into simple binaries (readymade this or that boxes) so please, define yourself.”
A paradigm shift in workings of the system—away from the concept of state of origin, toward a notion such as state of affiliation—would be a welcomed breath of fresh air for our next subject.
Binta is a Nigerian. Her mother is of Fulani extraction; her father is a member of the Gwari tribe, a community found in the Federal Capital Territory of Nigeria. He made his tribe known to Binta’s mother, while raping her in dark-alleyway at a bazaar in Kano city, some twenty years ago. He was a stranger to Binta’s mum, but said it was his fantasy to have carnal knowledge of a Fulani woman, while wrestling her down. The last Binta’s mum saw of him was his spine, running away, as she lay on her back, sobbing. He was never brought to justice. But the pregnancy that followed the traumatic episode brought Binta into the world. Binta has never known her father. And growing up with her mother, in the north of Taraba State, Binta’s life was heavily influenced by the Fulani tribe—her mother’s people. “I grew up amid my mother’s family, who raised me; taught me the Fulani language (now my mother tongue); and introduced me to the customs and beliefs of the tribe,” she states. “I think of myself as a Fulani woman.”
However, Nigerian society tells Binta that she is not allowed to do this. They tell her that an ancient custom must be maintained, even in 2011, and applied in order to classify her for, inter alia, the purpose of establishing her standing in society. And its application means she must align herself in the same vein as her father—on a matter as sensitive and personal as identity, which in this case-in-point has direct correlations with upbringing and indignant feelings. By application, she is a member of the Gwari tribe; all connections to her Fulani life are disregarded by the system, and she ought sever them for her own good and ally with her father’s people. “The sooner she understands this, the better for her,” says the system, friends, teachers and the wise men and women in society.
‘Many of them don’t know my story—the reason I choose to identify myself by my mother’s tribe,” she says. “But I don’t feel like I need to tell them, or to explain this to everyone I come across. It’s personal. I wish they would just respect my choice when I express it.” Like Joseph, she has no choice but to comply with the “rules”. Each time she is coerced into putting down “Gwari tribe” on a form, she goes through a psychedelic moment where she is reliving her mother’s horrendous experience. “It’s always a scarring ordeal,” she relays. “Filling a form, or answering the question in person, is the only time in the month, day or week that I’m made to think of my dad. I have nothing against Gwari people. I know they are not all rapists.
But I just want to identify myself as Fulani. I want to know, who made this rule that says I can’t? God?” Binta asks. ‘if it wasn’t God, I would like us as a society to change this. No man-made law is above revision.”