As a child in Nigeria, I was outspoken and opinionated. I had no filter, certainly didn’t care who listened to what I had to say or how my words were interpreted. I remember my mum apologising to different people for something I had said. I also remember getting home and receiving all kinds of creative punishments. As a girl, being like this was seen as unfeminine and disrespectful. I was told on countless occasion that I should have been born a boy.
At age 10, my family and I emigrated to London. The transition from Nigeria to London really shut me up. We went from living in a house where everyone had enough space to avoid each other for a few days if we really wanted, to living in a two bedroom flat with barely enough space to breathe. The change hit me the most whenever I left the house. Be it for school or just going to the shops. I became anxious. I quickly learned that I was no longer just a girl, I was a black girl. A black girl who had no idea what to do with this newfound knowledge. This sudden realisation somehow forced me to bite my tongue. At school, I was the new African kid. I could feel the eyes sinking into my skin when the teacher disclosed this information to the class, like I was an exotic animal on display at the zoo. Everyone was fascinated about ‘Africa’. In my first few weeks at school, I regularly received questions like “can you speak English”, “did you live in a hut/tree”, “are there lions everywhere”. Eventually, I got sick and tired of responding to their questions that I just stopped talking. I made it through school days by saying as little as I possibly could.
When the fascination of the new African kid died down, it became evident that being black wasn’t the only thing that was new to me. Being African seemed to be the worst thing one could be. As a child in a foreign country, I began to feel things I had never felt before. Fear. Fear of my new environment. Fear of what this new assigned identity meant for me. I felt uncertainty. I became unsure of who I was. Up until that point in my life, I had been sure and confident in myself. I didn’t know what life had in store for me but I was certain that I could overcome anything simply because I knew who I was. But there I was, in a new school, in a different country, on a different continent watching my confidence wither away.
What was worse about feeling scared and lost was being unable to articulate what I was feeling. It was like, for the first time in my life, I had no words to describe what I was experiencing. I must have accidentally left my words in Nigeria. For the first time in my life, I had no voice.