Dispatches from Home - Enuma Okoro
If you have spent your adult life away from home, the idea of returning to a place that might feel like only a distant memory is a hard thing to fathom. Whether home is New York, Ghana or London, returning after a long absence is a move that requires strength, faith and a good amount of travel miles. As part of our Dispatches from Home series, WomenWerk spoke with women who have moved back to live and work in their home country after a long absence. They shared with us everything from what pushed them to return, what other returnees can expect and what the most surprising thing about moving home is.
Enuma Okoro is a writer, speaker and corporate communications consultant. She is an award-winning author of four nonfiction books, and is currently working on her first book of fiction. You can view her work at enumaokoro.com.
WomenWerk: Tell us about yourself?
I was born in Manhattan and spent my early years in New York. But when I was seven years old the country hopping began. My father moved our family to Lagos where he had established a successful private law practice, because, as he repeatedly told us growing up, he didn't want us to think we were American. My father was extremely proud of being Nigerian and of being Igbo. In fact, the only reason he came to New York in the first place was because General Chukwuemeka Ojukwu sent him on a diplomatic mission from Biafra. When the war ended he stayed on for many years, had his family and then took us back home. As a child, I only lived in Lagos from age 7 to 9. Other than that, I grew up in Cote D’Ivoire, England and back again in America. As much as my father wanted his children to know their country we didn’t spend a lot of time on extended visits home. I wasn’t raised visiting my village every Christmas, or spending summers in Nigeria. I finished college and graduate school in America. Though I grew up traveling all over the world I just assumed I would live in America, where my vocation as a writer and speaker was thriving and where I remained professionally active in the communications field. Moving back to Nigeria was the furthest thing from my mind. In fact, I actually thought I was going to live in France.
WomenWerk: Why did you make the leap?
I spent the summer of 2012 in Paris as a writer-in residence. It was a trip that confirmed what I had been feeling for a while, that I needed to take some extended time outside of America, to be reminded that there were other equally valid ways to exist in the world besides what I knew of life in America. So I started making plans to move to France. Now, this is going to sound so cheesy but it’s the truth. I first went back to Abuja, Nigeria in fall of 2012 because I had a really weird random dream in which one of my relatives told me to come back for a visit. In the dream I gave all these reasons why I couldn't come for a visit, but when I woke up the dream stayed with me, and I realized that I actually didn't have any excuses for not going. I was writing and speaking full time and had an unusual four-week break in my speaking schedule coming up. So I made arrangements and bought a ticket to Abuja, where I had family! I had absolutely no intention of moving. It was just a visit while I figured out how to get to France more permanently. Long story short, when my month was up, a company offered me some contractual work to extend my stay. I was having a great time so I stayed for another two weeks. The same company invited me back a couple of months later for some more contractual work. I ended up spending the next 12 months going back and forth between Nigeria, Paris and America, again, with absolutely no intention of moving to Nigeria.
But the shift came the fall of 2013 while on a trip to Paris. I was walking along the Seine from the 7th arrondissement towards Notre Dame, feeling so grateful to be able to spend so much time in that particular city when I had this sudden realization that no matter how much I loved Paris, no matter how long I stayed, it would never be my home. There were ways in which I would never be able to really feel I was from there, and ways in which people would never see me as being from there. It was like a light just went off in my head and within minutes I was at complete peace about deciding not to move there. I still felt strongly that I wanted more time living outside of America so I said a prayer for direction and guidance. A month later I was on another visit to Nigeria and that’s when I finally thought aloud to myself, “What if I gave my own country a shot?” That was in October 2013. For a while, as I had travelled between the three countries I had found myself reflecting about the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and where we come from. I realized that so often we blindly accept public narratives other people or cultures try to feed us about ourselves and about the rest of the world. It was so refreshing to be spending all that time in countries besides America, and to be reminded that I was already part of another story that I had never even taken the time and care to explore.
"I had this sudden realization that no matter how much I loved Paris, no matter how long I stayed, it would never be my home."
WomenWerk: Tell us three WomenWerk Moving Back Musts to make the experience the best it can be?
Let me keep it real. Pack your favorite brand of toiletries to last till your next international trip, and your fave shades of lipstick. I’m a Mac girl and I’ve got those beautiful African lips that seem to eat up lipstick, so I buy in bulk these days. My choices may sound shallow but you would be surprised how having the small daily things you don't usually think of because they are always so readily available, can make the initial experience of moving back less jarring and a bit more comforting. Also pack any books, equipment or resources that you find helpful for daily centering and focus. You know what you need to feel you best mentally, spiritually and emotionally. Pack those things as you are able.
At first, the move will be hard. Patience is essential. Remember that you are not in America or wherever else you came from. You cannot step into one culture with the expectations you have of another culture. It is not fair to yourself or to the people you encounter. If you have never lived in Nigeria before, or only spent a few years there as a child without regular visits back it will take some major adjustment. Do not make any decisions about leaving until you get through the first year. Everything will look so different after a year. Everything will look better.
If you are considering moving back I suggest really thinking about why? Know what you are going back for, whether it’s to try your hand at a particular business, to find a wife or husband from your father’s village, or even if it’s to work through some existential identity crisis. Just know your reasons. It will help you stay when things get hard, as they will, and you begin to question what on earth ever made you think this was a good idea.
"If you are considering moving back I suggest really thinking about why? Know what you are going back for, whether it’s to try your hand at a particular business, to find a wife or husband from your father’s village, or even if it’s to work through some existential identity crisis. Just know your reasons. "
WomenWerk: What unique challenges have you faced as a woman ?
Wait let me write the book and then you can read it! How honest can I be? (Smile.) Let me just say, it is important to have a clear sense of self, to know what your goals are and how your values tie into achieving those goals. Regardless of the country where you live or work I think it is important to never apologize for who you are and for what you stand. Nigeria is a tough country for women, regardless of one’s social economic or educational level. Let’s not kid ourselves. But I personally believe and choose to remember that my destiny does not lie in the hands of any one human being. Knowing that actually has a daily impact on the decisions I make and how I traverse my way through a variety of settings.
"I am growing to appreciate in a new way just what a gift it is to have a place, a country, a people that have some sort of claim on you whether you like it or not."
WomenWerk: How has your lifestyle changed?
I go out dancing a whole lot more! I also spend more time actually having conversations with people and focusing on one thing at a time. A lot of things take so much longer to accomplish there as a result of infrastructural issues and just people’s attitudes (lets stay real,) that I find I am satisfied more easily with smaller accomplishments. It’s not a bad thing depending on your perspective.
As for how I’ve changed, I never paid much attention to Nigeria as a young adult. In fact I had practically zero interest. And now, I feel like I’ve been slowly wooed over the last couple of years and last summer I finally agree to give the relationship a shot. What started as a reluctant crush is growing into something much deeper and actually more complex. We are asking more of each other now, the country and me. And I’m still trying to figure out how serious we’ll get. It’s not an easy relationship by any means but the longer I’m in it the harder it is for me to understand myself, to see myself, without her. I am growing to appreciate in a new way just what a gift it is to have a place, a country, a people that have some sort of claim on you whether you like it or not.
WomenWerk: Nigeria is an incredibly vibrant and complex country, what opportunities, inspiration, and/or challenges has it created for you as an artist?
It’s funny because Nigerians place a lot of emphasis on lucrative professions in the medicine, law, finance and engineering. But there are so many brilliant Nigerian creative both at home and in the diaspora whose vocations are just as valid and important to building the nation as the ones we tend to laud. There is so much in the country to inspire artists, and as a writer the subject matter is endless. As I find my footing the work will soon speak for itself. Speaking of which, I am launching a new blog at the end of this month focused primarily on this returning and all I’m learning about what it means to “go home” for the first time really. One of my own personal goals is to find creative ways to close the gap between Nigerians back home and those in the diaspora. Visit my website to stay up to date! www.enumaokoro.com