By Ona Akinde
- Title: This American Life Sef
- Editors: Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo
- Publisher: Winepress Publishing
- Number of pages: 94
- Year of publication: 2016
- Category: Essays
Over the years, there has been a significant rise in the number of Nigerians leaving the country for greener pastures. According to the US Department of State, more than 163,000 immigrant and non-immigrant visas were issued to Nigerians between March 2017 and January 2018, accounting for 32.78 per cent of visas issued to 54 countries on the continent. We hear the stories of Nigerians leaving at all cost, of prayer and fasting for visas and how leaving for America is the ultimate dream. What we do not often hear is the downside, what leaving your home country for another truly means. This is what Okonkwo sets out to achieve in This American Life Sef, a collection of five essays and two short stories documenting the experiences of Africans living in America.
The collection kicks off with an account of the author’s first flight out of Nigeria and how he dismissed the glaring signs that things in America are not what they seem. As he says, ‘These were things I dismissed with a wave of the hand before they take root in a mind that was determined to get to America’. But feigning ignorance only lasts for so long. Sooner or later, he has to come to terms with life in America as it is.
In the first essay, ‘I’ll Marry When I Want’, the author observes what America does to African immigrants. He writes:
Everywhere I look, I see children of Africa who have become ghosts of their former selves. The noisy ones are sheer empty vessels. The dumb ones are experiencing shock. A distorted image of life and perception had transformed the Africans in America into a pathetic lot. There are more of them struggling to retain their sanity than there are those who are struggling to save their soul.
He shows how quickly the American dream turns into a nightmare. The essay further explores how living in America forces African immigrants to adapt to new ways of life. The African man in America is confused, torn between being African at home and being American outside. The author touches on the overwhelming standards expected of the African woman as she strives to be the perfect African housewife, achieve her dreams and still provide for relatives back home. We also see how the African man is forced to take jobs which rob him of his dignity. Meanwhile, both men and women are challenged to adapt to American standards of marriage.
‘Saving Mama Udoka’ is the story of a 22-year-old who marries a man sixteen years her senior in order to travel to America. There is no love involved, as indeed plays out, leaving the subject miserable for years. She goes from a hopeful, vibrant woman to a bird whose wings have been clipped. All her dreams are dashed by her husband, who stops her from going to school or taking a job, impregnates her in quick succession, and does not even let her wear makeup or dress nicely. It is as if he is threatened by the very idea of her potentials. Still, the essay contrives to end on a hopeful note.
‘Just before You Kill Your Wife’, which is heavy on humour, centres on how difficult it is to get rid of a wife in America. The author lists the various reasons one might want to commit this particular crime – infidelity, disinterest, disrespect on her part – and how this will play out. He also lists some alternatives and the disadvantages of each: divorce, in which case the man will lose custody of the children and half the house; or marry a second wife, which is illegal. The author ends with a piece of advice, ‘Just before you kill your wife, remember your father had many good reasons to kill your mother. But he didn’t. Hopefully, you are thankful for that’.
The difficulty of raising children in America is discussed in ‘Our Children Are Coming’. The dilemma many Africans face is how to raise children who will remember their roots. How do they ensure that their children still identify with their home country? Do they send them back for their secondary education? Can they afford to visit home each year? The essay highlights a huge downside to raising children in America: the possibility that you will lose your child to the new society; that your culture will end with you. For those looking to resolve this problem, the author’s friend, Obinna, has the perfect solution: marry one wife in America and another in Nigeria.
The collection ends with two short stories, ‘A Kernel for a Fowl’ and ‘The Butcher, the Surgeon and I’. In the first, a female protagonist struggles against the odds to build a life for herself, making sacrifices to become the woman she always dreamed of becoming until love brings her world crashing down. The second tells the story of Okonkwo and the compromises he has had to make, from shortening his name – which he comes to regret – to being unable to cook the foods he craves.
This American Life Sef is an honest and raw collection of immigrant tales. At all times, the reader is reminded that the grass is not always greener on the other side.
Photograph: ‘Female Migrant Telephoning Home, Roquetas de Mar, Almería, Spain, 2004’ by John Perivolaris
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