How Literature Rooted Me In My Identity

The move to Zambia was the catalyst needed for literature to root me in my identity. Although I grew up surrounded by books, as a child, I rarely paid attention to African Literature. In my boarding school in Nigeria, I was slowly being introduced to Nigerian authors, but it still did not impact me.

My Complicated Identity

Moving to a new country at 14 is not always fun. You are already at that awkward stage where you are almost as tall as an adult, but people still treat you as a child. To compound matters, you find yourself straddling two different worlds within the same space.

In 1997 that was the space I was. I was a Nigerian with Sierra Leonean heritage on my maternal side. And I had just moved to Zambia and was now attending a boarding school in a British/international school. Talk about a convergence of cultures.

The first few months were interesting. Zambia was not Nigeria. There was peace and calmness that was soothing. Yet, I missed the sights and sounds of home. Boredom soon kicked in. Even though my dad bought Textbooks and turned our house into a school for those four months, we stayed at home before starting school the following year.

Literature to the rescue

My world changed soon after on a trip to Kitwe, A city not too far from Ndola, where we lived. One of the places we walked into while on the trip was a bookstore. There is something so lovely about entering into a space dedicated solely to books. I love bookstores and libraries.

As we left the bookstore that day, I held in my hand two books -Kehinde by Buchi Emecheta and Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe. I dove right into the books even as I sat in the passenger seat of the white Nissan car as we drove back to Ndola. In the pages of my new books, I found comfort and understanding. I was seen for the first time.

Then came the transition to boarding school in Zambia. The first few months at school, I was like a ship without an anchor. I was exposed to a whole new world, and yet all I wanted was solid ground.

Finding my voice

Thankfully literature came to the rescue. The school library I found was full of treasures, as I found more African literature on the shelves.

Chinua Achebe’s works like Arrow of God and Buchi Emecheta’s Kehinde spoke to me in ways that I cannot fully describe. These words connected me to my roots while giving me the freedom to launch out into the new world that was at my fingertips. In Chinua Achebe’s works, he showed me the history of my people through captivating narratives and in Buchi’s works, I was shown how different worlds collide when people migrate.

Reading isn’t just for fun. Reading enlightens you and gives you passage into worlds and spaces that may be inaccessible in the physical dimension.

In reading, I found my voice. While I may not be the outgoing girl, but I am the girl who loves history and who gravitates to knowledge like bees to honey.

Thankfully at my new school, creativity was encouraged at all levels. There was exposure to literature from South Africa, Russia, Nigeria, the UK and the United States.

Literature and identity

One of my funniest memories in English class was when we were reading a short story by the late Ken Saro Wiwa. Of course, there was pidgin English in the text and here was my teacher, Mr Richaedson from Liverpool, trying with all his might to read the words like a Nigerian. We all laughed that day. But at that moment, my class got to experience Nigeria with me.

Literature I have found opens our eyes to old knowledge long-buried and opens our eyes to new possibilities, and leads to the discovery of who we could be.

I hope one day that my words will not only inspire but give people the foundation they need and the wings to fly to worlds beyond their current abode. I also hope that readers will find my words one day in literature and root them to their identity.

group of rays in blue ocean

“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”

― Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

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