Travelling as I know it began as a failed experiment. As a young boy I was taken to the American Embassy to attend interviews for a visa. Till this day I have no idea why we were refused a visa – my mum, elder brother and younger sister, then a toddler. My father had began his studies in an American theological seminary, and he had friends who had successfully moved their families from Nigeria. Our failure to travel, then, must have been like shame reaching out to him. He returned home.
In the last few years I have had successful trips. But I find the failure I now feel is of a certain kind – homesickness, that tendency to be abroad and yet keep thinking of home, keep wanting to be home.
This is not new. I know of artists who straddle the convenience of Nigeria and elsewhere. I am enviously drawn to their homeliness when they are here. Their accent isn’t changed, the pidgin English they speak retains its brilliant texture. They hop into buses when the need arises, commuting out of necessity, their gaze as windy as their presence.
Windiness – I increasingly wonder if their homeliness isn’t rooted in their perpetual movement, and travelling. That they are Nigerian, but live in Amsterdam, or Paris, attend conferences in New York, California, that they are here-there, is perhaps the reason for their ease in dealing with Nigeria’s malfunction; whereas I find public transportation increasingly irritable, whereas I am becoming accustomed to ‘how things work’ in other ‘developed’ countries.
I might feel homely at home, but I am making extreme demands from home. I am demanding infrastructure, a stable life, a home. I am demanding that the gentrified chaos in Lagos, our emerging megacity, be pushed over the edge.
Pico Iyer made an enchanting claim that home isn’t ‘soil’ but ‘soul.’ When I listened to his talk at TEDGlobal, I was enchanted by the kinship I felt with his wonderings, this man whose ancestral homeland is India but adopted home is Japan. But the more I thought about it, the difficulty I had in understanding the simplicity of his displacement. Why could he find so much allure in the multi-person he had become?
Waiting to catch a flight, I chit-chatted with a Chinese-Canadian lady who had been my travel companion during the preceding flight. Of course her English sounded more Western than Eastern. Yet her features were remarkably Chinese. It disturbed me that a passerby would think of her first as Chinese before anything else, just as anyone who looked at Iyer was more likely to think of him as Indian before Japanese.
In other words, I want to think of how my ethnicity is home. I can’t – or wouldn’t be able to – think this through because I feel unqualified about ethnicity. What do I understand about being Igbo? Friends say I should learn how to speak Igbo better, but I have too many things to learn; like playing chess, writing a novel, winning the heart of my lover. The buzz of everydayness is an ethnicity I equally have to master, especially an everyday like ours invaded by technology and its allied tendencies.
Says Abha Daweser: “Travel is liberating, but when it becomes incessant we become permanent exiles.”
No one wants permanent exile.
“As every Lagosian knows, both bounties and hardships impose on all-comers the need to prove loyalty to the city. After you are lagosed, wherever else you travel, the city tags along.” – Odia Ofeimun
Essentially, we need a soul to return to after we travel. For Ofeimun, Lagos is that ‘soul’ and it is so because Lagos tags along when he travels everywhere else.
I understand this tagging. I’ve been up and about, but month after month I return to spend days in Ile-Ife, where I keep finding my soul.
What do we see when we travel?
I was on the same flight as a group of deaf middle-aged Asian travellers. I suspected they were going on a vacation. One of them, a woman, sat beside me. When she smiled at me I wondered if the world without sound could be replaced by the world with sight. I imagined that travelling was really about seeing, not hearing.
Ofeimun, again, in the last verse of “Lagoon” –I let the Lagoon teach me to forget street names in order to gulp whole cities like a glass of kola wine.
Will constant travel uproot us from our identities? How can we maintain the knowledge of the streets at home while gulping whole, global cities? Could it be that it is by travelling that we could know this?