“I was standing at the bus stop shaking, shaking. A Nigerian woman came up to me and said, ‘My sister, put God aside. You are going to die. I will come to your house and show you how to dress.'”
I came here because my husband was here before me. He thought it would be easy for me to come, but it took 10 years. It wasn’t easy. I believe it was 1987. Before I came, I did gardening, I was a farmer. And I worked in the ministry as a radio translator. I had two children that I took care of. We grew many different types of vegetables, that is what we mainly depended on. In order for me to get enough food to feed my children I would get up very early in the morning and buy from the farmers before the food got to the market. Without that I wouldn’t have been able to sustain my children and myself. I tried to keep my children from going hungry.
We were raised in Ghana, but then Ghana sent us back to Nigeria. There was fighting and they said all foreigners should leave the country. My father had been in Ghana for almost fifty years, but he was originally from Nigeria. My mother was taken away by my grandfather to Ghana when she was five years old.
My father decided he wasn’t going to leave. I had a scholarship to school because of my athletic and academic abilities. My mom was a tailor and also sold produce. Usually after school I went to the market to relieve my mom because she had been there since 5:00 a.m. One day when I came back she was crying and said they had sent a big truck and were going house to house asking if any Nigerians were living there and the police took my father. She said she didn’t know where they took him. It was very frightening. The Ghanaians had turned against us. Even our friends started saying it is time for you to leave the country. They took the men to the police station and they put them in cells. When they had enough men they packed them into trailers like sardines and shipped them somewhere unknown. My father was in jail. I quickly took the bus to Mr Chu’s office—the Mayor of our province—and told him. He called the precinct and told them he wants my father out right away! Meanwhile the Nigerian government was sending ships to Ghana to take people back to Nigeria. My father had initially refused, but after he was released from jail he said to himself, “If I don’t go they will kill me and my children.” My father took what little things we had and went to the university where my two brothers were and said we are leaving right now. And that is how we came to Nigeria.
Thanks to the Lord we came with the last ship. When we came we were at the wharf in Lagos for more than a week. We slept where they laid out the rice and it was filled with rats. When we were leaving Ghana they put all of us in a refugee camp. There were women and girls who were raped by soldiers. The camp conditions were horrible; we had absolutely nothing. We stayed there for three months. Many people were sick with diarrhea. When we arrived in Apapa (the Lagos port) my sister was there. She had left school because the teachers beat us. So she married early and that is why she was back in Nigeria. When we arrived we were left on our own. So my sister who lived far away would bring us food once a day.
When we came home to our village it was very sad. If you passed the market you passed my father’s house—a small little thatch house. My father looked at it and said I should have stayed and died in Ghana. My mom’s village was the next village and somebody said we should come there. We lived in the house of Papa, the school principal, and they really welcomed us. But Nigeria was very hard. If we ate food once a day we were blessed. My father couldn’t put me in school so our education was halted. That was when I was put into an arranged marriage. It was the hardest decision for my father and I. There was female circumcision back then and they wanted to do me and my father said it was not going to be me. Life was bad with nowhere to go. I couldn’t go to school. This man appeared to marry me but I didn’t want to. That was when Papa’s wife said this man is very intelligent, he has education, if you don’t marry you have to leave this house. This is a very good man. My father said don’t force her, but my mother supported it and Papa’s wife demanded it. That is how I ended up marrying. When he came here he brought me.
There wasn’t a wedding. My people were poor. There were days my mom didn’t have food for my brothers. My mother would beg food from her relatives and we had to farm just to eat the little we could. But if it wasn’t for Papa who knows where we would have ended up? Papa was special.
I couldn’t bring my two sons to the US because of the system and money. You have to come and go through all this complex and costly paperwork. When I left my children I saw my second son crying, “Mama, what should we do when you are gone?” I didn’t see them until my daughter Affi was born, ten years later. When they came, Affi was a year old. If I had known it would take so long I would not have come. We lost so much time together. We wrote letters.
I came in the winter. First time I saw snow was in Amsterdam. When I came we were in Cleveland I didn’t want to wear pants, I thought women don’t wear pants. When I started going to community college, the cold was getting into my system and I was standing at the bus stop shaking, shaking. A Nigerian woman came up to me and said, “My sister, put God aside. You are going to die. I will come to your house and show you how to dress.” So one day she came, “See how I dress? One long john, two long johns, three socks, that’s how you dress!” I was so skinny and the wind felt like it would take me away. It took about a year for me to get my papers together to go to school. I worked at night. My husband decided we should move to Philadelphia where he went to school but then he couldn’t find a job, so I had to take two jobs. We agreed that when he finished it will be my turn. He graduated from Temple, got a job at Savannah State, and then went to visit his ailing mother in Nigeria and suddenly died.
I have been going home every couple years and I take my daughter Affi with me. I usually go whenever there is a burial. Lots of relatives depend on me. I have one brother who is disabled with 4 children. We talk on the phone almost every day. It is much easier to keep in touch now. Everyone has cell phones. I love my culture but there are certain aspects that confuse me. I cook African food—Jelloff rice, fufu, black eye peas, mui mui, and I garden. I make sure I buy land back home, if America makes us leave one day I don’t want to go back and have nowhere to stay.
Photo by Jennifer Baker
Portraits of People on the Move tells the stories of Philadelphia-area immigrants through their own words on the Supperdance.com blog and was first shown as an exhibition in June 2015, at the Gray Area of Crane Arts in Philadelphia. The exhibition was created as a companion work to Supper, People on the Move by Cardell Dance Theater, a dance inspired by themes of migration.