Clearly, I have been missing for the past few weeks. Thank you for graciously continuing to be part of my online orbit despite of my absence. I do not take this community for granted, and especially those paying subscribers who have invested in my writing project. I am glad to be back writing!
I have been by the side of a precious one for most of the 30 days they lay in on a hospital bed, and for another two weeks of constant care after discharge. I am glad to report everyone emerged out of this experience alive and all is well, and all will only get better and better. I am deeply grateful for the honor and the experience.
I discovered that my ongoing wrestling match with identity was alive and well, while facing life and death and the collision of my two cultures.
Gholdy Muhammad, in Cultivating Genius says, “Identity is composed of notions of who we are, who others say we are (in both positive and negative ways), and whom we desire to be. I believe there is a complex and dynamic dance among the three toward identity development for both children and adults throughout our lives.”
I have notions of who I think I am, and I know who I desire to be, but that middle part – who others say I am in both a negative and positive way? That is the part that feels like a raw gaping wound today. In one world where I live, what I do as normally as breathing air, others say is “wonderful” and “life giving.” In my other cultural context, my norm is viewed as inappropriate and thus, a threat.
I have always struggled to “fit in” in many ways: Within my Yoruba context , my faith context, as a bi-racial person and also living in a country where I was not born to just name a few. If you do not live in constant liminality, you might not understand the strong pull of each side. And our Western approach of individuality that says, “But you do not need those other people” does not feel helpful.
Although I appreciate what Brené Brown says below, I do not believe that we only belong to ourselves. We must have some part of us that belongs to those around us so that they can inform who we are and who we become and, we can do the same for them. We are social beings. We need each other.
Is that not the essence of Ubuntu – I am because we are? Is this statement by Brené Brown a reflection of our highly individualistic value system?
What happens when one cannot fully relate to the “we” in Ubuntu?
If my regular everyday life in Atlanta is akin to a meal, then my Yoruba Nigerian aspect is the spice in the food, its own unique umami flavoring to all that I do. I have lived in the US for 40 plus years and I understand this world and I know how to flow in it. I write and think in English and primarily, I communicate verbally in English with some side detours of Yoruba or Pidgin English which I grew up around. Although I consider myself a Yoruba woman, I am more aware than ever that the container, the context I live in, dilutes the flavoring of something I consider so fundamental as my cultural identity.
The last time I was in a full Yoruba immersion experience was in 2003 when I went to Lagos, Nigeria for a month to bury my father. Prior to that, I visited my father there periodically, and he was always my sherpa and guide. I always felt safe as he knew my level (or the lack thereof more accurately) of my understanding of that world and he knew how to protect and keep me safe, physically, and psychologically. For my dad’s funeral, my cousins were graceful and wonderful guides that I was comfortable with.
These days, I am periodically around my Nigeria friends – maybe once a month – but not since covid. Daily, I talk to one or two Nigerian friends and my siblings. In addition to books I read, research on Yoruba culture, and some Netflix movies, these conversations tend to be the way I stay connected to my “Yorubaness.”
The last six weeks, I have been totally immersed in a Yoruba world with no guide or sherpa and all I can say is that I feel battered and bruised!! Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. You know how you immerse yourself in exercise and overdo it and you cannot move for a week? Kinda like that. I am going to refer to the last six weeks as “The Bacon Adventure” (inside joke) as you read through this.
I was by the side of a precious one who was in the hospital for 30 days and when discharged, spent another two weeks recuperating. Their Nigerian family gathered to support, love, and heal and it was a gift to be part of this amazing extended experience.
Here is just a touch of what I spent a lot of time thinking about and wondering about.
In my opinion, Yoruba is probably the most beautiful language in the world. It is so descriptive and conveys so much heart. We love the nuance and use highly complex words and proverbs to convey the wisdom and authority. The language holds healing, wisdom and life in its very words. There are statements that have been made to me in Yoruba, and I may not be able to translate the words, but they bring tears to my eyes because although my ears may not comprehend, my heart receives and encodes them. Their is soul-stirring healing transmitted in Yoruba. I know this for a fact.
I speak Yoruba conversationally. I cannot write it or read it and I certainly have not wrapped my head around the millions of proverbs that exist. Literally, you can have a conversation consisting of only proverbs. And I never get them…. I lack that level of sophisticated language mastery and I trip up and fall on all the hidden meanings.
Ilé ọba tójó ẹwà ló bùsi – When a king’s palace burns down, the rebuilt palace turns out even more beautiful. This means that the survival of a crisis means we are better for having gone through it. I thought we were talking about a building burning down. Duh!!! Ok. Here is a more direct one.
Èéfín ni ìwà; kò ṣeé fi pamọ́ – Character is like smoke, it cannot be covered up. We cannot pretend to be who we are not for very long. Ok. I like this one. I get it. But what happens is that someone just says this and walks away. You wonder about the 28 things you did before they walked away and where you lost the person’s respect about your character. Does it even apply to you? Duh!
So often, those around me must translate the proverb and translate how it applies to the given context as I need both. (Psssttt…. this is why I am so good about explaining things. Others have been doing this for me for years! Shhhhh…. don’t tell anyone!)
The last six weeks was an experience that warmed my soul as I enjoyed hearing my language around me even when people were not speaking to me. It made me so happy.
Sadly, I also observed that the Yoruba language is so alluring to those who get it. We invest inordinately in oratory mastery of this tonal language, and sometimes neglect to act and live into the expressions of wisdom and character that we have so beautifully articulated. We live in the intention of the beauty of the words and often do not fully consider the impact of such words on the souls of those who hear. This violates my personal value system as I live in a world where actions speak louder than words.
I grieve that the abuse of the language taints it beauty as it can be weaponized to hide wounds, assert power, and oppress others.
Being a Yoruba woman also means behaving in a manner that shows I have a proper upbringing by parents who know and prioritize the highest values of our culture. My behavior reflects on me, my family, my family name, my lineage and even my hometown. How I greet and refer to people is critical and judged. A simple “hello” will never suffice and speaking when you are not spoken to and there are elders in the room is taboo. Leaving a room before others that are older than you is rude! Whatever!
Eldership is how we establish the pecking order. We revere our elders. Grey hair is a sign of wisdom for us, and we embrace it.
For instance, in most homes, a younger sibling cannot call an older sibling by their first name. My older sister is several years older than me and in my liberal home, my parents did not instruct me to call her “Sister Peri” as I would have if I were in a more traditional home. I always called her by her first name. However, over the years, I realized that I was not comfortable calling her Yoruba friends by their first name as I did when I was a child. I hang out with my sister a lot and when she is around her friends, it reflects poorly on us as a family to call my sister by her name casually, and even worse, to call her friends by their first names. Her lovely friends would certainly not mind, but the people around them would be super “judgey” about it. So, I call my sister’s friends, “Aunty such and such.”
Also, these days, as my father called his oldest sister, I call my sister “Sis.” And she loves it! I daresay she knows that I respect and love her so much that I am willing to observe the cultural norm for her even though our parents did not require that of us. It is just a simple way to honor our Yoruba heritage.
If manners in the Yoruba social system were just about how to address people, that is easy enough. But that just scratches the surface. In any Yoruba context, a lot of energy goes into not being disrespected or disrespectful. You must behave in a way that prevents others from being rude towards you. And you must not disrespect others. It is a careful balancing act and one little misstep can cause great indignation and years and years of misunderstandings.
You must know what to say, when to say it, when not to say something, where to say it, which tone to say it with, and to whom you can even say anything. You don’t just get to talk to everyone, and air out your thoughts! Often, your silence, as acquiesce to the power structure, is more valuable than your perspective or your knowledge.
Naw! Faux Pas Galore!
In my childhood, every single time I left the sanctity of my home, I felt I was walking into a minefield. There were so many unwritten rules and regulations that I was supposed to absorb by osmosis and that regulator was clearly “broken!” I am famous for always blurting out questions, and constantly asking “why?” and feeling “othered” and rejected for not getting things right the first or even the second time around. The Bacon Adventure gave me flashbacks to that aspect of my childhood that is clearly unresolved. Yeah, therapist on speed dial, ok!
Yoruba culture is actually very inclusive and we welcome others in, especially if you speak the language, and you respect the mores of the society. However, in many situations, if you do not instinctively understand and yield to the social hierarchy and power dynamics, you are immediately excluded as an outsider. And forgiveness does not come easily or quickly. Phew!
Phew! PhD dissertation anyone?
Seniority is the key organizing principle for Yoruba families and communities. Gender distinction is secondary. Our pronouns are based on whether someone is older or younger, not male or female. However, the first male child is often revered and expected to lead the family and is often given heir rights. Yet, in my lineage, the name “Onipede” was given as a nickname to my maternal ancestor by a king. Therefore, we honor the oldest person and not just the oldest male in the family. For several families and generations, the oldest has been a female and is considered the head of the family. Again, this might be considered unusual among more traditional families.
Nigeria as a colonized country adds complexity as western patriarchal norms blend with traditional Yoruba seniority. On the one hand, I can see the “oppression” within “seniority” as an organizing principle, but I also see the beauty and wisdom of it. Grounded, well-meaning, loving adults who bring peace and consideration to a stressful medical situation such as The Bacon Adventure deliver much needed direction, comfort, relief, joy, and laughter. Yet, when knowledge, experience and sheer determination is not valued because of the age of the person, it is a form of oppression as it excludes as punishment.
I now wonder about the original organizing principle of the patriarchy, and I am challenged to think about how it could have been valuable. I see a lot of benefit of eldership and how is that different from the patriarchy?
Both give blanket rights, authority, and expectation to a group of people with no pre-qualification except gender or age. What could go wrong!!!!
Oppression is rooted in binary thinking that social systems such as patriarchy and eldership easily and often create. Power is often abused when it lies in the hands of the oldest or only the male(s) in the room without a system of accountability that gives voice to those not in those positions of power. Social systems that are manipulated to exclude care and protection for all people in the community regardless of age, gender or race (in this case) is an abuse of power.
Sigh! We are all so fragile and human and capable of horrendous blunders even when we have the best intentions. However, if inclusivity is not your priority, it will fall by the wayside.
Over the past few weeks, I found myself revisiting old wounds of never fitting in, never feeling grounded in belonging, and feeling like an outsider, a fish out of water. Instead of my Yorubaness being the spice of my meal, it was now the main course, and I was not equipped to fully enjoy such a smorgasbord of delicacies. I think I am missing specific digestive enzymes that would metabolize the experiences into full nourishment! Ha!
Can I fess up? I am exhausted. I think it might feel a little like having a stroke and having to relearn everything all over again, and my brain is just tired from navigating the minefield that was The Bacon Adventure.
I missed the non-Yoruba people in my life. My Compassionate Atlanta partner, my clients, my neighbors, my friends and my African American church folks especially. I missed being open with my thoughts and feelings. I missed knowing how to take command of a situation when it was required. I missed being able to lean on others. I missed speaking up for those that could not speak. I missed shared distribution of labor. I missed being with my peers. I missed mutuality. I missed the shared humor. I missed what has become my community that has little or no Yorubaness in it. I missed being part of the “in-group.” And I was the only person in the “out-group.” That is a devastatingly lonely place to be.
I really missed what we call “effico.”
In Nigerian common parlance, “effico” means a very efficient person who can get sh*!t done! It is often used as an insult and folks will say, “Your effico is too much.” It refers to that “western” part of oneself that is trained to get stuff done and checked off the “to do” list. As communal people, we Yoruba folks often get things done in a meandering way that takes too damn long!!! I missed having a task and taking a direct path to its execution. Sigh!
I missed being seen and accepted in the fullness of my personhood, with my own unique and complex watered down version of being a Yoruba woman.
Please don’t think that The Bacon Adventure was a bad thing. Not at all. It was a stressful but wonderful time of grace and love, family and healing. But unhealed wounds know how to come up at the wrong time!!!
Bottom line is this. I have a raw wound about belonging. I have never felt that I belong to a larger community in a meaningful way. Emotionally, I have consistently processed it as “rejection.” I am in the middle of the opportunity to revisit this and check out what “this” is all about.
This is what my liminal space is all about – finding expansive and safe belonging where my level of Yorubaness is sufficient and whole – for me as well as for others around me.
I share these details with you because you face many of the same issues and it might be easier to see it in me and then see it in yourself. This is your liminal space – when you come from a very conservative family and you are increasingly progressive; when your husband is a “moderate” and loves his guns; when your Big Uncle Jake uses racial slurs – who are you in those moments? Who is your community? Who are the “others” that you belong to?
You must have the ability to name and embrace what is good in culture and speak truth to power when well-intentioned culture becomes oppressive and harmful.
Please share this post but also leave a comment. What are some of the issues you are dealing with in your liminal space? What did you think of my experience? What resonated? What did not?