Goodbye America by Itoro Bassey

jungle geranium (bright pink-orange petals)

I went to a Buddhist monastery in the Catskills of New York to find relief from the usual suspects: workaholism, relationships, the 24-hour news cycle, and toxic positivity. I had been attending the monastery since 2016 and considered the enclave my spiritual home. My days consisted of waking up at 5 a.m. to meditate and chant, cutting produce from morning ’til evening, and book-ending the day with a closing meditation. The gift in this schedule was that it moved me beyond the noise of everyday life. Removing an onslaught of distractions helped me bear witness to the truth that wanted to arise.

After grueling hours of counting my breath in meditation, I felt a dull ache in my abdomen. A monk drove me to the hospital and I found that I had two uterine fibroids the size of small lemons. At best, this could be treated with a change of diet, exercise, and ibuprofen. At worst, it could result in invasive surgery and infertility if the fibroids continued to grow. The doctor said that most Black women have fibroids and that my situation was not rare.

When I researched the risk factors for fibroids, I learned that Black women are more likely than any other race of women to have fibroids and experience severe symptoms. It wasn’t surprising that the doctor didn’t have much more to say other than, “Since you’re a Black woman, you’re more likely to have fibroids. Totally normal.”

I remembered a friend of mine, another Black woman, who had fibroids. She described it as having to carry two large papayas inside her. I wondered why so many Black women were allowed to walk around with mild to unbearable pain. I wanted the doctor to tell me more, but he just said, “watch it to see if it grows and take a painkiller if it hurts.”

In every U.S. institution I have navigated, people have behaved with a mindlessness when it concerns the well-being and care of Black women. Still, I wanted to scream at the inadequacy of my doctor’s response. Normally, I would have shouted at the doctor, or highlighted my concerns: What if they grow? How can I stop the excessive bleeding during periods? Now that I’ve felt pain, all I feel is pain; what do I do? But something in me decided it was more beneficial to use my energy differently. I quietly repeated this affirmation to myself:

I am sacred. I am precious. I have value. The answers I need to heal are revealing themselves to me.

By this point in my life, I was coming to an edge. I had just been let go from a job, was waiting for my unemployment check to come through, and had been falling sick a lot while looking for work. I was tired, and the horrible thing about it was I couldn’t get rid of the voice that kept saying I didn’t deserve to be tired. I thought of what my mother would tell me whenever she was tired but did not want to say she was tired: God give me strength. But where would I find that? My tank was on empty when it came to strength, and my shame for my inability to handle the stress was at a high. So I did the only thing I could do at that moment. I preserved myself.

I am precious.

I would soon learn from other Black women about the stressors in their lives that possibly contributed to the pain in their abdomens: the pent-up emotions that couldn’t find release, attempts to eat more greens while entering toxic workplaces, being everyone’s mother while feeling motherless, being the leader of social justice movements but receiving little tender love and care, and juggling way too much while trying to pay a doctor that basically tells you to watch your diet and get used to taking painkillers.

***

After learning about my fibroids, I moved to New Orleans to work with an herbalist. A friend of mine named Jan had a shotgun house with a porch painted sunflower yellow in front of a tree that grew a kind of nut we didn’t know the name of. There was no better place to address the pain in my abdomen than in that house on the street with the bushes full of jasmine. After some more abysmal doctors’ visits, and consuming pain relievers only to still feel immense pain, I began to trust that my recovery would not be in a bottle of pills or the words of a doctor who kept saying, “You really should be fine after taking Motrin.”

In New Orleans, I had Donnie the herbalist who lived a twenty-minute walk away, and all the beignets I could eat a twenty-minute drive away. The herbalist I worked with, a lady who prided herself on using the plants in her backyard to cure common ailments, immediately noticed that something was off with my gut health and womb space (this is how she called it, the womb space).

Here’s what I can remember of that time: taking ashwagandha (with a spoonful of raw honey), drinking burdock root tea, peeing every ten minutes, taking an array of colored vitamins, eating fresh fish, taking walks, using hot compresses with castor oil, listening to Louise Hay affirmations, making vegan grilled cheese sandwiches, eating leafy greens with garlic, acupuncture, implementing better sleep hygiene, weekly massages, drinking fresh water, forgoing tampons for all-nighter pads, and taking tinctures for my adrenals (I forget what adrenals are). And let’s not forget about beignet Thursdays, when I inhaled beignets with wild abandon and drowned out my whole “get right, get healthy” attitude with fried dough and powdered sugar.

The last item on the list was Donnie recommending I see an Ifa priestess to do ancestral work. “Ro’s great,” she said. “She got me in touch with my Mid-western roots. You’d like her.” For a good month, I pushed her recommendation off, but Donnie always knew how to slip it in there. Like when we checked in about my heavy bleeding and she asked, “Was your mother a heavy bleeder?” I nodded my head and then she asked, “Was your mother’s mother a heavy bleeder?” I nodded my head and then she said, “Yea, so Ro would be great for that. Looks like you have a cycle to break that runs through the women on your Mama’s side.”

I could never admit to Donnie that I low-key feared African spirituality and any information my ancestors had to share. I came from a Blood of the Lamb background, a we’ll slap you with the Holy Ghost background, a you may come in the pew singing ’bout the water goddess but you’ll be leaving singing about Christ background, and a don’t mess with no African spirit background.

Life as a first-generation Nigerian-American woman had positioned me to look forward. My being born and raised in the states had made Nigeria and the original spirituality of my people all the more distant. I had an inkling my folks thought it was better for the living to keep marching toward a dream that kept us thousands of miles away from our ancestral homeland. Let the dead bury the dead. That sort of thing. But here was Donnie saying I ought to go to Ro the Ifa priestess to unbury those bodies.

And what would these long-forgotten souls have to say?

I’ve always known that when the ancestors have a message, it usually introduces you to an entire universe you either fiercely ignored or never considered. It can be a confusing process to integrate this knowledge when you’ve been told that the best way to succeed is to forget it. Should you decide to listen to those howling voices from the other side, you may come out of the trenches sounding like God Herself, but it’ll be because you’ve had the ordeal of actually having to live like one. By living like God, I’m not talking about smiting the earth and throwing temper tantrums on a cloud because not everyone is worshipping and praising you. I’m talking about a more subtle and messy God, a God that has had to sacrifice a lot to be alive, a God who’s learned through much trial and error, a God who isn’t completely sure about right or wrong but is seeking what’s true, and a God who ultimately believes that the best life is a life of service.

I had no desire to emulate any type of God. I just wanted to be human and have my peace. But if the ancestors are coming for you, well, peace will become relative and they’ll remind you that you’re a spiritual being having a human experience, and part of being human is diving into the deep end.

Despite my reservations, my last period was a horror show where I bled through jumbo pads and had to plug up my endometriosis with a tampon. I had to accept that my life force was steadily leaking out each month whether I wanted to hear from the ancestors or not. I soon made the call asking for help from the priestess.

***

Ro had previously worked as an accountant from Florida and made good money. She was bred to be a part of W.E.B. DuBois’s talented tenth, the creme de la creme. She was a well-bred woman who was moving on up. She was set to become a part of the Black intelligentsia because, after all, she looked the part: light skin, 4B hair, and a whip-smart attitude. She could shift between different worlds while toting her degree from an HBCU as a sign of investing in Black excellence, grab her a well-educated and well-spoken husband, and call it a day. Instead, she stood before me wearing a white robe, her hair in locs and white beads around her neck, telling me about how she had disappointed her parents when she traveled to Oyo State in Nigeria to work with traditional healers.

“We’re like cats, us women, we have at least nine lives,” she said. “You should have seen my parents’ faces when I gave up my life as an accountant. ‘You? An Ifa priestess?’ They thought I had let the devil take over my mind. They said there was nothing but death in Africa and that if anything good came out of the slave trade it was that we got to come here. That’s what they actually said. No lie. You’d be surprised what people really think when they’re confronted with a path that makes no sense to them. But I said ‘bunk this’ and gave up the ruse. Little cousin, it’s clear to me that the ancestors want you to give up yours.” She had immediately claimed me as her family by calling me little cousin, proudly stating that she could trace her people to Ogun State in Nigeria.

I appreciated how Ro noted our differences as women in search of belonging. I was the child of Black immigrants whose parents migrated to the U.S. in search of a dream, and she was the child of enslaved Black folks brought to the U.S. through a forced migration that was nothing short of a nightmare. I had a privilege in getting the chance to return somewhere, even if I didn’t know that place too well. I knew I could find my parents’ village. Most likely, we had a plot of land with our family name on it somewhere. And here was Ro, a woman who had chosen to develop a relationship with Africa in spite of all these things.

While she threw cowrie shells to consult with my ancestors, I inhaled the frankincense and sandalwood incense. It could have been the thick fragrance filling my lungs that compelled a truth to bubble to the surface, but I couldn’t help blurting, “I want to go home.” It wasn’t a matter of love. I loved the people I had met, the life my parents and I had tried to build, but the more fundamental question was whether it was possible to live a life in America that actually honored me, or at least didn’t scare me half to death. Of this, I wasn’t too sure. “I’m not happy here.”

I cried. This felt like a terrible announcement, as I had no clue where my home was.

Ro grinned and clapped her hands, saying, “The ancestors rejoice.”

I looked at her, bewildered, hoping that wherever my home was, it was somewhere in California, preferably Los Angeles, and near that place that sold vegan cakes and pizza.

The main points I received from the reading were: 1). Home for me was in Nigeria, 2). My deceased maternal Grandma’s pet name for me was baby, 3). If I chose to leave America, my ancestors and spirit guides would support me, and 4). Eat more greens. Spinach lightly sauteed in olive oil with garlic would help.

What I recognized most from our conversation together was how Ro looked at me. Her eyebrows burrowed deeper into her forehead, and the sound of her voice tilted into a tune that scratched a bit, and the scratch was meant for me. “If I were you, I’d take advantage of this.”

As the consultation neared the end, Ro put her hand in mine and confirmed that I’d be leaving the country soon. Receiving her messages was a heartbreaking relief. Heartbreaking because it meant I’d have to accept the death of an old life that had been weighing me down.

For most of my life, I had felt pressure to “make it.” I was supposed to pick up the mantel where my parents left off. Attain the dream. Children of immigrants are supposed to demand a seat at the table; they are not supposed to leave it. But I had always felt restless. I could no longer evade my restlessness in the country my parents had poured their hopes into, the country that had birthed me.

I was supposed to pick up the mantel where they left off. Attain the dream. That’s the burden we carry, the burden of making it work at all costs. How else do we ensure that our parents’ efforts were not in vain? Children of immigrants are supposed to demand a seat at the table; they are not supposed to leave it.

A feeling of anxiety rushed through me, the same anxiety I had felt before moving to New Orleans to put myself back together again. If I left the country, what would this mean?

“You’ll return without much frill or excess,” Ro said. “People will wonder why you didn’t stay your ass in America and even think you failed if you’re back in the so-called Third World. Focus more on what you can give than what you can get, ’cause when the reality sets in, you’ll have to decide if the love you have for your new home is sincere.”

I can’t recall much about how the rest of our night panned out; all I remember is that as I was leaving, I noticed the moon was sitting right above Ro’s house.

***

The air here is hot in Nigeria because it’s dry season. This means that rubbing plenty of carrot oil or shea butter on your skin to keep the moisture is a must. Drinking plenty of water is important, too, although no matter how much water I drink, my lips are still chapped.

Weather aside, there are wildflowers that make the landscape more beautiful. It’s important to find beauty in a place like this. Not the beauty humans project trying to make things how they wish it was, but the beauty that nature gives us, the beauty that keeps pushing itself out to be admired no matter what humans do. A lot of people here have said there’s nothing too beautiful about the country. Many have said they want to go japa.

Japa is a Yoruba term that has become synonymous with citizens wanting to flee the nation in search of better opportunities. Most people, if given the opportunity, would japa in a heartbeat. With the growing insecurity and the way my can of coconut milk was once 600 naira and is now 1200 naira, well…I don’t blame them. But when I look at those wildflowers, especially the red and orange ones, I know that there’s something to appreciate amid the chaos. I believe so, though most think I’m naive.

“There’s nothing to celebrate.” Rather than wave a Nigerian flag in jubilation, Mrs. Abisola thought it best to declare the reality of a nation’s failure and a people’s disappointment on Nigeria’s 60th Independence Day. She had lived in upstate New York, schooled in Egypt, relocated to London for university, and decided that no matter where she traveled, Nigeria was home. All her children, except for one, lived abroad.

She wore vibrant colors, red lipstick to match her red locs, and had joie de vivre that kept her on a constant high. She would often observe my fashion sense which, compared to the everyday professional Nigerian woman, was lackluster at best.

“You don’t know how to dress,” she said. “A woman out here needs to know how to dress.”

I didn’t look like a Naija babe or a slay queen. I wore hooped earrings for modest decoration and occasionally rocked a mulberry lip, but mostly it was ripped jeans and a plain blouse. My favorite colors: beige, white, black, gray. It was the sincerest effort I could put forth after relocating to a new country in the midst of a global pandemic.

Mrs. Abisola had an uncanny soft spot for me, something that was rare to find in the brashness encountered in Nigeria. “We parents always want our children to come back,” she said in reference to my returning to Nigeria. “It breaks our hearts when you don’t.”

She handed me her Ankara bracelets to wear with my navy dress. I obliged, knowing full well I would wear the bracelets because I had a tender spot for this woman who treated me with such care. I also knew that, very soon, I would never wear the bracelets again because I also had a tender spot for myself. It’s a tenderness that comes with knowing I am a woman who does not really go for bracelets and can finally be OK with that.

It was my first independence day in the country, and something about getting to October 1 felt hard-won. I had survived a roach-infested apartment, rotting food (because of little to no electricity in my area), a month-long lockdown, my American expat friends evacuating back to the U.S., and not eating for two weeks (my bank account froze during the lockdown).

In this part of the hemisphere, battling infectious diseases and viruses is nothing new. A level of uncertainty is the only thing that’s certain. When the coronavirus hit, it made the uncertainty even more precarious in a nation where half the population lives on less than two dollars a day. “No way the government expects people to stay indoors and not work,” many said. “The hungervirus is real, too.”

I had a brief honeymoon phase of reliving certain parts of my childhood: eating chin-chin and eba with my favorite soup, meeting artists and creatives, living in a place where my aesthetic was the dominant look. These things became the places of comfort I found navigating the daily realities of an emerging nation.

I was working as a journalist, reporting on crisis and insecurity in Nigeria. Interviewing people about their experiences gave me insight into the everyday Nigerian’s disappointment. People from my parents’ generation spoke of “the good ole days,” the days when you could get a job right out of university. Folks in my generation, meanwhile, said their only option for success was to study abroad or hustle to make their own way. Then there were the often-forgotten folks who came from families that had never attended university. They were usually small farmers, domestics, hawkers, people at the marketplace, and when you asked them what they thought about the matter, they’d ask, “What good old days were ever in this Nigeria?”

I wasn’t any more Nigerian than the day I had arrived. I could barely speak pidgin, barely understood the slang, and whenever someone attempted to speak to me, I’d move my ear closer to their mouths and ask them to slow down. I struggled with intonation and the overall expressiveness needed to hold your own in a conversation. Regardless of these limitations, something in me remained firm in knowing I didn’t want to be anywhere else.

To love a place you intuitively know failed your parents—which means that, somehow, this place has failed you—has to be the highest measure of faith.

I was surprised to see how Mrs. Abisola’s faith seemed to waver when she rolled her eyes at celebrating Nigeria’s independence. “Nothing to celebrate,” she stated. The sad thing about her statement was that it echoed the statements of all the other people I had spoken to that day.

Not surprisingly, my friend and mentor didn’t veer from her optimistic character for too long when she said, “I’d still rather be in this country than anywhere else. America is too volatile and the leaders are not too different from your average African dictator these days.”

I nodded my head in agreement.

On social media, I saw the racial crisis fomenting in the U.S. as peaceful protesters flooded the streets to denounce the murder of George Floyd. From Nina Pop to Ahmaud Arbery to Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau, we saw how fragile the various faces of Black life were. Instagram was full of posts calling out performative allyship, anti-blackness, and the overall failure of non-Black people to check their cousins and do better. I had never seen so many people apologize en masse for their internalized anti-blackness and how they let racism fester on their watch. I was overwhelmed with the apologist comments that flooded my Twitter feed while I was scouring for freelance work, with comments like: “I don’t know what I can do about dismantling systemic racism, but I can read the first 50 pages of your manuscript…” I wasn’t even living in America, but I was overwhelmed, and when I checked in with my friends back there, they expressed their befuddlement and anguish.

While the convergence of the realities I held sat heavy in my heart, the heaviness in my belly was growing lighter by the minute. Earlier that year, I had done an ultrasound and found no fibroids in my scan. The heavy bleeding had gone down considerably and no longer put me out for a week at a time. I’d like to tell you that the herbs, meditation, exercise, and leafy greens cured it, but I noticed a shift in my body as soon as I switched geographies.

Pain and disbelief are rife in Nigeria, and some could argue that the dysfunction in Africa’s most populous nation is more palpable here than in America. I wouldn’t argue with them.

Still, when I probe why I made this journey, why I ended up in Nigeria, it occurs to me that it was about finding the place where I would be happy to die. I’ve spent so much time thinking about how to preserve my life. So, if I’m gonna go, I’d rather it be in the place I found a sense of peace, even if I don’t understand it. I’d like it to be among the wildflowers in the arid heat. I can’t think of a better way to go than in the place one chooses.

***

On October 6, a video went viral showing a member of the Nigerian police killing a young person. The streets swelled with protestors, and it became impossible to travel in Lagos. Going from Lekki Island to the mainland would normally be two hours with traffic, but this time there were cars, kekes, motorbikes, and people turning around shouting, no road, to anyone who could hear them. There were roadblocks and no one could get in or out. My Uber driver stopped the ride because he refused to wait in traffic indefinitely. As there were no vehicles headed in my direction, the only mode of transportation available was by foot.

I got out of the car to start walking. I prayed I wouldn’t have to ask for directions as I headed toward home. It wouldn’t be good to expose myself as a foreigner. My GPS worked and, thankfully, it hadn’t rained. The day was not a complete crisis.

Days later, there was a call for people in the West, especially Nigerians abroad, to raise their voices, to shed light on the injustice. Some did, some didn’t, but many tried to draw parallels between police brutality in the U.S. and police brutality in Nigeria. The conversations on the ground were interesting: “It’s not about police brutality it’s about good governance,” someone said. Another person said, “People in the West always get the message wrong, it’s like they’re willfully stupid. Look, celebrities won’t save us.” Another person spoke of how the protests were about good governance. “This country has been taken over by bad leadership. Plain and simple,” he said.

It had been almost two years since I’d left the states. I had been in Nairobi backpacking and traveling before taking the job in Abuja. I was collecting stories and experiences with the people I met, some who believed fervently in Pan-Africanism, some who thought the whole idea was bogus, and some who said to even indulge in these conversations was a luxury.

What I learned was this: There is nowhere to escape to. Africa is not the land of kings and queens. You can’t romanticize it. It’s messy and a lot of it is heartbreaking.

So, I don’t have that kind of story for you. The kind where when I arrived, I sniffed the air, and just knew it was home. When I arrived on the continent, I did feel a peace that felt, well, very divine. But then the real work began. I had to figure out how I would make my way with little to no money and not much reference for the culture other than what I had learned from Nigerians in the U.S.

I’m of this place, but I’m also not from this place, and I must work to bridge this gap every second of every day. It can be exhausting trying to work through gaps of misunderstanding with the hope that everyone will be better for it. Nigeria, in particular, is a place where people are trying to self-actualize and realize their full potential, and they’re trying to figure out how to do it in the midst of a lot of failure. Most days, it’s best to mind my business and avoid causing further harm.

I think of what one of my colleagues said to me when we were talking about this subject: “Westerners—primarily Black westerners—come here thinking it’s about finding their roots. And to some extent it is, but there’s much they don’t know about living in Africa. It’s not only about finding your roots. After a while, that becomes a selfish pursuit. It’s about how you will give back. But again, you can’t give back thinking you know everything. You’ll just be a tyrant that way, and so, you must know how to give back.”

I think I’ve been spending a lot of time trying not to be a tyrant while also trying not to be bamboozled. These things are rather difficult to do at the same time, but that’s what it is here. Still, while relocating had its difficulties and heartaches, there’s something inside me that asks, where else but here? I have the ancestors to thank for this.

Meet the Contributor

Itoro bassey

Itoro Bassey is a Nigerian-American writer, journalist, and educator. She has received writing fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, the San Francisco Writers Grotto, and The Edward Albee Foundation, among others. Some of her popular pieces of writing include Running, Anti-Blackness and the African Immigrant, and A Visitor in My Homelands. She has just debuted her first novel, Faith, which follows several generations of Nigerian women grappling with migration, ancestry, and spirituality. She lived in the Bay Area for eight years before relocating to Africa in 2018.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: dotun55/Flickr Creative Commons

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