When I created FindingNkem, I always meant for it to be a space about what it means to be a member of the African diaspora and how we go about “finding ourselves” in this wide world and creating the life we want while straddling multiple identities.
My Honors thesis on Senegalese migration narratives made me more curious about the stories of other migrants and how they navigated these identities and how it affects the way they move through life. And after bringing you bits and pieces of my own narrative, I also want to highlight the stories and adventures of others. There is a beauty in knowing about the journeys of others, marveling at the similarities and appreciating the differences.
My first feature is a friend, turned sister whose story and outlook on the world constantly inspires me. I’m also perpetually amused at how much our journeys mirror each other. She thinks I’m following her around the globe, and who knows, maybe I am. Chineme Ezekwenna is an Afropolitan Sans Frontieres (without borders) and it shows in her background (born in France and raised in US by Nigerian parents), her goals, and the way she interacts with the world around her. Sit back and enjoy this interview with Chineme as she shares her experience of identity, belonging and discovery: On The Move.
1. When did your family first move to the U.S.
My family moved to the U.S. – specifically Rolla, Missouri – when I was four years young.
2. Where were you born?
I was born in Southeastern France in the city of Grenoble. My parents were pursuing their graduate studies there – my dad a PhD in engineering physics and my mom a Master’s in English.
3. What did being Nigeria mean to you as you grew up in the U.S? What was the balance you saw between the two, particularly in your pre-college years?
Growing up as a young black girl surrounded by mostly white people in Missouri and the Eastern shore of Maryland, my multi-faceted identity was compartmentalized but also integrated. We would eat egusi, okra, bitter leaf, ora, etc soups with semoule (the French word for Semolina) like we had done in France. Being Nigerian meant having to greet my parents first ANYTIME they entered the house or I saw them for the first time that day. Being Nigerian meant that whenever my parents called my name, my answer was always “Yes” (in addition to me stopping what I was doing and going to them) and never “yeah”, “what”, or silence. Being Nigerian meant greeting every other Nigerian my parents’ age as aunty or uncle. Being Nigerian also meant dreading the first day of school and the presence of a substitute teacher who would somehow forget how to read (and subsequently butcher my name). Being Nigerian also meant having those Nigerian aunties and uncles telling me how to pronounce my name and ridiculing me for not speaking my parents’ first language.
Before college I wasn’t that connected to the Nigerian community outside my family on a daily basis. It wasn’t until I went to university that I really appreciated my Naija roots and became more immersed in my Nigerian culture.
4. What was it like growing up in Southern Maryland? What was your relationship like with other Nigerians, other Africans, other Black Americans, White Americans, other immigrant groups – and whatever other category you want to choose.
I moved to Southern Maryland during my sophomore year of high school (my second year of senior secondary school). I didn’t really interact with Africans in my community, because there were only a few families that my family knew in my town. However, my church at the time was a Nigerian one, so I saw them at least once a week. My school was practically 50/50 Black and White with a few Hispanics and Asian-Americans sprinkled in (less than 1%). I was an Honors student all throughout school, and in each school I attended I was usually one of the only Black students in my classes. By senior year though, most of my closest friends were Black Americans. So before university most of my friends were Black Americans, but when I got to University most of my friends were African (Nigerian, Congolese, Togolese, Béninois, Ghanian, Sierra Leonian, etc) American or international students from the Caribbean or Africa.
5. When was your first time going back to Nigeria? What did you think it would be like and how did it end up being?
The first time was when I was three years old, but I don’t remember, so let’s fast-forward to when I was nine. My family traveled to my parents’ hometowns in Anambra – Nnobi and Oraifite – before heading to Lagos. I hated it, I’m not going to lie, and I don’t think I had any expectations before going. Imagine pulling a privileged child from constant light, AC, running water, etc and dumping them in a village with none of the above. Well, I felt like I was being dumped in the middle of nowhere at the time. I really didn’t like my dad’s village, but I remember having a good time with my siblings and cousins (who also came down from the U.S.) in my mom’s village. I don’t remember too much about Lagos except that we went to a church service and got food and special treatment, since my dad was friend’s with the pastor. Ha! I remember being so happy when I returned back to the U.S.
6. Why did you choose to come back to Nigeria for service. What was the best part and the worst part of being back? And what was your #1 take away or lesson?
I chose to do NYSC after going back to Nigeria for my grandma’s funeral. There’s something about being “back home”, for me at least. I was living in southern France at that time, and as soon as I landed back on French soil I knew that I wanted to spend significant time in Nigeria where I was working and living on my own instead of coming for vacation where I would be coddled and suffocated by family. I love my family, and I’m sure they mean well, but I wanted to have my own life in Nigeria just like I did in the U.S. and France. I served with a human rights organization in Enugu that does some amazing work.
Take off those rose-colored glasses and leave your romanticized vision of Nigeria on U.S. soil before you board the plane “home”.
7. What advice would you give to other Nigerian-Americans who want to go back and serve?
Take off those rose-colored glasses and leave your romanticized vision of Nigeria on U.S. soil before you board the plane “home”. I’ve been to places in Nigeria that are at least 3x better than my parents’ house in the U.S. However, the chances that a typical Nigerian will be living in such conditions during their service year is slim to none. Familiarize yourself with the mentality and lifestyle of Nigerians actually living there.
The chances that you’ll be paid enough money to survive is also slim to none, so I would advise you to save up money before going. I also outlined the NYSC timeline, things to pack, and other tips that you might find useful here.
8. You’ve traveled to several countries now, tell us which ones (and cities) and why travel is so important to you and what you enjoy the most about it and what do you like the least?
I haven’t traveled enough! Lol. For the past few years my focus has been to #TravelAfrica, and I want to travel to at least 45 African countries in my lifetime. So far I’ve traveled to twelve countries:
- Nigeria (States: Anambra, Imo, Enugu, Bayelsa, Lagos, Cross Rivers, FCT, Plateau, Bauchi)
- France (Grenoble, Pau, Lyon, Paris, Montpellier, Niîmes, Biarritz, Carcassonne, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Aix-en-Provence)
- USA (Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Florida, Texas, Washington, Ohio)
- Senegal (Dakar, Saint Louis, Toubab Dialaw, Thies, Mbour, Saly, Joal-Fadiouth)
- Spain (Vitoria)
- Italy (Rome)
- Greece (Athens)
- England (London)
- Bénin (Cotonou)
- Siera leone (Freetown)
- Cote d’Ivoire (Abidjan, Assinie)
I hate leaving and unpacking.
9. Tell us specifically about traveling within Africa – why is that important for you to do and what’s your number one lesson/take-away from seeing and experiencing different West African cultures?
Travel has been a part of my life since I was young. In this Instagram post I explained why I have been focusing on traveling #shitholecountries in a recent Instagram post. Here’s an excerpt:
“I purposely highlight the beauty and diversity of Africa and melanated bodies because
- a) People are still lumping together and castigating an entire continent
- b) I’m tired of that nonsense and of seeing limited portrayals by the Western media
- c) I’ve seen too much beauty to keep it myself
- d) We as black people are in the best position to cater to our own.
We are the best ones capable of telling our stories, selling products that serve us well, and welcoming fellow people of color to spaces that are both familiar and foreign.
For me, my unadulterated love for all things black and brown is less about boycotting the melanin-deficient and more about bringing perspective to his-story and just supporting our own.
In that line, I want to introduce you to two amazing entrepreneurs from #shithole #Africa – specifically Nigeria – who saw an opportunity to provide #madeinnigeria products to their clients in Nigeria and around the …
(check out the rest on Instagram)
One of my biggest takeaways from traveling within West Africa is that AFRICA IS NOT (I repeat NOT) A COUNTRY. I know this, and hopefully you know this too. Funny enough for a lot of us it really seems to be lip service rather than a real understanding. There are so many people that I’ve met that make assumptions about not only other countries in the region, but the continent as a whole because they’ve either visited or lived in a country in the region. I always laugh a humorless laugh and side eye said person(s).
Another takeaway is the diversity, resiliency, and humanity of the people I encounter. My life usually plays out like an adventure, and I’m always surprised by my interactions with people whether it’s taking a selfie with a police at a checkpoint at 3am in the morning in Cote d’Ivoire, convincing a 10 year-old boy that the elephant he was scared of only wanted to be his friend in Nigeria, befriending a zim driver in Benin, swapping natural hair journey stories with a female-restaurant owner in Sierra Leone, or collecting Naira change from a market shop owner in Senegal (don’t ask lol). The people are the highlight of my travels followed closely by the music and food.
10. Tell us a bit about your blog and why you chose to start blogging? What are some of your other hobbies?
I’ve been a serial blogger since 2013. I started my blog as a way to share my travels with my family and friends, since people would always ask me about my travels. Over the past couple years, I’ve become a bit more serious about my blog, and I touch on things ranging from my travels, black beauty (specifically natural hair), and life in general. I love photography, and you can always catch me with my phone in my hand, and I bought my first DSLR a year ago. I post my poetry-fused photography on my Instagram page. I’m also a music addict suffering from wanderlust.
11. What drives you?
My faith and my background/upbringing drive me. People constantly seemed fascinated with the fact that I can’t seem to stay in one country for more than a year. For me this is normal, since I grew up moving around quite a bit and my parents themselves have lived on three continents (as have I).
12. Who is someone you look up to with a similar background/narrative to yours?
So so many. In film I really appreciate Yvonne Orji because she is making moves as a Jesus-following Nigerian-American who is committed to telling our stories. In photography, I love seeing Yagazie Emezi’s growth. I’ve been following her since 2009 when she used to vlog – seeing her progression to a renown Nigerian-Malaysian photographer makes my heart smile. In the natural hair realm, I can’t sleep on my girl Chinwe aka IgboCurls – I’ve been following her since 2009 as well and her growth has been exponential. She’s a Nigerian-British natural hair blogger/entrepreneur that makes me proud. I could go on, but I’ll stop there.
13. Where do you see yourself in 5-7 years, professionally, personally and of course – geographically.
I see myself being based in West Africa continuing to tell melanated stories using my lens and my pen.
14. If you could only live in one country for the rest of your life, which one would it be and why?
I’m not sure to be honest. I haven’t explored enough of this world to say. With that being said, I would love to spend more time in Cote d’Ivoire!! I visited for the first time last year after nearly a decade of dreaming of going. I had an amazing time, but my trip was way too short for my liking. I’m hoping to go back (don’t know when!), but for a longer amount of time. I experienced hospitality in CI that I’ve yet to experience in another West African country. I loved the laid-back attitude of people (nobody was questioning my outfits or accent), the party scene (clubs are open every day of the week), the food, sites, etc.
15. Throwing it back a bit to question 2, Now, post college, lots of travel and a year in Nigeria – what does it mean to you to be Nigerian-American? What is your balance now?
I’m proud of my multi-faceted identity, and I call out BS in both countries. When people ask me where I’m from, I usually reply that I’m Nigerian-American (mostly because I don’t actually know what they’re asking). I believe that Nigerian-American is an identity in and of itself. There are nuances that my fellow Naija-Americans will understand that my Nigerian friends back in Nigeria and my Black American friends will never understand. And even within the Naija-American community there differences – there are the ones who go back to Nigeria often for vacation and have a romanticized view of the country. There are others who have removed their rose colored glasses and still love the country, flaws (read: no light) and all.
16. Pan-African or Afropolitan – which word resonates with you more and why?
Despite the tension between both parties I see positives in both ideologies. I usually refer to myself, as an Afropolitan because my first nationality is Nigerian, and thus my “African” identity colors my life no matter whether I find myself in the U.S., France, or Senegal. And my American identity is equally important, because I am neither solely Nigerian nor solely American (whatever the latter even means).
17. Favorite dish?
I’m a food lover, who’s lived on three continents; sorry but I can’t narrow it down to one dish. This is really hard. Hmmm. I love plantain (as prepared by Nigerians/West Africans, Caribbeans, and Filipinos), rice & stew (Nigerian tomato, cassava leaf from Sierra Leone/Liberia, and peanut soup from W. Africa or Asia), and chicken.
18. What advice would you give to other people who are out here trying to live their best life, while being intentional and global minded?
Find your passion and pursue it with everything that you have. Along the way you might find that your vision and goals change but no matter what stay true to yourself, have a tribe that keeps you grounded, and get the work down like your life depended on it.
So Chineme and I are actually really good friends, basically sisters. But reading this still gave my more insight into her life and her story. I’m super proud of the woman she is and truly admire the woman she’s becoming. If you’re not already following her on the socials, then you definitely should. That way you can say you knew her before she landed on the front of Times Magazine.
What did you think of this feature? Is it nice to hear from someone other than me (be honest!). I’m hoping to introduce you to a new mover and shaker in the Afropolitan space once a month so stay tuned!
“On The Move: stories of identity, belonging & discovery” is a series here at FindingNkem that allows us to explore the stories of other amazing people are are finding and creating their place in this world. It’s an opportunity for us to appreciate our differences and take comfort in our similarities. It’s an opportunity for us to cheer either us as we work hard to achieve our goals irregardless of our background. Here’s to more discovery, adventure and growth.