Go Ask your Grandparents, They will tell You that You are from Nigeria!
Above: My maternal grandparents (Drue and Sarah) and their four sons (Arvesta, Dalton, Dan and Drue, Jr.) in Arkansas circa 1943. My grandparents had three additional daughters before the end of the decade (the youngest, my mother).
During my time working remotely in the Washington, D.C. headquarters of my organization, I entered a taxi on my way to a meeting at the State Department. What was most surprising about this particular taxi ride was my taxi driver was a black Washingtonian, a rare find in Washington, D.C. Taxi drivers in D.C. are mostly Ethiopian with other nationalities making up the majority of D.C.’s taxi regiment. As I have learned being in Nigeria, you always properly greet your taxi driver and ask, “How work?”
So after getting pass the pleasantries, my driver asked, “Where you from?” I told him that I was originally from Alabama but had lived in Washington, D.C. for a decade but now resided in Nigeria for work. He said, “Oh, so you from Nigeria?” Thinking maybe he misunderstood me, I repeated myself. He asked again, “You from Nigeria?” I laughed and said, no, I was born and raised in Alabama. He replied, “Ok, so your parents are from Nigeria?” I said, “no, they are also from Alabama, and their parents and their parents, all from Alabama.” I could sense that he was now confused but I could not understand why he wasn’t following what I was saying to him. Finally he blurted out, “You don’t sound like you are from Alabama. You sound like you are from some foreign place.” I laughed out loud because I knew why he was confused. Since moving to South Sudan (and then to Nigeria), I have taken on a very strange accent that tries to merge my American pronunciations with a British twist. This helps my colleagues and other people I interact with better understand me.
I got the idea from my American friend living in Rwanda. He told me that while many of the people he interacted with spoke English, they learned it from the British, not Americans. So his American accent and pronunciations would sometimes be lost in translation. So I have tried to move away from certain American pronunciations like “wodder” for water to the British sounding “WAH-ta” or referring to my “trash” as “rubbish.” In addition, a car no longer has a hood and a trunk, its now a bonnet and boot. And while I have not incorporated the British pronunciation of aluminum, it makes me chuckle each time I hear it. The TV show Parks and Recreation did an episode where Andy laughed each time he heard the British pronunciation. The Brits say “al-loo-MIN-ee-um” which at first sounds extremely foreign to the American ear. Family and friends back in the U.S. have called me out about my “new” accent but its necessary for me to get by in Nigeria.
But this is not the first time that a taxi driver has been confused about where I am from. Before heading back to the U.S. for home leave, I was in a taxi in Abuja when the driver asked me where I was from. I told him I was an American living in Nigeria. He responded by saying, “so are you a Nigerian that grew up in the U.S.?” I said, “no, I was born in the U.S.” He responded, “So your parents are from Nigeria?” I said no, “my parents were also born in the U.S.” The taxi driver said, then your grandparents must have emigrated to the U.S. I again, said “no, my parents, grandparents, great grandparents and all the way back to the slave ship that crossed the ocean are from the U.S.” He smiled and said, “Go ask your grandparents, they will tell you that you are from Nigeria.” I laughed and kept quiet. To this driver, there was no way I was anything but a Nigerian!
My parents recently participated in one of those DNA test that tells you were your ancestors came from. I was skeptical of the test but my dad was interested in taking the test. So my parents sent off samples of their saliva to be tested. We discovered that my dad’s ethnicity is 67 percent from the African continent – 24 percent from Ivory Coast & Ghana, 21 percent Cameroon & Congo, 11 percent Nigeria, 9 percent Senegal and 2 percent Benin & Togo. So basically, the 67 percent ethnicity comes from the countries along the western coast of Africa. 29 percent of my dad’s ethnicity is from Europe, mostly Western Europe (Germany). This is the connection to the German ancestor August Herman Francke. I am also sure the Nigerian taxi driver would be happy to know that my dad is 11 percent Nigerian (and 67 percent West African).
My mom on the other had is 49 percent European, 25 percent from Western Europe and 15 percent from Ireland. She is also 48 percent African, 17 percent from Ivory Coast & Ghana, 11 percent from Nigeria, 7 percent from Cameroon & Congo, 4 percent from Senegal, 4 percent from Mali, 3 percent from Benin & Togo, 1 percent Africa Southeastern Bantu and 1 percent South Central Hunter/Gatherers. Once again, 11 percent Nigerian! While it might sound strange that my mom is 49 percent European and 48 percent African, her grandfather was a white man name John Roberson (or Robinson) from Mississippi/Arkansas and my grandmother’s ancestors included a few interracial births.