I had to lose weight to learn Igbo.
One thing that I have learned during my weight loss journey is that before any changes are visible physically, drastic spiritual and mental changes must occur. On December 13, 2016, I decided that I wanted to change my physical appearance. I contacted a weight loss coach, started a diet, and began group exercise training. I am naturally an outdoorsy girl who likes to take risks, but as my weight increased, the only risk that encountered was whether I would fit in a ride or even be allowed to participate in activities. I have lost over 80 pounds and I attribute it to a total spiritual and mental transformation. I had to, first, believe that I was worth losing weight for the process to even begin. I have gone public about my, once secret, weight loss journey and I absolutely enjoy encouraging others to start and stick with their personal journeys.
So, what does this have to do with Igbo?
Well, my parents were born in Nigeria and they emigrated to America as adults. They both speak one of Nigeria’s several languages, Igbo. However, they are also bilingual (English and Igbo) and very rarely spoke Igbo to my siblings and I (unless they were upset, or we had done something totally outrageous in public as children).
Although starting in California, school and work opportunities led my dad to the South. On a visit to Nigeria, he met my mom, they got married and she emigrated to southern U.S. as well. At the age of 5, we eventually moved to a small town—the kind of town where everyone is related, and everyone knows everything about everyone—where I lived until I graduated from high school.
Let’s just say that being Nigerian made things a little uncomfortable. I was teased because of it (my name, the assumption of what my parents’ living situations back home were, my parents’ accents, etc.) throughout most of my school experience and by middle school, I had made up my mind that I wanted nothing to do with Nigeria! Although I had awesome friends, I always felt like I did not fit in and I despised that feeling. I wouldn’t even tell my friends my middle name and when I did, I completely changed the pronunciation to make it sound more “American”. I could not wait for the day that I would get married to an American man who would change my last name forever.
Well that hasn’t happened—at least not yet.
Fast forward to 13 years later.
There was something about this spiritual/ mental/physical (weight loss) journey that helped me to get reacquainted with myself. I realized that one significant part of myself that I had stuffed in the corner over the years was my Igbo heritage. So, I decided to take steps to become reconnected with my cultural roots.
I downloaded an app for learning the Igbo language, which was a surprise to my parents because I never showed interest in the language. Am I an expert? No. Have I learned to do more than listen for my name in their conversations and try to put two and two together? Yes. I incorporate Igbo in my conversations with my parents and siblings.
I talk to my parents and family members about Nigerian history, customs, and stories.
I read and remain current on cultural issues.
I take down recipes when my mother is cooking.
My playlists are full of Nigerian artists.
I’ve taken an Ancestry DNA assessment—my ethnicity estimate was 94% Nigerian, with the other 6% being comprised of other African countries (yay!)
My uncle is working on an Ankara dress for me at this very moment.
And I’m taking other steps to become intentional about celebrating my Nigerian-ness.
Most importantly, however, I have learned to appreciate all the details that make me Joy, including my Nigerian heritage. I am no longer hiding it and I am striving to be as West African/Southern American as I can be!
If I had not embarked on such a life changing journey, I may not have reestablished the love and connection that I now have with such a rich and multi-faceted culture.
And--plot twist--I am also proud of the small southern town that played a part in shaping me into the woman I am today.