Recently Nigeria has been in the news for all the wrong reasons: kidnapping, Islamist militants, Boko Haram and most recently the Ebola outbreak, although we are told that the latter has been contained, unlike in Liberia and other countries in Africa.
Nigeria regained democracy in 1999, after some 33 years of military rule and is now a Federal Republic. It is a huge country with 36 states.
The Nigeria in Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is still under military dictatorship (pre-1999) when Ifemelu, the main character, is a young girl and she decides to depart for America to study, leaving her boyfriend Obinze behind. Once in America Ifemelu suffers hardship, she has no money, is too proud to ask or even to let Obinze know that she is desperate and sinks deeper and deeper into destitution. At the same time, she is becoming aware of something she had never thought about, or was even aware of, when still living in Nigeria: her race, the perceived differences between black and white people in America.
Americanah is the story of Ifemelu in America where eventually she becomes a successful writer and blogger about race, and of Obinze, unable to follow her after the 9/11 attack, who enters Britain as an illegal immigrant only to be deported before he even gets to university but after dismal experiences of working int he grey economy as an illegal. Obinze’s and Ifemelu’s lives diverge and they lose contact.
Ngozi Adichie is a wonderful writer, only she can conjure up just the right image of what it feels like when someone you know well and is one of your best friends, “She would miss her friend but Ginika’s leaving forced them both to wring out their friendship and lay it out newly fresh to dry (p.64)” or an uncomfortable silence, “Their silence was full of stones” (p.105). Her descriptions of the hairdressing salon where Ifemelu has her hair braided and the conversations that take place over hours of braiding between the girls and their clients are magnificent.
Ifemelu eventually decides to go back to Nigeria after democracy has been restored, but mainly because she feels an outsider in America and wants to belong again, not be constantly aware of her race and perhaps also to find back something she lost when she broke off contact with Obinze. Obinze however is now a wealthy businessman with a wife and daughter.
Adichie is strong on insights and is merciless in the way she picks out the nuances, and you sit up and wonder why you have never thought of putting it this way before. For example, her distinction between African-Americans and American Africans, where an African-American is a black person born in America and who has a long line of ancestors going back to the slaves, whereas an American African is someone who was born in Africa and now lives in America.
The book is not just about race though, there is so much more. It is also about belonging and feeling alone. Ifemelu eventually returns to Nigeria even though she is an established and successful writer. It is impossible to do justice to this book and the story it tells in a summary review. Ifemelu’s journey is one that touches many people who move from one country to another, from one culture to another, and who may end up feeling uneasy wherever they end up. It is a book about dislocation, in this case of a Nigerian girl who moves to America and eventually moves back.
One wonders though what Ifemelu would think about present day Nigeria?