By Jontin Oluyemi Cooper
It wasn’t my fault that things got so out of hand. No. That’s not right. It wasn’t completely my fault then. It certainly wasn’t my fault to begin with. I blame my stupid surname – ‘Obafemi’. I could hardly hope to go about in a practically all-white school with a surname like that and not attract some interest. In a school full of Smiths, Joneses, Coopers and Pitt-Rivers, the name Obafemi stood out like a zebra among horses.
When people did ask me questions about my surname and where I came from I didn’t want to disappoint them with my answers. They wanted me to tell them that I was an African through and through. They wanted me to tell them about the mysteries of the continent. They wanted me to tell them about seeing zebras on safari and tasting spicy curries. They wanted to know what the colourful clothing looked like, what it was like during the heatwaves. They wanted to know if I’d ever visited the Nile and if I’d ever seen the Pyramids. They wanted to see me to tell them that Nelson Mandela was my hero. They wanted me to show off my African accent.
When people did ask me questions about my surname and where I came from I didn’t want to disappoint them with my answers.
Can you imagine how much of a letdown it would have been if I told them that I was about as African as them? My black skin is just about the only African thing about me. Yes, I’m half Nigerian by blood, but that’s about it. My white mum was born and raised in rural Cheshire. My dad is Nigerian, but he’s only visited Africa once in his life – on a two week holiday. He was born at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, and by all accounts considers himself to be British, not Nigerian. So really, it’s a stretch to even call me half Nigerian.
On the first day of secondary school, when they saw my black skin and my exotic surname on the register, all my classmates assumed that I must be African. That would be the natural assumption. I could have, should have, explained otherwise. But I didn’t. I didn’t want to disappoint them. I wanted to be interesting. I wanted to be different. I wanted them to like me. I told them that I was Nigerian to the core. They then asked me ‘what do people do in Nigeria?’ I was just as qualified to answer that question as they were. Even to this day, I have never visited Africa in my life, let alone Nigeria. I’ve never even set foot out of Europe. Nevertheless, I made up an answer. I thought that would be the end of it. I was wrong.
They kept on asking me questions. I kept on fabricating new answers. This lasted for weeks, months, years. I actually developed quite a talent for making up stories about Nigeria. I used what I knew of the country from the newspapers. I started to enjoy it. It was my thing. It was a hobby. My friends loved my stories. Even my teachers were impressed. Everyone wanted me to tell another story about my crazy third cousins, or the time I was robbed in Lagos. Everyone wanted to hear about the seemingly endless troubles of my fabricated second cousin Abegunde. In the latest instalment, he had been forced to eat his father’s heart in order to take the kingship of his tribe. I got that idea from Game of Thrones.
Everyone wanted to hear about the seemingly endless troubles of my fabricated second cousin Abegunde.
I told them that I was fluent in Yoruba. They wanted evidence. I couldn’t provide it initially. Some people started calling me a liar, a fraud. They told me that they bet I didn’t know a single word of Yoruba. I couldn’t face the accusations. I had to prove them wrong. I mumbled a few African-sounding syllables. I did my best impression of a tribal song. It sounded African. They seemed pleased enough with that.
I forced myself to like Nigerian food and music. I’ve always had a low threshold for spicy foods, but I forced myself to eat the extra hot special at Nando’s to show off my Nigerian taste buds. I researched Afrobeats. I forced myself to like the musical genre. I would have preferred to listen to the likes of Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, and Adele, but I forced myself to listen to Wizkid, Stormzy, and Drake. I forced myself to like them. Maybe I did end up liking them. Regardless, my music taste couldn’t be white. It had to be black.
They asked me if I had ever been a victim of racism. I couldn’t tell them that my sheltered middle-class upbringing meant that I hadn’t even come across the phrase ‘racism’ until a few years before. A true African, a true black person, would have experienced some racism in their lifetime. It’s an inevitability. So I made up an experience. I told them that I’d had people calling me a nigger from their open car windows. I told them that I’d had twigs thrown at me (I was going to say that I’d had stones thrown at me, but I thought that might defy belief). I told them that I’d once been picked on by a racist teacher. I started to find racism in everything around me. The commercial in the ad-break during last night’s X Factor was racist. That newspaper article was racist. The casting for that TV show was racist. That song was racist. I was the go-to person if you wanted a rant about racism. I was their puppet. I put on a show.
This went on for three years. It had got to the point where I couldn’t backtrack. Things had gone too far. I became paranoid. Anything that might blow my cover had to be hidden. I made sure that my dad didn’t bump into any of my friends at Parent’s Evening. I didn’t want them to hear the supposed Nigerian prince speaking with a thick Birmingham accent. My pre-school friends, the ones who had known me as the very British Tom, must never bump into my current school friends. I had sleepless nights fearing that my cover might be blown. I feared the disappointment in their eyes, the disgust. I was always dreaming of situations in which person A meets person B. They quickly realize that they both share me as a mutual friend, but are then shocked to realize that they know two very different Toms. I guess it was a relief when my cover was finally blown. At least I no longer had a reason to be paranoid.
Things had gone too far. I became paranoid. Anything that might blow my cover had to be hidden.
It was the beginning of sixth form. Among the usual influx of new students, there was Ifechi. Now Ifechi was everything that I wished I could be. He was everything that I had told everyone that I was. He was everything that everyone thought I was. Ifechi was a true, authentic Nigerian. Both his parents were Nigerian. They were proper members of the Igbo tribe. He had been born in Abuja and had been raised there for the first decade of his life. Inevitably, he quickly saw through my facade of Nigerian-ness.
Everyone assumed that we would become best friends, having a home country in common and that. He asked me where my family came from. I said Lagos. He asked where in Lagos. I frantically searched through the vacant rooms of my brain for an answer. After a few moments of silence, I mumbled something vague about the west side of Lagos. He asked me if I had ever eaten dodo before. I thought he was making a joke, mistaking the native plantain dish for the extinct bird. One of my friends asked me to tell him about the time I found a zebra in my backyard back in Nigeria. As I told the story, Ifechi looked increasingly bemused.
I realized why afterwards. I overheard him speaking to them during geography. They were asking him if all Nigerians were like me. ‘Tom is a lot of things’, he said, ‘but he’s definitely not Nigerian. Any proper Nigerian would know that in Nigeria we don’t have zebras.’
Illustration: Sarah McAllister