A Nigerian Attempts Therapy
University of Nevada, Counseling Services Intake
Name: Ucheoma Onwutuebe
Race/ethnicity: African American/Black/African/Nigerian
To be precise, I am Igbo. Where I come from, a child inherits her father’s origin. You are not from the place where you were born. You are not from the place where you grew up. You do not belong to your mother or to anyone who raised you. You belong to your father, present or absent.
My father was enlisted as a child soldier in the 1967 Biafran civil war. Like most Igbo men who survived the war, he did not talk about it, but growing up I could see my father carry both the pride and shame of it square on his shoulders. He insisted my first language be Igbo, and he didn’t fall for the identity craze of the 1990s when most Nigerian parents forbade their children from speaking their native languages.
“Say it in English,” parents would chide their children if they dared speak Igbo. In school, students were mocked and punished for speaking vernacular. But my father stood above the pressure to present his children as “polished,” refusing to tuck away their mother tongue. I said bia, before I said come. I knew Mama Ukwu before I knew she was also Grandmother. When my siblings and I prattled in Igbo, my father wasn’t concerned that we might turn out Igbotic, the local way of referring to people too provincial to adopt civility. Civility, meaning the white man’s ways, the white man’s tongue. My father, who is now dead, was a titled man, a prominent chief in our village. He favored his well-tailored senators, his walking staff, and his red chieftaincy cap over a suit and tie. He was proudly Igbo.
But he wasn’t always proudly Nigerian. On only two occasions do I remember him crying tears of joy for our country. The first time was the Atlanta Olympics in 1996: Nigeria vs. Argentina. Football was the only thread that held together our country’s worn fabric, and every Nigerian home glowed from TV rays that night. Our boys had beaten the Japanese, the Hungarians, even the almighty Brazilians. This was the final match and we wanted that gold medal. The Argentines were hammering us, and we were losing 2-1. But soon our boys equalized, and just a minute before the final whistle, Emmanuel Amunike scored the winning goal.
My father cried with joy. He danced with my uncles in the yard, waving cassava leaves in the air. As a little girl, I couldn’t know what those few hours of joy meant for a man whose country had failed him again and again, as it would also fail me in the coming years.
The second time he cried was at the death of Sani Abacha, the military leader who tyrannized the country and looted the national treasury. In those years, the entire county was hunched by fear of the despot, afraid to speak up, afraid to complain. Journalists and activists were killed by firing squad. Political opponents were imprisoned and tortured. When Radio Nigeria announced, in June of 1998, that the General was dead, my father cried and danced. So great was our collective national joy that poor market women gave away their goods to passersby. Impromptu parties broke out in the middle of our streets. “Our country will be great again,” my father said that evening, as he washed down his garri and ukazi soup with a bottle of lager beer. “This country will be great.”
I wished he hadn’t believed that.
Sex at birth: Female
My mother wanted a son. Those were the days when Nigerian hospitals were not equipped with machines that could tell a baby’s sex. Mothers hoped they would be pleasantly surprised by an answered prayer. My mother had requested a boy because her first child was a girl. It was okay if the firstborn was female; she would care for her parents when they grew old. But this was to be followed by a son, and more sons, and maybe a sprinkle of daughters. If not, people would talk. What was there to do with a litter of girls? Who would perpetuate the family name?
My mother’s parents had nine children in their aggressive pursuit of sons. Their fifth child was finally a boy yet they kept on trying for more sons, for more prestige. Stung by the ordeal of her gender, my mother wanted sons too. Her mother-in-law, Mama Ukwu, was already rolling her eyes, hoping my mother did not come bearing her people’s difficulty in producing sons.
If my father was disappointed at the arrival of another daughter, I never knew. My mother named me Ucheoma, a name too noble for a consolation prize. Ucheoma means “good thoughts.” Though this is not what I ordered, she probably thought, God still thinks good thoughts towards me. I love my mother for the gift of my name.
Many girls face violent welcomes—their mothers wail with disappointment and their fathers storm out of the waiting halls. Relatives beg them to come hold their babies. Nwa bu nwa, they say, pleading with the men. A child is a child. But no one needed to run after my father. He marched into the labor room and held me. I believed he loved me; his smiles in my baby pictures tell me so.
Gender Identity: Female
I am a Nigerian woman, plagued by Nigerian womanly problems. When I moved to America for graduate school last summer, I believed this new country would shield me from those nagging afflictions. I believed the shiny billboards and neon signs of Las Vegas would shoo away the burdens that come with being a Nigerian woman. But like my accent, the ghosts of those problems marched right alongside me. During my first winter break, I spent the holidays in Wylie, Texas with my auntie. One evening, she invited me to join her at a meeting of Christian Nigerian women. I’d been attending a lovely Pentecostal church in Las Vegas, filled with sweet, kind people, but after four months away I longed for the Nigerian-ness in the churches back home and jumped at my aunt’s offer.
We arrived late, in the middle of Praise and Worship. The women were nurses, teachers, bankers, and new wives freshly imported from Nigeria. Some were dressed in hospital scrubs, others came with children in tow. The woman who led the songs wore a colorful ankara gown and long winter boots, her outfit a blend of home and abroad.
I’d forgotten how animated church could be. The music leader slapped a tambourine against her thigh with the throbbing music. The women bent at the waist, dancing and singing. Those familiar songs, songs I did not realize how much I missed till I heard them again that evening. Songs I first sang in nursery school as we lined up for morning devotion. Songs my mother sang as she stirred a pot of ukazi soup in the kitchen. I sang along, drenched in nostalgia, my eyes stinging with tears. I was home again.
Then came Testimony time. One by one the women came forward, bearing the sheaves of God’s goodness and faithfulness. “My sisters, this our God is too good,” the first testifier panted into the microphone, as she thanked God for a wayward child who gave up video games to face his studies.
“Look at me, I am now the mother of a teen!” cried another, celebrating a child who’d just turned thirteen. A woman testified for an errant husband coming back to his senses. “Who would have thought Obumsele would look at me and touch me again?” Another testified for a cousin—an old spinster—who was finally getting married. “I was worried for Ifedi—tall and beautiful but no husband. I thank God for He has finally broken the yoke of marital disfavor upon her life.”
The common thread in all their testimonies was husbands, children, and marriage. Not one woman spoke about her own needs. I could feel my tears of joy drying up. I thought I’d left all that when I said my goodbyes at Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja.
When the meeting ended, I knew what was to come. My auntie pulled me into a circle of women. “This is my little niece,” she said, her voice dripping with pride. “She is a genius. She can write, eh. She and Chinua Achebe are in the same WhatsApp group. She came to America this August and she is already a graduate assistant in Las Vegas!”
“You don’t mean it!” they cried. “Congratulations nne. Is this the one that her father died some time ago?”
“Yes,” my auntie said.
“Eiyaa.” They patted my back affectionately. “It is well, my dear. Welcome to America. Wow, she’s a grown woman. Aka oji ya? Is any hand holding her?”
“No hand is holding her, oh,” my auntie said, pushing me forward. “She is very, very single.”
“My dear,” they said to me, “life does not consist of only writing and graduate assisting. You need a man. You need God’s marital favor.”
Relationships Status: Single
Lately, I have been avoiding my mother’s calls. The last time we spoke she asked me, “So, is anyone talking to you?” trying unsuccessfully to mask the worry in her voice. “In your church, are there not God-fearing young men there?” These questions come, like clockwork, after I’ve shared some good news with her—a career milestone, an acceptance, a successful application. They pose arrogantly, as if to say, whatever you have achieved pales in comparison to this void. This singleness. This cultural crime.
I understand my mother’s fears. Marriage provided her an identity, answered her prayers to further her education, made her a legitimate mother, and placed her on a pedestal that unmarried women could not touch. “Every woman needs a covering,” my mother would say. Why? Because the world handles you less carelessly if you are married. The landlord will rent to you more quickly if you are married. The bus conductors, the rude cashier, the pastor, the iman, the wastrels on the streets, all of them are careful to treat you well if you wear a wedding band. If not, perhaps you have a husband who can throw hands, and the offenders will be in serious trouble.
My mother’s worries are founded on these grounds. Who will provide for you? She seems to ask. Who will throw hands for you? Who will shield you from the insolence that our culture reserves for women? Who will cover you?
Sexual Orientation: Heterosexual
Men are my weakness. Serve me men for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and I will lick the plate clean. The way they unsteady you with their flattery and spin you with words till your brain whirls and you forget your mother’s warnings. The way they crush you like leaves under the weight of their potency.
Time will fail me to talk about ways they assault the world with their beauty, leaving casualties in their wake. I have been that casualty. No shame in saying that. I shall be a casualty in the future and I am fine with that. That is the lot of every woman who desires men. They bruise us and we pretend to be unscathed and return again to the battlefield. I have become a collector of bruises and I show them off like war marks. Look where Tunde said he would never leave but left. Look at the imprint of Ebuka’s strong hands. Look when Jamil said his mother doesn’t like Igbo girls. Look at the marks of Ifeanyi’s unrequited love.
But for man-desiring women like me who were raised in a misogynistic culture, there are so many inventive ways your desire can be wielded against you. Your desire is never a thing that can stand alone on its own two feet. It must lean on acceptability, on societal barricades, on the gospel of shame.
First to attend college/university: No
My mother studied English Literature at the University of Port Harcourt. “Your father trained me in school,” she often said to us. This means the bill was on my father. My father, at that time, was already an accomplished young man who also trained his four siblings in school. University was an ambitious option for women then but my father wanted a well-educated woman. So he paid her way. He was her covering.
My father studied chemistry at the University of Ibadan. He was amongst the first people in our hometown to attend university.
International Student: Yes
My American visa is my biggest miracle. More than winning the lotto. More than that reluctant “Yes” from the consul officer in the US Embassy, Abuja. My visa is my fair chance at life. It is also my mother’s bragging right. “Do you know that my second daughter is a lecturer in America? When I tell you I don’t give birth to useless children, you better believe me.”
A child in America is a parent’s hope. This child will send over pills for arthritis. This child will provide them with proper medical care. This child will offer them a home to retire in, a home far from the incessant kidnappings and killings in Nigeria. A child in America is an emblem of a fortunate parent, a sign that luck and favor exist in that family. Why? Because the Nigerian dream is to leave Nigeria. Because Nigeria is tottering on the rims of hopelessness. And this is how Nigeria failed me.
Why do I need to leave home to breathe? Why are there Thanksgiving services in church when visas are approved? Why do embassy officials possess that much power? Why are they able to decide our destiny, whether we go to the promised land or stay back in captivity?
This is how Nigeria failed my father. When he said his country would be great again, he likely dreamt of better infrastructure, quality education for his children, sound healthcare. When prostate cancer appeared out of the blue, it felled the big man like a weak tree. No medical insurance. No regular checkups at the hospital. We had to crowdsource funds to send him to India but by then, it was too late.
After his job at the breweries ended, my father dabbled in politics though he did not have the liver to wade in deeper. Instead, he sat home and read newspapers. He was still a big man by default, a titled man. Relatives still knocked at the door, asking for handouts and he gave what he could. But no matter how big you are, Nigeria will humble you with its madness. That’s how the man died in his prime. Entered 1954, exited grudgingly in 2018.
My father cried on his deathbed and asked God to please spare his life. He didn’t want to die and he made us read to him Psalms 118:17 where the psalmist sang, I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord. My father died without driving his daughter to the airport, a ritual he performed for his children leaving town. He did not live to hear the good news of my American visa.
Top concerns that bring you to counseling: Relationship Problems
A certain boy is trying to bruise me, but my spirit is too strong for him. After experiencing Nigerian men’s sweet love and their demonic wickedness, I am convinced there is no mountain I can’t move, no valley I can’t climb. I’m here only because I heard therapy is where bougie people come to toughen their hide against this cruel world. So I have come to receive additional powers that could make me even more invincible.
It appears the creeds I learned on the streets back home are not enough for this American terrain. So I have come like an old dog, for you to teach me new tricks. Are there words you never say to men in America? Words that may be fine with men in Nigeria, but taboo here? Words like “atone”? Because I asked this American man I’d been seeing to “atone” for canceling a date impromptu (because, Hello? Have you met me? You don’t just cancel on women like me!) and he said the word “atone” messes with his mental health and it’s triggering and it’s threatening to ruin all the mind work he’s done on himself.
His reaction surprised me and that surprise brought me to this couch. I want to be like those people who balk at conflict because their therapist told them to flee at the first sign of “drama.” I want to be like those people who cancel dates because, “Sorry, my therapist says I should lie back in bed.”
In Nigeria, psychiatric treatment of any form is hidden like a dirty bra strap. Don’t let anybody know that your brain is touching wires. Don’t tell anybody that as you sleep, dark thoughts sit by your bedside. Who will marry your daughters if people know that someone in your family has a head that is not screwed on correctly? So people keep mum and walk around with mental health issues that go undiagnosed. But even if they were diagnosed, who could afford therapy?
One time in Lagos, my mind was running in circles, relaying batons of worry. I googled “therapist near you.” When I saw the astronomical price, my mind was cured immediately. Who needs therapy when you can blast music from your headphones and call up the man currently bruising you?
But now that I am here in America and my health insurance covers it, I might as well indulge myself. I need a wisecrack from this therapy session. I want to say like other people, “Listen to what my therapist said to me that changed my life forever.”
History of abuse (physical, sexual and/or emotional): None
None, if you leave out those older men who did things to you when you were younger that they shouldn’t have done. But that’s normal. And it gives you stories to trade with your friends. “Mr. Onaku, the maths teacher? Filthy goat! He asked me to raise my skirt when no one was in the staff room.” “The registrar? He told me that if I was serious about graduating this year, I knew what to do, and he wrote on a paper the address of a hotel.”
No, I do not want to unpack that.
History of other trauma: Refer to above.
Are you currently considering dropping out of school?
Are you kidding? Drop out and go back to Nigeria because of this small- man trouble? Not a chance. Plus, it would rescind my mother’s bragging manifesto and she’d never forgive me.
Any past therapy: Not unless I won the lotto.
How do you cope with depressing thoughts: Pray
Just like writing, I can pray fluently. When my father died, I prayed. When I was applying for my American visa, I prayed. When men bruise me, I pray hard. I also go to church. So far, America hasn’t changed my relationship with either church or prayer.
The other day on Twitter, a young Nigerian who now lives in America wrote, “Ever since I moved here, I no longer go to church. There’s constant power supply. You get your check on payday. The system works. What is there to pray about?”
In Nigeria, people go to church out of hopelessness. When the government fails you, starves you, refuses to protect you, denies your children education and refuses to create an environment in which to thrive, the only hope the citizens cling to is a God they cannot see. They flood the churches and mosques and traditional priests’ shrines, seeking their fortune, hoping to ferry their destiny from a place of despondency to richer soils.
They need a miracle for hospital bills. They believe that one day they will lift their pillows and find bundles of miracle money. They believe in divine health because a single illness can wipe away a family’s fortune. So they pray the headache away before it becomes a stroke. Pray the boil away before it becomes a tumor. Pray the bill away before they lose their home.
As for me, I still pray here in America because I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to forget how much I prayed for where I am now. I don’t want to forget that my mother lost her appetite for days and only regained it when I came home with my crisp American visa. I don’t want to use God as a ladder and discard Him when I hop off at my desired destination.
In my prayers, I also ask God to teach me to be a good visitor in America. I say to Him, “Remind me that America is not my home. No matter how much I grow in my career and arrive in places where I can call the shots, don’t let me forget that this is not my country. Even Your Holy Word admonishes us that this world is not our home. Teach me to be a good guest, just like my mother admonished us as children when we visited others’ homes. ‘Don’t be like those children without training that smear walls and jump on furniture,’ she’d reel out as she tied our shoelaces, ‘Don’t break the TV. Don’t follow the tray of food with your eyes and act as if you’ve never seen food in your life.’ ”
Coming to America is sink or swim for me, and I have no option but to swim. This is the best option life has presented me and I am here to plant my dreams and help them bloom. Perhaps America may help me recover the things my country tried to steal from me. Things like peace of mind and a chance to dream. But no matter how diligently I prune the tendrils of my life and water the foliage of my ambition, it is you, God— as St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians—who gives the increase. That’s why I pray. Remind me, God, that I didn’t come to America to gawk at shiny billboards and neon signs. I came to save my life.