Nervous for Nigeria: why more self-care is vital before a big trip home

Illustration by soofiya.com 

It’s holiday time, and many second and third generation kids are returning to where we, or our parents, call home. I’m heading to Nigeria, currently packing for a journey and, browsing through my closet, thinking of which clothes I’ll take with me, what I’ll wear to this wedding, or to that birthday party when I land in Lagos. My hands are steady on my closet door, but I know that as the date approaches, my mental health will deteriorate, and I’ll become anxious. Home doesn’t always make me feel happy.

As I pack my mind drifts: I think about the riots after Goodluck Jonathan was re-elected in 2011, the people who were maimed and killed. I wonder why I’m going on this trip at all, whether the need to see my family and friends trumps my need for self-preservation. Most news outlets are predicting a relatively peaceful election season in 2019 and there hasn’t been much violence so far.  

But I’ll ask myself the same question over and over again: How do you go home, when going home can be a matter of life or death? How do you protect your psyche when violence and the threat of violence are always around the corner in the country from which you take your culture?

The first time I returned to Nigeria in 2010, my mother, siblings, and I were almost killed in a standoff with militants.

The first time I returned to Nigeria in 2010, my mother, siblings, and I were almost killed in a standoff with militants. We had just driven from the capital city of Abuja to the outskirts of a market town known as Lokoja. We were on our way to my hometown, Enugu, and I was wide-eyed and elated, absorbing the sights and sounds like I was a kid again. Then we were ambushed by gun-wielding men sporting military fatigues and bloodshot eyes. They waved their guns in our faces and shouted for us to climb out of the car. I have never been so afraid in my life. I remember clutching my mother, watching from the corner of my eyes as the armed men beat a group of travellers on the side of the road. I wondered if I would die then and there, if the last moment I’d see would be men screaming for their lives as they were flogged with sticks.

How do you go home, when going home can be a matter of life or death? How do you protect your psyche when violence and the threat of violence are always around the corner in the country from which you take your culture?

We made it out of that experience alive, but ever since, the prospect of going to Nigeria fills me with so much dread. I want to see my extended family, to laugh with my cousins, dance at birthday parties with my aunts and uncles. But I know that there is always this threat of violence and that knowledge makes me so anxious as the days approach that I feel as though I might die before I even get to Nigeria.

The issue of self-care is of particular importance to me given that I’ve struggled with anxiety for many years. Going to Nigeria, a country with very little health infrastructure and very poor understanding of mental health, scares the living daylights out of me. I am reminded of the way mental health sufferers are treated, the way they are forced into chain gangs and flogged in the streets. I’m reminded of the belief amongst many Nigerians that behavioural health issues are spiritual disturbances caused by demons or bad behaviour. I feel almost hopeless, weighed down by the country’s dysfunctions, by its ultra violent nature.

So you can imagine now what going to Nigeria during an election season has done to my anxiety. It has driven my anxiety through the roof, creating a type of fear in me that I have not known in quite a while. I am afraid that Nigeria’s fragmented political landscape will erupt once again into bloodshed. And this fear has forced me to confront my health in a way I have never done before. I have had to think of remedies beyond medication, of mantras and affirmations that will carry me through the journey. And I have had to confide in the most understanding of my family members, to share my fears with those who will nurture and protect me.

For those of us from former colonies and impoverished nations, returning home consists of picking up the pieces in war-torn homelands.

I am frustrated because going home should not be this difficult. Yet for those of us from former colonies and impoverished nations,  returning home consists of picking up the pieces in war-torn homelands. This is our reality. But how do we balance our need for self-care, with the love we have for our relatives and connection to our homeland, when where we come from is often unsafe?

Often, we battle feelings of existential dread on the plane, as we strap ourselves in. We know that when we land, the possibility of death in a hail of gunfire has edged just that little bit closer. We know that election protests could erupt into full-blown riots, and that our lives could be snuffed out like a flame, at any point.  It seems almost sacrilegious to say that I dread going home when so much work has been done to change the negative perceptions of Nigeria, and of Africa. But how then do we navigate worries around our health, our guilt, and our frustration?

The answer is that we don’t have much of a choice. We brave the dangers of going home knowing that there is no other way. We manage our anxieties because the other option, a life without the sweet smell of home-cooked food, without the warmth of our loved ones, isn’t one worth living. For us and for those we have left behind, these annual reunions are as spiritual as they are physical. And that’s how we make it through, time and time again.

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