On Mangoes and Cashews
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
There is so much that is different in the way that I grew up in Nigeria in the eighties and the way that my nephew is growing up now in suburban, soccer-and-baseball-practice America. I adore my nephew, he is an intelligent and happy child, the wittiest nine-year-old I know. Yet when I observe his life, his hour-long play dates with blond, Polish-American Alek, his video games, Nickelodeon shows, swimming and bicycle, I sometimes feel a strange melancholy. It seems such a closeted life, so boxed in, so limited, so one-dimensional.
I rode a bicycle often too (that red chopper!), growing up on the campus of the University of Nigeria. In our yard bordered by mango and cashew trees, my brothers and I also took rides in a garden wheelbarrow and rolled old car tires in front of us as we raced. On the lawn, we played football and badminton, tying a rope across the cherry bushes in place of a net. We plucked Icheku leaves and Hibiscus leaves and ate them (as my people say it is God who saves children!). We walked around the campus streets and avenues, visiting friends, going to the zoo, playing hide and seek. And in the same unquestioning and effortless way that we lived, we spoke both English and Igbo.
I often think about my childhood, about those colorful memories. But I thought about it even more the other day as I picked my nephew up from his play date at Aleks house. Standing inside the hallway that I imagined smelled of kielbasas, I heard Alek and his mom speaking Polish. Aleks Polish sounded as fluent, as flawless to my ears, as his English. Later, my nephew told me that Aleks American father does not speak Polish, that Alek has learned to speak only by having his mother speak to him.
How could I not be impressed? And of course it got me thinking of my nephew who mauls the Igbo words I make him say when I am in my unreasonable lets-fix-in-a-day-what-cannot-be-fixed-in-a-day moods. I thought of my six nephews and nieces, all of who do not speak Igbo. I thought of us The Igbo, particularly
The Igbo in Diaspora, how we are so much more likely, amongst other ethnic groups in Nigeria, to not teach our language to our children, to not care about its future.
This has interested me for a long time this seeming Igbo trait that I cannot even coin a name for. Igbo-Nihilism? Igbo-Shame? A Nigerian writer and critic once told me that even the Igbo slaves did not assert their culture, that it is no wonder only a few Igbo words have survived in the Caribbean while many Yoruba-derived words thrive on the remnants of long-ago plantations. He also added that The Igbo are on the verge of extinction. And I laughed. Later on, though, I did wonder as I thought about extinction. If my nephew and so many of his generation are not speaking Igbo, what will happen to the Igbo Nation in 2052?
My nephews life, as well as that of many Nigerian children in America, may stem from their immigrant parents need to become mainstream. And this, of course, is understandable. But I cannot help thinking about Alek he is as mainstream and as American as they come, yet he speaks perfect Polish. But perhaps I am comparing mangoes and cashews. Perhaps Alek, being white and of European descent, is less likely to feel the minority-struggling-to-be-like-majority pressure because he at least speaks a language that America actually knows to exist. But what about the American-born children of parents from other so-called Third World countries who speak their native languages? There are many who do.
It is time we realized that we can have Igbo-speaking children who will make it, who will realize most of the lofty dreams we have for them (I imagine all immigrant parents harbor the my-child-will-be-American-President dream) It is time we realized that Igbo-speaking and doing well in the Diaspora are not mutually exclusive. We can, we should, give our children the best of both worlds. We will enrich them by doing so. Finally, to use that most American of expressions, children can easily MULTI-TASK with languages. But only if we give them the chance early enough.