With the exception of one of my mother’s brothers who lives in Italy, all of our relatives live in Nigeria.
(There is one cousin of my mother’s who lives in the same city as us but his story makes me ill so we’ll just ignore him.)
It has been hard growing up so far away from our cousins, aunts and uncles. My sister and I have always envied our cousins for being able to hang out with each other and share things with someone who has family ties yet isn’t a sibling. Perhaps my sister and I have romanticized what it would be like to have female cousins to hang out with but I still think it would have been fun.
So, when we go to Nigeria, we’re always excited at the thought of the interactions we’ll have with our family because we only see them once in a blue moon. When I was last in Nigeria 14 years ago, I was surprised and hurt by the reception we received from our cousins. Like other Nigerians who live abroad and have family back home, we regularly do our best to provide for the family in any way we can and of course when we were going to Nigeria we packed gifts for our relatives. What really disappointed me though was the greed that most of my cousins showed.
First off, these cousins that we didn’t really communicate with in the almost eight years that we had been in Canada suddenly sent us letters a couple of months before we were to land in Naija. These letters were less of the “how are you doing?” variety and more of a “here is what I expect you to bring me from abroad” list.
Of course, they wanted brand name things: Levis jeans, Casio this, Sony that. This was pretty funny to me because we did not grow up with brand name items. My dad liked to tell us that we can buy brand name items when we’re paying for them; in the meantime his job is to provide us with clothing that fits and is in good condition. Sometimes he would give us the money he would spend on an item, say, a pair of jeans, and if we wanted to add the money we earned babysitting to it so we could afford the brand name item, well that was our decision.
So, we got our cousins what we could and off we went.
You could tell some were surprised and disappointed that they didn’t get exactly what was on their list. We explained that we didn’t earn much babysitting and what we brought was what we could afford. We tried to explain that we ourselves don’t wear brand name stuvs because we can’t afford them but we might as well have been talking to a door for all the understanding we received.
I am a big accessory fan so I had those cheap earrings and rings that I had brought with me, nothing fancy or too expensive. One of my cousins asked for a ring I was wearing, I gave it to her, then another asked for a bracelet or earrings, no problem, I handed it over. But then as the weeks went by, I noticed that things I hadn’t been asked for suddenly weren’t where I left them. I never discovered who was taking my stuff but by the time we left to return to Canada all my costume jewelry was gone.
I wasn’t mad that they were taken; I would have given them freely if they had asked. I was more angry that they thought that it was somehow their right to take something that didn’t belong to them, that they didn’t ask for. I was also angry with what I saw as a sense of entitlement among my cousins, a feeling of “She lives in Canada where money grows on trees so it’s our right to decide what is our own share of her belongings.” I am not making this up o, it was obvious that what I was to my cousins was a source of material things. Not one of them asked me what life was like in Canada, none of them had any interest in our life or how school was, or anything like that. These are people we hadn’t seen in eight years! We tried to talk about life and school and other things and really, unless we were giving them something, nobody was interested in talking to us or even hanging out with us. I didn’t expect this from family (I need to stop romanticizing these sorts of things!).
I haven’t been back since, but my sister went to Nigeria seven years ago. One of our second cousins behaved the way you would expect someone to behave towards family and my sister and her really bonded, but the rest of the female cousins had the same attitude they had in 1994. My sister had a pair of flip flop sandals (nothing fancy o, just plastic) and they were the shoes she wore all around the place. She kept them under her bed when she wasn’t wearing them but every day at least once she had to go searching through our grandmother’s house to see under whose bed she would find them. And the people who kept taking them saw absolutely nothing wrong with that, and they never asked her for them.
To some these may seem like petty things but when you’ve grown up feeling like you’ve been missing out on this family connection, on big noisy dinners with relatives everywhere, it comes as a real blow when you realize that these people that you spend time thinking of and missing for who they are, really don’t care about you or think about you unless they know you’re headed their way. Then all they care about is what you will bring for them.
It’s not just the cousins my age or younger who have this behaviour, even some of our aunts and uncles are the same way. They send us messages via their children to ask our parents to buy them this or that. Despite the help that my parents provide through the year. It’s like they think we’re a bottomless pit of money.
When my grandmother visited four years ago, I was happy because I thought it would be good for our cousins, uncles and aunts to find out how we live and grandma could report back to them. Some things that surprised my grandmother while she was here were:
- the fact that my sister and I each had two jobs
- my brothers, who were age 16 and 18 at the time, had part time jobs
- both my parents worked at least 40 hours a week and weren’t home during the day
- the family didn’t always eat together due to conflicting work schedules
- due to work hours in retail, some of us would leave home before 8am and not return home until 10pm
Grandma found it hard to deal with the fact that once the vacation time given by our respective employers was up, she was left alone most of the day. Back in Naija our cousins would often spend the whole afternoon at her place during the summer, just sitting there hanging around because school was out. None of my cousins worked part time during the summer, and grandma assumed it would be the same here. She expressed sadness that we were always working and she felt bad, but we told her that that’s just the way it is here. If you want to make it, if you want to gbadun (enjoy) and still accomplish your goals, you better be willing to work. In our case, if we didn’t work hard during the summers, we wouldn’t have money for our next semester’s tuition, so that was good motivation. She was surprised that we were paying our own tuition (my cousins’ parents paid their tuition).
Anyways, all of this long story to say that if there was one thing I could get some of my cousins who are truly clueless (despite our attempts to explain it to them) to understand, it would be that while life here is good, we work hard for it and we don’t scoop money off the ground like they think. We may have access to more “gadgets” and conveniences in general, but they have access to a nice extended family network and the support inherent in that, and this is more important than material things. They actually get to enjoy their summer vacation because they don’t have to worry about working or not earning enough money for school.
I also want my cousins to know that we’re doing the best that we can for our family back home, and some of said family members should really learn to live as if we don’t exist as an additional source of income because my parents won’t always be here to contribute and help out: at one point they’re going to have to learn to live within their own means.
And the next time we visit? Please pretend that you actually see us, not dollar signs or presents, when we meet. That would be nice.
Is my family unique or do those of you abroad have some greedy relatives too? For those of you in Nigeria who have family abroad, or who have friends with family abroad, what have you witnessed in this respect and is there something your relatives abroad aren’t understanding?