A couple of people asked me why I went to Nigeria. Most of the time, I told them I was going to visit family (which was true), and sometimes I told them that I was going because my mom was going and I didn’t want her to go alone (also true). But what I didn’t talk about much is that I didn’t want my mom to go alone because I was afraid. I was afraid that she might become ill or come to harm, that I wouldn’t be there, and that I would forever feel guilty about that. My decision to join her on the trip was totally motivated by fear.
It started innocently enough: we moved from Nigeria to Canada in the mid-1980s and as we were getting used to a new culture my parents urged me to be careful as I embarked on new activities in a new country. I remember the Just Say No campaign (against drugs) in the 80s and 90s, being told not to talk to strangers, and campaigns against drinking and driving. When I was about eight years old, I reported the man who would drive us to school (carpool) to my parents because he would drink as he drove, not knowing that drinking coffee wasn’t illegal! My dad is a very cautious person so I know that rubbed off on me.
Fear and the resulting caution followed me through my youth: when my friends were doing underage drinking I refrained out of fear (this is not a bad thing!) but I was afraid that the harmful effects of alcohol could show up after just one drink; I similarly refused to smoke out of fear. But guess what? You can be cautious but disobedient: my parents were against sleepovers but I went to a couple, always with their knowledge—if something happened I wanted to be sure that someone knew where I was. My parents were also dead-set against me going to dance clubs and I assure you I have lost count how many (hundreds of?) times I danced the night away. But I did something most disobedient children might not think to do, something that my parents never asked me to do: I would write out the name of the club I was going to, sometimes with its phone number, and I’d also add the phone numbers of my friends who I was going out with (because I didn’t have a cellphone at the time). Even when I was being “bad”, I took precautions.
About eight years ago on Canada Day, a former colleague held a barbecue at her house. We were sitting in her backyard having a good time, waiting for the food to be cooked, when a guy ran into the backyard. He was a stranger, even to our host. He said “You have to hide me, they are after me!” While our host casually told him to sit and pretend he was one of us, I picked up my purse, said good bye, got into my parents’ car and drove myself back home. I had no plans to die on Canada Day when whoever was chasing this stranger showed up. I still get together with some of the former colleagues who attended that barbecue and we laugh at how quickly I extricated myself from that situation. In my defense they admitted they weren’t too comfortable with the situation either, but didn’t know what to do.
Fear is healthy when it’s protecting us from things that can harm us, but there’s a fine line between being careful and being cautious to the point of not fully living. While I was in Nigeria, I was comfortable when I was at my grandmother’s house, but any time I had to travel, from Lagos to Akure (and back), within Akure, or from Akure to Ondo or Ilesha, fear would enter my heart. Let’s just admit that the way people drive in Nigeria is crazy (though Nigerians are excellent drivers)! I will never get used to it. I was hyperaware of my surroundings at all times, thinking that an accident was just around the corner. I was afraid to cross the busy street near the market because those cars don’t wait for anyone. I was afraid that my mom would get sick and if we had to go to the hospital I was worried about the care she may receive there. Even the simple task of going to the bank to withdraw money is scary when you have to deal with a security guard, and have your belongings searched. I was afraid to speak at the airport because, from past experience (my cousin told me that one time when I was seeing him off, the okada (motorcycle) driver charged him more because he heard my accent), I didn’t want my accent to trigger requests along the lines of “Aunty, what did you bring me?” I’ve got a new tactic for dealing with such requests now; I tried it once during this last trip and it worked well: I give the person asking for money a confused look and say “I don’t understand” several times in reply to their request until they stop asking.
I had a good time with family in Nigeria but my fear of what might happen if I wasn’t with my mom all the time got in the way. It prevented me from exploring my home state and becoming more comfortable getting around on my own. At this point I don’t know if I can travel to Nigeria alone. I allowed fears that never came to pass to hold me back.
But Nigeria trip aside—I visit every two or three years—let’s look at my life. I often operate out fear: fear of making a bad decision and having to live with its consequences, fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of looking stupid. And to what end? All around me I see people making bad decisions, being rejected, failing, looking stupid…and surviving. Not just surviving, but coming back better than before. We know that fears must be fought with action but we’re afraid to do what is needed to reap the rewards that come from action.
I changed the tagline of this blog from “Murdering the Yoruba language since 1979” to “Ordinary woman pursuing an extraordinary life” over a year ago and I’m still that ordinary girl, afraid to make big decisions and living in fear. Two of my newsletters from last year were about fear, but not much has changed. As I mentioned in August’s thankful post, I’m glad that I am less fearful of flying, but I have many more fears to fight. Because, I want to be great. And I can’t be great and fearful: I have to choose one, and it’s time to stop choosing fear.