by Idongesit Ekpo
Kpom! Kpom! Kpom!: The familiar majestic sound that my mother’s grand wooden mortar and pestle communicate to each other. They recognize their status as the most important utensils in her Nigerian kitchen and chatter away oblivious to the red splatter of scotch bonnet peppers between them. I hold the pestle timidly, but tightly in my hands. My ten-year-old biceps cannot understand the synchrony between the pestle and the mortar. The gliding yet forceful motion only evokes a sense of inferiority in me. Together, they have a mind of their own and work so majestically. I am but a spectator. My mother told my siblings and I severally the story of how she had been gifted these hardwood objects over fourteen years ago. I am baffled when I think about the swoosh of lace wedding gift ribbons against a rough wooden vessel. She looked at it with admiration, as if it was the final seal on her marriage certificate. In the old days–long before my grandmother could balance on her infantile legs–cooking good food was equated with ethereal virtues. The mortar and pestle were so important because they spearheaded a cabal that only recruited the most exquisite food ingredients. Those whose kitchens the mortar and pestles majestically graced always enjoyed its spellbinding essence in their meals. This wooden contraption was the birthplace of power in the kitchen.
The unparalleled dominance of the mortar and pestle in the kitchen explains why I have cemented my relationship with them over time. Udong, as the mortar is popularly called in the Ibibio language of southern Nigeria, embodies a heritage that I must hold on to for the rest of my life. It symbolizes my identity as an Ibibio Nigerian child, girl and then woman.
This identity made it possible for me to relish the thoughts of the smoke that emanated from the insatiable bonfires kindled by my ancestors on inky nights hundreds of years ago. It helped me to immortalize the stories shared under the moonlight long ago when my grandfather was a child and to differentiate between old and newly harvested yams just by the strange tune they played on my taste buds.
Next to the sound of Udong the sound of my name embodies my heritage. “Do you know what your name means?” My four year-old-self wasn’t quite sure what answer to give to her revered father as her name—Idongesit—rung in her head. Were names supposed to mean anything? Weren’t they just for identification like ID tags on beloved pets ? Then, he told me. “Your name means Comfort.” What kind of meaning was that? Something about the language and heritage. Why couldn’t I have an English name like Elizabeth or Cornelia? I remember asking my mother on countless occasions whether I had an English name that she somehow forgot about—Nigerians term all mainstream western names as English names regardless of their origins. I stopped asking whenever I sensed the irritation in her voice. I came up with another strategy. Maybe my parents could not think of any fitting English names to dub me. I thought of asking my mother if I could adopt one, but my mind was quick to unearth the pseudo-family council that happened when my sister told everyone at school to call her Hilary—a middle name my siblings and I all inherited from my father. She sat on the cold tile floor as everyone—mostly my parents—tried to figure out, through thorough interrogation, what demons might have caused her to change her name. My parents’ solution to this identity dilemma was to dunk us in the savory stories of family legacies. These did not help much.
For years, I mumbled my name when I introduced myself because changing it would have been a taboo. I did not appreciate my name until I learnt to understand the aesthetic sounds of Udong. Kpom! Kpom! Kpom! These sounds of the mortar thumped in my ear whenever it was my turn to introduce myself in a new school class or a public setting. This was Udong’s way of encouraging me to stand firmly and claim my space. Its rich sounds reverberated until I could not ignore them. My sense of duty to Udong arose because I had been continuously nourished by the Afang leaves, yam and peppers that were so frequently pounded in the mortar. I had to pay in kind. The familiar taste of Afang soup and pounded yam suddenly knighted my tongue with the grace to enunciate my name: E-dung-eh-sit
Sometime between January and March 2006, I walked into my sister’s primary-five classroom to visit her. Her teacher asked me to introduce myself even though he had heard my name a few times already. He asked me to repeat it for the amusement of his class. I did. If I was a stand-up comedian, perhaps I would have basked in the laughter that ensued. To further entertain his class, he compared my name to an antacid medicine brand–Gestid. I felt my face flush! The benefits of melanin suddenly became overrated in this situation. How could he? Why did they laugh?
I shrugged it off eventually as this became the norm when I moved on to secondary school. I even began to tell people of the variations my name took to assure them that I had heard it all. I did not flinch anymore when I was teased. I had developed a kind of ruggedness and nonchalance. Perhaps, I was never scared about being misinterpreted because I knew the ridicule was restricted to my name and would not be transferred to my identity. This realisation made me stronger and I felt like one of the condiments between the mortar and pestle. Each cylindrical pounding on the mortar molded me into an almost perfect elastic ingredient that was ready to be immersed into the pot of soup. Alas! Not all elastic materials obey Hooke’s law. If this was the case, I should have been able to spring back into my normal form amid opposition.
Forward to January 2017 and I am in Provo, Utah attending Brigham Young University. Someone asks, “Why didn’t you tell me your middle name is Hilary? A normal name at last!” I don’t know why but those words slapped me in the face. Why was Hilary normal and Idongesit not? Perhaps, this was the reason why I had that thirteen-hour flight conversation with myself four months earlier about whether I should use a Nigerian or an American accent when I arrived at BYU.
Two days before I arrived in the US, my mother organized a gathering of friends to wish me well on my new life journey. My cheek muscles throbbed with the pain of fake smiling for two hours. My head bobbed up and down in consent to the overwhelming advice I received to be the person I was raised to be. Expectations! Expectations! I was raised with high expectations, but this was the final straw. Whatever part of my childhood remained was whisked away by this sudden transition to adulthood. What child travelled alone for thirty- five hours through three continents? I decided to be perfect for those at home. A lot of people had so much faith in me. The least I could do was appreciate it. Kpom! Be who you are.
Kpom! Do not fear! Kpom! Uphold your heritage. My shoulders ached from the immense responsibility to represent well. I was a daughter of the Nigerian soil; I had to understand and sacrifice my comforts to succeed. But I was also a scared girl whose growth would be accelerated in two days. I had never felt such an immense burden to represent my family and heritage as I did that night.
One hour left until my first ever US landing, my mind was made up. I would go with my made-up version of an American accent when I deplaned and still uphold the code of my ancestral DNA. I was ready. Prolonged r’s, t’s that sounded like d’s, voice inflection. I could do this. At my first port of entry, the immigration officer asked a question and I heard, Kpom! Kpom! Remember who you are. I did remember, but it was also all right to make up a different part of myself for once. I answered his question in what I could not recognize as my voice. It was a clear switch. I had done it, or had I? Kpukum! Kpom! Kpom! Did it take one flight for me to lose my ancestral signal? That new strangely pleasing beat of Udong was off by half a wavelength. There was no going back. I had decided to represent myself in the best way I could.
“Wow, you sound so American!” “You’re from Nigeria? Did you grow up here then?” I was being accepted like the harmattan breeze. To justify my betrayal, I had people say my full name before they had access to the sobriquet–Id. It was fair enough. Two sides were being balanced. But, at the same time, it all felt wrong. I had all these friends and they only knew a little about me. I could not even joke about my childhood experiences because those were stuck in a specific accent. Who could I tell about these new problems? Kpukum! Kpukum! Kpom! Oh! How I miss the old sounds of Udong.
I did not realize that giving up one thing would cause me to forego a plethora of others. They were usually small things and I had no problem modifying them. I stopped wearing my traditional Ankara prints to school to deflect attention. I loved Ankara prints, but I gave that up so that I would not have a permanent label attached to my name. I also lost my cherished frankness. I realised this when I casually lied about how much fun I had at a severely boring party just to please the host—an acquaintance. Perhaps the daftest of all was when I painfully chewed the most tasteless burger I remember eating in my life at the Wall on campus because someone suggested it. I struggled to understand this persistent need to shield those around me from my identity. A shield prevents the bad from coming in, but it also keeps the good locked inside.
“…Alu-mi-ni-um” Followed by a classmate’s confused face. “What is that? Oh, Alu- Min-um?” I had let my guard down and reverted to my old pronunciations for less than a second. I had tried diligently to eliminate the cloud of foreignness around me and this one mispronunciation had set off all the alarms. “Where are you from again?”, “Can you say aluminium again?” I was dangling on the thin line between self-preservation and self-hate. Why was it so hard for me to accept that I was ashamed to defend who I was? This time, I heard nothing from Udong, not even the discordant, out of phase sounds. I felt like a failure. I had promised to remember who I was and stay true to that identity, but my world seemed to be changing so fast and I could not grasp any ideas firmly enough. I had always thought of myself as someone with strong opinions that could not be easily swayed. I was wrong.
The worst kind of heartbreak is the one where you shatter your own heart. How could Comfort break her heart? I was never as elastic as I thought I was because elastic hearts do not break. March 2017, I had just walked out of class with a classmate who served an LDS mission in Spain. He talked about the Nigerians he met on his mission and how hospitable they were. He also talked about how they funnily pronounced their words and how I sounded nothing like them. My reply: “Yeah, not all Nigerians sound alike.” This was true, but I said it for a selfish reason. I did not want to be known for my ‘funny’ accent. My words ate me. I had tried so hard to belong that I had created this false Nigerian identity for myself. I was only Nigerian when it was convenient. I withdrew into my heartbroken and betrayed self.
No one would understand. My Nigerian friends thought I was two-faced because I switched accents skillfully. A Nigerian friend asked me if I had always spoken with an American accent. No, I said. I was not expecting his reply to stab me, but it did, deeply. He said, “Oh, so you’re just one of those.” I knew what he meant instantly. I was one of those people who forgot who she was once she moved, one of those people who was so eager to conform to other standards, one of those who did not care about her heritage. The sad thing was that I couldn’t even confide in the ones closest to me. My mother knew all was well with me because I said so. I had learnt the art of sounding fine over the phone. I told her about all my new friends and my favorite classes. I could not tell her that I was struggling with my identity because it was the ‘least important’ struggle that I had as a Nigerian. I had other priorities like schoolwork and my religiosity. My American friends thought I was doing great because having more than one accent had to be the coolest thing. Still the voice of heritage, the rhythm of Udong, was silent.
Kpom! Kpom! Kpukum! Kpukum! These are the sounds I hear now when I say my name. It is not quite like the original, perhaps it was never meant to be. It is still a pounding sound and it assures me that I have not lost my way. What changed?
Summer 2017, I ate the same tasteless burger I had eaten ten months earlier at the Wall on BYU campus. It was suddenly the most delicious burger I had ever tasted. This was surprising because not much had changed about my taste buds. I still relished my heavily seasoned Jollof rice. The nuances of my taste buds taught me a vital lesson. There is space for acclimatization. As the months passed by, I could see other parts of me following the lead of my taste buds. “What do you think about this dress?” I looked up from the Old Navy dressing room bench at my new friend’s gleaming googly eyes. My thoughts raced. I did not like the dress on her. She liked it, but I had seen her look better in other kinds of dresses. Why was I so worried? I was not the one buying it. She asked for my opinion, I should be honest. Did one white-lie even matter? At least she would be happy. Before I could think further, I said “I do not fancy the dress. I think you would look better in one with a different cut.” She went silent. This was the first time we disagreed since we met. She went in to try something else.
Kpukum! Kpom! First time in months. The familiar sound of Udong came back, breaking the long silence. It was remarkable. It was like the first perceived heartbeat of a child in the womb. Soft, yet so powerful. I rejoiced but still couldn’t understand why the sounds were mixed. Was I doing something wrong?
It took me about three more months to realize that I was not wrong or right. I was becoming. For the 2017 Christmas holidays, I visited one of my friends that I had not seen in years. We talked and laughed about experiences and enjoyed each other’s company. Then he said, “You’re different.” I could not take this now. I had worked hard to stay true to myself and find a sense of direction. The spikes of my fragile ego scratched at the walls of security I had almost perfectly built. Maybe, if these words were coming from someone else, I would have brushed them off as I had become used to doing. He sensed my drifting thoughts and said, “I think you’re more open-minded and independent. I am proud of you.” His last sentence shocked me. No one had told me that in a while. I finally understood the sounds of Udong. They did not exist to remind me of something that I couldn’t become. They signified the person I was becoming at each step. I did not have to stay rigid. I moved out here to the western United States for an education, but I also realized that I moved to discover a newness of self. Discovery comes with change.
“You’re weird,” One of my childhood friends said to me recently as I ate a grilled cheese sandwich with Kunu- a Nigerian millet drink. “How can you combine the two?” I laughed at the disgust on her face. I didn’t care anymore about what was expected. I had learnt the hard way to stay true to myself. I became more confident. I went home in the summer of 2018. I had progressed so much and learnt to develop a new sense of self-love. I still had this nagging fear that I would be considered different. I was by some people, but not all. I remember having a political discussion with an elderly family friend. He couldn’t understand the intensity and liberalness of my newly formed opinions. I still respected him as before, but I was not scared to state my views. He searched for the old version of me that withdrew from discussions when an older person disagreed with me. He realized that I was not going to back down and said, “You were sent to America to learn and that is exactly what you have done.” Then he stood up and left. I kept wondering if I should have just pretended and let him have his way, but I know better about the consequences of pretense. I am still not sure if he was being sarcastic, but I know he was right. I was sent to school to learn and I did just that.
I will not trade the order of my progression for anything. I believe this was a journey that I was blessed to embark on. Sometimes, I find myself in the lonely centre between two nations’ views. Little things like my more nuanced taste buds and the more frequent sounds of Udong remind me not to fear. I have learnt to focus more on the process of becoming Comfort.