The right to call a place home, By Femke van Zeijl

“I simply fail to understand why a citizen should be denied certain rights on account of where his forefathers came from.”

The low sun was shining through the leaves, lighting up their golden, red and orange autumn colours. The fresh air tingled in my nose. It was not the first time I walked along the canals of Utrecht in the fall, nor was it the first time the beauty of this Dutch centrally located city in this season struck me. It was however the first time in 23 years I walked there without being able to call it my home. Since I had moved to Lagos I had not been back, and a happy sort of melancholy came over me. I tweeted how I was strolling through ‘my former home town’. That triggered many questions from Nigerians. How can a home town ever cease to be your home town?

I used to ask people in Nigeria where they were from. It took me a while to realise I was not asking the same question they were hearing. They told me where their village was and where their forefathers first settled. Whereas I meant to ask: where were you born and raised? Quite often the answers to these two questions were totally different, and laid bare a considerable cultural gap I previously had not been aware of.

When you ask me where I am from, I will name the little village of Berkel-Enschot where I was born, even though my entire family comes from the deep Dutch South 120 kilometres away from there. When I am asked where my home is, I will tell you where I have a place to call my own with a bed with fluffy pillows and a fridge with some bottles of lager waiting for me. These days, my home is the Lagos Mainland. It is also – to confirm a cliché – where my heart is.

I call Lagos my home with some restraint, deeply aware that I am a guest in Nigeria. I can only call it my home by the grace of Nigerian hospitality. I am like a visitor in someone else’s house; a humbling experience, and in my case completely appropriate.

It took me a bit longer to find out I am not the only one in Nigeria feeling like a visitor in someone’s house. Many Nigerians feel that way, even if they were born in the place. According to the Nigerian definition, home is where your forefathers came from. So many are living in places they cannot claim as their home, and what is supposed to be home is a faraway place they usually do not know that well, where de facto they are strangers as well. Knowing now what it feels like to be a visiting stranger, this worries me.

I did not know the word ‘indigenes’ – spelled this way I mean – before I came to Nigeria. But since then I have come to grasp its meaning, and also what it means to be non-indigines. By now I see this distinction as one of the deeper causes of social unrest in the country. I simply fail to understand why a citizen should be denied certain rights on account of where his forefathers came from. Categorising the population into people who belong, and people who don’t, creates a deep division in society.

How are non-indigines supposed to feel comfortable in a place that defines them as an outsider and will continue to do so for generations to come? How can they be expected to invest (emotionally, socially, economically) in a place they cannot call their home?

It does not take a lot of imagination to understand how deeply worrying the current discourse on the disintegration of Nigeria is to these people branded second class citizens. If the country falls apart (and I am not saying it will, that is another discussion), where will they go?

Being accepted as a guest is an honour, but in the long run being dependent on the hospitality of others can be straining. And the fear to be kicked out the door when your host has had enough of you will always be in the back of your mind.

P.S. I am returning to Lagos by the end of the week. If I may: I am coming home.

Talk to Femke van Zeiji on Twitter: @femkevanzeijl

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