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Oyinbo is not my name

By Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo   |   25 February 2017   |   3:42 am

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any oyinbo in marital unity with a Nigerian will encounter quite a number of misconceptions about their race throughout their wedded life. This truth occurred to me last weekend when my sister in law was going through some images from father in law’s funeral back in June 2016.

“Wow!” she exclaimed in good cheer. “You really look pretty in trad, like you truly fit in.” “Indeed,” my mother in law chimed in, “Everybody was asking of her. Even now they are still talking of how well she fit in and how she was even eating rice and kneeling down to greet the elders!”

At this point, you probably feel my pain at almost being reduced to a well trained poodle. I could almost hear relative back home cheering, “Ah ah look at the oyinbo – haven’t they trained this one well? She can even eat rice sef!”

Rice ke? That’s the staple dish where I come from. The in-laws must have taken my whiteness as Britishness and in their assumption that I only eat a real dish – Sunday roast – that doesn’t come out of a plastic wrapping once a week, had all but forgotten I come from a land famed for its diverse cuisine including a hundred ways of making rice.

With that, my mind turned to every single assumption and misconception I have heard about the “oyinbo”.
“You know what this is? It’s our version of bean cake… you should taste it.”

Almost at every single wedding buffet, as I stand there in full Yoruba attire, there is at least one guest or the caterer who will dare have this conversation. I just want to put them in their place with, “Shebi you see me dressed in my trad with my very Nigerian husband, filling my plate with any Nigerian dish going, and you think all this time it is the moin moin I haven’t tried? Olodo!” Instead, I give them a side-eye and a hiss before I leave with my parting shot, “It is not bean cake; it is called moin moin.”

“You can cook efo riro?”
What can surprise a Nigerian more than an oyinbo who can eat Nigerian food is one who can cook it. The amount of times I have been asked, “You can cook jollof/egusi soup/efo riro?” (Delete/insert as appropriate) by astounded stranger would make you think that white skin is a condition that may hinder one’s culinary skills. Sometimes I want to ask, “I have been married to a Nigerian for over a decade – do you think I make him mash and boiled vegetables daily?”

“Well done! Oyinbo knows how to respect our elders.”
Believe it or not someone once told me they didn’t know we had respect for our elders where we come from. Firstly I was astounded by the misconception that as the “oyinbo” we are expected to come from one place and are reduced to one culture. Secondly, that the culture would not have some shared human values such as respecting the elders. With some cultures our outwardly shows of respect take different forms; for example in Turkey we kiss the hand of an elderly person as opposed to kneeling or prostrating like the Yoruba do. For someone to think because of the colour of your skin you can cast aside basic values such as respect is perhaps the most disrespectful presumption that I have encountered.

“You say my name really well!”
I just want to encounter with “Perhaps it is because Folasade isn’t exactly a tongue twister. How about you try Şerafettin Karakullukçuoğlu?” I think this is another misconception that stems from assuming anyone white is automatically British. While the Western white struggle with foreign languages is all too real, let’s face it, not all white people are British and some burdened with even more phonetic systems than the Yoruba or the Igbo.”

“I never knew oyinbo had different shades.”
Not all oyinbo are created equally pale. One of the hardest things to explain to a Nigerian, I have found is the simple concept of tanning. While many acknowledge the need of the oyinbo a paler shade of lily to build up some colour, even mock them for it, they don’t quite get the concept that some oyinbo are naturally darker than others. I have in the past used visual aids in the form of holiday photos where I am at least three shades darker to show that indeed we don’t even have the same colour throughout the year so how can we all come in the same shade of pale?

“Do you know how to say good morning in Yoruba?”
Is the sky blue? For someone to have joined your life in matrimony to someone from another part of the world, you would hope they would have even just a passing interest in their culture, or at least have cultivated one over the years enough to learn a few basic words, right? “Ekaro!” And smell the coffee, please!




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