THE FIRST TIME I VISIT my father’s bungalow at the University of Nigeria, I perch on a vinyl settee in the parlor and drink milky tea while my father rambles on about the student riots, the military government’s Structural Adjustment Program, his college years with my mother, what he recalls her saying about the family farm in Washington State—never a pause for me or anyone else to speak.
Meanwhile my stepmother, another stranger, flits about the room, dipping forward with Black Market sugar and tins of Danish biscuits, slipping coasters under our cups the instant we lift to sip. From the darkened hallway come the slap of flip-flops and giggles.
“You have children?” I ask politely, as if this were a question for a daughter to be asking her father, casually, as if it were not the question I’ve traveled halfway around the globe to ask. My bag bulges with shiny American goods: books and toys, watches and Walkmans, scarves and perfume. No matter their age or gender, I’ve got it covered.
WHEN I WAS NOT QUITE TWO, my father, a graduate student from Nigeria, received an urgent summons to return home. He left the forty-eight hours later, clothes and books scattered across the floor of his rented room. He was to attend to family business, scout out job prospects, and come back. Though my parents had split, and my mother was raising me alone—her Scandinavian immigrant family having thrown her out for bearing a Black child—in Seattle, they maintained relations for my sake.
“I want you to know that this is not a good-bye,” he wrote to us from a ship in the middle of the Atlantic, nervous about reports of ethnic and religious tensions awaiting him. “I shall look forward to our meeting so long as we are all alive.”
My mother never saw him again.
MY STEPMOTHER NODS at my question, glances at my father. She is light-skinned and solicitous, with a wide nose and a voice like the breeze of the fans she angles at me.
“Yes, yes.” My father waves his hands. “You’ll meet them later.”
He is short like me, his weathered skin dark as plums. A strip of wiry black hair encircles the back of his head. There’s a space in his mouth where a tooth should be. I don’t see the broad-shoulder rugby player who stared out from my wall all those years. The only feature I recognize is that round nose.
A blur flashes tan and red in the hallway. I glance up to see a velvety-brown girl in a scarlet school uniform receding into the dimness, familiar eyes stunned wide. A face I could swear is mine.
It’s not possible, I tell myself. Even if the girl in the hall is my sister, we have different mothers of different races. How can we look alike? For twenty-six years I have been an only child, the only child. The only New World African among Scandinavian Americans. The only Black member of our family, our town.
Each night Old Pappa, my Swedish grandfather, and I set candles in the windows or built snow lanterns in the yard for the tonttu, farm sprites, and I imagined that we were conductors on the Underground Railroad, lighting the way for runaway slaves.
I spent my childhood searching for anyone who looked like me. Wedging myself into the back of my grandparents’ closet among board games, paint-by-numbers kits and jigsaw puzzles, I sifted through shoeboxes of photographs: Monochrome snapshots of morose white relatives in black clothes. Portraits hand-tinted with Mummi’s ice cream colors. These were the extras that didn’t make the cut; I’d already looted the official family album, sliding out the only two photos of my father.
I developed interest in Great-Uncle Vaino, a quiet fellow who always eyed the camera as if from a great distance, the forehead beneath his dark, slicked-back hair perpetually wrinkled from squinting. His broad, swarthy face with cleft chin and hooked nose evoked the unknown origins of the Finns. In his face lay the possibility of Turkey and Hungary. He looked more Inuit than Scandinavian, and when he laughed, the dark slits of his eyes disappeared completely.
Into the box beneath my bed he went. He didn’t look like me, but at least he was different and dark.
The sharp bite of Mummi’s limpa bread bloomed at the mouth of the hallway, reminding me that it was time for our baking, but at twelve I was pushing my way out of childhood, wondering what I would become. My grandparents had thrown out my nineteen-year old mother, after all, for being with a Black man, and only took her back because I was so cute. After the golden skin and dark eyes my mother rhapsodized over, these curls my grandmother twisted around her fingers, this round nose my grandfather tugged before hanging me upside down, then what?
IN TRUE AFRICAN FASHION, my father and I move slowly, circuitously, as if conversation were a tribal praise song or Highlife dance with instrumental flourishes and digressive harmonies. Eventually my father calls, “Emekachukwu, Okechukwu, Adanna! Come and greet your sister!”
Before the words even leave his mouth, the three are quivering in the center of the parlor. Grins split their faces. The eldest, Emekachukwu, is already languid with teenage charisma. Behind him stoops a lanky boy with yellow skin and glittering, feverish eyes—Okechukwu, the invalid. Pressed close to him is me, fourteen years ago.
“Okay,” our father says, the Igbo chieftain making clan policy, “this is your older sister from America. She’s come to visit. You love her.”
He is wrong. It is I who love them, I who have grown up twenty-six years alone. Up to now, family has always meant being the focal point. Now, in one day, with one sentence, I go from being the youngest, the sole daughter, niece, grandchild, to being the eldest of four, the one with the responsibility for love.
He is right. Adanna reaches me first. She is twelve, with a personality that shoves her brothers to the side. She is exquisite—luminous skin the color of Dutch cocoa; heart-shaped face with high, rounded cheekbones, slimmer than mine, darker; a mouth that flowers above a delicate pointed chin. I can see myself for the first time—we are exquisite. We come face to face, and the rest of the family gasps, Aieeeee!, steps back, disappears, makes way for our love.
THE FIRST THING MY SISTER DOES upon meeting me is drag me into her room. She pushes me onto her bed and dumps her photo album in my lap. I smile, thinking of the album in my bag. My mother has always laughed at how I hoard photographs, especially the black and white, the older the better. Half my collection is unidentified, snapshots of scowling Scandinavians no one can remember. Who was that rotund Elmer always standing next to Bessie, a creamy-faced cow?
My sister, who has lived all twelve of her years in my absence, hands me the images to accompany her life, this language we share. Still shy of my eyes, she huddles close, her head on my shoulder, the African seeking warmth.
She whispers that she’s been lonely all these years, the only girl in the family. The house is full of women—young cousins come from the village for schooling, orphans my father inherited after the war—but I know what she means.
“I was so glad to learn about you,” she says. Her pulse throbs against my shoulder, a flutter of life working its way inside me.
“When did you find out?” I ask, touching her curls.
I twist around on my new sister’s bed, winded as if I had run all the way here from America. Inhale, I remind myself.
“He never told you that he had a child in America?” I want to add: That until I was twelve, the age you are now, he wrote to me? That for months beforehand he knew I was coming to Nigeria, and that I’ve been here, just kilometers away, for weeks already? Only, it comes out as, “Are you sure? He didn’t tell you before?”
I smile. I could almost swear that her baby pictures are mine. I too posed for the camera, mouth open in a silent, show-stopping exclamation of delight. I too was all brown eyes and blooming bud mouth.
On the fifth page I find an actual photo of me in front of the Joulu tree in my grandparent’s living room. Like Adanna in her photos, I am dressed in red—stretch stirrup pants. A halo of tinsel laces my short Afro. I see another snapshot that I recognize from my mother’s collection back home: Me piloting a shiny red tricycle in the driveway. Slowly I realize what I am seeing—her photo album is a blend of her photos and mine. Our lives intertwined.
I tap the corners of my photos, relieved to find myself. This is not America with its books and magazines and television shows and movies that refuse to reflect me, its glossy surfaces that for twenty-six years have been telling me I don’t matter, no one needs my image. I have always been here in Africa. I exist.
“Yeah,” I marvel, “Mom used to love to dress me in red.” Adanna was mistaken. I was cherished, perhaps even longed for.
Now it is Adanna’s turn to stare. “B-b-but,” she stammers, “I was the one they loved to dress in red. These are my pictures.”
She palms our images, her fingers the brown tributary linking the same face, same stubborn personality, fourteen years apart, half a world away. Her eyes train on mine, widen. “I found them in a drawer and just assumed…”
“Chineke,” she gasps, looking from Adanna to me to the sky, where Chineke resides. “Can she be mmo?” A ghost or an ancestral spirit reappeared from the land of the dead.
Adanna and I laugh, hurrying down the path before the others can hear her shouts to “Come see—o!” and run out of the house, wiping their hands on their bright, Dutch-printed wrappas, ululating like a wedding party.
Or we are lounging in the embrace of the giant iroko tree, chewing on bright mango pits and waiting for the afternoon heat to pass, and some distant-distant cousin will drive by in a battered Peugeot belching a halo of sour diesel and smack his long pink palm against his inky forehead.
“Oh ho!” he shouts, nearly piloting the vehicle into the ditch, a move my father is famous for. “Are there suddenly two Adannas now?”
I accept this attention as I have always accepted attention, with the tight, unspoken greed of the addict, the flex in the heart muscle, the warmth spreading out through the blood stream. This time it is not about being female, but the hunger, the expectation, is always the same — to see myself conceived, given shape, in the mirror of another’s eyes. Loki the Trickster, Shape Shifter.
I accept these laughing and sobbing women, these nearly smashed cars, as confirmation that I belong to this family. Yes, I may be the American, missing for twenty-six years, raised without language in the Land of Efficiency. I may be the secret my father keeps hidden in the compound until he can explain to the clan elders. But my face is the password, the key unlocking the door to family.
I HATE HER. She lies curled asleep with her head in my lap, breath thick and milky as an infant, wearing my name. Our shame is evident every time someone calls her. Ada – the senior daughter of the lineage, Nna – father. Adanna. Father’s first-born daughter.
“If she’s Adanna,” any Nigerian must surely ask, “then how can you be–?”
Exactly. Her very name denies my existence. As does Emeka’s. After the birth of a child, parents are thenceforth known by the name of the first-born: Papa-Emeka and Mama-Emeka, not Magnus and Grace. I keep waiting for a correction, a memo to be sent out: Dear So-and-so, up to now you’ve known me as Papa-Emeka, but I’m actually Papa-Faith. Please adjust your Rolodex accordingly.
Faith. “Your mother named you well,” my father muses. He is full of praise. For my mother for naming and raising me well. For me for traveling all this way. “She found us herself,” he announces to the countless stream of singing clapping dancing guests come to witness my miraculous arrival. “She’s the one!”
Adanna stretches like a cat in my lap, unshutters thick lashes. She sees me: Elder sister. The one who spoils. The exotic American. Her passport to what lies ahead, what she might become.
I stare back. I see Younger sister. The one who adores. Exotic African. The passport back home. Who I might have been.
She is popular, quick to laugh, not afraid of math and science. Her eyes speak. “I missed you.” She gleams.
Faith Adiele’s memoir, Meeting Faith, was published by W.W. Norton in 2004 and won the PEN Beyond Margins Award for Best Memoir that year. "My African Sister" is from her memoir-in-progress about her Nigerian/Nordic/American heritage, which inspired the PBS documentary "My Journey Home."