INTERVIEWED BY: ELEANOR PARK & SUZIE VO
Tomi Taiwo is a 2020 graduate from Taylor Allderdice High School. Tomi was born in Ogunstate, Nigeria, and immigrated to Pittsburgh, PA with her parents and two sisters when she was 11 years old. Upon first moving to the U.S., Tomi found herself struggling with her cultural identity, and even tried to set aside her Nigerian background in order to fit in with her American peers. But after meeting fellow African Americans at a program through PRYSE Academy, Tomi learned to love her culture instead of trying to erase it. In this interview, Tomi shares the story of how she came to embrace and celebrate her Nigerian background.
How has your relationship with your Nigerian culture changed since you moved to the U.S.?
“When I was living in Nigeria, I felt very connected to my culture. But, once I moved to the U.S. in 2014, the Nigerian part of myself–even my accent (which I love now)–set me apart from others and I hated it. I wanted that part of me to be erased because I wanted to be like everybody else. One time I was having a conversation with my mom and I said, ‘Hey mom, soon I will be so American that you won’t even hear my accent. I won’t be able to speak my own language.’ I was so ready to do that because I wanted to blend in. But now, I rejoice in my culture, and I am more confident. I am okay with being who I am, and now I don’t want to fit in. I want to be unique!”
Are there any experiences in particular that have helped you embrace your culture?
“When I first came to the camp at PRYSE, which was a program for immigrants, I expected to see less Africans and more international people. I was surprised to see that almost 70-80% of the people there were African. When everybody was introducing themselves and saying where they were from, people said to me ‘I love Nigeria!’, ‘I love the food!’, ‘I love the movies!’, and it really made me feel at home. Being in that space that appreciated who I am and that loved my culture made me realize that there are actually people who will like me for me.”
What are some traditions that your family participates in?
“My last name is Taiwo. In Nigeria, for you to have the last name ‘Taiwo’, you have to be a twin. My dad is a twin, but his twin passed away when he was young. So, every Christmas, my family cooks “Beans of Twin” in honor of my dad’s twin.”
What holidays are special to you and your family?
“Christmas and Ileha, which is like the Muslim tradition Eid after Ramadan. Nigerians think of all of our community members as a family. So during Eid, even though Muslim families are the ones celebrating it, all the community is invited. Some of my family members are Muslim, so we all celebrate.
Does your culture have any fairy tales or childhood stories that you heard growing up?
“We have too many, trust me! The animal that always gets the spotlight is the tortoise. Tortoises are seen as really cunning and smart animals.”
Does your culture have any special dances or types of music?
“Nigerian people love to dance. I have two left feet, so I can’t dance. But, we have this one genre of music that is special to Nigeria. It’s kind of like spoken word but with music beneath it. The music in the background is never someone singing, but it’s instruments like drums. With the spoken word, there is always a story that’s being told. Another thing about Nigeria is that we love parties. Our parties are the best, and they always have music.”
What activities do you enjoy from your culture or from other cultures?
“I don’t think there are any activities that I’ve seen or heard about that are specific to Nigerian culture. There are African dancing classes and drum classes, but they are not specific to Nigeria. From other cultures, I love Asian dramas and I listen to K-pop.”
What are some challenges that you have faced that people from other cultures might not have dealt with? What assumptions or generalizations have people made about you or your culture?
“When I first came to the U.S., one of the most unbelievable things someone said is ‘Oh, she has ebola!’. At that time, ebola was happening around northern Nigeria, so I had heard of it, but I didn’t know anyone who had it. Some people won’t talk to me because I’m from a certain part of the world. And people make a lot of generalizations. They think I’m dirty. People think, ‘All Nigerian people are crazy,’ or ‘All Nigerian people are loud.’ People ask me questions like: ‘Do you guys have TVs in Nigeria?’. Yes, of course we have TVs. Another thing is that when people hear I’m Nigerian, they make a generalization and they think I know how to dance. And I give them a weird look because just because I’m Nigerian doesn’t mean I know how to dance.”
Why do you think it’s important to share your story or for people to share their cultural stories in general?
“No two people are the same. We can be from the same country, the same culture, even the same neighborhood and we can be completely different. Being from the same culture doesn’t mean that we have the same beliefs. Just because I did something doesn’t mean it reflects my whole culture. It just shows who I am. Generalizations need to stop because a lot of them can start hate towards a whole community. It’s really important for people to tell their stories and show that we can be people from the same culture and that doesn't mean we’re all the same. Sharing stories really gives people a chance for their voice to be heard.”
*This interview has been edited for clarity.*