I was born in the United Kingdom but it never really mattered to me as my parents left the United Kingdom for my dadâ€™s country of birth Nigeria in the early seventies. My mom was originally from the Caribbean. You see, back then, it was not uncommon for Nigerians to return home after studying in the United Kingdom. My dad was no exception.
I do not recollect my childhood days in London. I was brought home to Nigeria at the age of 2. All that fills my memory is the exotic city of Lagos and our first home in Surulere. The Surulere of my young years was a residential area – boisterous, exotic, and beautiful.
My dad was a medical practitioner at the University of Lagos Teaching hospital. I loved our 3-bedroom home, provided for us by my dadâ€™s employers. I loved to see my dad’s friends come in and go, and my mother loved to cook. Most of my parentsâ€™ friends were those who studied with them in the United Kingdom.
I heard them speak about Hyde Park, Finsbury Park , Peckham, Liverpool street market and all. Those places sounded like fairy land to me. All I knew was my home land Lagos – Surulere, Aunty Ayo Girlsâ€™ High School, my trip to Kings College, the glitter of the smartly dressed Kings College boys and then returning home to compare the boy that caught my attention to the Raphael Cameron poster stapled on my bedroom door. (For those who donâ€™t know him, he was a dashing American singer whose baggy trousers and neatly cut afro hair was the standard I chose for any potential boyfriend of my dream.)
We lived a good life – Nigeria was good, and Surulere was still a residential enclave, not the commercial spot as it is known now. I did not have any British memories until one day when my mum told me about my childhood friend visiting from the United Kingdom.
“My childhood friend,” I repeated incredulously. “Yes,” mum replied. “You were born on the same day at the Withington hospital in North London. Her parents chose to remain in England as they took advantage of Margaret Thatcherâ€™s offer to council flat occupiers and bought a council flat.”
On the day I set eyes on my childhood friend, she spoke English with a weird accent â€“ it sounded like she was speaking through her nose; I only heard that kind of English on the TV drama on NTA Channel 10 called Love Thy Neighbours. I was shy, too embarrassed to speak English with her – and to think I was told I spoke very good English in school. My mum had to pull me aside and said to me never to feel timid. “You are as British as she is and you have the right to live in or visit the United Kingdom if you so wish,” she stated.
It never mattered to me. I loved Nigeria to bits. The uncertainties in Nigeria made life more interesting. I had not known any different. I saw myself as a Nigerian child.
Roll on many years later, I lost my dad in a tragic motor accident â€“ well, so the local police say, but his colleagues believed he was murdered. It did not matter. He was a loving dad who did his best for me. I was his only child, and his death changed it all. Suddenly, we were alone. My mum was put under pressure by his family. The expectation was that an English trained medical practitioner would have a lot of money. My dad had none, and they wouldnâ€™t believe us. Things turned from bad to worse.
We became homeless with my mum resorting to put up with friends. She started a small restaurant by the roadside. The profit was just good enough for us to feed. Then God sent an angel – my fatherâ€™s younger sister. I call her aunty Queen. We moved into her place and she took care of our needs. She also had a child same age as me. We were very close.
Aunty Queen did a lot of travelling. She called my mum one day and said she would have my cousin bear my name. That was the strength of love, she continued – we did wear the same clothing and were inseparable. My aunty had also made sure we attended the same school. I remember she had a distinguishing birthmark on her upper lip, we called â€˜Godâ€™s markâ€™. I used to use my auntâ€™s eyebrow pencil to try and make a replica of the mark on my face because I so much wanted to look like her. Everyone thought it was sweet and made fun of me.
At the time we were ready to go to university, I lost my mum. To make matters worse, my aunty announced that my cousin would be travelling to Ghana to meet her long lost dad. I cried my eyes out and my world seemed to have come to an end.
I weathered on – went on to study sociology at the University of Lagos, got myself the most loving husband any woman could ever dream of and made sure I took care of my beloved aunty. Each time I asked to get in touch with my cousin, my aunty would tell me they had lost touch, but because I missed her so much, I was relentless. As I became more persistent, she broke the bad news – my cousin had died in Ghana. Everybody I loved seemed to die.
My lifeâ€™s journey soon after was similar to a roller coaster ride and Nigeria became really difficult. My husband lost his job, and my job as a teacher in a private school could not meet our needs.
One day I received an e-mail from the same childhood friend who visited us years back. She suggested I relocate to the United Kingdom. I requested a letter of invitation and she told me I did not need one, â€˜â€¦as you were born in the UK , you are entitled to a British Passportâ€™, she reminded me. It had not crossed my mind! I therefore got all my documents together, and went straight to the British High Commission. To my dismay, my application was rejected because they did not believe I was who I said I was.
I decided to give it a second try. I applied for a visitorâ€™s visa, travelled to the UK and while in the United Kingdom, applied again for a British Passport.
I was called in for an interview at the Home Office in Croydon. Three officials came in and having gone through all my documents – my birth certificate, motherâ€™s passport, baby photographs and every other document I could lay my hand on, gave me the shocking news.
â€œYou applied for a British passport some years back…but we think we know what has happened,â€Â as they gave each other looks and said almost simultaneously. They had brought in with them a photocopy of the said British Passport and asked: “Do you know this person?” I was too shocked to open my mouth at first. I subsequently let out a scream, and shivering and sobbing, pointed at the photograph and said â€˜Yes, that looks like my cousinâ€™. On closer inspection, I decided it was indeed my cousin â€“ I could not miss â€˜Godâ€™s markâ€™ on her upper lip.
You guessed right – the same cousin that was meant to have gone to meet her missing dad in Ghana. The same one my aunty told me was dead. She had used my documents, stolen my identity and established herself in Britain. To further compound matters, she had bought houses, racked up a whole lot of debts and gone to jail for drug offences, all in my name.
All the authorities in the United Kingdom could do was to â€œrevoke her passportâ€; the process of reclaiming my name was mine. It would cost thousands of pounds, but above all it broke my heart – my angel aunty was later discovered to be the devil behind the whole plot. All the while she took us in; it was for the sole purpose of stealing my identity and all for nothing because after all, the Britain I have come to meet is not any better than the Nigeria I left behind.
As if there were enough complications already, I found out that my cousin was married to a Nigerian man, who had been granted permission to stay in the United Kingdom as a spouse of a British Citizen and now also naturalised. They have a child almost the same age as mine and now thanks to my â€˜angelâ€™ aunty and my â€˜belovedâ€™ cousin, I have to live with the guilt of disrupting the lives of her husband and child. The trauma is so much it is affecting my relationship with my husband and child, and my ability to trust again.
My childhood friend has been my lifeline. She surrounds herself and me by default with positive people. My story is being told, so you can tell others, and also have others tell other people.
I have forgiven my cousin. Indeed, I was involved in her resettlement process and she is now also finally settled in the United Kingdom. I firmly believe there are others like me, who may still be back at home in Nigeria and may have been turned down by the British High Commission, deprived of their rights. It may just be that the root of the problem lies close to home.
The story you have just read is based on a true story. I met the protagonist late 2008, in the course of my service as a member of the Independent Monitoring Board in the United Kingdom. I have protected the name of the characters as requested by the main protagonist.