Cover Photo: ©Toyin Ojih Odutola.  Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Installation image from Six Draughtsmen at MoCADA Photo Credit: Steven Harris
©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Installation image from Six Draughtsmen at MoCADA Photo Credit: Steven Harris

Connecting the Dots

“You may not know the words but you haven’t forgotten.”

My mother and I were visiting Nigeria for the first time since we left eight years earlier. So much had changed. I didn’t recognize anything or anybody. Especially the many uncles who were trying to ask me something, who were coming up to me and saying, “Wolidiyan?”

My face would remain unmoved, my blank eyes darting around for my mother or anyone who would help me understand what was being bellowed at me.

“WOLIDIYAN? Ahah! MMABASSEY. Heeeeeeey!”

Their disgusted faces looked like crumpled origami. The parting blow, “Ame-ri-ca! Na wa!” spat from their mouths with bitterness. They would shake their heads while walking off in disappointment and frustration.

A friendlier aunt saw the shame drench my face, and pulled me away from more angry looks.

“They think that if you forget the language, you have forgotten them,” she explained, rocking me against her chest. “But you have not forgotten have you, Nyono? You may not know the words but you havent forgotten.”

I didnt know what she meant but I nodded. 

I stayed away from the rest of the party, choosing to hide behind the compound on a makeshift bench hidden by trees. I’d hear my names being called and draw my hard, twelve-year-old knees closer to my face, resting my soft cheek upon them. 

It wasn’t long before someone found me on the bench, beneath the tree. I felt the bench sink as the heavier body sat next to me. Like most of the family and strangers I met, he told me his story before he told me his name. His name was not as important as how we were connected.

“Im your fathers third brother’s eldest son,” said the voice beside me. “I am your brother, Otu.”

Third brother could mean uncle and there was no word for cousin. I noted that he pronounced “brother” as “brodda,” so in my head he became Uncle Brodda.

“People want to see you,” Uncle Brodda said.

I nodded into my knees but didn’t look up. I just watched the wind and moon play with leaves.

“Your father is a great man.”

I said nothing, waiting for the rest. When he didnt continue, I looked up and found him staring at me. He had a face Id never seen before. One part of his skin was dark like the color of the sky after the sun disappears to make room for the moon. The other part of his skin was the moon itself—pale, with a half crescent shape around his eyes and cheeks, as if he had forgotten to color in this abstract painting. I must have stared a bit too long.

“Its called vitiligo. Some of our people have it.” Our people?

I remember asking him what it was. Does it hurt? Does it feel like you’re melting? When you wake up do you find bits of yourself coating your pillow? Do you watch it spread? Do you cry? Are you used to it? What was the first time like? 

I threw these questions and despite the communication gap, Uncle Brodda did his best to answer: It does not pain me. It is not like candle wax. You notice small small that the skin is no longer the same. I can no longer cry. It is a part of who I am now. I just watch it fade.

His transparency inspired me to re-enter the party and disappoint more relatives with my Americanness. He was my kindred: his difference on his face, mine on my tongue. They had all wanted me to go to America to “be better” but now, when I returned, I was too American. They wanted small Nyono back; they wanted me to change again. I decided then that people dont know what they want so I should know what I want. Sometimes I do.

That evening, after everyone had gone, I sat on the bed in my aunties hotel in the village with a torch and examined my body. I searched for any hint of discoloration, anything that would grow into a patchwork on my skin. I was frightened but intrigued. What story would I make up to explain my own? Would I tell people that I watched the brown slide off my face and crawl away? Or would it just disappear one day?

I have a sprinkling of moles and freckles all over my body. They form a lazy splatter around my eyes, with a few peppering my cheeks. I have a mole on the upper right corner of my lip. I have a dot on my shoulder, one on the inside of my right forearm, and one on my left thigh. There are more in random places doctors and ex-lovers have pointed out; ones Ive never seen but I trusted the person well enough at the time to believe them when they said the dots were there.

After about an hour of searching with the torch, I found the dot on the back of my leg. This one is light, a reversal of all the other dots speckled on my body like black paint. I thought of Uncle Brodda and how this white spot could grow or show up on other places on my body. I told my mother the next morning. She said, “Don't worry. That one is your fathers side.” She said it as if I had somehow sprung whole from her. I have her mothers face, the one she gave us all, so it could have been the truth. I left it alone, checking every few years to see if the white spot had grown. It has been the same size since then. It hasnt moved.

When I think about these stars that litter my skin, when I think about the dot that goes in defiance of all those black marks, I recognize one thing—that even my body defies itself. My skin is a star-filled night of moles and marks and there is one that chose to lighten. These collections of dots and marks tell a story of who I am.

On the days when it feels like my skin is a prison filled with flaws and insecurities, I think of Uncle Brodda, and how he was unable to hide his story. I returned to the village years later, but nobody knew where I could find him. Now I think of how we both hid beneath the trees, speaking the same language of exclusion—he spoke his language with triumph, while mine was still budding confidence. I no longer fear the white dot expanding. The real fear is in shrinking, but we dont hide anymore. We belong here.

Bassey Ikpi is a Nigerian born, American raised writer and poet. With social commentary being a focus of her work, Bassey has recorded original poems for the Kaiser Foundation’s HIV/AIDS campaign, Knowing Is Beautiful and There is No Comfort In Silence for Global Grind and World AIDS Day, as well as an original poem used in an animated short produced by global organization, Girl Effect. She has written for several media outlets on the topic of mental health and pop culture.  She is the founder of mental health NGO The Siwe Project and is working on several creative projects.