Leaving Nigeria in search of a better life
When Chinelo Mbakogu was a young girl growing up in Enugu, Nigeria, she would curl up on the couch and turn on the television to watch “The Cosby Show” and “Full House.” These sitcoms helped form her perceptions of life in America.
She imagined a place where people drank big, delicious, cold glasses of milk — not the powdered milk she drank in Nigeria. Americans wore shoes inside their homes (definitely not acceptable in her home), and they had running water and reliable electricity. And surely, every American had lots of money plucked from their proverbial money trees.
When Mbakogu was 12 years old, she left Nigeria and moved more than 10,000 miles with her mother and four older siblings to Aurora, Colorado. She soon realized life in America was not as glamorous as she had hoped.
As a young teenager, Mbakogu was unprepared for the change that she would face in the U.S. She became aware of her black skin for the first time, and she wrestled with discrimination and resulting low self-confidence into her early 20s.
Today, Mbakogu, who oversees contract compliance at Denver Water, has found an appreciation for her culture, but it took many years for her to confidently embrace her identity as a black woman.
Growing up in Nigeria
Mbakogu had a comfortable life growing up in the metropolitan city of Enugu in southeastern Nigeria.
“We had a good life; we were fortunate. My father had a job at a bank. We had a driver and staff who worked in our home cleaning and cooking,” she said.
As the youngest child in her family, Mbakogu was doted on.
“I am a daddy’s girl for sure, and this was definitely the case when I was younger. Almost every day after school, our driver would take me to buy ice cream, then he would bring me to my dad’s office at the bank. Everyone there treated me like a princess.
“My dad and I would go to lunch together — just the two of us — before picking up my siblings at school. These are some of my fondest childhood memories,” she said.
Family was very important. Every Sunday the entire family would gather at Mbakogu’s grandmother’s house to spend time together.
These family gatherings were particularly important in December, when her family would get together in their “village” in the rural part of the city to celebrate the holiday season.
Her family enjoyed Nigerian dishes such as jollof rice, soups with eba (pan-fried, pounded cassava flakes) or pounded yam, peppered meats and fresh fruit harvested from nearby family farms.
In search of opportunity
Things changed for her family when the Nigerian economy took a downfall and Mbakogu’s father lost his job. Employment was scarce, the city became unsafe, and health care and education were expensive and unreliable.
Seeking a better life for her children, Mbakogu’s mother accepted a nursing job in the U.S. She established a home in Colorado, and after a few years her children joined her from Nigeria. Mbakogu’s father would remain in Nigeria.
“More and more families were leaving the country in search of better lives. We were really lucky my mom came first and prepared a new life for us in Colorado,” she said.
“I was excited to come to America. It was going to be a great adventure.”
In 1995, after arriving in the U.S., Mbakogu started middle school and immediately noticed how different things were in America.
“In Nigeria, all the homes, businesses and schools were surrounded by security fences. There were strict rules and guidelines on how children were expected to behave in school,” she said.
“There were no fences around my new school. Kids skipped class and talked back to teachers. They didn’t wear uniforms and some of my peers were already starting to date. All of this freedom was very surprising to me,” Mbakogu said.
This is also when her awareness of her dark skin was heightened for the first time.
“In Nigeria, I never thought about my skin color — everyone is black. But when I came to the U.S., there were many other races. I was so young, and I wasn’t prepared to deal with the name-calling and shaming I faced from peers because of how dark I was,” Mbakogu said.
As a child in Nigeria, Mbakogu watched the 1977 television miniseries “Roots,” a multigenerational saga of African American life that deals with themes of slavery and racism in the U.S.
“When I watched it, I didn’t really understand much of it. I was young and racism wasn’t a regular topic of discussion around me, so it was difficult to connect with the show. When I came to the U.S. and saw some of the negative themes in society around me, I began to see my skin color negatively,” she said.
Middle school was difficult as Mbakogu struggled with assimilating into a new culture while navigating her teenage years. She was shy, introverted and quiet.
“My mom worked a lot and my siblings were much older and trying to live their own lives. I didn’t really have anyone to talk to, and I missed my family in Nigeria, especially my dad. I basically had to figure it all out on my own. It was a challenging time,” Mbakogu said.
Finding an identity
It wasn’t until she started college at the University of Colorado Denver that Mbakogu started to feel comfortable in her own skin.
She saw her mom work long hours nursing and taking care of her kids. As a result, Mbakogu was determined to be financially independent. She worked a full-time job while also enrolling in a full course load at school.
“I was very focused on my goals and I missed out on a lot of the social aspects of college, but I set out to accomplish something, and I wasn’t going to let anything stop me,” she said.
She earned a degree in finance and accounting and continued her education at Regis University, where she earned a Master of Business Administration.
“It took a long time for me to accept who I am and to appreciate being black in America. It was a long process, but I am happy, grateful and blessed to have embraced who I am,” she said.
“After all I’ve been through, I feel blessed to be able to experience both worlds — my African roots and my adaptation into American culture. I’ve been able to see the benefits and challenges of both, and I think that brings balance to my life,” Mbakogu said.
A family of her own
In 2010, Mbakogu married Chijioke, “CJ,” and the couple traveled to Nigeria to celebrate their nuptials with traditional and formal wedding ceremonies.
“In my tribe Igbo (also spelled Ibo) the traditional wedding is a lively celebration held in the bride’s village. The bride’s friends wear bright clothing and there is festive music. The elders conduct the tradition of breaking the kola nut — a ceremony that welcomes guests to the event,” she said.
The occasion is typically followed by the formal wedding a few days later, where the bride wears white.
Today, Mbakogu and her husband have two sons, 6-year-old David and 3-year-old Alexander. The family will head to Nigeria in the spring, when Mbakogu will introduce her children to her birthplace.
“I’m excited to show them where I was born and where I spent my early childhood. I am looking forward to showing them the beauty of Nigeria: all the old historic buildings, the beaches and the culture,” she said.
Mbakogu’s mother moved back to Nigeria in 2009.
“I’m looking forward to seeing my parents, and of course introducing my children to so many family members — aunts, uncles and cousins — who still live there,” she said.
Reflecting on her journey to discover her identity as a black woman, Mbakogu is proud of who she has become.
“Being black is knowing that I came from something so rich, rooted, powerful and beautiful. It’s knowing when I look at myself — from my hair to my skin color to my history and culture — there is a unique story. It’s a story of joy and laughter, but also of pain and heartbreak. It’s a story I pray my sons will come to appreciate as they get older.”