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  • Writer's pictureVanessa Oduah

CULTURE WAS A DIVISIVE FACTOR IN MY FIRST MARRIAGE

By Vanessa Oduah





Other than stress, I had no emotions on the day of my white wedding in January 2018. I tried to muster up tears while walking down the aisle but I could not produce them. I suspected that our marriage would not last. We came from two different cultures. Less than two years after the wedding, I would drive home to my parents’ home as a divorced woman. 


This is the story of how culture played a role as a divisive factor in my first marriage. I hope that in my second marriage, culture will strengthen the bond between my future husband and me. 




Nigerian Blood Runs Through My Veins

I am a child of Nigerian parents. I was the first in my family’s lineage (that we know of) born in the USA. So, I like to consider myself a “true” African-American.




My childhood and adolescence spanned the 90s and first decade of the 2000s. Those formative years were spent in Georgia, a place I boastfully call home (yeah, I know – what state doesn’t have issues?). My six siblings and I played Red Light Green Light in the red clay, sang with Brandy and Monica on the V-103 radio station, and counted passing cars as our dad masterfully maneuvered his way around I-285 in metro-Atlanta. Our parents beamed with pride at each graduation ceremony and decked our home with diplomas from the respective universities that my siblings and I went to: Georgia State University, the University of Georgia (UGA), Savannah College of Art and Design, Albany State University, and SAE Institute, along with out-of-state schools. 



“Though I have grappled with my identity at times, for the most part, I openly embrace the “hybrid” upbringing that has shaped me.”


The backdrop, however, of this quintessentially Georgian canvas was Nigerian culture and custom. Even as children, my siblings and I were keenly aware that our parents were immigrants, and that it was Nigerian blood running through our veins. We snacked on moi-moi and Tri-Malt, watched Nollywood’s early classics like Rattlesnake and Woman in Red, and referred to all our parents’ friends as “Uncle” or “Aunty.” Church was not an option, and prayer has never been a game.

Though I have grappled with my identity at times, for the most part, I openly embrace the “hybrid” upbringing that has shaped me. Sweet tea is one of my favorite drinks. But it was not my grandmother who introduced it to me; it was Mrs. Winners. Some of my most cherished experiences at the traditionally southern UGA are tied to my membership in the African Student Union, where I participated in Taste of Africa and our annual, campus-famous African Night production, and made lasting friendships with other children of African immigrants like Tola and Zena. I love peach cobbler; I love plantain. I hate macaroni and cheese.  That part just did not take, and it never will.





American Boy Meets Nigerian Girl

I’ve crushed on American guys and Nigerian guys, typically the tall, dark, and slightly nerdy yet athletic ones. But as a teenager, I dated neither. For better or worse, I did not have a romantic relationship until well into my twenties. Sure, I had guy friends, and I wanted to date some of them. Some of them wanted to date me. But for one reason or another (mostly because, like many of my Nigerian-American friends’ parents, my folks were not big on boyfriends), nothing serious materialized.


“Nervous yet optimistic, I chose to move forward with him.”


So, when my first real boyfriend came along, I thought it was a no-brainer that we would get married. He was, admittedly, not what I expected my potential husband to be- he was more average height than tall and had never really gotten into sports. Growing up in a small town in Florida, he had never had a Black teacher. (I, on the other hand, could count the number of White teachers I’d had on one hand). Most notably, he was NOT Nigerian but- as he called it- “just good ol’ Black.” In spite of this, we bonded over church and music, both singing since childhood and avid fans of the “gospel choir” sound. He was humble and funny, and he seemed to care about me. Nervous yet optimistic, I chose to move forward with him.


By then, I was living in central Florida, having relocated from Georgia in 2011 to continue my education. I was 26 with a master’s degree in biomedical sciences from the University of South Florida and a stable income working at a clinical research center within the same institution.


My ex and I met in choir rehearsal at church around 2012. Having sharp ears and an ability to learn and teach music effectively, we ended up spending a lot of time with our choir director and each other. He laughed all the time, which I liked. I remember watching the 2012 election results with him and his roommate in their apartment and laughing until my stomach hurt the whole time. I also admired his natural ease around kids and teenagers; they seemed to gravitate to him. Around that time, he was teaching middle school English and directing the children’s choir at church. Since I was also big on education and also liked being around kids, I figured we were winning in the compatibility department.



“While he was African-American and I am Nigerian-American, we shared some things in common.” 


He liked my singing voice and range (which was much better then). My modest yet goofy personality was also a plus for him. I think what truly fascinated him, however, was the fact that I was a “true Nigerian.” As our relationship progressed, he attempted to adopt different aspects of Nigerian culture- trying foods, adding songs to his playlist, and wearing our traditional clothes. I was anxious about what my parents would say about me dating an American guy, but I hoped for the best. We enjoyed the dating stage. Although I still had reservations about being with him, I mostly suppressed or talked myself out of it. He went all out on our first date, taking me on a helicopter ride around the city. We kept it mostly simple after that- strolling through the park or enjoying a semi-fancy dinner.


While he was African-American and I am Nigerian-American, we shared some things in common. For sure, I was hardly a stranger to the American way, so he and I were similar in a number of ways. I strongly identify with the experience of being Black in America and have never denied it. This allowed my ex and I to laugh at the same jokes. We could both shake our heads while watching a scary movie, thinking “My Black self never would have gone there in the first place.” We both spoke with Southern twang and vernacular, his pronunciation slightly more noticeable than mine.


“Less than two years later, I drove home to Georgia for Christmas as a divorced woman.”


We eventually married, having a Nigerian cultural wedding in November 2017 in metro-Atlanta and a traditional white wedding two months later. The cultural wedding replays fondly in my mind for every reason other than me getting married. I remember those who attended, some being friends of my parents for years. I used every opportunity to dance with my siblings, a common occurrence at Nigerian parties. 






The white wedding was less fun and more foretelling. Other than stress, I had no emotions that day. I tried to muster up tears while walking down the aisle but could not produce them. Although we verbally agreed that “Til death do us Part,” I internally suspected that our marriage would not last. It did not take long before we both admitted to each other that we had made a mistake. Less than two years later, I drove home to Georgia for Christmas as a divorced woman.


Pre-Marriage Concerns

A variety of negative factors came together to pull us apart rather easily. The difference in our cultures was one of them. To be honest, these differences were apparent even before we got married, and maybe I had underestimated just how strong cultural forces can be. 


By and large, Nigerians consider marriage to be a union of two families, not two individuals. I recognize that this is also true among some Americans, but I think it runs more deeply for the former.


“American culture takes a more individualistic approach toward marriage.”



Within the Igbo ethnic group of Nigeria, from which my family hails, parents are heavily involved when their child finds someone he or she wants to marry. When a man is ready to propose to a woman, tradition dictates that he and his “people” visit the woman’s “people” to introduce themselves and make their (not just his) official proposal. From there, the woman’s parents make “inquiries,” including phone calls or even sending a representative to the community of their daughter’s suitor to gather more information about the man’s family. Therefore, a person without strong family ties is considered a risk. This is primarily because the relationship between in-laws, or “ndi ọgọ,” is highly regarded among Igbo people, almost sacred. The two families ideally embrace each other and see each other as blood relatives. Their doors are always open to each other. Insulting your in-law is a serious offense in our culture.


My ex-husband meant well with his courting and proposal, I’m sure. For the most part, he went about it the way many Americans do. I did not know it at the time, but he traveled with one or two of his friends from Florida to my parents’ home in Georgia to ask my father for my hand in marriage. When I found out about his visit, I applauded him. My dad, however, was not so much a fan. He asked me later, “Why didn’t he come with his parents?”


I tried to explain that American culture takes a more individualistic approach toward marriage. Two people marry each other. If their families support them, great. If not, tough cookies. Therefore, a man would not bring his own father with him to ask his lady’s father for her hand. Many Americans would see this as immature and conclude that the man is not ready to make decisions or support a family on his own.


My explanation did not go over too well. My parents were less than thrilled with our marriage plans, but they trudged along through the engagement period. I do not know if my ex really understood the concept of the “bride price,” or “ime ego” (a small token determined by the woman’s family to be paid by the man) or the “list” (a list of gifts, also determined by the woman’s kindred, that the man’s family will present to them). But he complied with both, perhaps with a few jokes here and there. I, meanwhile, just prayed for an agreeable meeting ground, where the two cultures would coalesce into something beautiful – or at least functional.


“My Igbo parents were adamant that no wedding would take place if there was no visit.” 


There were two items on which my parents put their foot down: a genetic test and a meeting of the future in-laws before the wedding. They called for a genetic test to ensure that my ex and I were not at risk for having sickle cell anemia show up in any of our children. As far as I know, this congenital condition is not a primary concern between American fiancées, much less genetic testing. In Nigeria, however, this type of anemia is rather common. So, I understood why my parents insisted on the test…partly. I also partly considered it a tactic to slow down or even stop our marriage plans. Looking back, I am not quite sure.


I was more aligned with them as far as a meetup with my ex’s parents. I did not want our parents’ first meeting to happen at our wedding. From what I remember, however, my ex’s parents did not consider this an issue. By that point, I had developed a solid and pleasant relationship with them. My ex and I knew each other for about four years before he proposed. During that time, I visited his parents’ home with him several times. They would also come to Tampa often for various events, like a birthday dinner or an event at the church my ex and I attended. They liked me and seemed elated about their son’s decision to marry me. They seemed to have the mindset that the apple could not have fallen far from the tree; if I was a decent person, my parents were most likely to be decent people.


“Throughout our engagement, marriage and divorce, I learned a whole new lesson on just how different Nigerian and American cultures can be.”


This was another point of divergence that I noted between American and Nigerian cultures. My Igbo parents were adamant that no wedding would take place if there was no visit. Moreover, they called for my ex’s parents to make the trip to Georgia to see them according to tradition (the man’s family goes to the woman’s family, not vice versa). My head was on a swivel for months. I looked at my parents and understood why they considered it outrageous for their future in-laws to remain incognito until the wedding. I looked at my ex’s parents and understood why they considered this an “extra” step and were asking why my parents could not make a trip to Florida to meet them. After a bit of back and forth, the visit did happen. My ex and I also took the genetic test; to our relief, the Punnett squares worked out in our favor. There was no risk of sickle cell anemia in our future offspring.


Throughout our engagement, marriage and divorce, I learned a whole new lesson on just how different Nigerian and American cultures can be. For the most part, I had fit in among his family and friends. He was the one who was entering a new world when it came to embracing my Nigerian culture. Beyond the delicious food, fierce apparel, and electrifying dance moves, I am sure the adjustments were not easy for him. There were more pressing issues that led to our divorce, but I cannot deny the insidious cultural tension that indirectly contributed to our calling it quits.


“For years after my divorce, I was overcome with guilt about the pain that my marriage had brought to my family.” 


I look back and cannot say for sure whether my parents were hoping for a way to keep us from ending up together. And honestly, I am not concerned. Regardless of ethnicity, most parents want the best for their children. I know my parents were looking out for me. They looked at my ex as an individual and saw traits that they believed would make him and me incompatible. But my stubbornness would not allow me to consider their warnings. I had dug my heels into shaky ground by deciding to marry the wrong person. I knew that divorce was heavily frowned upon among Nigerian Christian families, yet I capriciously let my ex put a ring on my finger while envisioning an escape plan in my heart. I thought I could bear with the cultural differences as well as the other cracks in our relationship. But I learned firsthand just how painful a bad marriage can be. For years after my divorce, I was overcome with guilt about the pain that my marriage had brought to my family. When I was hurting, they were hurting. It only crystallized the Nigerian concept that had been instilled in me from childhood: Individuals do not get married; families do.


Keeping It Igbo And Moving Forward

I am happy to have experienced spiritual, mental, emotional and financial healing and restoration post-divorce. I have not turned away from defining myself as Black or African-American, although my heart has always leaned more heavily toward my Nigerian identity. I love to bring my American and Nigerian friends together for different occasions. My kitchen may smell like fried basa one day and fried tomato stew the next. In my house, my son hears English and Igbo. I find problematic aspects in both American and Nigerian customs, such as America’s fascination with guns and Nigeria’s obsession with opulence.


After four fulfilling years of singlehood in which I learned more about God and myself while nurturing a close relationship with my son, I am happily in a relationship with a Nigerian man.



Our families are natives of not only the same country but the same state, and we both speak the Igbo language. Nigeria boasts hundreds of languages and ethnic groups across its 36 states. Him being not only Nigerian, but Igbo, hits closer to home. He is taking the customary Igbo approach in his courtship: he has introduced himself to my parents and received the “list.” His family is making plans to travel to my father’s town and visit my kindred. When I greeted his father for the first time over the phone, he joyfully responded “Oh, our wife (nwunye anyi)!” with a sing-songy, froggish voice that I have come to know and love from older Igbo men. I chuckled, knowing that the greeting was a sign of acceptance. 




“Dating a fellow Nigerian is pushing me to focus even more sharply on my roots…” 


Obviously, the idea of your boyfriend or husband’s father calling you “wife” would sound crazy at best to many Americans. Among the Igbo people, however, it is an endearing indication that a woman is being welcomed into her man’s family. The label goes in all directions. Brothers-in-law become “our husband,” or “di anyi”. If, say, Ada is married to Nonso, and then Chiamaka marries Nonso’s brother Kanayo, then Ada and Chiamaka could refer to each other as “co-wife,” or “nwunye di m.” Chiamaka may call Ada and Nonso’s child “my son” or “my daughter.” Collectively, the extended family is called kindred, or “umunna.”


Despite hearing this in the movies and within my Igbo community, I was still slightly freaked out when my boyfriend’s brother reminded me that he is also my husband. (“Boyfriend/girlfriend” is barely recognized within our culture, especially among older adults. The vocabulary of a relationship progresses from “stranger” to “friend” to “husband” or “wife.”) I was undoubtedly familiar with this concept, but it hit different to experience it personally. When I mentioned it to my boyfriend, he laughed and reminded me of what Igbo people tell someone who is marrying their sibling: “You are a wife/husband to all of us, but only one of us will share a bed with you.” He added that for me to call his brothers “my brother,” as I am wont to call guys with whom I have a platonic relationship, would be insulting. It would be perceived as if I do not want to accept his family as my own.


“My boyfriend is teaching me things about our Igbo culture, just as I am teaching him about American culture.” 


I told him that it would take a bit of time for me to break out from my American influence and comfortably refer to his four older brothers as “my husband” and their wives as “my co-wife.” That part of me wants to describe such closeness as inappropriate or creepy. But the Nigerian part of me knows that there is no ill or salacious intent attached to these labels. On the contrary, the Nigerian siblings-in-law that I have personally observed tend to have a great degree of respect for each other and are extremely averse to crossing any lines.


I’m keeping it Igbo and moving forward in my life. I know my partner and I will have challenges since we are two different people, but I hope that our shared Igbo heritage will make things easier and help us to navigate our differences. In fact, I hope that our Igbo culture can be a guide in our marriage.



Dating a fellow Nigerian is pushing me to focus even more sharply on my roots and the legacy I will leave within my ethnic group. My boyfriend is teaching me things about our Igbo culture, just as I am teaching him about American culture. There have been bumps and growing pains along the way; but overall I am blissfully excited. There is more to it than being with a man who is right for me. I get to share a similar experience with my mother when my father courted her. Just like them, we plan to do our own ime ego and igbankwu (“wine carrying,” the Igbo traditional wedding).  Culture was a divisive factor in my first marriage; I hope it is the safe place in my second. Because the shared culture that I have with my Igbo partner adds to the bond that we are creating; for that, I’m grateful.







Vanessa Oduah is a clinical research associate living in Florida. She enjoys reading, singing, and spending time with her son. 

Instagram@vioduah








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Yasmin Nuru
Yasmin Nuru
Jun 12
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Beautiful! Thank you for sharing your truth. And hello neighbor! African born and Atlanta bred 😊

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Guest
Jun 11

Great read. I am happy your prior experience did not discourage you from being open to recieve the love and relationship you deserve. Wishing you all the best this second time around. Jisike!! Addy

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Guest
May 19

Very good read. Speaks on the truth about intercultural marriage... esp. It works for some and not for others. Don't think either is "the right or wrong way."

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