Friday, July 20, 2007

Letter to a new arrival.

Dear newcomer,
I sat next to you on the late night plane from London, where you told me you were moving to Nigeria to work for an international organisation. We chatted a bit about our destination, you asked me many questions about your new home. Some of them I could answer, but tiredness and my own shortcomings prevented me from giving you fuller answers, or really convey much of what I have learned about the country where we have chosen to live, past the immediate necessities: where to shop, or go swimming, or how to get a car.
It's been a year since I was in your shoes, arriving with nothing but my bags and my ideals to a place I had only read about. In the days before I left I spoke to several Nigerians living in London who said I was crazy. "They'll rob you naked before you even get to town," they said. I'd heard many stories about Nigeria, about random violence, fraud, religious fanaticism, and awful food. These Nigerians in Diaspora never made me question if I should uproot myself from my comfortable life, no matter how hard they tried. And I'm glad you have got past these people too.
-Why do we do this, you and I? Uzodinma Iweala, the son of Nigeria's former finance minister recently wrote of his frustration at American college students trying to "save" Africa. And I suspect he's right in a way. Africa doesn't need "saving" from itself, that spin on Empire suggested by John Stuart Mill as he questioned the British role in India. At least it doesn't need saving by the likes of us. So why come here? After a year I have reconciled myself with my reason, even though it is purely selfish. I am curious.
And Nigerians have provided me with much to be curious about. Far from being the rapacious, violent, intolerant, thieves their countrymen would have me believe, Nigerians are among the most hospitable people I have ever met. However, I've learned it's a funny kind of hospitable, more akin to the chummy, if slightly aggressive, banter of the East End cockney than genteel politeness. Prepare to be buffeted, poked and prodded, even sniffed for weakness. If you can bob up with a funny retort, you're ok. Be cheeky. Make a Nigerian laugh more than once and you will become friends forever.
The Nigerians I know are among the most forgiving people in the world. I have made many blunders, and become frustrated many times, but most have forgiven me, more than once. As a friend who has lived here nine years confided: "Cultural difference is like running into an invisible wall. You do it, and then you get up and run headlong into the next one." Indeed you have to, because once you slow down and try to side step them, you start to pre-judge things. Secretly, I think, Nigerians quite like pointing out where they differ from us.
Nigerians call people they have just met, only to say "hello". It's one of the most baffling things I have ever come across, and one that white expats still struggle to deal with. I've overheard many an awkward conversation. Better to just be overjoyed they rang and don't forget to ask them how their family is.
Nigerians are very religious. "God is bored with Nigerians," I've heard people say, "they're on the phone to him all the time." In spite of this some people believe in some pretty weird superstitions, but don't close yourself off to these completely. A Catholic missionary friend of mine who has lived here 20 years told me: "Discount juju at your peril!" I am coming to believe the world may be way weirder than I will ever really know.
Most of all, I've learned Nigerians can be brutally frank. I've heard people say things about each other to their faces that would make Lady Bracknell wince, but that's not their way. If it happens to you let it run off like water from a duck's back.
As we got off the plane I looked at you and tried to remember how I felt as I arrived for the first time. In that moment I felt like a very different person from the one who arrived here a year ago, I realised I've stopped worrying about why I'm here. I've been touched by another place, confused and intrigued by its complexity, and marked by it. When, eventually I will leave I will take Nigeria with me, in a small dose.

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Blogger Afolabi said...

love airline converstions on my country Nigeria, especially when the person has been to nigeria. They always have interesting things to say. Nigeria is simply different things to different people.
ADVICE:one way you can take a dose of Nigeria is by marrying a Nigerian

11:30 pm  
Blogger Z said...

Glad to see you updated the blog and that you are getting some feedback.

9:10 am  
Blogger femme said...

i think this is a very frank assessment. but I'm surprised u think there isn't any genteel politeness. who have u been hanging with?
i guess we always try to derail expats because we cant imagine them wanting to leave their usually more comfortable countries.but for me its not about violence or the people but more about infrastructure.
next time someone asks, will send this post.

4:34 am  
Blogger Oyibo! said...

Hmmm. I didn't mean to suggest there was no genteel politeness, or indeed that genteel politeness was a good thing.
To me genteel politeness is kind of fake, forcing a smile for your guest. pretending. Maybe people are pretending here when I'm they're guest, but they're doing it in a way I don't recognise!

11:28 am  

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