Nigeria’s 50th birthday was a fortnight ago. On October 1, 1960, the British officially turned over sovereignty of the country to the Speaker of the newly independent Nigerian Parliament, Jaja Wachuku, in the form of the Freedom Charter. The new nation nearly convulsed apart within ten years, and in many ways, it’s amazing such an entity has survived intact, an agglomeration of hundreds of ethnic groups (and indigenous languages), many of which were so recently colonized by Britannia that they were not very warm to the idea of sharing political commonwealth with a bunch of circumstantial peers.
The holiday got me thinking of what it means to me to be a Nigerian, born in Nigeria, educated in Nigeria and abroad, living (and naturalized) in the USA, but with a very strong sense of rootedness off the Bight of Bonny. Nigeria is enormous. I’ve read estimates that a quarter of all black people in the world are of recent Nigerian origin. Among such multitudes there is so much to say that I’ve just begged off to a series of vignettes in a number that suits the occasion, and I’ve broken the expansive result into three parts. Please do join me in this sampler from our enormous platter.
1. Nigerians are everywhere. I’ve lost track of the number of cities I’ve visited where the third language I’ve heard, after the local tongue, and maybe English, was a Nigerian language, or Pidgin. They’re arriving with you at the airport; arguing with customs about the crayfish or bitterleaf they’ve packed in their luggage; driving your cabs while loudly playing gospel, pop, or gbedu music (contemporary Nigerian hip-hop fusion); selling wares in the city center; treating patients in the district hospital; holding meetings for the local enterprise. And unless you have a good spam filter, proposing rather more suspicious business directly to you. You’re pretty guaranteed to run into Nigerians wherever you go. Reverse colonization, perhaps?
2. A Nigerian is always a little bit hungry until he’s had fufu. Fufu, the staple meal across Nigeria is one of several starchy pastes dipped in an oily, rich vegetable stew, with varying degree of seafood flavoring and other meats. It’s probably an acquired taste, but once acquired, you’re doomed. I always chuckle at my parents who go to a party and eat the fancy food, and pop a plate of fufu into the microwave as soon as they get home. I laugh, but I know the feeling. Nothing really hits the spot the same way. Especially (for me) pounded yam with egusi soup. Bah! I’m suddenly starving…
3. Wielding a machete is a life skill. Grass and other vegetation in the rain forest doesn’t mess about, and a considerable amount of national calories goes to beating back foliage. Sometimes this expenditure of calories is rather involuntary. When I first went to boarding school in 1981 one of the things on the provisions list that all students were to bring was a cutlass or machete, as we term variants of the eponymous instrument of the recent Mexploitation flick. I soon figured out why we were asked to bring these, because I was always on punishment, and punishment often meant hours of cropping fields by machete. When you piss off prefects regularly enough to be assigned to cut a half acre at a time, you quickly toughen up so your hand stops blistering, and you learn enough efficiency to put the hero of the aforementioned film to shame. A right pain, but it does have its benefits. For one thing, now that I live in little-box suburbia, I find myself perplexed at the garden tools section of the DIY store. Lawn mowers, garden shears, weed whackers, edgers, long- and short-handled croppers. All for these milquetoast temperate climate lawns? I don’t want to pass a college course to figure out what to use for what. Just give me one tool. Just give me a machete, and with its familiar heft in my hands, I’ve got it all covered in record time. And oh by the way, since I can’t always be arsed to keep a Disney grade lawn, it’s good for the neighbors to see me striding about expertly shredding shit with a machete, since it probably reduces their inclination to complain about my patch.
4. Strict and lax parents can both create punks and paragons. Nigerians are certainly are not alone in our culture of strict and sometimes aloof parenting. This style is common in other African and Asian countries, and when I find my hair standing on end at the continuing practice among some cultures of honor killings, I realize Nigerians in general are probably nowhere near the extremes¹ (though now that Taliban-like movements are creeping into the Muslim North of the country, I dread that such nonsense as filicidal honor might come along for the ride). My own personal experience, however, is of friends and relatives showing an extraordinary complex continuum of harsh and distant with indulgent and nurturing parents. Very personal indeed as my parents generally sent me to spend a month or so each summer under care of a relative or close family friend, as is customary in Nigeria. There are a variety of reasons for this custom, from bonding families to giving kids a some variety in their discipline. As it happened, in my case, all my hosts turned out to be more indulgent of me than my parents ever were.
I do carry some prejudice that a harsh parent will produce a virtuous child, but when thinking of people I know, it’s not hard to admit the poverty of any such actual correlation. Yet style of parenting is one of those cherished cultural artifacts, and I do enjoy while in Nigeria hearing the crisp “yes sirs” and “yes madams;” I do very often find myself thinking of other children in the US: “what that pestilential brat needs is a good backhand across the mouth,” and by extension I mutter, like Russell Peters, “Come on, white people, beat your kids!” I do miss the chaos of communal parenting, though the latter might not be as attractive if I lived next to the likes of the cruel father of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant but harrowing novel Purple Hibiscus. To be fair, I found him an entirely alien character, far more terrible than anything in my own experience, and he was inspired to monstrosity by Catholic fanaticism rather than traditional Igbo values.
5. There is no green like rainy season green. This one will be short, because words are a vanity in explaining just how green it gets during the Nigerian monsoon. You find yourself checking your skin now and then for your reassuring brown, and feeling your hair for sprouting vines as upon the dada windseeker heroine of Nnedi Okorafor’sHarmattan wind, originating in the Sahara desert, symbolizes the north.. The rain comes in sheets, as if giants are standing on the clouds and tipping buckets of water on your head, and in response the canopy comes alive with its many verdant shades and boldly imposes itself upon everything. Untended surfaces sometimes get taken over by green creepers and even algal muck. Of course this represents about half the country, which stretches from rain forest in the south to dry savannah in the north. If the assault of green symbolizes my ancestral homeland in the south, the dry
6. Malaria is such a pain in the arse you forget to be grateful it hasn’t killed you. When I emigrated from Nigeria to the US in 1990, I brought with me a malaria infection. No big deal, right? I went to see a doctor at the New Jersey hospital and told him it felt like malaria, and remarked in passing I’d arrived from Nigeria a week prior, fully expecting him to rummage in a drawer and hand me some blister-packs of Chloroquine, as seemed normal. Instead he blanched, and before I knew It I was ushered through the hospital corridors to a special room with an ominously thick door, where I was left alone for a bit, and after a while someone came in saying he was from the Centers for Disease Control. I looked at him: “I think all I have is a bit of malaria.” After the initial drama, they did in the end just fill out a ton of paperwork and sent me home with some fancy Malaria drug (not Chloroquine). But that was my first inkling that something I’d pretty much taken for granted most of my life was treated as an apocalyptic affliction in some quarters.
Eventually I learned this was with good reason. The female anopheles mosquito spares no one, and you can burn mosquito coils and huddle under mosquito nets all you like, but malaria is eventually going to get you. For those who have not had the pleasure, think of the worst flu you’ve ever had. The headaches and whole body aches, the weakness, the chills, the nausea and lack of appetite, etc. Two or three days of agony. But almost universally in Nigeria drugs such as Chloroquine and Fansidar could be had at any roadside kiosk, and you swallow them in fufu, deal with the annoying side effects (e.g. a nasty metallic taste in the mouth and sometimes a nasty, deep-seated itch for a day or so in the case of Chloroquine), you wait for the fever to break, and you enjoy the 6 months or (if you’re lucky) year until the next affliction. This availability of drugs is not the case in the poorest parts of Nigeria, nor in many other countries. It was a bit of an eye-opener for me to learn just how pervasive a peril the disease is, and its worldwide mortality rate. I left Nigeria before drug-resistant strains became very established, and now I accept universal prevention and treatment of Malaria as perhaps the most humane cause on earth. It does put a strange gloss on the almost nostalgic glow of my erstwhile, regular encounters with the damned parasite.
7. Forget clothes. Dance fashion is the real deal. Four out of five of my years boarding in secondary school, uniforms were required. One pair of shirt/short patterns for the school day, and another for all other times. When I went on to university, I was staggered at the new vibrancy of fashion in clothing, but really, the basic designs didn’t change so often (I read about high school fashion waves here on TNB with some puzzlement). As long as you could get by respectably attired (which I couldn’t always manage for a variety of reasons) it was generally socially safe to neglect the threads, as long as you could put down the latest dance on the floor. If the chart-topper of the day switched from Bobby Brown to Teddy Riley, you’d better not be caught still doing that Bobby Brown dance. Dance fashion was ruthless but exhilarating. I look at that Evolution of Dance video thinking “hmm, that looks like about one summer’s worth of step changes to me. And BTW dude, you need an urgent transfusion of panache.”
8. Military coups are a fascinating shade of suck. You hear whispered rumors the day before, and then one morning you wake up and all the radio stations are broadcasting a maniacal sequence of martial music, and just when you’re thinking “will someone turn off that John Sousa shit!” the rasping voice of some Lt. Colonel comes on declaring a change of government, in the name of the great people of Nigeria (yeah, right!) and the imposition of a dusk till dawn curfew. Just great! Another junta of scallywags positioned to take their turn siphoning from the national treasury. Maybe there’s been bloodshed. Maybe not. For a week there is tension everywhere you go in the streets. Soldiers have taken over from police at the ubiquitous highway checkpoints. Their red eyes suggest they’ve been chewing and smoking things that might exacerbate the already itchy trigger fingers on their submachine guns. Over time, things seep back to normal, and you’re just glad no one has had to make any headlines about you. I was a school boy in Nigeria through three military coups, including one which deposed the beneficiaries (from President Shehu Shagari on down) of one of the most blatantly corrupt elections you’ll ever see, just to see him replaced by a succession of even more corrupt military dictators (starting with Buhari) following each other in tit-for-tat coups. There were also a few abortive coups mixed in, which generally led to the same few weeks of tensions. You can still catch me musing ruefully over that sordid timeline.
9. Fela Anikulapo Kuti. ‘Nuff said. We’ve always known he’s the man. Nice to see the world catch up. Probably the two most enduring jump-offs at any Nigerian party (or any African party at all) are Prince Nico’s Sweet mother and Fela’s “Lady”. The following embed is audio only, so go ahead and play it while you read on.
10. Peace to the gulf and the bayou, but we’re losing Eden itself by pollution of the Niger delta. All the rightful anxiety over the BP gulf spill helps put into perspective the slower catastrophe in the River Niger delta. I’ll have to say more about the curse of mineral so-called wealth before I’m done with this series, but I start by remembering the several boat trips through the tidal waterways and mangrove forest south of Port Harcourt (at whose university my father lectured for a few years) and Calabar (the city of my birth). These far south regions are a veritable paradise of plant and marine life diversity, the utter maximum of the prodigious green I remarked earlier. There is enough force of Mother Nature there to cover up a lot of foul waste, but the petroleum industry and Nigerian Governments have conspired to push their carelessness and neglect beyond any conceivable capacity. To be fair to the media I did catch a few examples of attention derived from the BP disaster wake-up call. “Nigeria’s agony dwarfs the Gulf oil spill. The US and Europe ignore it.” (The Guardian. A headline I find rather obtuse about the fact that primary responsibility lies with Nigeria.) “Oil Spills Occur Almost Weekly In Nigeria.” (NPR audio).
11. Queueing up for fresh water by the bucket sure helps you appreciate the stuff. Nigeria has two great rivers, the Niger and the Benue, and a profusion of smaller waterways and lakes. We have an extensive system of aquifers that spider up from the coast. We’re blessed with plenty of fresh water. Not so much with integrated systems of municipal pipes. Most businesses and many houses do take advantage of the aquifers to establish running water on site from boreholes, but this is not universal, so not long after you arrive in the country, a favorite sound becomes the rumble of a coming water tanker. You queue up with a few buckets and jerry cans, and apply all your ingenuity into schlepping as much water as you can to the domicile, for a bucket bath, for cooking, for a nice, fresh, crisp drink. It sounds like a pain in the arse, but I cherish the strange magic of the experience. There is also an unexpected downside. In the early 90s, it became popular to sell water in small plastic bags, “pure wata,” as the roadside hawkers called it. the resulting layers of discarded water bags became a serious environmental problem throughout the country. Calabar set an example earlier this decade by banning “pure wata” bags, and the difference was spectacular. I can only hope more cities have followed suit.
12. “Ghana must go” was a rather shameful incident. I was talking about fashion earlier. One of the most confounding moments I’ve ever had observing haute couture was a few years ago when a friend sent me a photo from the Louis Vuitton runway show. No caption was required. “Is that a fucking Ghana Must Go Bag?!” Just about every West African knows about the luggage/tote bag style with the hilarious name and the even more hilarious stories in everyday use. Vuitton, eh? I’m more used to seeing the device in settings such as in this photo, courtesy my Ghanaian friend Koranteng Ofosu-Amaah². But the hilarity papers over a dark stain.
Ghanaians and Nigerians are brethren. We’ve had so much in common even in pre-colonial times, with great migrations between the many peoples of the two territories. The aftermath of colonization, leaving us a pair of Anglophone countries in a Francophone sea meant even more exchange, as well as Ghana’s role as the pioneer of West African Independent nations, whose charismatic independence leader, Kwame Nkrumah, became an icon of Pan-Africanism. With the boom in Nigerian wealth from mineral and cash agricultural resources peaking in the early 80s came a boom in migration of workers at all tiers from Ghana to Nigeria. As corruption and mismanagement began to corrode the benefits of that boom, Nigeria’s venal leaders needed a scapegoat, and, hey! what’s this!? Ghanaians in our country! All of a sudden they were apparently a problem. General Buhari infamously declared in 1984 that “Ghana Must Go!” Remember what I said earlier about Nigerian ubiquity? Seems the champion traveling nation had turned anti-immigrant in a fit of demagogue politics. The checkered plastic fiber bags were popular at the time, so with images of Ghanaians carrying bundles of these bags in the queues of the deported, the luggage gained its piebald name.
Interestingly enough, the expulsion of Nigerians was a decade-late echo of the 1971 mass expulsion of Nigerians from Ghana by Prime Minister Kofi Busia, though no one explicitly talks about tit for tat. These episodes say so much about the problems of Nigeria and Ghana, but ultimately about eagerness of leaders to shirk responsibility and seek ready scapegoats for their own mismanagement. In the mid 1980s the Ghanaians went, but not all of them, thank goodness. In 1988 I was in a horrible head-on car collision in Port Harcourt. My father took me, unconscious, to two Nigerian doctors both of who waved off my condition, and said I’d be OK. He then took me to a third doctor, who happened to be a Ghanaian. Dr. Attey wasted no time palpating me, and by the time he ordered me rushed into surgery, I had lost so much blood internally that I should have been a goner. A Ghanaian doctor saved my life, making me keenly aware of how blanket political actions can demolish the individual graces of economic exchange. With those Ghanaian professionals applying at home the energy and entrepreneurship honed in emigration, Ghana has rapidly superseded Nigeria in per-capita growth. These days I understand Nigerian elites are flocking to Ghana to buy property. I can imagine the prospect of another round of turnabout there, but then again, I hope Ghanaian leaders are more sensible than that.
13. Proverbs are the vegetative protein of language. It starts in the native tongues. Even translating such gems loses them their shine “Only the shovel-bearer buries the dead; the mourner just makes a racket.” (from Yoruba) and “You don’t have to tell a deaf man that war has broken out” (from Igbo). These become flattened into shadows in English. It’s like my name. If you gather ten Uchennas and ask them what their name truly means, you’ll probably get six different answers. There is such nuance in the two words “uche” and “nna” that they add up to a combinatoric explosion of meanings together, and this effect is enhanced with lore and local context in the use of proverbs.
It has always fascinated me studying Western high culture, how much we revere Homeric style of expressing ideas, even though we ourselves have largely retreated to the linguistic consequent of Platonism (regress from forms) and Aristotelianism (rigorous classifications), with an enormous battery of terms each of which is tasty, but rather one dimensional. A friend of my father’s, who wrote one of many books about Igbo proverbs, liked to tell a story of the colonial British schoolmaster who came into class reeling off the great humanistic concepts of Western Philosophy from bits of the Symposium to Descartes and beyond, intending to dazzle the savage children. The children responded over and over along the lines of: “oh, you mean…” and then some native proverb.
Even as Nigeria has pressed together so many native tongues with a mortar of English, the love of proverbs is still everywhere evident. You’ll find them on the side of most commercial vehicles, from construction lorries to long-haul “luxury buses,” sometimes a translation of a native proverb, often a standard British schoolboy number (though these are rapidly losing out to religious mottoes). I recall seeing a lot of “No condition is permanent,” which is a neat specimen because this idea, rightly placed among the laurel leaves of sage Heraclitus, is also covered in what feels like hundreds of native proverbs, including expansions on the Igbo kernel echi di ime (“tomorrow is pregnant” in its poor, flattened rendition).
14. Affirmative action is a dodgy idea. Every culture has its social injustices, and as we in modern civilization rightly strive to reduce these, sometimes we apply a sledgehammer to scalded flesh and complicate injury with our well-meaning ministrations. For many complicated reasons British colonial rule left Nigeria rather stratified, with a larger professional class infused within some regions than others. These led to migrations and cultural conflicts that fueled the Biafran war. After the traumatic war, the government decided that it would force a re-balancing of these historical disparities in an effort to relieve some of these tensions short term, and to reduce their causes long term. They applied a rigid system of ethnic quotas in education and jobs, some of which had positive effect, such as encouragement of students to travel from their homes to other regions of the country at the secondary and University level. Unfortunately, there are just as many negatives, including the promotion of unqualified people at the professional and even elite government level, and grade inflation such that students of targeted ethnicity are shoehorned into schooling beyond their aptitude. This not only wastes resources but also perpetuates the very stereotypes the quota system was meant to rub away.
When I started secondary school in Okigwe, in Igbo territory, I had just arrived from primary school in the UK and US and was largely unaware of all this. There were a few students in class clearly well out of their depth. Most of the southern kids, and even many of the teachers pretty much ignored their struggles, writing them off as “illiterate cattle rearers,” a typical put-down of people from northern Nigeria. These northerners soon turned to me for help because I had no reason to turn up my nose, but even I fell into despair when I realized that they were probably three grade levels beyond their ability. I was also struggling in class because the Nigerian standards were a good deal higher than the US equivalents, but I was a quick enough study that I soon caught up, yet even my own journey was no use to these colleagues. This was the first of many experiences that soured me on anything resembling social quota systems.
Unlike many opponents of affirmative action in US politics, who are often bigots in disguise, I am very sympathetic to its goals. There is no denying the real historical disadvantages of groups such as Native Americans and descendants of slaves and indentured servants³, and any humanist is desperate that these should somehow be addressed, but again the sledgehammer only imposes collateral injuries, and this is one of the several areas where even as a social liberal in tendency, my personal experiences lead me to distrust of some of the most hallowed planks of the US progressive movement. But let me leave aside American politics and get back to Nigeria. We’ve been a very interesting crucible for many social experiments, analysis of which I wish were more spread worldwide in political discourse, especially considering that you can find us everywhere, as I say.
15. Changing the national anthem was a crap idea. I don’t like the new national anthem, and I haven’t met many who do. Our original anthem, “Nigeria We Hail Thee,” (here’s some ancient audio) was written by a white chick, a wife of one of the departing colonial administrators close to the even of independence. Not unlike the name of the country, “Nigeria” which was coined by the wife of early Governor-General of Nigeria Frederick Lugard. “Nigeria We Hail Thee” is a lovely bit of music, but partly out of insecure feelings using an anthem written by a Brit, and partly because committees need something to do, at the end of the 70s the military dictators held a competition for a new anthem, the winner of which was “Arise, O Compatriots.” The new number is more suited to military exercise than to being sung with any kind of real feeling. Ah well. Countries generally do not get the anthems they deserve. “The Star Spangled Banner” is a miserable song, and I’ve never been able to fathom why the sublime “America the Beautiful” was not instead adopted.
16. Nigerians are easy to stereotype, but much tougher to pin down. Whether it’s District 9 or just the ubiquitous association with “419” scams, I find it an endless source of amusement that Nigerians are disproportionate targets for stereotyping. I think it speaks to how large we are as a people. Certainly across Africa, Nigerians are targets for resentment given our numbers and our voluble tendencies (these tensions, for example, are behind the insults in District 9. At the same time, most people to whom I mention my nationality respond with tales of some brilliant Nigerian student with whom they’ve roomed, or some Nigerian doctor who has saved their life, or some great Nigerian novel they’ve read, or some sharp Nigerian rising quickly within the ranks of their business. Stereotypes work only at a distance, and our lot seem especially complex on close examination. Then again, this very notebook of mine is littered with stereotypes, which I don’t always remember to excuse.
And the notebook will continue shortly, in part 2. Meanwhile, especially if you’re Nigerian, or have otherwise had any interaction with the country or its people in the past 50 years (I suppose one could say that at least everyone with an e-mail address has done, eh?), please do feel free to leave your own pithy observations in the comments section. And if that doesn’t apply to you, leave a comment anyway.
¹ This is not meant to suggest jingoistic hypocrisy. Both branches of my ancestry, the Igbo and the Efik had ancient traditions of destroying twins and higher multiples as abominations at birth, for example, until the intervention of Western missionaries. That might just be the apex of harsh parenting, providing I decline to jump into the abortion debate.
² If you like my wandering, pan-cultural approach to observations of Nigeria, you’ll love Koranteng’s Weblog take from a Ghanaian slant.
³ I’m not avoiding terms such as “Black Americans” out of any political delicacy, but rather because I myself, as a naturalized African immigrant to America am keenly aware of the muddle behind such terms. It’s well attested that Africans have the highest educational attainment rates of any immigrant group in the US (yes, even more so than Asians) so clearly programs such as Affirmative Action are all the more distorted when skin color becomes the sole distinction in addressing perceived imparity.