This is part 1 of my series ‘Becoming Nigerian’
I flew into Abuja, Nigeria on a Lufthansa aircraft in December 2012. It’s been one year, a year of profound personal growth, illuminating discoveries and lots and lots of fun. I came here with the intent to report news, understand my place of birth and immerse myself in what we know today as Nigerian culture – a globalized concoction of African chic, bravado personalities, high religiosity, strict social conformity, contagious affection and joviality, conditional patriotism, never ending tolerance for ill performance and mediocrity, remarkable adaptability and utilitarian cleverness. I came, I see and I’m conquering.
Overall, my time in Nigeria has been wonderful so far. I especially like Abuja. When I first arrived, I stayed in Life Camp. Then I moved to a beautiful estate in Utako. Now, I live in Jabi. I can’t pretend that I haven’t experienced culture shock. My culture shock goes something like this:
“Went through the airport without being asked for a bribe. Excellente! Man, why is it so hot in Abuja? Mosquitoes. Kill all of them, kill the babies, kill the adults. Kill all mosquitoes because I didn’t come to Nigeria to get malaria. Doxycycline pills in check. I just paid a guy at the airport $20 so I can use his cell phone to make a 30 second phone call. $20! Oh, well. That’s my 10 percent offering for the week. Why is Abuja sooo hot? I wish God can turn on the air conditioner. I hear Hausa spoken everywhere. I’d like to learn the language. Meeting the family. Yes, I can cook. No, I’m not going to make pounded yam and egusi for you tomorrow. Why? Well, first of all I just got here. And I can’t even cook that. And I’m not here to cook for you. Nice streets in Abuja. Wide and clean. Beer gardens. Nice, but I don’t drink alcohol. No, I said I don’t drink alcohol. Stop forcing me to drink alcohol! In the U.S., my abstinence to alcohol was never a big deal. Here, people give me weird stares when I tell them I don’t drink alcohol. I don’t do catfish. I don’t eat fish that don’t have scales. No, the farm-raised tilapia is fed off corn and soy. That’s why I don’t eat it. No, I’m just trying to be healthy. No, I’m not saying you’re not healthy. I’m just saying, you’re eating unhealthy food. No, I’m not giving you my phone number dude when I just met you three minutes ago. Wait! Did it just get hotter? How much hotter can it get in Abuja? I miss snow. I miss freezing temperature. I’m dreaming about a Chicago winter right now. Why are people here trying so hard to act American? Dang, she’s more American than I am and she’s never stepped outside Nigeria. She’s watching The Kardashians, again? What? You don’t even know where your house-help is from? But he’s been living here, working for you for 5 years. His name is Benjamin. How do I know? Because I asked him. Yeah. I talked to the houseboy. Is that a problem? I’m weird? Yeah, you told me that already. But actually Benjamin is pretty nice. You should talk to him sometime. Oh? He’s your servant not your friend? Ok. I got it. Utako Market. Fruits are a good price. Giwan ruwa? King of the what? Okay. I’ll try some. This fish has scales right? Why do women clean here, like all the time, like non-stop? Women, still cleaning. Everywhere. Sweeping the sand outside the house. How can you sweep sand? I mean, it’s sand. Sand is supposed to be there. Not enough green in front of, or besides or behind people’s houses. All these big beautiful houses in Abuja and not enough yards or gardens! Too much concrete around people’s houses. Don’t people like nature? Don’t people like grass? Why are you cutting the bougainvilleas? But they’re beautiful! Don’t you like flowers? River Niger goes all the way up to Mail and flows to Guinea. No, why would I make that up? Are you saying you didn’t know that? Yes, I know what Nollywood is. Because I used to watch Nigerian movies in America. Yes, they show Nigerian movies in America. So your boyfriend, the one you’ve been dating for just over a month, told you to be cooking his dinner? Are you his mother? Is he a baby? No, and no. So then I don’t underst… Man! It’s hot. N3,000 for a pack of grapes!! That’s $18! In the U.S., grapes are like $2! Dang this country is expensive. What do you mean you don’t know where Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Way is? Your house is on Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Way! Yeah, look out the window and you’ll see the street sign. Wait, did you just say some women enjoy being beaten by their husbands? Did you just say some women deserve to be beaten by their husbands? But you’re a woman, so why would you say something like that? My skin has gotten five shades darker. It’s soooo hot. I’m dehydrated. God HELP me. Why are people still walking outside when it’s so freaking hot? Hi Mr. So and So. Aunty, I should do Saturday morning cleanup? No problem. No, I’m not going to clean up the entire day! Because I have work to do that’s why. No, I’m not going to follow you to church after I’m done cleaning up. No I’m not going to church with you on Monday or a Tuesday or a Thursday or a Friday. Traffic on Friday near the Central Mosque in Central area. Lots of traffic. I said, “Good morning.” A lot of people here don’t pronounce the G at the end of “ing” words. Good mornin’. Interestin’. Gistin’. How was my night? Um, OK I guess. Why do you ask? Why is Silverbird so empty? Why is the O’Neal Center so empty? Lots of nice restaurants and shopping centers in Abuja, but they’re usually empty. Hmmm. Interesting. Yes, this is my real hair. Dada? Sure. I’m dada. Yes, it’ natural. Yes, I’m Christian. No I don’t go to any church here. Because I can’t find one that I like. Why are these church women dressed like they’re going to a club? All the high heels and tight skirts and…I feel so under-dressed in my flat open-toe sandals and Ankara blouse. Is that why they’re all looking at me? No, it’s the hair. Yes, it’s my hair. No, I’m not part of any cult. Christians can have locked hair. Yes I know how to do Igbo dance. Because I was part of the Igbo community in Atlanta. Yes, I do eat Nigerian food but none of that oily stuff. But oh, my gosh, I love efo riro! Geisha, geisha, geisha in everything. Uggh! Geisha in the moi moi. No, I don’t want meat. No chicken, either.Um, you do know that chicken is meat right? Just vegetables. Yes, just vegetables. Yes, I know the price is the same. N4,000 for salad and fresh pineapple juice? That’s $24!!!!!! What? But in the U.S. salad is like $5! Dang this country is expensive. Yes, I know what ogbono soup is. Because I’ve eaten it before in America. Because we have a large Igbo community in Atlanta, that’s why. No, I’m not looking for a husband. No I don’t need fasting and prayers for a husband. No, I don’t want to come to your Sunday evening church revival. Because I can pray in my own house, that’s why. Of course, God will still hear my prayer. I’m not going to hell so stop looking at me like that. No, I don’t need to wear Indian weave on my head because I’m not an Indian. I’m black. Weave, weave, weave, everywhere! Of course, I’ve been to my village before. In Anambra. Yeah, my hometown. You haven’t been to yours? Why? You’re afraid of being killed? Whaaaaat? Negroes be off the hook. Women still cleaning up nonstop. Didn’t you just get back from your job at the bank? Then why are you cleaning up? Rest woman! Stop pounding yam. At least go rest for an hour. Tell your husband to pound the yam for Christ’s sake or at least to sweep the floor. Ok, then teach him. Jesus wouldn’t mind. I promise. No I’m from Ogbaru, that’s south of Onitsha. Yes, it’s south. Look at a map. Oh! It got hotter! When is harmattan, again??? Lagos. No. A week there is enough. Uyo. Oh, I love Uyo! So calm . Enugu. Cool. Love it. Traveling southeast. Love it! Yay! Trees. So many trees! Yes! I’ve missed the trees. There are not enough trees in Abuja. No wonder the air is so still up there. But Anambra. Rivers. Akwa Ibom. Enugu. Ebonyi. Cross River. Trees! Thank you God! And breeze! And nice weather. Back to Abuja. Burning heat. My skin is now 6 shades darker than it was three months ago. No, I don’t need to get married now. No, I am not ashamed of myself. No, I do not need to “settle down” and get married and stop traveling so much. Yes, I’m Igbo. Yes, I know. You already told me I don’t look Igbo eight times already. Why in the world is the taxi man hitting on me and talking about my breast size? Oh! He thinks I’m a prostitute because I asked him to take me to Grand Ibru Hotel! Taxi drivers. Gotta love them. Except the one who cursed me and my whole future generations because I paid him N400 instead of N700. Come on! Wuse to Jabi is not N700! I notice it’s always the Igbo taxi drivers trying to overcharge me. Hi Mr. So and So. I’m melting. God, it’s just sooo hot. I’m going to stay in the house on these hot days. Water please. No I don’t drink Fanta or Coke or Sprite or Malta or alcohol. Hmmm, Fayrouz tastes nice. Woah, too much sugar! Just water please. No, I will not wash your underwear. Fine, I’m leaving your house. I’ll get my own place. Jabi. Found a nice place of my own. No, I don’t have a husband. Why? Because I’m not thinking about marriage now, that’s why. No, I’m not going to regret my decision. Hi Mr. So and So. What? Why do you want to come over my house tonight? But you’re married. Stop it right now. I’m not interested. Teach you how to speak like an American? But why? That doesn’t even make any sense. Wizkid. P Square. Davido. Banky W. Flavour. Too many pop beats. No depth in the music. Trying way to hard to be Americana. The music ain’t got no soul. No good lyrics. Oh, just like American pop music. I can’t stand it. Well, Flavour is trying, shah. At least he tries to infuse highlife and some acoustic artistry. Wande Coal. Nice voice. I’m sticking to my Ebenezer Obey, Celestine Ukwu, Rex Lawson and Sunny Ade. Hardly any Igbos here in Abuja can even speak Igbo. How the heck am I supposed to learn Igbo then? Trip to Kaduna. No, I don’t speak Hausa. No, I don’t speak Hau- Oh, I look Fulani? Yes, I’ve been told. Actually I’m Igbo. Yes, I promise. See, Chika. That’s an Igbo name. Yes, it’s my real hair. All of it. No, no. I assure you, I don’t have any Fulani relatives that I know of. Kenyan? Yes, I’ve been told I look Kenyan. It’s the small, long face? Oh. Ok. Well, my dad has a long face. No, I don’t want Indomie. No I don’t want Fanta. No, I don’t want puff puff. Or chin chin. Or garri. Or Semolina. Or pounded yam. Or edika ikong. Or jallof rice. Or fried rice. Or white rice. Because it’s too oily. Too much starch. Too much sugar. Can I just have steamed carrots and cabbage with boiled plantain or boiled yam? Yes, please. No, no chicken. No meat. What kind of fish do you have? Catfish? No way! No, no fish for me. If only you had salmon…Where is the salmon in this country? Yay! I found salmon in Lagos!!!!!!! One reason to like Lagos. Operation Find Salmon in Abuja. Oh, Dunes sells salmon. Praise Jesus. N16,000? What? That’s $98! But in the U.S., I buy salmon for $10!!!! Man, this country is too expensive. Hi Benjamin, Merry Christmas! It’s been a long time! So nice of you to call me. Guess what, I’ve been living here now for one year! Yeah, I know! One year already. What? What? Huh? Can I be your girlfriend? You like me? Benjamin, sorry. I’m not interested in you like that. Yes, I know who Fela Kuti is. Yeah, I know Kollington Ayinla and Osadebe. Hey, you know we hear all that stuff in the U.S., right??? It’s getting hotter. And hotter. And hotter. I’m melting. Harmattan. I thought it was supposed to be cool in harmattan. Global warming? I guess so. No, I don’t drink alcohol. Fine, I’ll just hold a glass so you can stop asking me to take alcohol. Rape jokes? But rape is not a joke so why joke about it? Too many men trying to boss me around. I’m too independent? Oh, that’s fine. I’m too opinionated? No Nigerian man is gonna want such an opinionated woman for a wife? Ok. That’s fine too. No wahala. See! I sabi pidgin!”
In summary, my culture shock has been aroused by:
#1 The high cost of food, clothes and housing compared to that in other African countries I’ve been to and the U.S.
Hardly anything in Abuja is cheap. Except for the leather sandals. I buy my flat leather sandals from the Northerners – excellent quality for a great price.
I will never forget the story of a pregnant woman who was instructed by her husband to go and pound yam because he was hungry. She was very far in her pregnancy. After pounding the yam, she began to bleed. She eventually lost the baby due to the hard labor of pounding yam. Of course, her husband was angry at her for being so “careless” to lose a baby. This may be perceived as a more extreme example. But, it’s really not when you look at the grand scheme of things.
# 3 The extent of superficiality in the church and how it seems some people are just going there to look for a marital spouse and to meet societal expectations
Of course, this is seen in every country, but it seems to be so pervasive here
#4 The widespread lack of historical, geographical, statistical knowledge about Nigeria among many Nigerians
I have interviewed dozens of students who do not know much about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Biafra, which Nigerian states are where, names of trees and plants in Nigeria, African literature (beyond Eze Goes To School, Chike and the River, Things Fall Apart and a guy named Wole Soyinka), the political system, etc. For example, I was eating lentils one day and the house help asked me: “You don’t like Nigerian food?”
Me: “What do you mean?”
House help: “Those beans, what did you call it again?”
House help: “Yes. That’s not Nigerian.”
Me: “I know.”
House help: “So you don’t like to eat Nigerian food?”
Me: “What is Nigerian food?”
House help: “Food native to Nigeria.”
Me: “The rice you just finished eating is not native to Nigeria. It was imported by foreigners many years ago.”
House help: “Are you serious?”
But, of course, things like rice and Indomie have been incorporated into Nigerian cuisine. That’s the beauty of globalization. But it’s important for people to be aware of these things and not to go around saying things like “george is traditional Igbo attire” when it’s not. The contemporary style of george (or what’s called georgette) that Igbo people have adopted was borrowed from Asian (specifically Indian) culture.
#5 Many people – not all, but a lot – here try really hard to act American and speak with American accents: “Like, duh, seriously?”
Here, many people view speaking like an “oyinbo” to be a status symbol. Unfortunately.
I was with a group of young people who were telling a joke about a really handsome, expensively dressed man who comes up to a young lady at a club. The lady is flirtatiously batting her eyes and when the man finally speaks he says “Nne, how are you? Chei! Omalicha” He’s speaking in a heavy “Igbotic” accent. Everyone is roaring with laughter at the joke. I did not laugh. I understood the joke, but I didn’t think it was funny. I don’t see anything “wrong” or “unsophisticated” about a Nigerian accent, just as I don’t see anything wrong with a French accent.
#6 The widespread lack of basic knowledge when it comes to nutrition and healthy food
Too much vegetable oil in the food here. Fried, this. Fried that. Maggi is really awful. And then too much starch. Rice for breakfast, Indomie and meat pie for lunch. Boiled yam and oil for dinner. I can’t even begin talking about how unhealthy the typical Nigerian diet is. I will never forget my initial shock the first time I saw a woman warming up a pot of rice and stew (with chicken) to feed her family for breakfast. And the kids even asked for a second helping! And she gave it to them! The sad thing is, our forefathers did not eat like this. The typical Nigerian diet was much healthier 50 years ago. My grandfather lives off of fruits, boiled yam, boiled or roasted plantain, cassava, native vegetable soups, beans and little bits of meat. That is a much healthier way to live, food-wise. Today, Indomie, popcorn, Dangote sugar, instant garri, soya oil (and other cheap vegetable oils) and white rice are raising waistlines and blood pressure around the country. My attempts to inform people about their food are usually met with sidelong glances and laughing. “This gal has come again with her American theories!”
#7 The way Christians question my Christian spirituality just because I don’t “go to church” or say “God dey” or “We thank God” when someone asks me how am I doing
This is a topic for another post.
#8 The widespread ignorance of just how widespread Nigerian culture is globally
Many Nigerians here express great surprise when they meet Nigerians who spent most of their lives abroad and know a lot about Nigeria (the food, the music, the literature, the pop culture, the history, the prominent people, etc) because they are not aware of the extent to which the Nigerian diaspora community has spread Nigerian culture all over the world. They’re always like “Really? You watch Nigerian movie in the U.S.?” or “Wow, how do you know about highlife music?” and “Who taught you how to tie scarf like that?”
There are literally hundreds of Nigerian organizations in the U.S., from the Nigerian Doctors Association to the Otu Umunne Women’s Club. These organizations, especially the cultural ones like Otu Umunne, taught me critical aspects of Nigerian culture. I learned how to do Igbo dance, specifically Egwu Amala, for example. If you go to a Nigerian party in the U.S., you’ll feel like you’re in Nigeria! The only different is, the electricity is constant and there’s no generator keeping it on!
#9 The large number of people who have not visited their ancestral hometowns
Many people have told me they have never traveled to their villages because they are afraid of one thing or another. I, personally, find this quite sad. We are cutting ourselves from our culture. I like to go to my villages, maternal and paternal.
#10 Social class divisions are strongly respected here
I like to have conversations with gatemen, house help, drivers, street cleaners, security guards. Many people have told me I should stop doing this because I will “lose their respect” and I notice that sometimes the house help I’m speaking with is even uncomfortable with my speaking to them. I realize that divisions between rich and poor are clear, and there isn’t supposed to be too much interaction between them. However, I was raised to devalue classism. American culture views classism as wrong, like an injustice, a human rights violation. (Yet, racism is alive and well. Ironic, right?)
For example, I was in Lagos in a car with colleagues one day and whenever I wanted to ask the driver something, I would address him as “sir.” One of my colleagues told me not to call drivers “sir.” I was told the driver would think I am mocking him because “sir” is strictly reserved for rich men. I was advised to refer to the driver as “oga.” In my mind, I was simply calling him “sir” because “sir” to me, means a man who is much older than I am.
In conclusion, my culture shock has not been too shocking because I was well exposed to Nigerian culture in the U.S., but there is a huge difference between watching something in a movie or living in a “diluted version” versus living in the thick of it. I look forward to learning more. Nigeria is fascinating. I’m proud to be Nigerian and I’m happy to be here. Will I call it home?
Wait for Becoming Nigerian Part 2
by Chika Oduah