As published in the Guardian Life magazine (Sunday, October 26, 2008)
Last week I stood before a class of Swedish High School Students (Rosendalsschool) to sing the Nigerian National Anthem. I was invited to come and speak about my writing, and about life in Nigeria to 2 classes (“juniors” and “seniors”) of about 60 students each. Which, if you ask me is the most difficult task in the whole world. Imagine trying to “explain” Nigeria – a country of more than two hundred ethnic groups, as many as five hundred languages / dialects and one hundred and forty million people – in about ONE hour. (Even my dear Lagos alone holds more people than the entire Sweden!)
But I had all the fun in the world. Pictures, they say, speak louder than words. So I showed some pictures I took months back in Lagos, just to give an idea of the city. But I was also eager to point out that it would be impossible to know a city only by seeing photos. If it were that easy, then there would be no need for anyone to travel.
True, images are very helpful. I have never been to America, but I am no stranger to America. In the images that Hollywood exports, in the music videos, in the American brands (fashion, magazines, fast food, automobiles, computer technology) that colonise business districts everywhere from Stockholm to Lagos Island, in the Presidential Debates that have found massive audiences around the world. I have come to know the Statue of Liberty, I have met Joe the Plumber and Joe Six Pack and Joe Biden; I know that the American Dream is simply a Star-Spangled version of The Universal Dream.
But I know that all of these second-hand images will pale into insignificance the day I step foot on the soil of God’s Own Country, and (as I put it in an essay for Farafina Magazine) “high-five the Statue of Liberty’s upraised torch-bearing arm.”
Which is the same with Nigeria. You may see images of RPG-wielding Niger delta militants on CNN, turn to the BBC to see an unflattering profile of Lagos’ iconic danfos, and then gorge on Wikipedia statistics that tell you how many Nigerians live below the poverty line or what Nigeria’s foreign reserves are; you may open the Financial Times to see a full-page advert by one of Nigeria’s Super Banks, or your email to see another “PLEASE HELP ME TO GET THIS FUND INTO YOUR ACCOUNT” message from “Ibrahim Sani Yakubu Obasanjo”; you may run into a band of Lagos-bound Nigerian woman at an airport in Nairobbery or Dubai, laden with mountains of duty-free shopping bags that MUST all find space in the overhead compartment of a perplexed plane; all of that notwithstanding, the real truth is this: Nothing, absolutely nothing, matches the experience of landing in person at Murtala Mohammed International Airport (or wherever else you come in through) and seeing Nigeria for yourself: breathing in the air, sweating the sweat, disintegrating slowly in the traffic jams, getting swept up in the gaily-dressed Saturday owambe crowd, getting lost in the crowded corridors of The Palms or the crowded (aboveground-)catacombs of Oyingbo or Ogbeogonogo or Kuto markets…
The senior class of Rosendals will be visiting Malawi later this year. Alas there is little that I told – or showed – them about Nigeria that will prepare them for Malawi. It will take far more than the ‘Africa’ they share in their names for Southern Africa and West Africa (or East and West) to become similar. The difference, as my childhood friend Fido Dido would say, is clear.
Right here in front of me as I write this is a book titled “Meanwhile, Back in Zambia”, a travelogue produced by the Swedish communications consultancy Global Reporting, after a visit by their staff to Zambia in 2006. One of the sections is a Frequently Asked Questions page, where they list the questions team members most regularly raised during the trip. They are all quite funny. Question 8: Can you eat the salad at restaurants?
This makes me laugh because it is something I can identify with; many are the Nigerians who have been forced to spend entire Sundays crouched on their toilet bowls after trying salad at an owambe the day before.
But the question that interested me the most was Question Number 18: Why do Zambians drive so slowly? It is a question I have had to ask myself before, not about Zambians though, but about Ugandans. I spent a few days in Kampala in 2005 and was shocked by how reluctant they were to use their car horns. Same with the Ghanaians. To one from a country where not even motorcycles are hesitant about borrowing truck (Mercedes Benz 911) horns, the Ugandans and Ghanaians seemed like a people trapped in a time warp (with the power switch turned to OFF).
The answer to Question 18 in “Meanwhile, Back in Zambia” is: "Neither the cars nor the drivers are in a condition to go any faster."
Hilarious stuff. But wrong.
They should come to Nigeria and see rattling, doorless danfos travelling on the 3rd Mainland Bridge at speeds that would make Formula 1 races look like slow motion.
Moral of the Story: It is not about the condition of the car or the driver. It is about the power of the human spirit.
Back to the Anthem. I remembered the words of the Nigerian National Anthem. I was so proud of myself. I even got a sitting ovation afterwards. And got so excited that I almost found myself doing a special rendition of “Nigeria We Hail Thee”. I stopped myself just in time…
8 years ago