I am originally from Neenah, Wisconsin and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I graduated in May with a degree in International Studies and African Studies. I studied abroad in Nigeria from September 2010 to June 2011 as a part of the Language Flagship Program. My program in Nigeria was focused on Yoruba language and culture.
I had heard a lot of negative things about Nigeria regarding corruption, crime, personal safety, the weather, people’s attitudes, poverty, and pollution. I remember a few months before I left for Nigeria, I sat next to a Nigerian on a flight from Chicago to Washington, DC and told her I was going to Nigeria. The disgust and disbelief in the way she interrupted, “WHY?” was more than enough for me to infer how she felt about the topic. Administrators at my university strongly discouraged me from going as it was an unsafe environment and had “dilapidated and sub-par” educational facilities. Hearing things like this only gave me more motivation to go, as I knew I was only getting one side of the story—the same side of the story that consternation-rousing international news outlets often focus on. I knew that there were clearly a lot of misconceptions, misunderstandings, and miscalculations about what it is like in Nigeria, and I figured what better way to find out the real and unbiased truth than to go and experience the place for myself.
Whether it was the way people drive, the way people prioritize tasks, or merely just being in the most populous country in Africa, I would say my emotions were overridden with surprise, humor, and disbelief at all of the new things I was seeing.
I’ll never forget my first three hours in Nigeria—all spent at Murtala Muhammad International Airport in Lagos. I had been awake for two straight days at the time due to jet lag and delayed flights en route. The rigid, cold, and predictable environment of airports I had been to in Europe and America was replaced by a setting I could only first comprehend as a rush of complete chaos to all five of my senses. The baggage claim area was completely packed with people. Some were praying, some were on the phone, some were sleeping, some were yelling, and the rest were probably doing what I was doing: wondering if and when I was going to be able to claim my bags. Out of the two luggage belts, one was broken. The one working belt had four flights worth of luggage to deliver to the increasingly impatient crowd. After about twenty minutes, the one working conveyor belt broke down and completely stopped working. After an additional twenty minutes of waiting around, the resident director of our program climbed up on the conveyor belt and crawled down into the hole where the luggage was coming from. He began to heave luggage up to the anxiously waiting audience himself. Within thirty seconds, the room resembled a mosh pit at a rock concert as about twenty more people followed suit. After about five minutes, there was a seemingly well organized system (as organized as possible given the situation) to get people their luggage. This instance, as well as several others that occurred in my first twenty-four hours in Nigeria foreshadowed an important theme of my trip: chaos breeds creativity.
I was in shock for most of the first week I spent in Nigeria. Whether it was the way people drive, the way people prioritize tasks, or merely just being in the most populous country in Africa, I would say my emotions were overridden with surprise, humor, and disbelief at all of the new things I was seeing. It was a little strange at first living somewhere so different, but it was so exciting and everything was such an eye-opening learning experience. I was always eager to absorb as much as I could from my surroundings. I remember for the first few months I was there, I was absolutely exhausted at the end of each day from taking in and processing so much previously unknown information alongside communicating in a new language and culture. I definitely experienced culture shock, but I think it took a while to sink in and it happened in ways much less overt than I had expected. As an American, it was easy at times to get frustrated by the lack of respect for personal space (in every sense of the word), an overzealous predisposition to spending most of one’s free time at a church or a mosque, and the lack of subtlety in Nigerian culture. I felt that these types of characteristics in Nigeria frustrated me much more on days where I was already tired. Overall though, culture shock was much less intense than I had expected it to be.
I would say that at first it was strange to exist somewhere with completely different parameters than I had known in the past. After a month or two of careful observation, it became easier to understand how people acted and why they made some of the decisions they did. I eventually began to feel comfortable and at home, and could thus begin to slowly build a network of friends and acquaintances. The way people choose and make friends in Nigeria is completely different than what I am used to from my American cultural perspective. People are extremely suspicious, hesitant, and rarely straight forward in many ways we are here in America that I had previously taken for granted. I remember feeling like I was constantly playing a game that required one to be on the top of his or her game in terms of alertness and wisdom. These differences never ended up being detrimental though, as I ended up making a few close friends that I still stay in touch with and can’t wait to see again some day. It really took a lot of time for me to figure out who was important to me and who was just trying to use me or be my friend due to ulterior motives. As time progressed, different experiences and situations made a clear demarcation between the two facets of my acquaintances and made me all the more thankful in the end for the close friends that were important to me.
Some of my most memorable experiences in Nigeria revolved around music. Music has always been one of my greatest passions in life. I have played drums for twelve years now. I knew a lot about Nigerian music before I studied abroad there, and was eager to learn more about Nigerian drumming traditions. I was fortunate enough to find an amazing teacher and mentor who taught me to play Bata drums. He really took me under his wing and treated me like one of his own children. We performed together in a variety of different contexts and this was perhaps the most rewarding and enriching experience I had in Nigeria. Yoruba language and music are inseparable. The three tones in Yoruba language are played on tonal percussion instruments (talking drums and Bata drums), so playing drums there is much more than hammering out rhythms; it is a deep and sacred form of communication. Learning Bata and talking drums greatly improved my Yoruba language skills as it forced me to think about the tones in the language and how I was applying them both while speaking and playing. Musically interacting with other people and musicians in Nigeria was living proof for me that music transcends language, culture, and identity in the world. It was beautiful being able to play music with others and thus interact on a deeper level.
Aside from the tangible linguistic, cultural, and musical skills I took from the experience, I have a completely different view of the world. It is difficult to explain what a rewarding, eye opening, and valuable experience it is for one to travel and spend time in a place so different from anywhere they have ever been before. Spending as much time as I did in Nigeria makes it easy to instantly relate to any Nigerian I meet anywhere in the world, as I have a much better idea of where they came from, the issues they face, and their world view in general. I now know that Nigeria is such a complicated place, it is difficult to understand much about it without going there. It is a place that has everything and yet has nothing. It is a place where everything is possible and everything is impossible at the same time. It is a place where you are guaranteed to see something that surprises you every day. The experience will always be a part of me and has greatly shaped the path I am taking into the future.
I would highly encourage anyone considering studying abroad in Nigeria to do it, especially because there are so many misconceptions about the place. The people in Nigeria are some of the most hospitable people I have ever met, and so many people took a genuine warm-hearted interest in the fact that I went there to learn about their language and culture. This notion was extremely powerful and resulted in a lot of joy for both myself and countless people I interacted with. Aside from the people and the eye-opening nature of the experience, Nigeria is an important country with a lot of potential. I believe it will play an increasingly important role on the world stage and particularly in Africa. If you are thinking of studying abroad in Nigeria, learn as much of a language as you can (whether it be Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, or any other language) before you go. Although English is the official language of Nigeria, it is not the same as American English and knowledge of an indigenous language allows you to connect with people on a whole other level. People will take you much more seriously, it will be easier to keep yourself safe, and you will enjoy yourself more. Pidgin English (broken English) is also extremely helpful but is easy to pick up with a little effort once you get there.Also make sure you go with a reputable program that has taken care of your academic and living arrangements. This will save you a lot of headaches.
Lastly, three words that sum up my experience in Nigeria are chaos, humor and inspiration.