Written by Amayo Bassey
Being Nigerian and growing up in Nigeria has its perks and jerks. I certainly just made that phrase up but let’s ride with it. I grew up in a middle class household in Lagos State, sheltered like no other and to an extent, inexperienced in the Lagos City hustle. I was a happy baby, enjoyed last born privileges for six years, and did fairly well in school, (as is at least expected from every child). My family traveled internationally every other summer, so I was exposed to other ways of life around the world. I don’t think my childhood was in any way unique, so I may skip a lot of that.
It’s interesting how we pick up so many habits without even knowing. There are many things that are a part of me that I attribute to being Nigerian, but I have no idea when I began doing them. Whether you’re out on the streets or safely protected in your chauffeured air-conditioned car, you learn to be street smart at a very young age. One does not simply walk into a market and purchase a sack of potatoes at the first price called out. You haggle! Bargain! Price! Shout out to my dad who has somehow managed to bargain at a Macy’s here in the US. Hail!
As weird/sad as this may seem, I didn’t fully realize what being Nigerian meant to me till I came to the States for College. Coming here and meeting Nigerians born and raised in the States trying to cling on to that slim strand connecting them to their motherland was also a wakeup call. I had that direct connection they wanted and I didn’t fully appreciate it. I think being away from home for so long and being in a completely different environment for an extended period of time makes you constantly aware of the seemingly stark differences. They don’t just pop up in your mind every time you experience something new, they linger. And you’re forced to fully analyze them and think about the how’s and why’s. Being in the States made me love my country more, but it also blindingly highlighted many of our embedded flaws. We may not be extremely physically diverse, but there’s such a variety of culture and tradition to indulge in ranging from food to traditional rites and clothing. (I must say, being away from all that just made me want to be near it so much more!!!)
Growing up in Nigeria made me see certain things in a different light. It only makes sense that race was never something I thought about while in Nigeria. I mean, when everyone around you looks and talks like you, there are no grounds for discrimination on that level. Of course, I ended up going to college in a country where pretty much everyone is hypersensitive about it. So I went from never thinking about race to it constantly being at the back of my mind and framing a lot of my actions and decisions. Talk about zero to a hundred [real quick]. Being black was never a key identifier, because pretty much everyone around was too. I think that was the problem; my friends were Nigerian, I am Nigerian, I lived in Nigeria, most of my family is there, so I never really had to overthink what being Nigerian was. In a sense, I took it for granted. It’s almost similar to the idea that tourists always do and see more than the actual locals. Well, that’s how it was with my Nigerian identity. I felt like I never had to fully explore it because it was inherently a part of me. I’ll move on before I think of any other way to rehash this point.
My secondary school experience was the real differentiator for me. I went to a Catholic boarding school an hour flight away from Lagos, and the six years I spent there were definitely some of the most (forgive the cheese) formative years of my life. I went from being a naïve and highly dependent child to well…the young woman I came out as after graduation. Thinking back at those “struggle days”, I mostly remember the good times, mostly being the keyword, but I can never forget the different levels of punishment endorsed and enforced by the school especially the nights we pretty much begged to study in our hostels after lights out but were rewarded with seized notebooks and extra punishment. Of course being beaten wasn’t the norm, but I, myself received a heavy hit from a teacher once because I was late for Sunday mass. (funny how I ended up being a chapel prefect). But you know what they say, these things make you stronger.
Our education system is funny because we are fed a lot of information that we never really need. We are taught in a way that forces us to cram to pass our exams, and no matter which way we look at it, we’re left with not much of flexibility with our class schedules. In a perfect world, I would never have taken Physics and Chemistry for three years but alas, Government and History weren’t too enticing as a second and only option. Speaking of History, Nigerian and general world history should be taught across all curricula and classes in Nigeria. It’s so unfortunate that many of us don’t know much about our rich history.
Being raised in a Christian home, going on to a Catholic secondary school and then University, service of God and others became a motto I truly wanted to live by. It was through this passion that I got to interact with people so different from me and for the first time directly interact with people much less privileged than I. During my undergrad years, I was able to travel to countries like Peru, the Dominican Republic, and Belize and I came to the realization that they weren’t that much different from Nigeria. They share in the same socioeconomic weaknesses, and are equally blessed in natural and human resources. Being in those places somehow gave me hope for Nigeria, I’m not sure how to explain this, really. Having travelled around only assures me of how much I’d much rather be home and pushes me to believe in myself and what I want to do for Nigeria. #WatchThisSpace
As much as I love meeting new people especially those with cultures very different from mine, there’s a huge comfort in being with my Nigerian friends and my family. It’s not that I’m an entirely different person with non-Nigerians, I just don’t have to overthink certain things and somehow conversations always end with the state of affairs in our country. These happen to be some of my best conversations, particularly when the people I’m with are already at home working towards their personal goals or looking forward to moving back.
I’m at a point in my life where things could go many different ways. No matter what though, I know where I want to end up. Hope is all I need, and it’s what is keeping me motivated.
This personal project was partly born out of a series of conversations series creator, Onyeka Ononye, once had with a good friend on cultural awareness and partly from a TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie on the danger of a single story. From these two sources she learned that “we don’t love what we don’t know”. In her mind, storytelling could bridge that divide. From this realization, The Power of Multiple Stories series was born. The series presents multiple perspectives on what being Nigerian means and how the experiences in a foreign country can change, challenge or confirm some of those ideas.
You can read more stories like this on Things They Should Know