… At that point it started to feel like I probably preferred the many Chinese locals who hadn’t heard of Nigeria before. At least I could sell the country as whatever I wanted. The ones I met at the forum knew Nigeria too well and knew all the sides that made me sad.
“Where is Nigeria? I no hear that country before.” That was the tour guide at Beijing’s famous ‘Forbidden City’, trying to make small talk with me.
I was half offended and half embarrassed by that statement. How could anyone in the world, especially a tour guide say they had never heard about the giant of Africa; the largest black nation in the world; the world’s 7th largest producer of petroleum; the country with the world’s most religious people; the heartbeat of Africa? Yes, I ended up listing out all these titles to the tour guide to save face and make her look ignorant instead. But she finished off with; “Oh it’s in Africa? I think it is near Jamaica.” What? I just ended the conversation there and moved on.
That was just one of many times I had my ego bruised in the past week in China as a Nigerian by Chinese locals who had never heard about my country before. Ever! It actually wasn’t the first time, but hers struck me because she spoke a good measure of English and her job meant that she dealt with people from many countries around the world. It all seemed rather strange because I usually pride myself in the fact that I do not come from one of those towns that guise themselves as countries. My big country, and I always get noticed. This was different.
I find that unlike a good number of Nigerians, I become fiercely patriotic once I step foot outside of Nigeria, especially if it’s on an official trip. I wear a Nigerian flag and map pin on my shirt/suit, or put on a traditional attire just to stand out from the many boring dark suits you see around. Throughout the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting for Future Champions, I pulled out all the stops. I wasn’t going to be the random black dude from Africa. I was going to be Ebuka the proud Nigerian. And it worked of course.
During the sessions, I had a man who looked to be in his mid to late 30’s walk up to me. He said “Hello” and I immediately knew he was Italian. He continued; “You know Italy and Nigeria have a lot in common in recent history.” While still surprised at the fact that he instantly knew I was Nigerian without even asking, in my head I was saying; “Lord please, this better not be some talk about Nigerian prostitutes in Italy.” I don’t react very well to people who throw negative jibes at Nigeria at first meeting. I was already preparing my retort when he continued; “We have both had leaders loved women and parties more than their jobs and left our countries like shit.” I laughed out loud. I like people who are able to disarm others by throwing the joke at themselves first. What I didn’t go on to say was; “You think Italy is shit? Really? Have you driven just 4 kilometers out the airport in Lagos?”
A few people I had conversations with, were worried about the rising terror in Nigeria. At times, I found myself sounding like a government minister; “It is being contained. It is a small trying time that will soon fade out”; or simply just telling the truth; “They are a problem. The country was already on its knees before they started their senseless killings. And it doesn’t look like it’ll end soon.” My response depended on how arrogant your opening comment to me sounded.
Unlike the average Chinese I met on the street, everyone at the World Economic Forum knew Nigeria. Virtually all the ones I met were surprised to be meeting a Nigerian who wasn’t in the oil and gas sector. They hardly believed me. One of them from Sweden joked that maybe what was on my profile was a cover for my real inside deals in the petroleum industry. I didn’t laugh!
Then I met a Thai man whose face went sad immediately he saw my nametag with ‘Nigeria’ written on it. I was still smiling but I knew he was about to break my heart with yet another sad Nigerian tale. He told me this long depressing story about being a miner and hearing about the endless mineral deposits in my dear country. He had come in, gotten a license and started off. Now all that I just listed in the previous sentence, happened in 3 long years. That was frustrating enough for him. When he actually started production he had to pay some sort of a daily fee to village touts on the one hand and supposed state government agents on the other all for just about a year till a new minister came in and revoked all licenses because the Federal Government wanted to draw up a new road map for the solid minerals’ sector. He left Nigeria sometime in 2003 and has never come back.
At that point it started to feel like I probably preferred the many Chinese locals who hadn’t heard of Nigeria before. At least I could sell the country as whatever I wanted. The ones I met at the forum knew Nigeria too well and knew all the sides that made me sad. I drifted more to the locals to have conversations with them. It made me feel better than to talk with all these well-traveled moneymakers who constantly told me the truth about home. And yes it paid off. I eventually met a Chinese taxi driver who asked about Okocha. “He play more than Maradona and Pele. And he all the time smile.” I nodded in agreement and smiled. I needed that exaggerated compliment. My ego needed it.
(Will be writing on the WEF meetings next week.)
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