by Ifeoluwa Adedeji
As is very common in the diaspora and especially America, people just want to know why some of us speak and dress differently and why our names are difficult for them to pronounce if they ever try – mostly because they think they are at the epicenter of everything. A well-meaning young American white male once asked me, “Deji, where’s your accent from?” I understood he was trying to politely re-frame the ubiquitous question ‘where are you from?’ As a safe landing mechanism perhaps, I have seen Africans who answer such questions with ‘I am originally from…’ as if the mark of originality no longer exists. This piece is a product of an ongoing intentional reflection about where my story intersects with Africa (which I operationalize in some cases to mean Nigeria).
I was born in Osun State, Nigeria. My parents worked as civil servants for thirty-five years; my earliest understanding of the character of government in Nigeria came from them. As a kid, it was common to see my parents unable to send my older siblings to school because the government owed salaries and labor unions took to strike actions that endured for long periods (till now, state governments in Nigeria are unable to pay workers’ salaries and my parents, after 35 years of assiduous service, are still owed pension arrears). I grew up observing these trends.
At a very young age, I felt government in my family in the form of unpaid salaries. While working so hard to raise five children and eke out a bare existence, my widowed mother could not pay school fees and put food on the table, many times. She worked every day for the government in public primary schools across Osun State, yet she could not rely on her employer to fulfill their part of the contract, at all times. With her civil service assignments, she added farming and selling second-hand clothing (locally known as ‘okrika’). She would take me along to the open market on weekends where her co-sellers from the East liked to carry me and call me ‘omo ina’ to express that I could pass for an Igbo boy. My siblings sold vegetables and sachet water, on the streets. I heard sirens blaring everywhere and hated rainy days for the extra mess it made of damaged roads. Many years later, after retiring more than nine years ago, my mother would consider selling ‘okrika’ again as a way of rising above pension delays and non-payment, and I would greatly frown at it.
My life has been all shades of different ethnic groups. From watching my brother defy my proudly Yoruba mom to marry an Edo woman who played the role of (my) caregiver for a lot of years; to having an Igala from Kogi State who speaks Hausa as a best friend; to living in Nasarawa State during NYSC where I got close to Igbo friends whom I cherish (I reconnected with one of them a few days ago in Maryland); to visiting and living in Port Harcourt every year; and working in Abuja where I interacted with people whose ethnic group I didn’t know and didn’t feel any need knowing, I think I’m close to seeing it all.
Contrary to people who see Nigeria’s ‘overwhelming’ diversity as the reason why development is a distant dream, I see diversity as a great force that can be leveraged to deliver development. I do not believe that Nigerians are starkly different and cannot live together. The right institutions for managing diversity and accommodating differences, when established and sustained, can deliver results. This personal struggle with historical representation, diversity, and democratic stability informs my current research plans and my interrogation of the “Nigerian dream” (a term I have used over the years in discussions and brainstorming sessions to refer to the existence of a base commonality in the face of overwhelming diversity and oppression).
My exposure to different regions and peoples of Nigeria makes me proud to be Nigerian. This is not the case for a lot of Nigerians though; many have no knowledge of Nigeria, beyond their ethnic group or city. This is embarrassing, admittedly. It is the same kind of embarrassment when students of Africa, from Africa, gather in the Western world and fail to locate countries on a blank map of Africa.
Africa will achieve great results when Africans and even non-Africans don’t stop appraising events and developments. I should add here that the tendency for many Africans to insist only on presentations of a ‘rising Africa’ and reject any portrayals of truth and reality, especially by non-Africans, serves no developmental purpose. A lot of things are wrong with the continent and a lot of things are right with it. Therefore, rebuke and applause should be appropriately applied.
Ifeoluwa is a graduate student at Ohio University’s Centre for International Studies where he engages research focused on Africa. Prior to this position, he has taught government studies at Nasarawa State Polytechnic; done policy research at the African Policy Research Institute, Abuja; and worked in Public Relations at Red Media Africa. In 2015, he was selected by the British Council as the Nigerian delegate on the Going Global 2015 Conference panel on graduate unemployment and entrepreneurship in sub-Saharan Africa, and recently was shortlisted for the World Innovation Summit on Education Learners’ Voice Program. He has a degree in political science from the University of Ibadan.