Femke van Zeijl: ‘Oyibo’ is not a compliment

by Femke van Zeijl

The opening commercials were running on the big screen but the lights were still on as we entered the cinema of Surulere’s Leisure Mall. About twenty people were already seated in the tip-up chairs, a small cluster of heads halfway up the movie theatre.

‘Oyibo!’ a man screamed at me as I walked up the steps towards a seat.

The people around him burst out in laughter.

On a Wednesday morning a week earlier I had to go see my Aguda-based mechanic. Because the road to his shop is under construction – as it has been for the past four years – I had to park in front of a grammar school a bit farther up the street. School had just started and it was nowhere near break time, but in no time dozens of kids were hanging out from the open windows yelling ‘Oyibo’ and ‘Oyibo pepe’ at me. The children’s chorus lasted the entire twenty minutes it took for my mechanic to fix the fan belt. Not a single teacher intervened, not a single adult passerby corrected the children.

The other day, my husband and I went to check out a stand-up comedy night at the new Lounge 38 on Bode Thomas Street. A Dutch friend had warned me about stand-up comedy in Nigeria: as the only white person there, the comedian will always single you out for his jokes. But Destalker, the evening’s main act, had the audience in stitches most of the night without even giving me a second glance. I had started to relax and was enjoying his jokes in Warri pidgin, the language that makes anything one says sound twice as funny, when the side act came on stage and focused on me almost immediately. He was wondering what I was doing there. ‘You oyibo no dey hear pidgin na,’ he quipped. ‘Una no understand wetin I dey talk.’ He also urged my husband who was sitting next to me not to be so greedy and to ‘share his oyibo wealth’.

There are three possible reactions to being called oyibo. The first one is to smile politely and move on. That is what I did on that comedy night. The second is to simply ignore, which I did at the Aguda grammar school. And the third option is to confront the speaker. That night at the cinema, my husband did the latter.

He was livid with his people, the Nigerians, in the cinema. As I would have been if the shoe had been on the other foot, if we had entered a Dutch cinema and someone would have shouted ‘black man’ at him, followed by laughter all around. My husband was even more upset because you’d assume that a cinema audience in Surulere would be relatively well-educated and exposed, and should know better.

But the oyibo yeller in Filmhouse Surulere, a grown man, did not see the problem. ‘This is normal in Nigeria,’ he muttered. And he was not far from the truth.

‘Oyibo’ was the first word Nigerians taught me when I first visited nine years ago. Everywhere I walked past, drove by, or stopped at, perfect strangers shouted, mumbled, or sang that word at me. And though it was not a nice feeling to be singled out the minute I was in a public space, I accepted it as part of the Nigerian experience. There are many undeserved perks to being white that infuriated me much more than the embarrassment of being called oyibo all the time. So I smiled politely and moved on.

But over the years I have come to re-evaluate my stance.

I realised there are places in Nigeria where oyibo calling is not acceptable at all. I once walked over a dirt road in Benin City when a grown-up corrected a child who yelled the o-word at me. ‘Who raised you?’ he hissed at the child. I felt like embracing him for doing so.

Also, I understand now that some of the yellers think they’re flattering me by calling me oyibo. At least, that is the explanation several people have responded with when I reacted to the name calling: oyibo, they say, is a compliment. A deeply worrying statement. If you praise someone because their skin colour is different from yours, what does that say about your self-image?

But let’s be honest among ourselves. In many cases, oyibo is not really a compliment, is it? Oyibo stands for weak and gullible, there to make fun of. It stands for freckled skin that can’t stand the sun. For bleeding hearts that open up for any made-up sob story. For mugus waiting to be ripped off by sharp-guy scammers. In that sense, the only positive side of oyibo is the financial one: the huge amounts of money oyibos are perceived to have access to.

This is nowhere near as clear as in my regular encounters with the police, when I am driving around Lagos. If a police officer wants to extort money from me, he uses the o-word. When he means to express respect, he calls me Madam.

My fellow Dutch Surulere dweller Sanne and I were seated outside the National Theatre on a recent Sunday, waiting for a stage play to start, as our conversation was interrupted by a loud ‘Oyibo!’ In front of us stood a complete stranger with three of his friends. Before we knew it, the man had turned his backside towards us and plunged himself in between Sanne and me, virtually sitting down in my lap, as he proceeded to throw his arms around our necks, declaring he wanted to take a picture with us. We could only shrug him off by jumping up and telling him off angrily.

Now, which Nigerian woman would accept such behaviour from a total stranger? And which Nigerian man would not be outraged when witnessing such disrespect towards his sister, mother, aunt or wife? So how come anyone would think it is fair game when it is done to an oyibo woman?

These days, when I hear the o-word, I no longer smile politely and move on. Most times I ignore it, since I would have a full-time job responding to every passerby who calls it out. Yet every once in a while, when I have time and feel up to it, I walk up to the speaker and try to explain why I think it is impolite.

This is truly discombobulating to some, because they mean well. The gateman at the National Stadium who greeted me with a friendly ‘Hello, oyibo!’ wrinkled his nose when I asked him not to call me that, because I would never call him ‘dudu’. He thought a while and then he said: ‘Hello, white!’, his eyes lighting up, visibly contented with the solution he came up with. It made me laugh in spite of myself, after which I suggested that since I called him Sir, he might address me as Ma.

A lot of Nigerians, however, do express understanding when I ask them to imagine how they would feel to be classified over and over again by the colour of their skin. This is why I will keep explaining my dislike for being called out, hoping that someday I may be able to walk along Ogunsanya, drive down Adelabu, or sit down at Costain under bridge, without hearing the o-word a single time. Or at least to sit down in public without having to worry about a stranger planting his bum in my lap just because I am white.

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

Femke van Zeijl is a Dutch journalist and author living in Surulere. You can find her on Twitter @femkevanzeijl

This column was first published in the local magazine Surulere Now!.


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