Feyi Fawehinmi: International Exposure?



Whenever things are quiet on twitter, my friend Tola — bless her cotton socks — likes to heat up the polity just a bit. As you can imagine, the tweet above provoked a firestorm of retweets and recriminations. There’s even a hot take on Olisa.tv already.

This debate (along with the one on whether or not a woman should be able to pound yam and wash her husband’s boxers) comes up roughly every 37 days or so. And it always ends the same way — far far from where it started with no one knowing what the point of it was. (By the way, Facebook people — do you guys have these debates over there too?)

But what’s the story anyway? Are Nigerians in the diaspora, by virtue of their exposure to higher standards of living and functional societies, uniquely placed to help move Nigeria forward? I think the answer is that the question is irrelevant.

Look at it this way — 99% of the things that have improved Nigeria in your lifetime have all come from outside Nigeria. This is talking in terms of policies and ideas. It’s actually 100% but I don’t want to be rude. You can name anything from mobile phones to pension reforms to financial inclusion to healthcare and drugs to infrastructure to technology.

Numbers and Language

And it’s absolutely ok that way. There’s nothing wrong with it at all. Everyone who has moved forward in the past has done it. Where some have moved forward much further than others — namely Europeans — is that they went out of their way to look for ideas and improvements from elsewhere without waiting for them to come to them. We can use numbers as an example. What we call Arabic numbers today are only called Arabic because the Europeans got them from the Arabs. The numbers were actually invented by the Indians and the Arabs got it from them.

Was it that the Europeans had no numbers before they came across Arabic numbers? Of course not. They had Roman numerals. But imagine we want to write the year 1887 in Roman numerals, we come up with thisMDCCCLXXXVII. It looks completely ridiculous when you think about it — 12 letters to write 4 digits. And given the times when these Roman numerals were used (low education), you can imagine the chaos caused by mistakes writing the numerals down. If I make a mistake and transpose the third C with the next L, that knocks off 100 years and turns it to 1787.

So imagine you had laboured under the mess of Roman numerals all your life and then one day you stumbled on Arabic numbers, you are confronted with 2 choices. You can jump up and punch the air with joy and scream ‘Yes! finally we have found something better than what we used to have!’. Or you can say ‘Hmmm, we need to protect our culture and heritage of Roman numerals by blocking these Arabic numbers from infiltrating our culture

How about the language in which you are reading this post? Ketchup and Tycoon are words from Chinese. Bungalow and Mogul are from Hindu. Algebra is from al-jabr in Arabic just as Arsenal is from dār sināʿa in the same Arabic. Father, mother, son and daughter all derive from German as well as beer and milk. There’s no point giving examples of English words that come from French as we will be here all day. But breeze and cannibal came from Spanish while piano and violin came from Italian.

Was it that before these words came, when someone was trying to describe a breeze blowing they had no words to say? Of course not. There must have been a way to say it. But perhaps it needed 5 words to say it then you find that the Spanish had just one word for it. And you adopted it to make your life easier.

Stay with me, I’m going somewhere.

The first lesson here is that when you hear a Nigerian leader talk about ‘home-grown solutions’, carry your 2 shoes on your head and run as fast as you can away from such a person. It’s a trap. If the devil wants to put you in bondage, he will use someone who claims to have ‘home-grown solutions’ to your problems. Or when you hear ‘African solutions to African problems’, don’t even wait to hear the second part before dousing the person with hot water. It is a complete nonsense. People who say this usually feel threatened by something coming from outside and want to maintain their status by keeping an isolationist status quo.

A False Dichotomy

And that is why the question of diaspora or ‘local breed’ is irrelevant. The fundamental challenge is to have a place where ideas can flow freely into. When mobile phones came to Nigeria, was there a government programme to educate Nigerians on how to use them? It solved a problem and people figured it out for themselves. Yes, there were some funny moments (there still are) with people holding the phones upside down or not having a clue how to add credit or dial numbers. But more than 100 million phones later, Nigeria does not have a crisis of people who do not know how to use mobile phones. They are even moving on to smartphones — I logged on to Facebook one day and saw my Dad and Uncle there. They added me and I accepted.

The tension between locals and diasporans is a false and needless one. An atmosphere open to ideas will not waste its time with things like that. But a fear has been created of all things foreign that Nigerians are now instinctively wary when they hear of something coming from outside the country. It helps the government maintain the power balance by constantly stoking this fear so they tell you that just because you saw cheap rice and ate it, you are not only importing poverty and exporting jobs, you are even eating arsenic.

Even worse, Nigerians believe that things coming from abroad are coming to corrode their culture. Western influence and culture is causing our women to be promiscuous and our men to be violent and aggressive. The easiest way to dismiss these arguments is to point to Japan. It is a rich and prosperous country with a western style modern economy and modern infrastructure. Their cities have shiny tall glass buildings like you will find in America or Europe and they live in tall apartment buildings just like in the west, too. They wear suits, jeans and t-shirts like westerners do and the cars on their streets look like the ones in the west. Yet, who can say Japanese culture is not super strong? It is so strong that even in the west it is respected. I remember in a former job when we were working on a deal with a Japanese company, we were given brief instructions on how to address Japanese — Don’t use ‘Dear Mr. Tanaka’. Use ‘Dear Tanaka-san’. The Japanese have been influenced by western ‘culture’ while keeping their own culture (at least the good bits).

Being open to ideas is not a zero sum game. You can be influenced from outside and keep what is good about your culture. What is important is to be open to ideas whether they are coming from diasporans or oyinbo.

Plate Washers Are People, Too

Those of us who wash plates and dead bodies for a living abroad probably don’t help our own case (whatever that case is). I think that people who have lived abroad and immersed themselves in working systems (not 18 months for a Masters) can add value. Moreso for people in technical fields like engineering and medicine. Every day a Nigerian doctor spends working abroad is value creation that can be useful for Nigeria one day. One day some President or health minister will get it and drag back thousands of Nigerian doctors back home to Nigeria with a clear plan and support system and Nigerian healthcare will be turbocharged in double quick time.

Ready for washing. £7.20/hour

But for the most part, many of us are just beneficiaries of working systems that we don’t do much to find out how they came to be. Every time I fly back into London and I look down, I always marvel at the order of English towns and cities with the way they are all carefully and deliberately bordered by greenery with no sprawl of towns spilling into each other. I wish Lagos could be like that. But if I don’t know how the 1947 Town and Country Planning Actmade that possible, I might live in England for decades and then decide that the way to recreate such pleasantness in Nigeria is to roll out the bulldozers.

The Point Is That There Is No Point

The point of this pointless post is that the issues here go beyond the diaspora. Nigerians abroad are not going to get angry and start sending money to Pakistan in protest. They are hopelessly joined to their country so if you insult them they have no choice but to take it on the chin (or insult you back which is what I personally recommend). But to what end? I see this needless tension almost everywhere — the tech guys complain that funding goes to the companies founded by the returnee Nigerians to the detriment of the ‘pure Nigerians’. And God knows what is happening in the medical or engineering fields.

Don’t fall victim to this nonsense. The koko is that you’re open to receiving new ideas that can solve problems in your country. The person bringing the ideas is not even relevant. It’s not a bad thing to have a large diaspora. Countries who don’t have probably won’t mind having them. They can bring the ideas themselves or they can merely accompany the ideas to give them context back home.

Anyway, it’s past 9pm here now and I need to go get dressed overalls for tonight’s work. Those dead bodies won’t wash themselves.


P.S By the way, I’m not making a defence of the original tweet that started this. I just wanted to say some things I’ve always wanted to say with this post. Feel free to insult Tola as much as you wish for the original tweet. I won’t stand in your way 🙂

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