by ‘Damilola Oyedele
Consider this writer’s shock, when a while ago, on a bus from Ikoyi to Ikeja, a mobile-pastor (to put it politely) rose to preach. With his back against the rusty board that demarcated the driver and two front seats from the rest of we passengers, he preached (read: boasted) about how, on a similar bus trip he had once prayed for a young man who was looking to obtain a visa.
‘… I prayed for him and he believed! He called my phone a few weeks later to tell me he had been granted the visa on a virgin passport… Virgin passport, can you believe it! He is now living in Czech!’ the pastor said.
Muffled ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ rumbled through the bus.
One sentence stuck, however… ‘He now lives happily in Czech’. I thought, ‘Czech Republic? What on earth can a person be looking for in such a random country?’
Nigerians are undoubtedly some of the most fascinating people in the world (this statement may or may not be highly biased), and a saying goes that there is a cluster of us in every single country on earth. There are said to be Nigerians who have packed up their things to pursue a living in such ‘random’ countries as Mauritius, Thailand, Cape Verde, Georgia, even next-door Ghana and yes, Czech Republic!
Growing up in the rustic city of Ibadan, I went from school to home to church to friends’ house and back – all within the same suburb. ‘Travelling’, for me, was gong to visit grandparents and cousins who lived in Lagos, and for sheer joy, I could hardly sleep the night before!
My body never went very far but my mind travelled. My (imaginary) best friends were Yogi Bear, Dexter the diminutive scientist, Judy Jetson and other cartoon characters. I read Enid Blyton novels till the pages fell out, sang songs from many of the Judy Garland classics, and on the rare occasion when NEPA cut the electricity, I would pour out all 300 pieces of our jigsaw puzzle of the world map and begin to put them together.
I’m now older (and hopefully wiser), and my best friends are real people… well, mostly. I don’t read Blyton anymore, and I watch cartoons under duress, but one thing that hasn’t changed is that jigsaw puzzle. Miraculously, all 300 pieces are still intact. A while ago, I stared at the dusty box and wondered about the vastness of the world. I put my finger on my country, Nigeria, the ‘trigger’ of a gun-shaped Africa, and wondered about the man who gave an arm and a limb to relocate to landlocked Central Europe, and why many Nigerians believe that ‘anywhere but here’ is best. In the past few years, there have been movements that have fed the nation’s optimism and belief in itself, but on the whole, the reality is that things seem to have gotten a lot worse. In fact, I have friends who would do strange things to relocate to Morocco!
As I blew dust off the box, I wondered: Who are the Nigerians who have been brave – and ‘lucky’ – enough to pack up and head off for foreign lands in the hope of ‘greener pastures’?
Take South Africa, for example. This hub of diversity – which I first visited as a starry-eyed secondary school student on a school trip – has a bursting community of Nigerians. From it’s picturesque beaches to dizzying city centres and grassy country sides, the nation is truly ‘alive with possibility’. Then, Agbani Darego had just won the Miss World title, and we girls were bombarded with compliments – from malls to arts and culture centres to theme parks – ‘Haibo! You Nigerian girls are very, very beautiful!’
It’s now 2011, and there is no doubt that the Nigerian community has grown into a multi-layered one. We are now popular in several fields; of which medicine, information technology and fraud top the list.
For example, amidst the quiet, steady buzz on Biccard Street, Braamfontein, the Pure Grace Restaurant, owned by Mr Peter Ujorji, beckons passers by to ‘Call In For Mouthwatering African Delicacies’. Beyond that, the cosy space – which proudly bears the Nigerian flag on it’s front window – serves as a hub for a community of immigrants who gather to discuss politics, religion and get a taste of home. Pounded yam an egusi in a land of pap and gravy; and suya in place of biltong.
Then there is the ever-busy district of Hillbrow, nicknamed ‘Nigeria’ for the sheer vastness of the population of citizens within it. On one street, a resident calls out in pidgin to one another, and I smile, as I am reminded – albeit mildly – of being on Broad Street, Lagos Island.
I spend an evening in one of Hillbrow’s many cramped apartments with Aliyu (name has been changed) who lives with his South African girlfriend Tshepho (name has been changed) and her daughter. Every morning he drops the little girl at school and her mother at work and picks them up in the evening. In between, he is at home on his laptop, and it’s anybody’s guess what a young foreigner in his prime is doing holed up in a room, behind a computer screen all day.
‘Where in Nigeria are you from? Aliyu is Hausa,’ Tshepho says to me.
I tell her I am Yoruba and exchange a smile with Aliyu, who in fact is a native of Anambra State. He neither resembles nor speaks like a northern Nigerian, but of course this is apparent to me only because I know that there’s a difference.
There are many stories like this and I wonder, what drives a man to leave his country for a life like this? How do they live now? Has it been worth it, and do they want to return? What about citizens of other countries who have similar experiences?
Man must survive, I guess!
As I disappear into the cool winter evening, I tuck my hands in my pockets and wonder if Aliyu will ever be found out.
This article was first published in This Day Newspaper on Sunday, 25th September, 2011