by Temitope Isedowo
“…but I keep asking myself if I did not notice this over-zealousness because my mind was prepared beforehand to notice it”
Embarking on my first international trip brought a measure of excitement so emotionally encompassing. As a poor student, flying cross-continent involved going through an agonizing process of visa application and enduring the menace of corrupt immigration officials. In my case, I would be flying to Buenos Aires, Argentina to attend the South American Business Forum (with a 4-hour stop in Johannesburg) having emerged from the rigorous application process as one of the top six applicants. The excitement dominated the agony and on 4th August 2011, I flew!
I was apprehensive. I didn’t know what to expect. Many people warned me to be careful of South Africans because they are xenophobic, especially towards Nigerians. For any hint as to my sojourn in Buenos Aires, I was clueless. With such great measure of uncertainty, I boarded the plane.
My experiences in South Africa and Argentina have opened my mind to new perspectives with regard to the cross-cultural debate.
In South Africa, I was indeed a victim of an overzealous immigration official but I keep asking myself if I did not notice this overzealousness because my mind was prepared beforehand to notice it. I was lucky to meet three wonderful South African youths at the Buenos Aires forum who showed me the danger of holding on to the belief that South Africans are xenophobic towards Nigerians. If I hadn’t been quick to jettison my previous view of South Africans as Xenophobic, I would have missed out on a wonderful friendship and cross-cultural cooperation that might help Africa. I am not saying the reports of Xenophobia are false, I am saying by choosing to relegate such reports and judge my friends on their own merit, i gained invaluable insights.
In Nigeria, it seems we are even more xenophobic. Each ethnic group seems to consider the other foreign, forgetting we are citizens of the same country and our destinies are far more aligned than we allow ourselves to imagine. I envision a national effort to address this via new initiatives on cross-cultural connections. We must build new bridges for cross-cultural connections. Building new bridges for cross-cultural connections demands citizens be empowered to combat prejudices and judge every cross-cultural interaction mainly on their own merits.
My first greeting in Buenos Aires was somehow awkward. I was slow to present my two cheeks for kisses and actually only succeeded in presenting one before we both called it quits. The intimate nature of offering your two cheeks to a stranger was alien to me. But I quickly made up my mind to not be reluctant the next time. I soon found out my co-participants flew in from different countries of the world. Almost all the continents were represented. This was somehow engaging because every new handshake might be coming from someone from a culture perhaps exactly opposite to mine. I discovered the best way to navigate hot topics was to begin with “In my country…” and then leave an avenue for the listener to find any commonness in the two cultures. I made a lot of friends who today have become important parts of my international network.
Like Chimamanda Adichie noted in her 2009 TED talk, a single story is dangerous. When we hold on to a prejudiced view of a people as the only story worthy of note about them, we pose a great danger to partaking of the immense benefits of cross-cultural connections. When we hold on to the illusion that everything that holds in our own culture must hold at every time, place and situation on the globe, we become a prisoner of not just our own culture, but other cultures as well.
The key to building effective bridges for cross-cultural connections does not end in having an open mind alone, efforts must be made to learn and be comfortable in other cultures as much as in one’s own. The cultural diversity of the world in an age of globalization and international cooperation demands this.
In one of my numerous outings in Buenos Aires, I came across a Brazilian man trying to woo me to sample his tourist services. I was too broke to take him seriously and almost left him without a word. But I ended up spending about five minutes chatting with him. Why? He asked me to join him in his house for a drink. And he asked me in my own language; Yoruba. I was stunned. How could a Brazilian guy talk to me in my own native Yoruba language continents away! The fact that he later confessed to having a Nigerian in-law did not matter to me. What mattered at that instance was that he took time to learn and memorize the words. Language is a very important cross-cultural mediator. We cannot build new cross-cultural bridges without recognizing the place of language.
In Nigeria, efforts to learn one another’s languages have long been jettisoned. The few ongoing efforts are halfhearted. We seem to be falling apart faster than Usain Bolt’s 100m world record. Our politicians are populating news media with our exaggerated differences so they can claim their government crowns.
But i do envision a Nigeria powered by the revival of intercultural bridges. Gowon initiated the NYSC and as much as we may criticize the scheme, we cannot deny it has impacted a measure of intercultural tolerance and awareness in our youths.
I have visited and lived on four continents, making every effort to take a thing or two away from the culture of the people I meet and interact with. I believe Nigeria needs to make every effort to promote intercultural understanding among her citizens.
My vision is a more united Nigeria.
30 Days, 30 Voices series is an opportunity for young Nigerians from across the world to share their stories and experiences – creating a meeting point where our common humanity is explored.
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.