11 November 2010

Has Nigeria Changed Me?

Someone asked me the question recently if my wife has changed since our move to Nigeria. I get asked this question fairly frequently only that the question is usually about me not my wife. Has Nigeria changed you? This, I suspect, in many instances is tinged with an expectation of a foreboding answer.

Has Nigeria changed me is certainly not a $64,000 question to answer. I must admit however, that it is one that requires serious thought as I know that the answer I give, even to me, may not be palatable. I will explain why.

It is, of course expected that if you move to a new place, you will imbibe some of the traditions, fad and culture of the land. However, when I moved to Nigeria, I came with the personal mandate, right or wrong, to influence the country and not allow myself to be influenced. This is set as a weekly calendar activity on my phone, a reminder of the great task before me and a personal code of conduct to which I must scrupulously adhere. Did I come with a sense of foreboding? Yes I did. Why then did I come you may ask. The same reason why some people volunteer as aid workers to go to Afghanistan and some climb the Everest or walk to the North Pole.

Am I admitting I felt Nigeria could influence me for bad before I came, I’m afraid, Yes. Is this fair? I hope to write about this another day.

Back to the original point; given the foregoing, you may now understand why answering the question often asked of me – 'Has Nigeria changed you, is, for me, a huge one. If I answer Yes - if I say Nigeria has changed me, I am admitting that I had failed in the original mandate I set for myself and that for me is a serious issue.

Perhaps a further question is this; Is the change for good or for bad? In answering this, let me simply say, I frequently wear buba and soro which I feel suits our weather better. I like the odd slang like ginger-swagger which I came about a week before this article, although it sounds arrogant. I admire some of the talents in music, in the arts and in literature particularly Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who in my view is one of the most expressive writers I’ve read.

On the other hand, I feel more conscious of what I wear and how I look in Nigeria, a ‘predicament’ I never noticed when I lived in England. For example, although I have been greying since my teens, it had never been an issue for me. Nobody was strongly concerned about it either, or felt the need to refer to me as ‘Sir.' A few people in England did suggest I consider the tint option; this was never part of my script and I had no cause to feel the slightest urge to do so. In Nigeria however, I have thought about this option, not the least because of a new found aggressiveness of the greying process but also because most people I meet erroneously believe I’m older than I am. As a result I get the respect I do not deserve from people who left secondary school whilst I was still languishing in primary school. Many people even believe that I am in my fifties, and my wife in her twenties making me an aristo - a Nigerian slang for older men who prey on very young women. I suppose the issue here is that I feel vainer and it pains.

I have also found that I feel more helpless about the hopelessness around me, a departure from the brimming enthusiasm that I brought from England. This ordinarily would be expected given the many issues we face in Nigeria. However, it appears that I now suffer from the occasional doubt that being on the ground presents. I must say that my optimism for Nigeria has not waned, only that I have moved the goalpost a bit. Call it ‘progressive optimism’, I know Nigeria will be better, I just sometimes doubt whether it will happen within the next five years.

Coming to the question that my friend asked about my wife, the answer I gave was ‘Yes’. She has changed in many ways. She is certainly more at ease with herself, she even eats the occasional white bread, an abomination in England. Could it be that she is being pragmatic or wiser, I still can’t say. What I know is that there are a few things I can’t discuss now that I hope and trust I will be able to write about in the future. Would she get to know of me writing about her this way? I guess so given that she edits most of my writings. Would she be pleased that I have written about her? It’s a risk worth taking, after all I took the risk of moving to Nigeria and some people are still climbing Everest.