Friday 29 October 2010


I don't really understand what people mean when they ask what tribe are you from? I mean of course I know what they literally mean. Are you Igbo? Or Hausa? Or Yoruba? Or Ijaw? Or Ibibio? Or Itsekiri? Or Nupe? Or one of those lines along which Nigeria is divided. But I don't know what they mean in concrete terms. It's all very well and good to label me Igbo because my father is Igbo or mixed tribe, because my mother is Yoruba, but what does this actually mean?

"It's your blood," a relative of mine once said to me when I denied that I was Igbo. "How can you deny your blood?"
This relative of mine is generally quite lucid so I knew he didn't mean if you spilled my blood on the ground it would start singing the theme tune to Things Fall Apart.

"What do you mean?" I asked and he replied something along the lines of, "There are certain things that will show up in your character that will make people know you are Igbo."

"So even if I don't speak Igbo and I don't understand the symbols in a traditional wedding, I'm still Igbo."

"All those things are superficial."

"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I'm talking about the Igbo character."

"And what is that?"

"Like," he paused to gather his thoughts. "Like... like, Igbo people are naturally sharp."

And then he went on to list a few of the other general 'characteristics' of Igbo people. Money savvy, smooth talkers. The traits he gave were positive but there are the more negative ones. Stingy, bourgeois, grabbing, tacky.

"And what about Yoruba people?" I asked. "What are their characteristics?"

"They always know where things are happening. "

"And Hausas?"

"They are gentle."

And the more he talked and the more you listen to many Nigerians talk, the more apparent it becomes that what we call tribe is actually stereotype and has very little to do with culture. Of course there are cultural differences between an Itsekiri man and an Igbo man. Language, food and dress are a few of these but the fact of the matter is that most people speak English in addition to their native language, most people eat rice, few people turn up to work in their full traditional regalia. The more urbanised we become and the faster we move into the 21st century (willingly or unwillingly) the more desperately we try to cling to what we see as our 'tribal identity'. We can no longer identify our ethnic group by markings on our faces or secret hand shakes and so we run behind these stereotypes. Yoruba men are this, Nupe women are that.

And this thing of classifying people along stereotypes just to preserve our identity and sense of apartness, is very dangerous. It led to the Holocaust; it led to genocide in Rwanda and it has led in more recent times to this idiotic thing that the PDP call 'zoning.' As if there is any difference between an Igbo thief and a Hausa one.

I am Nigerian first. Any day and everyday, Nigerian first. Then Lagosian (not Yoruba). I make the distinction because Lagos is a cosmopolitan city that time and time again defies tribe. Then I suppose if I had to fill a form that didn't allow me to explain my lengthy views on tribe, I would tick Igbo and Yoruba.

This is the last post in Nigeria month. It is not the last time I will blog about Nigeria but perhaps I will retire from this topic for a while. Hope you enjoyed.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

The Death of A Strong Man

I still remember where I was when he died or the news of his death reached our ears: half way between upstairs and downstairs, dawdling for reasons I have now forgotten. My left hand trailed along the wooden banister, my feet dragged over marble chipped stairs, my school bag hung to the ground and it would have taken me double my usual time to climb the stairs if I hadn’t heard screaming from my parent’s room.




I bounded up the stairs but before I could reach the room, my aunt came running out of the door. “Yey!”

“What happened? What happened?”

She ignored me.



By now fear or some strange, clutching feeling gripped me and I entered my parent’s room slowly. My mother lay on her side of the bed, staring at the TV. Whatever the news, it was not shocking enough to get her out of bed but her usual position was drastically altered: her hands instead of lying in her lap were balanced on her head.

“Mummy what happened?”

She shook her head slowly.

“Mummy what happened?”

“He’s dead.”



And with that one word, I joined my aunty outside, screaming and spinning in a circle and clapping. I couldn’t have been more than eight but even then, I knew that the death of a strong man could only elicit rejoicing and shouting and screaming. All over the news, images of thousands and millions of people, rejoicing at the death of this one man, were beamed from all over the country. In one afternoon, Nigerians from different tribes, different backgrounds, different religions, were united in their joy over the death of General Sani Abacha.

He was one of the so called ‘strong men of Africa’ that dominated the continent’s politics in the 90s. Dictators like Idia Amin and Mobutu were cut from the same rags as him. He committed atrocity after atrocity, filling the country with rumours of journalists killed, opponents killed, women and children killed; causing a smog like fear to cloak my country.

It was an apple that did it. A poisoned apple they say and never since the fall of man have the connotations of this fruit been so positive.

And so Nigeria rejoiced at the death of this strong man. And my aunty rejoiced at the death of this strong man. And I rejoiced at the death of this strong man.

The still living strong men of African politics should take heed. For too many, the best we will be able to say of their lives is in death, they made us happy.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

From the Passenger Seat

In my childhood, most of what I saw of ugly Lagos (the one plastered over the international media despite middle class protest) I saw from the passenger seat of my father's old, square, blue Mercedes. We never took public transport. We rarely walked not even when our school was fifteen minutes away. Public Transport in Lagos can be a dangerous thing, walking on the road is arguably even more dangerous, so everywhere we went, we went in the old, square, blue Mercedes.

We travelled Lagos in that car and on our travels, I couldn't help seeing ugly Lagos because you see, the more you travel around Lagos, the more you realise that quite a large chunk of Lagos is ugly Lagos. The houses with gaping tooth windows, the gutters swilling into the street, the holes that stretch from left to right side of the road: they are everywhere.

"Show them Lekki!" the insulters of the BBC's 'anti-Nigerian' documentaries cry, "show them VGC! Show them the nice areas that have good roads and big houses and milk and honey not mud and slime flowing through their streets. Show them!"

I know Lekki; I know VGC,;I know old Ikoyi and it is true, they are beautiful places. But before I can reach Ikoyi and taste its bourgeois pleasures, I must first pass Isaleko and its slum housing. Before my shoes stride across the painstakingly cobbled streets of VGC, I must glide past the villagers of Osapa and their electricity free, water free, noise plenty shacks.

Ugly Lagos is everywhere even right in the heart of bourgeois Lagos, right in the centre of Ikoyi herself.

And so I saw ugly Lagos in the passenger seat of my father's old, square, blue Merc as I drove from one middle class play ground to another. I rarely stopped to get down and see except when visiting a relative of mine who lived in ugly Lagos.

She lived there by accident (if such a thing is possible). Her house had once been on prime property, belonging to respectable, pristine, Lagos society but slowly, without anyone noticing, not even her, ugly Lagos, crept, and crept, and crept closer until one day, she woke up in the middle of a slum.

This relative of mine has moved now -the neighbours were giving her headache- and she is once more firmly ensconced in good looking Lagos. The old, square, blue Merc is gone now. It died of old age. Still the passenger seat remains, albeit in another vehicle and still, I see ugly Lagos from its comfort.

Maybe I should start thinking more about how to clean up ugly Lagos or one day I will wake up in the middle of ugly Lagos and there will be nowhere to move to.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Boarding School: Contraband Wars

When one uses the term 'boarding school' in England, the images conjured are of horse riding, lacrosse sticks and tartan. My Nigerian reality was slightly different. The only horses we saw were in Agricultural Science text books, a lacrosse stick would have been seized for looking like a weapon and I'm not sure I even knew what tartan was back then.

Some of the most vivid memories I have are of the contraband wars that we students fought with our housemistresses and housemasters. The contention rose from this. Since time immemorial, students have been allowed to bring food, tuck, provisions to school. A few sweets here, a little garri, some Milo, a packet of biscuits nothing major or harmful. But in my second term of boarding, the authorities decided that the established practice of substistuting horrid school meals with tuck was unacceptable so all provisions were banned.

We were furious! How dare they take away our rights to eat biscuits in break time? How dare they stop us from slurping garri and water and sugar in the middle of the night? So we rebelled in the only way we knew. Not by protests or walking out of class or shouting down our teachers (all these tactics were for our more advanced brethren overseas). Instead, we resorted to subterfuge: smuggling. And our teachers resorted to human rights violations: searches.

At first the authorities tried to counter this wave of smuggling by searching our boxes at the beginning of each term. Before we were allowed into the boarding house, we would line up with our boxes waiting to be searched by the zealous housemistresses and their minions.

"On the table," one housemother would bark and we would be forced to hoist our heavy boxes onto these tables. Then unceremoniously they would unzip our boxes and begin to rifle through, poking our underwear, shaking out our carefully folded shirts to make sure that no bars of chocolate were hidden away in the sleeves. Nothing was sacred. Underwear, pads, even pat searches for those who thought they could escape by stuffing some sweets in their pockets.

We students grew wise. We bought boxes that had bottoms that you could unzip to reveal another layer underneath. We got parents (willing conspirators in the war against injustice) to drive to the back of the boarding house before they left and pass goods through the windows.

We grew wise but the authorities grew wiser. Though we managed to get the food in we always had to be on the alert because you never knew when your room would be chosen for a shock search. You would come back from school and see your locker scattered or your bed overturned all in the quest for illegal garri and groundnuts. Some stuffed food in their pillows. They were discovered. Some stuffed food in their bathing buckets. They were discovered. The most horrid memory I have of the contraband wars is of a girl standing beside her upset wardrobe and the house mother clutching a small bag of garri in her hand triumphantly.

But we students had our victories too. We still managed to keep some provisions from the grabbing hands of the housemistresses and we ate our forbidden tuck late into the night, knowing that we might have lost many battles but we would never lose the war.

I too must confess that I smuggled and whenever I undergo the mandatory box search at Murtala Mohamed Airport and see how the guards avoid my underwear and slide their hands gently through my clothes, I chuckle to myself. The Nigerian security force has nothing on my Head Matron. Nothing at all.

Saturday 9 October 2010

I Weep For Nigeria

I weep for Nigeria because I do not know how to fix her. If a car is broken you take it to the mechanic; if a switch is broken, you send for an electrician but what if a country is broken? What then? Dial 118-China or wait for 911-America to respond?

And if something is spoilt beyond repair, why not bin it? Except a country is not like a tattered bag, easily replaced. Where do you buy a new nation when Europe has stopped manufacturing them? Where do you find the manual for making a DIY state? Do you bin the leaders and keep the people? Do you save the poor and kill the rich? Or is it only the middle that is good for nothing?

And so I weep for Nigeria because there is no handbook for Return to the Good Old Sixties. 50 years later, I would rather live 50 years ago. I would rather live in that time when things were possible, doable; when new horizons were spreading before the budding Giant of Africa.

Or was the giant still born? Or worse was it born prematurely and consigned to a life of futility because of its hurry to get out of Mother Britain’s womb. Maybe our colonisers left too early. Maybe they didn’t have enough time to fully explain to us what a DE-MO-CRA-CY was. Maybe they never finished their classes on Leadership is for the Good of the Led – repeat after me.

Or maybe they set us up to fail. Vindictively, they stirred tribes against each other, carved an area of discontent into the map and left with a salute and good luck. But 50 years later, can we still blame them?

And so I weep for Nigeria still pointing fingers fifty years later. I weep because the best leaders still do us bad but we praise them because it is better than the worse of yesterday. I weep for Nigeria because in the 21st century, who can expect beyond light, clean water and real drugs. I weep because my tears are futile and my action is needed. I weep because I do not know where to start. I weep because my country is broken and I do not know how to fix her.

I weep.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matt. 5:4)

Friday 8 October 2010


I have resumed school and to my surprise, I have found that second year is more difficult that first year. The reading is more, the more is more difficult, the classes are more, the more is more difficult, the teachers speak the same English, but even the same is more difficult.

Nevertheless, I will soldier on with my blogging, though not as often as before. While I'm here, I might as well announce that from henceforth, October will be Nigeria month on this blog. I don't know what this means as I've never celebrated an October month on ASBTW before. I suppose I'll soon find out.
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