There’s a huge difference between visiting somewhere and choosing to live somewhere. For me, living somewhere is a commitment to a particular geography with all its quirks and history. I think of this as an alchemical reaction of sorts, where the environment shapes you and you simultaneously shape the environment.
A conversation I’ve been having with other returnees— specifically — first and second generation Africans who have relocated back to their ancestral homelands, has been about what to do after the honeymoon is over. You’re beginning to settle into the geography of where you are, it’s different in many ways, yet somehow familiar, and things are getting real. Whether to conform to cultural expectations, defy them, or find a cohesive balance between the two is front and center. The funny thing is that many of us who have relocated usually weren’t that good at conforming before we made the leap to move. So I digress! I’ve been relying heavily on inspirational quotes to make sense of my experiences in Nigeria as someone integrating multiple cultures in one body. Here are five areas of learning I’m navigating, with five great quotes to go with them.
If the cashier has no change at the grocery store then, no wahala. If petrol runs out of the station then, no wahala. If the bank takes over a month to mail your debit card then, no wahala. If a task can’t get done because the electricity’s out then, no wahala. If the restaurant says there’s no okra soup (even though it’s on the menu) then, no wahala.
No wahala is a Nigerian pidgin term meaning no trouble. I find this to be a very Zen way of relating to life and appreciate that the African musical sensations Demarco, Runtown, and Akon teamed up to make a song named, No Wahala. They understand this statement is a necessary vibe out here.
The admission that one can only control so much is a sentiment many Nigerians carry, and they embody this principle in such humorous ways. If you watch Nollywood films or talk to someone on the street, you see how something so devastating can easily become a joke. Perhaps it’s a coping mechanism, but sometimes I’d rather be laughing than crying. I admire our intelligence and the way we continue to rise in the harshest of conditions. I’m not surprised that this country has produced some of the most prolific creatives, go-getters and thinkers the world has ever met. I mean… life here can be chaotic and on some days, all you can do is throw up your hands and say, “no wahala.”
“The same sun that melts wax is also capable of hardening clay.” – Nigerian Proverb
But wait… if the cashier has no change at the grocery store and you need that loaf of bread then, wahala! If petrol runs out of the station and you need that gas for your generator then, wahala! If the bank takes over a month to mail your debit card and you need your money then, wahala! If a task can’t get done because the electricity’s out and other people are relying on you to get that task done then, wahala! If the restaurant says there’s no more okra soup (even though it’s on the menu) and you know you don’t like the taste of any other soup they’re offering then, wahala!
Sometimes you actually have to admit that what you’re dealing with is in fact, wahala. This is the contradiction many of us navigate here. Constantly balancing our frustration and wish for things to just go smoothly. I recently checked in with a neighbor to see how she was faring with no electricity for three days. She expressed my frustrations perfectly, “Yeah… this is rough. I’m just going through so many emotions right now. I don’t even know what to do…” She had no generator, which means that all her electronics probably ran out of battery, unless she had walked fifteen minutes in the heat to the nearest barbershop to charge her things there. Her food may have gone bad — especially if she had any produce — I know mine had, especially in the heat. Part of living in the world is reckoning with the world you’ve been given. Wahala! Wahala, for sure.
“Babylon is Everywhere.” – Bob Marley
I’m the Oga
In Nigeria, Oga, means boss. (Pronunciation: O-gah, emphasis on the gah). The oga is the Big Man, El Jefe, the one who gets things done and calls the shots. Nigeria — like many places — has a huge boss culture. Think Game of Thrones. Ambitious players hungry for power where people either bend the knee, seize the throne, or become like Arya Stark and develop a kill list. This might be an over the top example, but what I’m saying is that the conventional boss mentality trope seeks power over a situation, rather than power with. It’s a world of vicious binaries. If the boss commands, you obey. If they are right, you are wrong. If they lead. You follow.
Admitting a flaw is their kryptonite, so you better believe that any shortcomings and outbursts are your fault. Sometimes they are beloved for their benevolence, sometimes they are feared for their crudeness. Often, both dynamics are at play and contribute to a deeply authoritarian culture. The end always justifies the means, so if someone’s dignity gets trampled along the way so be it.
That’s not me.
Emotional intelligence and making empathic connections is what I value most. So, rather than having to be right, I can hear different perspectives. Rather than existing in absolutes, I can remain flexible. This doesn’t mean that I don’t respect my elders, or honor those who have put in a good amount of work to be where they are, or that I won’t be firm when needed. It just means that might does not always make right, and no one person has the monopoly on the truth. And what I’m not going to do in 2020 is worry constantly about saving face. Power is interesting, you never know who you’ll become when you have it, and it’s easy to misuse. We’re all human, and acknowledging vulnerability is usually difficult for folks in positions of authority to reveal. Minding my business, sharing my creativity, and making the world a kinder place is the kind of oga I’ll be.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
Who You Be?
The conversation about whether I’m Nigerian or American enough never ends. I relate to American things while I find myself often hanging with locals, though I feel comfortable in both scenarios. I’m always surprised at how other people’s assumptions reflect their experiences and biases. Like the time I hung out with a white American lady and we were talking about our different friend groups. Then she said, “Yeah, this is for all my American friends,” indirectly implying that I wasn’t part of US culture. I simply replied, “I’m American.” She clearly saw me as the Other, and it was a reminder that we have a long way to go regarding race, culture and inclusion. Then, there was a Nigerian lady who said, “I thought you would be like most Westerners and assume that you know everything about how Africa needs to develop. But I guess you’re more Nigerian after all.” There are a lot of expectations to manage.
People measure you against their own yardstick. The painful truth is that sometimes they’re not thinking very kind thoughts about you, let alone thinking of your highest good. Even more reason for you to think kind thoughts about yourself, know your story, and affirm your worth, no matter what anyone thinks. It’s up to you to choose — or not — it’s perfectly OK to be from many places and understandings.
“What other people think of me is none of my business.” – Gary Oldman
It’s Okay Ma, Be You
Ma is a term often used for women in Nigeria. All I can say is that the word has a certain swagger to it. It reminds me of the popular American rap song, Hey Ma, by Cam’Ron. It’s a vibe. In my time here, I’ve had many people advise me on how I should handle my transition. When I faced obstacles people would say, “You’ve got to toughen up,” “Welcome to Nigeria, what did you expect?” “You should know the name of the village you are from,” or, “You should be grateful.” I found myself apologizing a lot for not knowing something, or for having difficulty with my transition. I realized that I was beginning to feel bad for being me, and it was leading to crippling doubt.
Here’s what I’ve learned: There’s always someone eager to tell you what you should do, how you should do it, and assert that they know your life better than you do, hence why they keep telling you what you should do. They are intense in their convictions, and if you’re not careful, you might get caught up trying to prove yourself to meet their demands. In order to cope, I found two people who I knew would tell me the truth in a judgment free zone. They rarely told me what I should do; usually they spoke from their experience and told me their observations. What I really need these days is a cup of tea with a friend who simply asks, “Are you ok, ma?” I’ll never forget the words of one Nigerian expat that I’ll forever hold close, “Don’t worry, you’ll make it. You will find a place that loves you for exactly who you are and the talents you bring. You are needed here.” I cried on sight.
“It is Safe to be Me.” – Louise Hay
The original version of this article appeared in June 2020.