NigeriansTalk started a new feature in June where we feature monthly guest posts from non-Nigerians who follow Nigerian politics and cultural happenings. We hope this will liven up the site by giving you an outside-the-country point-of-view on Nigeria, and hopefully make you see respective issues in a different light.
This month, Cara Harshman, aka Titilayo Oyinbo, weighs in on why Nigerians need to retake their own story.
Nigeria has a misleading wrap in America. When I told people I was going to live in Nigeria for nine months and learn Yoruba, the most frequent response I heard from friends and family was, “so I should be expecting more scam emails then?”
Not exactly, Grandma. Not everyone in Nigeria sends out 419 scams claiming to be princes in need of lost money. Not everyone in Nigeria treks through oil covered fields, and not everyone is part of a militant Islamic group, despite what you may have read in the newspaper.
It was unsettling for me to go back to Chicago after a year with a host family in University of Ibadan to questions like, “did I live in a hut?”, “what are the tribes like?”, “how many times could I shower per week?”, “Did I see a lot of exotic animals?” What I experienced while living with my upper class family of five was so far off from the typical American’s perception about Nigeria that it made me wonder, have Nigerians lost the ability to portray their own story to the world in an accurate and balanced way? Did they ever have control of it and what should they do to regain it?
To some extent nothing–no country, no business, no person–can control what the media says about it. If we could, the world would be a very different and worse off place. These days–save for a few headlines– all of the international reports about Nigeria have to do with Boko Harem attacks in the north, unrest in the Niger Delta or some Nigerian trying to get past airport security. However important and real these stories are, they show one side of Nigeria, an extremely rich, dynamic and rapidly changing country. Maybe all journalists should watch the speech about the dangers of the single story by one of my favorite authors, Chimamanda Adichie.
Nigeria is not alone. Many other countries in Africa are one big misconception to the West. Off the top of my head, Algeria, Liberia, Namibia, Maurtania, Cameroon and Zambia hardly come up in headlines and when they do, it’s usually ugly. People read one headline or listen to a 10 second sound byte about a group of militants in the Niger Delta kidnapping an oil worker and think they know something about the entire continent. Blaming Westerners for not digging deep enough into the story about Nigeria and its neighbors is futile, though. You cannot force someone to be interested. The conversation about Africa will continue to center on poverty and instability until Africans take a greater stake in international discourse to bring out the positive. Africans and those of us in the U.S. who are interested in digging deep need to step up and talk about what makes these countries good–and bad.
I am a Caucasian American, from an upper middle class family. I could easily have fallen into the ranks of one of those Americans whose perception of Africa is thatched huts, tribes and kids with flies all over their faces, but I am more educated and curious than that. I am uniquely able to write and express my thoughts about Nigeria because I lived there amongst the people for a year. I dealt with the trials of NEPA, bad roads and frustrations with the education system. Mo jasi! My education at a premier high school and university in the U.S. enabled me to travel a great deal, and eventually led me to Nigeria. Through opportunities from my high school, I went to Angola in 2006–I was 17– and taught training workshops for teachers. I saw people with few possessions, kids with soda cans as toys and cities destroyed by war. In every white toothed smile I saw joy and strength. My experience in Angola redefined the meaning of happiness for me and planted a spark in me to return to Africa. In University I started to study Yoruba language because I love languages and hoped the language would bring me back to the continent one day. It all worked out. I received a scholarship to send me to Nigeria in 2009, started a blog, and here I am.
For me, it is critical to challenge and correct people’s perceptions about Nigeria because I feel a strong connection to it, an identity with the people, language and culture. While I cannot instantly transform a person’s opinions that Nigeria is much more than tribes and militants, I can tell stories that start to change their views. It would be a lot easier to do my work if Nigerians and other Africans contributed more to the global discourse about the good things: the entrepreneurs, the entertainers, the artists, the professors.
Pitching in means being a watch dog of the media and writing a counter piece to every article published that is imbalanced or one sided. It means all of the modern artists in Nigeria showing their art in galleries around the world. It means hip-hop stars like D’banj, MI and Mo’Chedda publicizing to other demographics. Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Fashola cannot call up the Wall Street Journal and say, “I am starting a public transportation system in Lagos that will help in turning Lagos into a functional mega-city, write an article on it.” But he can continue to promote it through advertisements and press releases, like he did recently. Rummaging through a stack of papers in my house the other day, I came across an open page of a magazine that said “Lagos” above of a large picture of Fashola. It was a New York Times Magazine from May 29, 2011. I slid it out of the pile and flipped through a seven page special made-to-look-like-journalism advertisement all about how Fashola and other public/private firms are working to develop Lagos into an economic powerhouse, a model mega-city in Africa. Èkó ò ni baje o! I was very excited to see this in the NYT Magazine, a bourgeoisie publication only delivered on Sundays, because it means more Americans now have an idea about what a mega-city in Africa is like.
The outpouring of social media from Nigeria in the most recent presidential election is a testament to Nigerians starting to retake their reputation globally. I saw a lot of positive change while reporting on the election at polling stations inside the University of Ibadan. I talked to students and adults who stood outside at polls for hours–cell phones in hand– to report any wrongdoing. The millions of messages that came through Twitter talked about how dedicated they were to creating a fair democracy and stopping anyone trying to get in the way.
Saying Nigeria is a dynamic, eccentric place is an understatement. Heck, it’s the most populous country in Africa and has over 250 ethnic groups and 500 dialects. You can find a Nigerian community in every country in the world, except maybe Greenland. Nigeria has a large stake in the global economy. A new United Nations study of world populations forecasts that 730 million people will be living in Nigeria in 2100. In other words, Nigeria and Nigerians matter. We all deserve to know the full story about this country. The single sided story is too often told and Nigeria is being deprived of her richness. Everyone can pitch in to put forth the full story about Nigeria, because everyone deserves the truth, even the 419 scammers.