Perspectives is a monthly column featuring guest posts from non-Nigerians who follow political and cultural happenings in Nigeria.
The columnist this month is Femke van Zeijl.
1. Surround myself with true friends who will tell me that I am full of shit if I am. Those who won’t pretend everything I do or say is wonderful, just because I’m white. This is imperative. If I don’t, I fear if I stay long enough my personality will change for the worse.
I have met them, the white people in Nigeria who, thanks to lack of criticism over the years, have started believing they are God’s gift to humankind. Grey-haired men mostly, boasting several chieftaincy titles with attitudes to match, bossing people around in a way they wouldn’t dream of if they still lived in their own country wherever in the West. I must not start behaving like an oga. And if I ever do, I want a friend to come up to me and tell me that I’m full of shit.
2. Try to sound more like an oga. Meaning I’ll have to rephrase my sentences so that they won’t sound like a question when they in fact concern an order. Have learnt that ‘Isn’t it a good idea to do this like that…’ is not an effective way to get anybody to lift even a finger in Lagos. ‘Do this’ is the only wording that gets things done and interestingly enough nobody – apart from the big ogas – feels in the least bothered if they’re addressed to in this manner. I will learn not to feel rude when I do not even add ‘please’ and not to be annoyed when others don’t.
I’ve thought about why a society so big on politeness seems to have done away with such formalities in everyday street life. My conclusion: the human voice is so muffled by the urban noise of traffic and generators that it is hard enough to get even the shortest sentences across to your conversation partner. Why waste the little audible content on unnecessary words? I learned this the hard way when I asked the danfo driver at Ojuelegba ‘Excuse me Sir, could you tell me if this is the bus to Yaba?’ At ‘Sir’ the vehicle was already speeding towards Barracks bus stop, leaving me by the side of the road. The proper question should have been a loud, dual-syllabic ‘Yaba?’
3. Unlearn my inbred Dutch rudeness. Contrary to the impression my last point might have given, I come from a country where formalities are much less valued than in Nigeria. In the Netherlands, we get right to the point when we meet someone, and skip any reference to family members, friends and their state of health. It is not uncommon for a parliamentary journalist to call the president by his first name; they see each other every day. Bear in mind my country’s unofficial motto is ‘Behaving normally is crazy enough’. That makes it one of the most egalitarian places on earth, whereas in Nigeria I cannot see anyone addressing former president Olusegun Obasanjo as just ‘Segun’. Would anybody call him by his first name, I wonder.
I will, however, sometimes claim the prerogative of a foreigner to be rude, and pretend not to notice. The beauty of being a stranger is sometimes getting away with stuff the locals cannot.
4. Learn to read between the lines of Yoruba politeness. A tough one. Haven’t mastered that at all.
5. Learn Yoruba, my first tonal language. This is likely to be a nightmare, since my ears refuse to register the different melodies that give a word in Yoruba another meaning. Even after having the words òjò, òjó and òjó repeated to me for the umpteenth time, I still remain in the dark.
I’m more optimistic about Pidgin. I get most of it now, thanks to two patient students who taught me while I was staying on UI campus in Ibadan a couple of years ago. Speaking is still a problem. People roll over the floor laughing when I try.
6. Find a way to avoid people paying my tab when I know they are probably spending a week’s salary and really cannot afford to. Also find a way to gracefully accept people paying for me when they can. Find a way to pay people’s tabs myself once in a while. And find a couple of friends to go Dutch with. After all, that’s what I am. Try and explain to them my hang-up on equality in human relationships – see number 3.
Meanwhile I will strive to mention the incredible hospitality and generosity of Nigerians to anyone within hearing distance when I visit Europe. Especially to those who react with shock when I tell them I chose to live in Nigeria voluntarily; those in whose eyes I read fear when I speak of Lagos, as if I decided to go and settle in a war zone; those who have never been to Nigeria — anywhere in Africa for that matter — but have heard of 419 scams and the kidnapping of foreigners in the Niger Delta (which they wouldn’t be able to find on a map if their lives depended on it) and judge an entire population of 167 million by it.
But I will not pretend these phenomena do not exist. This also is my answer to Nigerians asking me whether I am finally going to write positively about their country, assuming I am one of those white journalists scrounging Africa for sad stories: I will not tell only positive stories. Nor just negative ones. Good reporting should strike a balance.
7. Not get into a relationship with a man who is interested in me, not because of who I am, but because of what I represent as an oyinbo woman. How can I tell? Need help of aforementioned true friends on this one.
8. Not allow myself to get used to the craziness of Nigeria and go numb. Because seriously, how is it possible for a country that is the biggest oil exporter on the continent to depend on generators? How can oil tankers and BRT buses disappear into thin air? How is it you pay dearly for a 24/7 online modem and then count yourself lucky to have a couple of hours of infuriatingly slow internet per day, and there is no government body setting the malfunctioning provider straight? And how is it that nobody seems to be revolting against this madness?
9. Explain endlessly why I am not living in Lekki 1. First of all, I couldn’t afford a place in this overpriced flood zone. More importantly as a writer I need life around me. So you will find me on the mainland somewhere in Surulere. Mind you, not on the ground floor. I’ve always managed to keep my feet dry in my own country – situated partly below sea level – and intend to keep doing so once I’ve moved to Nigeria.
10. Refuse to get used to tardiness. I’m Dutch. We are on time or, better still, early. I realise arriving early is hopelessly uncool in Lagos, but I am intent on setting a trend, even when this means having to wait long hours for the rest to finally show up. I’ll bring a book. There’s plenty of wonderful Nigerian authors I haven’t read yet.
Lagosians often blame their being late on traffic, and I am not buying the stuck-in-traffic excuse anymore. Too many times I’ve had people on the phone explaining they couldn’t make it on time because they were caught in this terrible hold up, only to be given away by a complete silence in the background. They were obviously still at home on the couch with their spouses. Traffic jams sometimes are just a convenient excuse.
True, Lagos traffic is horrific. This is a given. So I take that into account and leave early. Hours before if I must. Or take the BRT. I love whizzing over the bus lane, passing by all those cars at a standstill on the Third Mainland Bridge.
Although most four-wheel-driven Lagosians seem to disagree, I do not consider being seen in public transport as damaging to my image. On the contrary, being able to use a well functioning public transport system is a sign of social progress to me. The every-man-for-himself laws of the jungle are so much less sophisticated than a widely shared sense of public interest. Once it becomes fashionable in Lagos to ‘just take the bus’, I know I’ll have at least done something right.
Femke van Zeijl is a writer and multimedia journalist from the Netherlands who soon will be settling in Lagos. Her website is www.fvz-journaliste.nl/