What Does It Mean To Be Nigerian? - by Elizabeth Uwaifo

When I arrived in London from Nigeria in 1982, one of the major challenges I had to deal with was the feeling of isolation – not seeing people who look like you.

While I did not let that feeling derail my plans to study and pursue my legal career, I became very appreciative of the sight of others of my colour, I developed a bond with Africans and a special bond with Nigerians, I felt we were kindred spirit. The recent unfortunate events in Chibok, Borno State has forced us as Nigerians to hold a mirror to ourselves, look in it and decide whether we like what we see. If we do not like what we see, what do we do?

Stories abound of atrocious killings inflicted by Nigerians on Nigerians – by Boko Haram, ritual killings and otherwise. Why would we as Nigerians inflict such pain and suffering on other Nigerians? We will not ordinarily inflict such atrocities on our own children or those we love and care about. Perhaps a rediscovery of our consciousness of our bond as Nigerians will facilitate respect and love for one another.

I feel strongly about our finding what unites us as I believe that this spirit will help us pull together to greater success as a nation. I wish to hear the thoughts of fellow Nigerians on this subject and I will start the discourse by sharing my personal perspective.

I really became appreciative of my Nigerian heritage when I came to England. I am Ishan from Edo State and left Nigeria for England at the age of 21. Before leaving Nigeria I was not particularly conscious of my Nigerian heritage. My nationality was what it was. I had no reason to think about it whether positively or negatively. I had issues and challenges to address and my nationality did not feature among my concerns.

On getting to England and realising for the first time that those in my new community did not look like me or speak like me, it became heartwarming to see faces like mine and comforting to hear an accent or a name that I recognised as Nigerian. I came across very few Nigerians – less than five that I was aware of at my university, none at my block of residence and only a handful known to me socially. I felt a sense of solidarity with the Nigerians I got to know.

In my loneliness I yearned for home; for the Nigeria I left behind. I had a sense of pride about where I was from. There were times when I would be frustrated by the fact that I was not communicating effectively with those around me. When others expressed difficulty in understanding me I would say to myself – I come from a country where people all speak like me and they are fine. As I struggled to get through the cold weather, rain and snow to get to my lectures, I picked up on the negative images that were portrayed in the Western media about Nigeria and I felt protective of my country. They did not know Nigeria like I did, I said to myself. They did not know the hardworking, resourceful, brilliant, kind-hearted and empathetic Nigerians that I knew. I was driven to show that I had received quality education in Nigeria which placed me in a position to compete with the best in England.

My Nigerian heritage gave me a sense of identity, a comfort and a feeling that there was a group of people to whom my success mattered. During that period, I would request traditional Nigerian music – music by Sir Victor Uwaifo, Osayomore Joseph, Sunny Okosun, Ebenezer Obey, King Sunny Ade, IK Dairo, Rex Lawson and OnyekaOwenu, to name a few. My friends and siblings in Nigeria were at the time into Western pop and soul music and thought I was crazy. I loved to collect carved wooden ornaments and pictures of people in Nigerian traditional clothes. They not only reminded me of home but they also represented my identity which I guarded jealously.

Would I have felt so passionate about Nigeria if I had not left Nigeria? Or if my environment in England had not included so few Nigerians? Whatever the answer to those questions may be, the fact remains that my being Nigerian meant something to me and was a positive influence on me.

Nigerians have been through a difficult period. Many families have experienced worsening economic conditions, poor infrastructure has made it difficult for average Nigerians to work their way out of the poverty trap and poor living conditions make daily life a constant struggle. Faced with challenges that compel us to focus on our needs we risk losing touch with our common bond as Nigerians. Furthermore, does our familiarity with one another put us at risk of losing our appreciation of one another?

So what is it that connects you with other Nigerians irrespective of their ethnic origin, sex, religion, political affiliation or social status? Your thoughts are as good as mine.