Homecoming Series #10

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On: moving home, sexual agency, politics, poverty and the complexity that constitutes a nation.

Since moving back home to Nigeria, I have learned and lost. I learn everyday.

Yet, right until my last year at University, I never believed I would come to think of Nigeria as home. I was in the United Kingdom to chart a new path for myself, free of the suffocation of living in my third world home country. I don’t know why that thinking changed. But it did. Anyway, where else would I go? Where else would I build my legacies? Make my fortune? Meet my lovers? Where else would I feel so… at home?

It has been a harsh year and some, I can tell you that. I moved back so quickly, primarily because I had just begun a new relationship. Don’t ever underestimate the power of ‘new love’. That relationship has ended now, but the learning experience was worth it. The move was such an easy decision at the time that even when my relationship started to fail, my memories convinced me that it was the better decision.

Coming back and heading straight to the broken place that is Nigerian Law School, Bwari, Abuja, was hard. The curriculum, – one quickly realizes, is broken. The teaching is broken. The roads in that village-town are broken. The student hostels are broken. Very soon, the people start to show you that they too are broken. Despite its being far removed from the city of Abuja, the overwhelming Nigerian-ness never seems to wash off. Never eases up. If anything, it’s like reliving the worst of secondary school, at a time when the stakes are much higher.

We were always reminded, that despite the way things are done abroad, we (foreign graduates), were not abroad. So I was not to question the system. I was not to try to change the system. I was to adapt. Adapt to what? I soon found out. Like the prevailing attitude in most of Nigeria; to a broken system where any authority is god.

An Uncle said to me right before my move back “Give it a year in Nigeria and your very mentality will change.”

That much is true. But even a year is too long. I have seen with both my eyes sycophancy, adultery, bigotry, corruption, the frustration of poverty, the abuse of power; at their finest. Or ugliest; depending on what part of any of it was directed my way.

I followed local elections for the first time in my life. I watched the tide turn overwhelmingly against Goodluck Jonathan. I watched Nigerians elect a man they had rejected thrice before. I heard my restaurant waiters, elevator operators, taxi drivers and other such; yell Sai Baba! at the slightest encouragement. The excitement was palpable. Infectious even. But when I started to ask why, when I sought the reasoning behind the unusually vast interest in a changed government; in a man they had rejected over and again; I began to mourn for the Nigerian electorate. I mourned for a people, whose news source increasingly is gossip blogs or twitter. We just might have amongst the most uninformed electorate in the world. The man in the streets could not mention to you, three things that his government: federal or local has done. He cannot tell you of their socio-economic policy direction and he doesn’t care. He will end up voting per the dictates of his Emir, Imam, Pastor, trending celebrity or his group of friends and family. That is, if he shows up to vote. Quite frankly, he cannot afford to care about much that does not manifestly affect his livelihood. The government is not and will never be his friend. Yet, he is the first point of call, when a politician is recruiting political thugs. More often than not, he will gladly sell his vote and then curse his government when it fails. I have watched as the media has refused to help matters. I have watched media houses, which should be the benchmark of neutrality, become political pawns. We forget that an enlightened citizenry is necessary to the advancement of any nation. Maybe we don’t even realize. Or maybe there are those who want it that way.

How do we condone the debasing experience that is National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) camp? I cannot honestly speak to the entirety of the three-week camp experience, but by my very first day at the Kubwa, Abuja camp, was slightly horrifying. I was close to tears.

Camp is fun, they said. And I’m sure for some, it was. To survive in camp ultimately is to adapt quickly and make what you can of it. But that is not the point. What is it about this country and ‘adapting’? Why need I ‘just manage’?

A friend arrived at the NYSC camp; Niger State and found to her horror and mine, that instead of toilets, she would have to ‘adapt’ to pit latrines.

Now there’s the Runz girl that men and women love to hate. More women become one than they even know to admit. I couldn’t understand at first, what great need drove a woman to trade her body and company for cash. Whether cash to survive or to support her desired Hermès lifestyle. The runz girl is not a prostitute mind you, I oft hear. Well, that depends on whom you ask.

Still, I couldn’t understand why. Now I do and it is infuriating.

Runz girls are not my problem. The circumstances that necessitate their existence are. There is a certain breed of Nigerian man who, with some measure of economic power; believes that he has the license to treat women as objects he can purchase. To demand sex from them for any and every thing: employment, advancement, enjoyment of their own legal rights.

Understand this, and you understand why some of these Nigerian men will struggle to take you, a woman, seriously. Why they will disregard your right to be respected. Even if your father is a King. Even if you graduated from Warwick with a Law degree. Even if you are a human being. After all, you must have slept your way to whatever position of power, wealth or influence you manage to attain as a woman in Nigeria. And this is why a market-trader pulling on your arm or body for laughs or to get your attention; when rebuked, will angrily retort “Wetin? I get one like you for house.”

I have met such interesting, fun and genuinely good people. I became cynical and untrusting – as one need be, to survive here. I have met people who make me wonder whether caring about politics, writing or world news, should be weird. Why do you always watch CNN? … Reading another article? – You’re weird… Amaka, why don’t you ever have gist?

I have met pushy persistent men and those men who made my skin crawl. Who taught me that I am womanist or something beyond; that the white-heterosexual middle-class version of feminism, could never begin to apply to me, to explain or understand my circumstances; a female POC, in a third-world country.

Here, you hope for, but ultimately don’t expect efficiency. You join the throngs of those too willing to suffer and smile or suffer and move on, because you are powerless. You complain and shake your head at the madness. But you don’t lift a finger. You retreat into the circle of your work, family, friends, religion and self. Ultimately you forget Nigeria. You forget that your apathy drives yet another nail in her soul. She’s an incredible irony; Nigeria. Her people embrace religion’s bosom, then turn around and malign their brothers and sisters because it suits their needs at the moment. Because of politics, tribe, ethnicity. Because they think a little different.

I will tell you this; I am tired of having the Nigerian version of religion force-fed to my being. It is an invasion of bodily integrity too perverse for this decade.

I am tired of the Nigerian and truly African idea that not only is it a man’s world, a woman’s place in it is something to be dismissed and belittled.

I am tired of all who say that my sexual agency is not my own. That my body belongs to some god, my husband or even my father; to be kept away till I am wrapped in a white bow at my wedding.

I am weary of those who see my bare shoulders and thighs and make assumptions of my chastity or else believe that I must be the offspring of some embezzler, who has gone abroad and forgotten her culture. Forgotten how decent women back home dress and act. Who does not know that like so, she invites the attentions of men. Men who are raised to believe that women who dress and behave like this; must be loose.

Men who will have no qualms bedding said women; with or without their consent, but who have been taught that they must marry a ‘good’ woman, a virtuous woman; like Esther of biblical times. A woman who is submissive and knows her place. Who turns the other cheek, when he begins to look to other women; because men will be men. Anything that doesn’t pander to his demands feels like an insult to tradition. That one is arrogant. That one is rude. Who will marry her?

I am weary of this country that disregards the achievements of unmarried females. That exploits the vulnerable, yet condemns them for their vulnerability.

I am weary of this country where we do not understand that sexual harassment should not be the norm. That these ‘jokes’ are anything but. That harassment is not validation of my beauty or attractiveness and is certainly not a compliment.

I am weary of this country where predators hand me my laws; still reeking of hypocrisy.

I am frustrated by the man who sneers from the window of his privilege, at the employed-beggar, for plying his side trade. Because who can really survive only on a salary here? I am tired, of those who would so quickly ‘other’ their fellow citizen; because they do not speak his tongue, because they do not pray the same way or to the same God.

At first, I spent a year making excuses for the absurd, incredulous, impertinent, outright frustrating (mis) deeds of otherwise staunchly religious grown men and women. (S)he is frustrated. Anyone forced to earn, live on and raise a family on pittance would be. No longer. I live and work here now. There are days when the heat of the sun alone makes me angry.

Most days, as I overtake offending taxi drivers, as all taxi drivers in Abuja are; I scream Olodo! at them as I zoom past. I always immediately start laughing at myself. I am suffering and smiling too now, you see? I am adapting.

There are days I have bickered with policemen, trying to take advantage of what they think is an ajebutter that can be bullied out of a few hundred naira. This one no go sabi anything.

Once, a traffic warden threatened to have me charged for driving wit ah-dun kia attitude [I don’t care attitude] Right after I told him I was a lawyer. There are days when I have gotten out of arguments with policemen and, shaking with rage; cried so hard. Cried so hard for everything that is broken. What do we begin to fix? How?

I have started to learn Hausa. I have started to believe that Nigeria will be great.

I have since started to search for love again. Of myself and of my country.

I have started to adapt.

I moved back too soon, but don’t regret it yet.

Because it feels like home.

A home that yet has me in the grips of fear for my unborn child.

But it feels like home.