I received an invitation to participate in a conference on peace and security in Nigeria some months ago, and I felt like, yes I would love to be part of it. The exotic sensation of going as far as Nigeria was the marking slogan to that excitement, and meeting an old friend from Nigeria felt like an incredible interconnection with the universe.
But inside this all, I wasn’t serious, especially that I went through a hard personal time that included a depression and I totally forgot about the issue until I was re-contacted again some weeks ago and with the same, not genuine excitement I started pulling myself into enjoying the idea.
I had to remind myself that the best part aside from catching up with the colleagues in the conference and the real exchange that such settings produce, it was catching with that old friend that was most important. He has been the only thing I know about Nigeria, and my impression was high. But yet, inside me there was this arrogant ignorance about Africa and in this case about Nigeria.
Ever since that friend stepped into me that morning in Coventry eight years ago, when I was totally clueless traveling alone for the first time (since divorce) and not having closed my eyes for the previous 24 hours. The itch of cold I was feeling is unforgettable. That yellow rounded sun in the sky of Coventry in July with a cold atmosphere. I was losing contact with my physical body, totally lost, walking with my luggage, searching for the classroom when a black figure appeared to me introducing himself in such a polite manner with the echo of an Arabic name that made him familiar with the spot despite the bright accent that remained funny to me.
My blondness and good looks were overwhelming even to me. It was one of those moments that I had this shallow ego of being a white prejudiced creature, forgetting that I was as dark as chocolate and I was a Palestinian.
The only thing I heard about Nigerians the moment the word was mentioned was: be careful they are thieves. That stigma of a nation that I seriously heard over and over everywhere I went. I was waiting for the moment that Nigerian fellow jumps on me and steal me or rape me as we were all alone in that building that early in the morning, but I didn’t feel any threat at all. However, the voices of warning kept rising inside me.
Whatever it was, meeting that young man was what marked the very first instances of my time in that city. I would later see this man everywhere I go, and he would appear the moment I mention his name. It was strikingly strange. It always felt good, but I always had to cautious myself: he is a young “ boy” (back then a year younger than me would be a kid, and this man was maybe 7 or 8 years younger). The man was what I called jokingly all the time was my black angel. He would be there the moment I would think of a need to a thing, starting from a sim card to the heating system. I would only need to mention his name to find him.
Well, he was a Master’s student in engineering, and he was a local in the place.
Day in day out, as the last day of my stay approached, I spent more time around him and with him, and in each time I was just strikingly surprised. I would find it offending normally when anyone offers to pay my phone card for instance or my grocery, and the way he was racing to reach the cashiers before me always made me think: is this man stupid. He is a Nigerian. This image of being helped by a Nigerian seemed hilariously unacceptable. This white and black mentality that has so much hidden racism that I haven’t even discussed inside myself. I always behaved and pretended to be a modest person that I am. But there, I experienced a real life experience that tested my good thinking. It was all based on a series of set up stereotypes that I insisted on seeing as right.
Each moment passed I was seeing this young man as an impressive character regardless of who he was, but to the fact that he was Nigerian. I saw Nigeria in him for what it was. Not what I thought it is.
It was an important lesson in modesty, unveiling ignorance, and seeing through nations through people. Admittedly, it is what I do to represent being a Palestinian. I don’t know if he intentionally wanted to show me Nigeria in him, or was it my way of seeing things. Or was it after all this mentality of oppression that we all regenerate inside ourselves and in the surroundings that we touch when possible…
I was surprised to know that Nigeria had female writers, that stunning beauty of those women, I was surprised that people were just people in Nigeria.
I insist on saying this again and again, because the feeling of shame over my arrogant ignorance followed me with this man. His eloquence, knowledge (about Palestine), modesty, and great manners were remarkable. It was all what one needs to see in a real human. And yet, he remained Nigerian to me.
It wasn’t just me; I am a result of that accumulation of media and societies. Each time I would talk about my Nigerian experience everyone would raise an eyebrow and say but they are thieves, and now they became closer to that picture since Boko Haram.
Last summer I was in Prague, and the security\guard in the hotel was Nigerian. I felt it was my time for payback to a Nigerian, when that man was hilariously pleasant, and it was one time that mentioning Palestine was still steaming after the aggression on Gaza (even though he wasn’t really into that heat.. he was a Nigerian refugee after all ) . It was a great opportunity to dine with the security guard who found it a privilege to eat with guests on that occasion; it was an important chance to hear and see the person for who he was. For me, real inside, I wanted to pay back for a Nigerian previous good deed.
Of course, it was one of my hallucinating acts of that personal search inside my genuine humanity. Even though it was still in-genuine, I was still aware of what was taking place. There was still prejudice in how perceived things, but I was honestly trying to break down all those stigmas of judgment about nations and people just from color …
And yes, all that was happening while I am a Palestinian and we live on the good and evils world charities.
My upcoming visit to Nigeria brought everything I knew about Nigeria to the front of my head, and it goes like this: Ebola, Boko Haram, Corruption and Mukhtar (the name of my friend). As I was defending my standpoint going this far and in such timing that Ebola is as monstrous as Da’esh here. And Boko Haram is competing with its terror demonstrations. It was a great opportunity to defend a country I still see a good man’s face. And of course, as silly as it gets, I live in Palestine. Should I be scared of anything??? We live under the worse humane conditions when it comes to being human. We live under the most corrupt authority which unlike Nigeria doesn’t have any resources, and if there are any, we are far to realize. A power that counts on tax refunds as revenue to pay salaries to its people.
Nigeria, the corrupt country is currently going through elections, while in our authority we fail even to make a decision to go to elections. Nigeria that overrules us in number in at least a hundred times (170 million to less that 10 million us ).
Nigeria that went through civil wars, colonization, diseases, terror remains to be the largest African economy.
As Nigeria stands in a serious election debate that is fairly distributed in a half Christian Muslim country, along with tens of ethnic groups and influential clans. The current president (Goodluck Jonathan) and his government are facing stiff opposition from a previous president (Mohammadi Buhari). Muslim and Christian power, but yet this is not what is threatening the country. Despite the terror of groups such as Boko Haram. And yet, our president encourages military interference from outside to overthrow Hamas, while giving Israel a free hand to suppress and oppress the nation from inside.
As I am looking into Nigeria I am learning that aside from being the most populous country in Africa (more 170 million), richest in oil, 20th on the world GDP ($1.058 tr) I just realized a whole world in Nigeria that includes besides culture and heritage that will need a life to learn about … too many ethnicities anyway … they have Wole Soyinka, noble prize 1986 in literature. And Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (my first discovery) and of course a whole world of civilization that I will be aiming to catch in time……
Nigeria remains a life lesson that is yet being learned …