I was not a Nigerian until I lived outside Nigeria. Let me explain.
The realization that I am Nigerian hit me right between the eyes when I went to study in Sweden. Apart from the fact that I was a foreigner, that is. Foreigner I was prepared for. The reason I chose to go to Sweden to do an MA in Development Studies was not only because it is in one of the most developed countries in the world (UNDP and World Bank data); it was also because it was far away, and promised new discoveries. It was foreign, so I expected to be a foreigner.
That expectation still did not help much when I was confronted with just how foreign I was. First of all, I realized that I was in a very white country. Sweden in particular and the Nordic world in general is very white. Unlike France, Britain or the Netherlands, they do not have a history of colonization, so they have not had a large population of foreigners living there for as long as say France.
Plus there is something about the self that makes one look out for others with ones’ identity markers. Therefore, I noticed, walking down one of the busiest roads in Uppsala, Sweden, that I could not find any other black face.
The first thing I ‘became’ was a black person. Not long after, I became African.
It did not take me too long to meet other Africans. Some of them were students like me, others asylum seekers. Scanning those faces on my first walk down the Uppsala road was not for fun. I knew that I would need help ‘getting into’ the country, and who else to help one get in smoothly than one who might have had the same experiences as one? And how to tell that someone is like one if not by their looks?
The Africans I met helped me quickly transform myself from a black person into an African. It would have been different had it been Berlin, where I now live. The black face could either be an African or an American GI (America has military bases in Germany). I do not need to point to the different treatments one might receive if one were either of the two.
In any case, in Uppsala, I became an African. Till now, the story has been about me and people who look like me. Let me add to the mix the subtle things that made me an Other to the Swedish Self. First is the process of being made into the other. Simple things like being spoken to in English and not Swedish, although very welcome, meant that they ‘knew’ that I was not a Swede. That is if the way I looked did not already give that away. Or the fact that one of my housemates asked me, after he had had one bottle too many, whether we have roads in Africa. That seals it, right? How much more other can one be if one does not even have roads? Well, you can also add the issue of living on trees. That came later.
But the moment I became Nigerian was the moment one person asked where I was from and I replied Nigeria. I noticed the change on his face and asked what the matter was. He replied that there was a time their media warned them against Nigerian mails – 419 letters. That was what Nigeria was for him, a country from which scam letters and emails originate. I patiently explained to him that Yes, a few Nigerians are involved in it, but No, not all Nigerians are; they were only a few. From then on, I had to deal with the annoying fact of having to explain this to people. The fact that one out of every five African is a Nigerian became part of the arsenal. If one is not careful, one could end up living ones life defending one’s Nigerian self.
All the aforementioned could happen in the space of one day, or even a few hours.
Therefore, when one finds that it is Nigerians outside the country who fight the strongest against the negative portrayal of Nigerians in the global media – in adverts, movies or in the news – it is because they are the ones who have to deal with the effects of that portrayal.