In 1999, I rediscovered my first love!
She had grown up. I mean I had grown to become aware of her beauty.
She was stunning and full of all possibilities. I could not wait to spend as much time with her as possible; to reacquaint myself with her enchanting beauty. She had the best smiles, and her culinary skills filled me in ways I had long forgotten was possible. She was energetic, with a spectrum of colours and music that moved my soul. It had been years since I experienced the warmth from her sun. It radiated and kept my being energized like a warm embrace on a chilly day.
This was how I felt when I realised that I had a hidden love for my country Nigeria. I knew in that moment that I would return to her shores to live with my wife and beautiful kids I was yet to have. She had me in her grasp as the plan was set. Everything I did from then on was just to get me back to my Nigeria.
I gave away property, put my newly purchased home on the rental market, packed up my American Trinidadian wife, three kids and boarded a boat to Africa. Well, we did board a plane to Nigeria.
It was an adventure and we were excited. We did all the required planning and timed executions to get a new home in Nigeria, get the kids into schools and generally settle into our new home, Lagos.
We had plans to travel in Nigeria and all over Africa. This was an exciting plan and we couldn’t wait to begin. I don’t believe it took us months to discover the folly in our plans. The security issues, the logistics issues, the expensive and vastly unreliable nature of air travel in Africa. Okay, I digressed, this is not where I was going.
My story above is not unique. A lot of my peers moved back in the early 2000s out of the same love. It was a returnee epidemic, or a brain gain– as the economists would call it. In New York, Chicago, London and the likes, there were constant farewell parties. The trigger was an article written by my good friend Chukuka Chukuma, which spread like a dry forest fire, and was likely the first viral message in our email experience. He basically told us we were wasting our time living anywhere else but Nigeria.
The excitement was in the air, early adopters were hailed as champions. I remember always chasing down returnees when they came back to visit New York; I wanted to hear everything about my love – Nigeria. Soon enough, I was sick about hearing about my love. I longed to become an indispensable part of her. I hatched a plan and headed back to Nigeria.
We moved back to Nigeria in the early 2000s in the same mass and drive as our parents left Nigeria in the mid to late 1980s. It is now been almost two decades; the reverse is now in play. We are now doing farewells or simply just hearing that people have left – as leaving Nigeria is not always celebrated. People just sell their items and book a flight not looking back and just leave.
It is now an epidemic, a brain drain!
On finding my love in 1999, I set targets on what I needed to achieve and accomplish in my host country before getting back with my love.
America would never be the same to me again. I was now focused on getting back to Nigeria. In 2004, I finally felt I had hit all my targets. With my head fully turned to Nigeria, it did not matter what I was doing in America, only getting back to Nigeria mattered. She needed me and I needed her.
As we boarded our flight, I reminisced on my life before we moved out of Nigeria.
I grew up in the ancestral town, Benin City, in the 1980s. It was a sleepy town, nestled in the middle of the country, which made it easy to travel to other beautiful towns in Nigeria. I remember road trips to Enugu, Port Harcourt also known as the Garden city, Warri, Lagos to name a few. It was always so exciting to hit the road with a flask of hot jollof rice and Capri-Sun juices, to be served midway to our relatively short trips. I don’t remember an instance where the delicious meal made it beyond the gates of Benin.
My childhood was filled with the gospel, tradition, colour, art and music. There was a lovely rhythm to life. We had fences and gates as a decorative feature, not so much for security purposes as we certainly were not locked in the said compounds. I remember as a kid running through the famous moats in Benin. They were venturous and we were discoverers. Please do not tell my parents that I did this as I was an only child in the 1980s. I can hear my parents both having a retro heart attack over the risks I took as a kid. I am ok Daddy; I am ok Mummy.
These memories embraced me as I reproached my Nigeria. I got off the plane at the Muritala Muhammed International Airport and got hit with the familiar heat, to which I responded with – yes, I am back. In the air I feel this tempo, it is actual music, it is trying to get me in step, it is trying to get me to dance with Nigeria. I feel that I have come to someplace special and I cannot wait to get on the right beat.
It has now been 20 years since that day, and I have done possibly 200 landings into Lagos. The tempo beat and the heat embrace are still the same. The only thing that has changed is me. I have grown physically. Yes, I am much rounder. I have grown professionally, spiritually and lost a lot of hair too. So, I am no longer the fresh lover, as I have come to understand my love and who I am in love with….
It seems like I am focused on discussing the privileged 2%. Their arrival in the early 2000s and their recent departure. The irony is that this same epidemic also plagues the 98% that make up the “real Nigerians”. Also referred to as the masses, these are the people that really make up the 200 million people in Nigeria. People that have no real options; then to either live in the pain, or attempt daring escapes from their own love – Nigeria. We need to stop and think, about the pain and injury inflicted on the soul when we ‘escape’ from our homes, knowing that we may never see our family again. This pain is masked with a smile, as the person is just excited by the opportunity to ‘escape’, yet, they are scared!
How do we build a nation when the indigenes at all classes do not feel they can be successful in their home country? This is the key driver for migrations over generations. People leave when the ground fails them. The solutions are obvious. I suspect we are all too busy feeling like we are breaking up to do what should be done dispassionately.
These days, the relationship with Nigeria can be best described as an abusive one. It meets all the definitions for an emotional, phycological and potentially physically abusive relationship. It really shouldn’t be.
Recently, my friend and I boarded a cab at Victoria Island, Lagos. As we navigated a small lake, my friend relates how it seems like we got hit by a hurricane, referencing Bahamas. Without a cue, the cab driver chimes in, “These are the best parts of Lagos”. I look around and it feels we are in a civil war whilst in the middle of a hurricane. Yet, it is not caused by mother nature, it is completely man-made. A man-made (non-natural) disaster!
So, man is the issue. Do we sit and point at our leaders, or should we sit and point at ourselves? I have heard people say, “who did this to us?” and “who we vex?”. Referencing the effects of some mystical causes, when the question we should ask is: How did we allow this to happen to us?
I am now asking; how did we allow this to happen to us? Our issues are not caused by mystical beings, they are caused by men and women amongst us. They are our husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, cousins; you get the drift. How do we continue to allow this to happen to us? We allow people with incomplete stories dominate us because we leave them unchallenged.
At the risk of sounding like a cliché, we all simply need to become the change we desire in our lover Nigeria.
This statement should be taken as a mantra for daily living.
Should we be hopeful?
I remember when I visited my cousins in Lagos, how it felt like I had boarded a plane to a different country. Lagos was just a big bustling city and was a new adventure as we hunted for the best akara and fried yam vendor. I remember running from Bar Beach towers across the highway unto Bar Beach and it felt like miles of sand before you got to the water.
In Benin I attended great schools. They were bright and colourful. Our uniforms were crisp, and we wore white socks in sandals. I believe that is when I got my hatred for socks, that aside, we were crisp and clean. I remember morning assembly, playing the recorder and the assembly closed out with our morning prayers.
Our education system was world class and other countries were vastly outpaced by our students. This is such a beautiful memory and I am totally smiling as I write this. And oh! the ride from school was simply amazing. Especially in corn season. My cousin and I just had to stop and buy corn off the street. Those women and their huge homemade pots, and the steam that fills the air when they opened it for you to select.
A few years ago, I sat with a distant cousin at a family Christmas party. It would interest you to know that all Benin people are basically cousins. He told me about his vision for Edo State. He drew such imagery that took me back to my childhood. I could tell that he had the same childhood I had in Benin, but his was better. It had deteriorated a bit by the time I got it. Fast forward to today, I am watching him execute, I am seeing the transformation, I am watching this older brother of mine (I claim him even more) create the change he wants in his environment. He is showing us that it is indeed possible, we can provide good governance in this environment. It is a man, it is you, it is us that can solve our problem.
I do not pretend to be a political scientist or economist, although I play both roles quite well on Facebook. I am a citizen; I do see and feel good governance when it exists. I now know that a man is our problem, yet a man can be our solution. It is you; it is me.
Most people who know me, would accuse me for being overly optimistic; an optimist to a fault. I cannot help it as my steps are formed in faith. I believe that the best is what is available to us in grace and the best is what we must get. I believe we all need to step to the table as we all must become political to ensure we can move the needle back, yes back to the Nigeria of my childhood. A place with potential and growth, and not a place to escape from. We need to all go back to the ground floor, go back to our villages and states and effect change.
As a project manager, I can state clearly that the problems we face in Nigeria can only be solved in small parts. Imagine the improvement in every state simultaneously, it would make a better Nigeria.
We must look around us and say to one another, this will not continue to happen to us.
This is not about who did or did not do something to us.
We did this to ourselves.
We must be in pursuit of the advancement of all Nigerians.
The change we need will take a man, you!