6 Easy Lessons Towards Becoming More Nigerian

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Almost a year ago, I was at a meeting in Kenya. It was at a beautiful location, on the edge of the Rift Valley near Naivasha, with sweeping views down to the lake. The organizers were not short of money, so there was not need to skimp. But of course in these days of bang for buck, and maximizing development dollar impact, there was also no need to pay for the biggest, grandest conference room.

With a skip in my step, I walked from my room, the top floor of a three story wooden edifice en route to the conference room. Earlier, I had opened the door to my balcony, perched on my safari chair, and breathed in the vista. I was ready for more of the same, stunning views to accompany intense work for five days — nose to the grindstone, with a keen focus on getting the draft report out of the door.

I walked past the first conference room verandah – lovely flower bed, deep shade, a splash of lawn, and grand lake view. I couldn’t find a room with my colleagues in it. Puzzled, and with a broad smile, I asked the nearest member of staff for directions. Leading me away from the rooms at the edge of the garden, she bid me follow her up some steps. The view receded behind roofs, and we turned a corner. She opened a door into a featureless wall. It’s here, she announced. I stared disbelievingly. The room had two tiny windows high up on a wall. An air conditioner had been installed, but hadn’t been turned on to cool the room, which left it with a stale, damp despondency. I sniffed. The trace of stale, damp carpet came back at me.

I can’t work in here! Then I repeated myself, slower, more polite: I am sorry, but I cannot work in this room for five days. Are there any others you might have free?

An alternative room was found. It was much larger than we needed it to be. But it had a view, a patch of lawn, a flower bed beyond, and beyond that, a grand vista-ed view of the lake.

It’s the Nigerian in you that made this possible, a colleague said to me admiringly, when we later tucked into some crispy samosas served on our deep shaded verandah.

For the reader uninitiated into the ways of the Nigerian, I offer some key lessons on how to appropriate Nigerian characteristics and make them work in your favour when necessary. A lot of these have been influenced by a period of my life when I travelled to Nigeria frequently, every six weeks or so, for about a year.

Always maximize the peppah content of your food

A smiling Kenya Airways hostess advanced towards me holding a bowl of severely hot chillies. Some peppah? she said, and her smile was genuine. I helped myself, assuming it would rate on the average Kenyan chilli level. I was astonished when I tasted it. This was serious stuff. This ranked on my mother’s scale of hot. Chillies distinguish you from mere dabblers and have some useful side effects — they apparently make you feel cooler under intense sunshine, a fact to be tested when outside an aircraft. I promise that this is an essential skill of authentic-ness. If at first you don’t succeed, aim for a gradual incremental approach, slowly increasing the peppah content in just one meal a day, until you will think something is missing from your breakfast porridge. Even if it takes you a full year, being peppah-proof will be worth it. If you fail at this easy first step, there is no guarantee that the rest of these lessons will yield the desired result.

Be slighted by insults and stand your ground

Nigeria and South Africa got into a tiff. A bunch of Nigerians had turned up in Johannesburg with no, or fake, yellow fever certificates. The airport had shut its vaccination unit, and the Nigerians were not allowed into the country. A hundred and twenty five passengers were promptly put back on the next plane to Lagos. The plane load included a senator. The Nigerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the airline, the passengers, the powers that be and the entire rage of the Nigerian people surfaced. There were radio call-ins where South Africans were accused of arrogance, and needed to be shown what’s what. The Nigerian government came up with an interesting response. All South Africans on subsequent flights were put to one side and told their documents were not in order, and then returned home on the next plane. The immigration office kept a running tally, caring not whether they were turning away a high ranking executive of a telecommunications company, or that utmost rarity — a tourist. As an unscientific test of the accuracy of the original South African accusation, I talked to two of my colleagues and a random passenger who happened to be standing close. Now tell me, “for true” who among you actually owns a valid yellow fever certificate. Well, I can tell you for free that I bought mine at the airport and know its fake, said one. I have an authentic document, although I never actually took the jab, said another. Only one of my three well-travelled companions had taken a yellow fever vaccination from an approved centre, and received a stamped, authentic certificate to prove this. Disregarding the outcome of this mini-test of mine, the South African government soon issued an apology.

Seek, find and exploit every discount-bearing bone in your body

We all know that bargaining in shops in the United Kingdom is not exactly the done thing. There are markets where one can haggle over the price of a bag of peaches. Or try to strike a deal by combining purchases. But on the high street? In a shop with wonderful etched lettering, amid a pale grey blue façade? Certainly not. But the Nigerian in me bid me try. The reason is I walked in wanting one necklace. I stood there desiring three. I smiled winningly at the sales woman, saying: Well, your necklaces are so stunning that I am spoilt for choice. Preamble over, and now for the kill, so to continue: The thing is I only really need one, but if you are willing…, and let the meaning soak into her consciousness. The result was a 10% discount. Not much one might say. Not really worth the trouble. But the discount was well earned, keeping me in a glow of accomplishment that lasted all the way through the coffee the spare change purchased later.

Never trust, by default

A friend who moved to Lagos soon learned that when buying something from a wayside seller, the trick was not to hand over a high value note and wait for change; instead you had to wave the note at the seller, wait for the appropriate change to be counted out and exchanged in tandem. With my senses tuned to Lagos street smarts, I was driving home one day from a small town Sainsbury’s supermarket in the UK. Always alert to someone having a fast one on me, my mind cast back to the unusualness of the receipt. Hmmm, that is not complete. How do I know what I paid on my debit card? With a mind attuned to such everyday occurrences, I quickly scanned through my recollection of the till operator. Had he seemed shifty? Did he charge for a cash back and pocket the change? By the time I got home, I had worked out an entire story of how he’d done it. My first real-life scam experience in modern England by a real-life English person. I sat down to review the receipt one final time before I phoned the store management to complain. As I fingered the receipt, I absent-mindedly turned it over. It was a two-sided receipt. The full and complete list of items I had bought in my week’s shopping were there. There had been no fraud.

Always aim above your station

For a contract in Nigeria, I was unusually allowed to travel business class. I wangled this by telling my employers that the airline was notoriously unreliable and that I would be much more productive if I had to wait in a waiting room with a seat and access to power so I could continue working. After a few of these journeys, you learn to spot the type of person who travels business. En famille business people, often men. Infrastructure type engineers, also often men. Generally corpulent individuals, girth being associated with well-being and wealth and ability to afford business class. On one of these journeys I was surprised to see a slight, young woman walk past me, and then, almost before she left the cabin, quickly look around and slip into a business seat. Fair enough, stereotypes are there to be broken. I continued reading. Before we took off, I noticed she held her phone out to take pictures of herself at various angles, testing out different kinds of smiles. Always ahead of the curve, Nigerians – a selfie, before they became popular. Fair enough, it’s an experience she wants to record, I reasoned. She managed to stay in business class for at least an hour. I think it was around meal-time that it was noticed that there were too many mouths to feed.

Appropriate whatever religion is convenient, calling on the notion of ultimate justice if necessary

My grandmother always venerated the ancestors and poured a libation on her front step whenever she opened a new bottle of Cinzano. At times of need, or great irritation, I have called on my memory of her. I used to own a Land Rover Defender, an amazing piece of engineering that was completely in tune with my experience of Nairobi roads and my need to be at eye level with matatu drivers. One thing it did lack, though, was maneuverability. One day, as I waited patiently for a parking space, I spotted a car about to back out and promptly turned on my engine to inch forward. I did not spot the zippy saloon car that turned in behind me and with great dexterity, slipped into the newly vacant spot before I could even turn my steering wheel. Thoroughly vexed, I hopped out of my Land Rover and walked to the offending driver’s window, which was down. Words were said: Excuse me, but where I come from, the thing you just did, although it may seem small to you, can cause great offence. He only looked surprised, so I paused for effect: My grandmother was the kind of person who knew what to do to people like you. The threat was never explicit, only implied: I am from West Africa, near Nigeria. In fact, my access to similar skills could not be inferred: You have seen, haven’t you, the things Nigerians do in films. His surprise had nicely curdled to something closer to apprehension: Madam, I am sorry. With a rapid flick of a hand, he turned the engine back on: I did not know you were waiting; I will leave now. He drove off, leaving a dust cloud in his wake.

There are occasions when I have not completely stuck to these maxims. But I continue to learn from these failures of Nigerianness. I freely bequeath these valuable lessons to the world. Take them and practice them at leisure. One or more of them may get you out of a sticky situation in Lagos one day. Or even further afield. These are lessons for life, after all.

Dayo Forster has variously worked as a statistical modeler, a technology entrepreneur and a financial sector researcher. She has published a novel, Reading the Ceiling, and is currently exploring her creative side, intending to run her new business startup (www.toghal.com) and write. She tweets as @dayoforster.

Image via The Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation

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