Prior to coming to Nigeria, many people (particularly at UW-Madison) tried to paint the worst picture possible about this country. I was told about the intense and ever-present dangers of armed robbery, kidnapping, financial scamming, and other potentially life-threatening situations such as disease that I would surely fall victim to should I come to Nigeria. Obviously many of these adversities are unfortunately a part of everyday life in Nigeria, but they are also in America (just not at the same magnitude). In Ibadan, one of the more peaceful cities in Nigeria (that is if you don’t count traffic craziness, noise, and pollution), I have never felt unsafe. Most of what gives Nigeria a bad wrap happens in the Niger Delta (the oil rich region where oil companies have been uprooting native citizens for years, who have thus turned restless and began fighting) and parts of the north. Obviously these parts of the country are more dangerous, but it is not as if it is impossible or a bad idea to visit these places. I am constantly thinking about how I had to withdraw as a student from UW-Madison because of the so called “dangers” and “risks” in this program, and how the school absolutely could not be a part of something so dangerous. UW often quoted a former ambassador to Nigeria in their attempts to persuade me not to go, who like most of the staff I have met at the American Consulate in Lagos, holds a fearful stance toward this country, mostly because of fear of the unknown. This former ambassador was quoted to say things about Ibadan such as “the University of Ibadan’s educational facilities are sub-par and dilapidated.” True, the University of Ibadan does not physically resemble UW-Madison, but within the context of Nigeria it is a very nice place and achieves a great deal academically. I did not come here expecting to have the exact experience I had at UW Madison. Had I wanted the same type of experience, I would have gone somewhere in the western more-developed world, or perhaps chosen one of these programs-http://www.theonion.com/articles/report-more-colleges-offering-dickaround-abroad-pr,18092/. One of the reasons Nigeria is appealing to me is how different it is from America, and how little the general American population knows about this place (even some so-called experts working for the State Department here seem very out of place and out of the loop). Not to say these people are not educated, but as someone who has taken it upon himself to actually get to know the language, the people, and the culture here, you have a lot less to fear when you have built relationships with people and actually know how to read situations through their own cultural lenses. Coming to understand a place so incredibly different from where I came from is what has been the most rewarding, beneficial, and is what has really changed my view of the world and of people forever.
A fine example of a situation completely contradictory to the rumors people tried to scare me with happened to me about two weeks ago. I was in a danfo (“bush taxi” or public transportation van) in Ibadan going out to lunch with Keegan and Lauren, two of the other American students in my program. After I had paid the danfo fare, I put my wallet in my lap, thinking I would transfer it back to my pocket in a second. Suddenly, a motorcycle driver drove in front of us perpendicular to our direction of travel when we were traveling nearly 25 miles per hour. The danfo driver swerved, slammed on the brakes, and the driver began the usual shower of insults at the okada/motorcycle (O ti yà wèrè! Eranko! Ori e ti darú!), all of which are very common to hear on the wild roads of Ibadan. Somehow in this chaos, my wallet fell off my lap, on to the ground, and completely off my radar. I got off the danfo at Dugbe, the “downtown” area of Ibadan so to speak, and we proceeded towards the Koko Dome, our lunch destination. Totally parched, soaking wet from sweat, and very hungry, I was relived to finally arrive after the half an hour long van ride followed by a 20 minute walk in the hot sun. The smell of Lebanese mezzo, beer, and the sight of the cool clean Koko dome pool made me forget about the layer of soot from trash fire smoke and diesel exhaust covering my skin. I began to feel like I was in a 1960’s James Bond movie. I began to instinctively pat my pocket to make sure I had my wallet. I panicked when it wasn’t there, then remembered my stupid move of not returning the wallet to my pocket in the chaos of the okada cutting us off. I quickly ran back to where we got off the danfo, weaving my way between cars, market women, men pushing wheelbarrows, and the other usual obstacles of the crowded Dugbe market. Trying to find a specific danfo in Ibadan is literally like looking for a needle in a haystack. All of the haggard, old, loud, rusting late-model Toyota vans look the same, and all the drivers and conductors resemble each other. I remembered the danfo we were in had an unusually “nice” ceiling (a cheap peace of plastic taped to the ceiling that looked like wood grain), so I ran half bent over trying to look inside at the ceiling of each danfo I passed. So many people were yelling, “Oyinbo, kí ló n wá? Níbo ló n lo? Kí lo n se? Kí ló n se e?” Which means, white man where are you going? What are you doing? What are you looking for? What’s wrong with you? I didn’t care, I just wanted to find my wallet. After an inevitable lack of success, I reluctantly returned to the restaurant, feeling better that at least I had tried. I only had 300 Naira (2USD) in my wallet. Slightly more importantly, my debit card and University of Ibadan ID card were there, but I could replace them with time. I relaxed and ate a Lebanese chicken kabob and drank a cold Heineken, forgetting about my issues.
The next morning I woke up extremely early to get to the bank to cancel my debit card. On the way, Moses, my resident director called me saying someone had called him to let him know they found my wallet and were going to return it! I remembered that I had an “in case of emergency call this number” card with Moses’s number in my wallet. I quickly met Moses and we ran to Sango, a neighborhood in Ibadan to meet the man and collect my wallet. Unfortunately, this again was like looking for a needle in a haystack, as the man didn’t have a phone of his own and had called us from a call center. He gave us no specific place to meet him. Moses had to go meet someone else for a meeting so he gave me his phone and I waited for nearly an hour. Then, I began walking around Sango thinking that the man knew I was white (due to the picture on my ID card) and that he would recognize me (I was literally the only white man in Sango at the time, or at least that I saw). After another half hour of no luck, the man finally called me and after a few broken conversations we found each other! Everything in my wallet was there! He had taken a little money out to use to call me but obviously I was fine with it. I took him back to UI so I could give him more money to compensate him for the incredibly nice deed he had just done for me, and so Moses could thank him in person.
Although there are bad people in Nigeria, there are bad people all over the world. Unfortunately the bad people in Nigeria make it to the news more often than the good, even though it is strikingly obvious that the good outnumber the bad by far. As in any place as a foreigner, you must be careful. At the same time, Nigerians are so nice and so incredibly, overwhelmingly hospitable to visitors, I would almost (emphasis on almost) expect someone to return my wallet to me. I certainly did not expect it was beyond flattered that this nice guy had spent nearly 24 hours trying to locate me in a city of five million people. This man is a true Yoruba “Omoluwabi” (translation-child of god we gave birth to, the ideally perfect Yoruba child who exemplifies amazing character traits). This situation really made me think hard about the horrendous picture that was painted of Nigeria before I came, and my own mental picture I hold now. Although NIgeria isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing place (especially in Ibadan), there are some amazing people here. I will also think twice about leaving my wallet out of my pocket for any amount of time and probably be overly anal about making sure it is in my pocket.