Every Nigerian who has had the privilege to travel out of the country (whether to Ghana or Russia) knows the pains of being a Nigerian, and every Nigerian who has a relative who has enjoyed such privileges has at least heard about the countless headaches and embarrassments that Nigerians are condemned to suffer out of the borders of their fatherland, but relieving those stories to every listening ear never gets old. It’s always an interesting meeting whenever Nigerians fortuitously run into each other at the airport in Dallas, Texas, on the subway in New York City or at a movie theatre in Phoenix, Arizona. One of such meetings occurred on Monday August 20th at a Greyhound Bus Terminus in New York.
Besides London, there are few cities in the world that play home to more Nigerians than New York; of course, not counting Lagos. One can almost swear that there are more Nigerians in London and New York combined than there are in the whole of Oyo State. Otherwise, how else does one account for the tremendous success of the famous ‘Buka’ restaurant in Brooklyn, New York or the massive sales recorded daily in Peckham, London; Peckham is actually reputed to be the headquarters of Nigerians living in the United Kingdom. While fraudulent young and old Nigerians have helped to define the country in seemingly irreversible negative light, the brilliance and academic achievements of young Nigerian students in American and British universities seems to be compensating for that huge deficit in some way. While 47-year old Okechukwu Ogbonu was getting nabbed at the Houston Airport in Texas for ingesting 65 pellets of heroin on Friday August 10, 27-year old Dr. Bahijja Raimi-Abraham was making history as the first person ever to graduate with a PhD in Pharmacy from the University of East Anglia in the UK. Young Nigerians in the Diaspora seem to be determined to counteract every negative action with equal and opposite positive reactions in the hope that the evils of the past few decades can be undone.
However, my unexpected meeting with Mrs Frances Adekunle (not real name) in New York on Monday provided yet another opportunity for two sane minds to brood over the plight of Nigerians at home and abroad. While I had tales to tell about the pains of applying to the Nigerian Police for a Police Clearance Certificate for foreign travels, she had tales of struggling to transfer bank accounts from one branch of a second-generation bank in Abuja to another branch of the same bank in Ibadan. Both difficulties revolved around the fact that officials of both agencies would not willingly perform their duties because palms needed to be rubbed. Historically, anything having to do with the Nigerian Police was bound to be characterized by complexity and shrouded with bribery, but common Nigerians have no choice. The crux of the process is the fingerprinting and confirmation of the applicant’s criminal record, but when non-criminals are condemned to offer bribes in order to confirm their innocence, are we not all transformed into criminals? The alternative is however not desirable – waiting as long as four weeks and enduring untold frustrations to secure a document that is usually produced within an hour.
In the course of bashing the Nigerian Police and officials of Zenith Bank (there you go, I couldn’t keep it to myself), my discussion with Mrs. Adekunle shifted to her work at the Nigerian consulate in New York. She wondered if the recent decision by the White House to provide deportation relief to illegal immigrants who arrived the USA before the age of 16 and who had no criminal records applied to me. Sadly, the answer is no; I’ve not been in the USA so long, but she advised that I keep my fingers crossed because Barack Obama is definitely up to something. She told me how she had been neck-deep in negotiations for a 21-year old Nigerian who arrived in the country at the age of 11 and schooled here before attempting to join the US Army in order to secure permanent residency, but was discovered to be an illegal resident during the application process and was sent to jail. The poor boy who has no prior criminal record has been incarcerated for several years, but now faces the possibility of release if the new American immigration policy works for him. We’re all hoping he gets released, but the question is “who is to blame for the almost ruined life of this once 11-year old Nigerian boy”?
Nigerians have come to accept the fact that travelling to the USA in search of greener pastures doesn’t always yield actual green pastures; many of those pastures are brown, red, black or even yellow. We have always been told the stories of Nigerian bankers who abandon their jobs in the country to go and ‘wash dead bodies’ in American mortuaries, but while that is not always the case, it’s not really far from the truth. Nigerians indeed perform odd jobs in America; yes, we serve as mortuary attendants, we drive taxi cabs, we serve as night security guards, we clean buildings and perform other thankless jobs in pursuit of an extra buck or two. But we’re not the only ones who do that; Americans do too, as do nationals of other countries. There’s simply no green grass anywhere but where one’s academic qualifications, personal hustle, human connections, God’s favour and a tinge of good luck work in concert. The average person living in America works about 18 hours daily on two or three jobs and is still dissatisfied with their income. Things are just so tough.
That’s where my other fortuitous encounter with a Nigerian guy, Lasisi comes into play. I was riding on a bus last week; eager to get home to rest my weary body when I felt someone leaning into me and peeking in to my phone to see the names on my Twitter feed. Something must have caught his eye because he instantly smiled and asked if I was African. I confessed, and then he asked if I was Nigerian. I immediately knew he was a Yoruba dude, but then he completely eradicated whatever concerns I had when he launched into a tirade in a thick Ijesa accent about how difficult it is to get a job in America. He claimed to have been in the country for about two months and was surprised at his inability to get a job, having been told how beautiful life is in America. I reminded him that even Americans with Masters Degrees are filling daily queues at employment offices and accepting whatever comes their way in order to get by. He retorted by saying that 9/11 must be the reason why it’s difficult for Nigerians to get jobs in America. I was in no mood to prove otherwise so I merely nodded in agreement and concurred with every other reason he proffered until I eagerly hopped off at my destination, all the while praying that he didn’t ask for my phone number.
Life is tough, and it’s especially tough for Nigerians. Living in the country has proven that hard work is not enough to succeed; knowing the right people at corporate offices, rubbing palms with difficult public officials, sucking up to wealthy politicians, and generally being a hustler are some of the proven ways to achieve one’s objectives. Whoever would break the mould must be prepared to employ some unconventional strategies to beat the system. Whether at home or abroad, Nigerians have learned to live daily with the pains inflicted on them by generations of selfish, greedy and mindless strangers whose despicable activities yield equal dividends for 162 million people, and several more counting.
You can follow Faith Abiodun on Twitter @FaithAbiodun