Choosing to be a Spectator and not a Stranger
December 15 finally arrived…it was the day I had been looking forward to for some time and as you may have guessed it, it was departure from Nigeria for my Christmas vacation. The past few months had been exceptionally difficult as we had a lot of activities and several fires that we needed to extinguish in the office. In additional, I found myself in numerous angry, uncomfortable situations with random Nigerians and it was time for my usual break from the country. In addition, Sheila and I would be spending our first Christmas together with my family in my Mount Vernon. There was a lot to look forward to outside of Nigeria.
However, my December 15 departure was symbolic of a departure that I made two years ago. Two years ago, an unexpected (but not surprising) conflict started in Juba, South Sudan that quickly spread like wildfire throughout the newest nation in the world. Within days hundreds would be killed and thousands forced into United Nation camps throughout the country. But for me, and thousand other Americans, we were whisked to the safety of neighboring countries only to hear about the trials of our colleagues left to manage an unmanageable situation. December 15 will forever be itched in my mind as the day South Sudan plummeted into a lengthy nightmare that sadly continues…
As faith would have it my seat partner on my Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt (from Abuja) was from Alabama. He was a odd looking gentleman, a mixed between a sumo wrestler and a confederate general. He was a large man with a sparkling bald head and a long beard with various gray strains. When he spoke, he serenaded me with a thick southern accent that reminded me of my childhood days in Alabama. Strangely, we didn’t talk the entire flight until he got up from his seat to retrieve his bag at the conclusion of our 6 hour flight. He said, “that’s a bad sweatshirt you have on there,” referring to my sweatshirt with an auburn logo. I smiled and said, “please don’t tell me I have been sitting next to an Alabama fan all this time.” He said, “yes you have.” I asked where he was headed and he said, “Mobile.” I told him that I too was heading to Mobile but was stopping in Washington DC first and then proceeding to Mobile on Friday. And that was the end of our brief conversation because he preceded down the aisle and exited the plane.
When I exited the plane and found him on the bus, I approached him because I was curious what he was doing in Nigeria. He told me that he worked on the oil rigs offshore (which made complete sense). I was surprised that he wasn’t flying out of Lagos which had a direct flight to either Houston or Atlanta. He told me that he had been in Nigeria for a year but lived mostly on the oil rig. He said, “I’ve spent sometime in Abuja before, and it was nice. Much more civilized than Port Harcourt, the oil rich city on the Atlantic coast.” His comments made me cringe as I could not believe he had just said that…and very loudly. He continued to talk about the “uncivilized” people in the south and how he was happy he spent most of his time on the oil rig. I tried my best to change the conversation and started talking about Alabama football. It worked as he now focused on how amazing Nick Saban was and how Alabama was going to destroy Michigan State (which was an excellent prophecy). I smile and provided some banter before the bus stopped at the terminal. I said goodbye to him and went to find the gate for my flight to Dulles.
The conversation got me to thinking about the stereotypes we carry and who decides who is civilized and who is not? Is there a world standard that we follow to put people into the civilize category? Or did he just mean developed and accidentally used civilized? I often tell my Nigerian colleagues when they make outlandish references to the U.S. that people in the U.S. also have stereotypes about Africans, so we should be carefully how we use them.
But it’s important to educate ourselves about how others live. If civilize is defined by how many people use a typical western style toilet, than a majority of the world is uncivilized. Or maybe it’s how many people shop in a shopping mall or sleep on a bed or have access to drinking water? Who knows…but what saddened me about our conversation was that this guy had a privileged position to become a student of the world and experience a culture and a people that was foreign to him. Instead, he was choosing to remain ignorant and uniformed.
One of the things I appreciate most about living in Nigeria is the random conversations that I find myself in with coworkers or other individuals. I often use these moments to compare and contrast the differences between the U.S. and Nigeria and also an opportunity to either educate myself or those around me. These conversations help me to see how U.S. influence in the world both helps and hurts various causes and issues. The U.S. is an important actor on the world stage but sometimes our role can blur the line between bully and helpful advisory. I have seen the role play out several times in Nigeria and on the African continent. Stepping outside the shores of my homeland has helped me to see and understand the role the U.S. plays on the world stage. This is what I hoped my seating partner would have come to appreciate about living in a distance land. Instead, he chose to remind a stranger in a foreign land…as so many of us choose to do!
I was hoping to post this blog during my Christmas vacation but didn’t have my computer which meant I was unable to log-in to my blog…funny…
Sentell, I honestly don’t think you would be a stranger among the people in any strange land. I’ve never travelled outside the US, but I understand completely what you are saying.
I’m glad you and Sheila made it back safely. I really enjoyed seeing you and meeting her. You seem to complement each other.