A Trip to the Ancestral Homeland
Very soon, my parents will make their triumphant entrance into the African continent. (I know what you are thinking, my intro is a bit over the top…but it has been three years in the making). It can also be seen as a trip back to the ancestral homeland – however, my family has been in the United States since the 1700s (based on my research) so Africa seems a bit far back in the annuals of our family. When I arrived in South Sudan, I began laying the ground work for them to consider making a trip to Africa. While we talked about potential trips to Kenya and South Africa, it has taken my upcoming wedding to force them out of Mount Vernon and onto a transatlantic flight.
In preparation for the big trip, I wanted to offer them some advice to make sure they enjoy their time and manage the busy environments of Nigeria and Kigali.
- The personal space bubble that you have enjoyed for the 60+ years of your life will be popped before you are off the plane in Abuja. Personal space is a very American concept and no one on this continent appreciates the personal space violation (PSV) rule that you have been so accustomed to in Alabama. When I was out observing the elections in Nigeria, I could not understand why the voters lined up so closely, almost as if they were stacked on top of each other. It was funny because all the international observers commented on the lack of space. What you quickly learn is that any space between you and the person in front of you is an opportunity for someone to cut the line.
- People don’t intend to be rude when they mow you down to board flights, get food or be the first in line. This also applies to a lack of adherence to a line or queue (as the British say). As a former kindergarten teacher, I know you (mom) will struggle with this as you have been teaching children that there is no reason to rush the playground or get food, as you always say, it will be there when we get there…
- There are a few common words and phrases you will hear that will confuse you. First, well done. It’s commonly used in Nigeria as a greeting and when I first heard it, I was confused. “Why is this guy telling me well done, all I did was enter his taxi? Did I do something extra special to deserve this remark?” After a while, you find yourself saying it…but mostly in a semi-correct context (well done on that project or well done for getting to work on time!). Another word is sorry…Africans tend to say it for every bad thing that happens. It took a while to train myself not to respond. I tripped while walking one day and my colleague said sorry, I said, “oh, don’t worry, you didn’t cause it!” A few days later she said sorry again when I dropped my phone. Again, I said, “don’t worry, it was my fault.” However, I was starting to see a connection, sorry was a way that she empathized with me.
- While a good toilet is easy to find in the capitol of city of Nigeria, there is a sizable population who chooses not to use these “easy to find toilets”…And with that, don’t be surprise if you encounter a person conducting “business” in the middle of a sidewalk. To the average Nigerian, this is normal but to you, this will be a shock. Just act natural and keep walking…
- Despite growing up in a very racially polarized state in the American South, you will be surprise when the first Nigerian refers to you as white. It’s not necessarily because of the color of your skin but because of your mannerisms. And to be honest with you, you won’t really know that they are calling you white. In Nigeria, they use the term Oyinbo to refer to someone from the U.S. or Europe. In Rwanda, the term is Mzungu. However, in Nigeria, because of the diversity of the people, you will quickly fit in…that is, until you open your mouth. Once you open your mouth, you will become ‘Oga’ or ‘Ma’dam’.
- As you leave the airport, your mind will be trying to process all that you are seeing. There will be hundreds of people walking down along the road carrying items on their heads and children strapped to their backs. You will want to stare as you take in this new environment. But probably your greatest shock will be how people drive in Nigeria. There is no rhythm or reason to it other than the fact that most people don’t have good driving skills. And as I have mentioned before, people in Nigeria don’t like to wait, so even if you have a validate excuse for stopping your car, the car behind you will began to make his/her way around you. This often leads to crazy traffic jams and intersections grinding to a halt. My advice to you is to close your eyes. It takes time getting use to too and your initial reaction is to yell at the driver. However, the driver is intently managing the situation and any surprising noise can distract him from his laser like focus.
- You will also be amazed at the large freeways and expressways that crisscross Abuja. If “NEPA hasn’t taken light,” the road from the airport to the city will look like any American interstate at night. However, the chances of the street lights being on during the entire stretch from the airport to town is very slim. The planners of Abjua used the layout of Washington, D.C. as an example when laying out the streets and government building. You will also appreciate the expansive sidewalks that line many of the neighborhoods in the capital city. My neighborhood provides a quiet retreat from the busyness of Abuja.
- After a week in Abuja, Kigali will seem both small and calm. The rolling green hills of Kigali will paint a stark contrast to the rocky, sandy environment of Abuja. Rwanda has been a country on the move since emerging from a very dark past. I made my first trip to Rwanda in 2009 and since that time, the country has been changing rapidly. There were no traffic lights and many of the roads in the city were dirt in 2009. Since that time, traffic lights have brought order to Kigali roads and people actually use the Zebra crossing painted on the roads. The enforcement of traffic laws are so tight that I once stopped the car straddling the line and the man on the motorbike next to me, tap on the window to tell me to move back. Kigali (and Rwanda) is an oasis of order and development in a sometimes chaotic land.
- As I have said, Rwanda is a country on the move and has taken great strides to distance itself from the horrors of the late 1990s. For many Americans, their reference point is the Rwandan Genocide. However, the country has tried to move away from the ethnic conflict that crippled the tiny East African nation. Everyone now is a Rwandan or Rwandese…I recommend that when you arrive, you focus on the new Rwanda and not the Rwanda of the past. The scars are still visible and each April, the country commemorates the atrocities of 1994.
photo credit: http://www.slaveryinamerica.org
- I have come to believe that Nigeria (and West Africa as a whole) represents the land of our fore fathers. And what I appreciate most about Nigeria is how easy it is for me to blend in with the people. I see people every day who remind me of family back in the U.S. And there are many things in West Africa that connects blacks in the U.S. to our brothers and sisters here in Nigeria – food, family and faith.
The most important advice I can give you before arriving in Nigeria is to be open minded. Nigeria (and Rwanda) is not the United States and it is very easy to compare the two countries to the U.S. and form a negative opinion. The continent is a very larger and diverse and 90 percent of the people that you will interact with are friendly and civil. Don’t believe everything you hear about the continent. Yes, there are countries experiencing wars and ethnic conflicts but there are also countries that have had decades of peace. Nigeria has been ruled by ruthless dictators and for the past 16 years, by democratically elected presidents. I have live in both East and West Africa for nearly three years and I don’t regret taking the chance of a lifetime to experience this amazing continent and its friendly people. Just think, when you get back to Mount Vernon, you will have numerous stories and adventures to tell all your friends and family.