November marks the 10-year anniversary of my family’s move to Lagos, when we left behind our lives in the USA to plant roots in the land of my husband’s people. And it’s nearly two decades since my first visit to Nigeria as a newlywed. That first trip to Nigeria was tough. I was confused, disoriented and grieving for my cousin who had died unexpectedly in a car accident. I left India after attending his funeral services and came straight to Africa to spend time with my in-laws.
Wherever we went, I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. When we drove from the Republic of Benin to Benin City in Nigeria, all the potholes and officers who stopped our vehicle, all the wrecked trucks and fires burning on the sides of the road, all of these new sights conspired to convince me my death was imminent. How could my husband and father-in-law act so blasé—bored even—when we were headed straight into danger? But a decade of living in Lagos has made me see why they weren’t alarmed. There’s a way things exist in Nigeria that just is. They knew we were safe on that road trip, although I couldn’t believe them.
I have always wanted to find out things for myself, peel away truths and gain deeper understanding. When we moved to Nigeria permanently, I continued investigating everything I saw, but I was clueless. I didn’t move here as an expat, which made things tricky. There was no helpful lady from my husband’s company from the ‘abroads’ whom I could learn from. I came here as a wife. It was as if I was expected to know things innately, to endure and to help my children thrive. But my father-in-law died within a month of our move, so the family member I was counting on to help us settle in was no more. I was on my own. With no one to turn to, I tried to understand Nigeria as best I could, by asking questions and watching TV.
It began the day after we arrived in Lagos. As we drove through the mainland, headed back to Murtala Muhammed to retrieve an errant suitcase, it began to rain. We passed a group of men and women standing on the side of the road getting drenched. They had no umbrellas and were not seeking shelter.
“So,” I said to my husband, nodding, “Nigerians don’t mind being rained on?”
“Oh, they mind,” he said.
And so it went. I tried to figure out what I was seeing and drew faulty conclusions. I watched the local television channels to learn about the different peoples of my new country. Based on a Hausa music video I saw one night, I believed that women from the north were much larger than the men, but I had only watched a single video with a very slim man crooning to a woman who looked old enough to be his mother. I thought Lagosians loved capers due to a movie I saw about a bunch of self-proclaimed ‘hoodlums’ planning an elaborate theft on Lagos Island. And I saw an unforgettable film with two little people playing children with diarrhoea because their mother had slipped them herbal medicines to make them grow. I was riveted by the sight of them looking for newspapers to take to the outhouse to wipe themselves with. It was perhaps the finest acting I have ever seen. I didn’t realise they were adults until many years later.
I tried to use TV and movies to fill in my knowledge gaps. It was a lousy technique, but it was all I could think of, so I studied media at home each night while my husband toiled at the office and our young children slept. It would have been more effective if I was, say, watching documentaries that provided actual information and not the Wazobia channel.
Fiction is, unfortunately, fictionalised. It has taken 10 years of living in Nigeria for me to learn a bit about the place, and I continue learning every day. Hard lessons often, but I’ve managed to raise my children here, stay married to the man I love and do meaningful work.
I wouldn’t have made it this far without the local TV channels and radio stations. So, keep putting out your content, abeg. You never know who is counting on you to show them the ways of this strange, bewildering and wondrous place.
Mona Zutshi Opubor is an Indian-American and Nigerian short story author and memoirist. She is studying for her MSt in Literature and Arts at the University of Oxford.
Read more at www.monazutshiopubor.com
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