The Nigerwife, A Novel

Posted Friday, 09 September 2022

A days after I moved to Lagos, a little, old, American woman named Doris visited me in my temporary flat. Representing Nigerwives, she was there to reassure me that everything would be okay. She recounted how she fell in love with her dashing husband half a century before and described their long and fruitful life in Nigeria. She patted my hand, sat patiently as I fought back tears, and told me there were other women who could understand what I was experiencing.

Nigerwives, an association of foreign-born wives of Nigerian men resident in Nigeria, was formed in 1979 to agitate for political rights, based on advice received from an Immigration official. Legal cases were subsequently brought to court, and now we wives hold a number of privileges that make it easier for us to live and work here. 

The association is involved in facilitating the integration of foreign wives into Nigerian society and establishing and assisting social projects to benefit Nigeria. Currently, there are about 300 members from 69 countries in 13 nationwide branches. As of 1999, Nigerwives were able to apply for citizenship without renouncing their citizenship of birth, something I did very proudly in 2017, when I became a Nigerian through naturalisation.

The older aunties tell stories about the club in its early days. Back then, when travel was difficult, when telephone calls had to be booked in advance and letters took months to arrive, Nigerwives stood in for each other’s families at births, funerals and weddings. They describe the loneliness of moving to a place that was clannish, and how other Nigerwives stepped up to became their tribe.

A year after my move to Lagos, I was invited to a breakfast for Nigerwives, most of whom were strangers. I am shy, but I went, and I’m thankful I did. The women I encountered there were like any group of Nigerwives: completely random. Going to a Nigerwives gathering is like picking up a bunch of women at a bus stop. They’re different ages and nationalities, speak different languages and often have little in common other than their husband’s national origin. 

The women drank coffee, but one strikingly beautiful Jamaican-British woman asked for hot chocolate and a cupcake. I was intrigued by her childish food preferences, and then floored when someone mentioned she worked for Genevieve Magazine. Here she was, intensely focused on cake-eating to the point where she wasn’t speaking, and she held the kind of job I dreamed of. She was a magazine editor. Her name was Vanessa Walters Banigo, and we became close.

Vanessa is the type of friend who pulls you up when life kicks you down so hard you can’t stand. She counselled me as my husband grew into a harder man than the one whom I had married. Vanessa tagged along with me on my daughter’s first date. She cheered when I was accepted to Oxford, believing in me when my self-esteem was at its lowest. Nobody was more excited when I became a magazine editor myself. 

In 2018, Vanessa moved to Brooklyn, and I remained in Lagos. Vanessa took her years of living in Nigeria and made art with them. Her book, The Nigerwife, will be published in June 2023 by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster and is being developed as a television series by HBO. Vanessa set her novel in the specific window of optimism she experienced while in Lagos, using fiction as a means to explore aspects of her life with readers. The opening pages begin with a character seeing a dead body in the lagoon, an experience based on Vanessa’s own. 

Man, am I proud of my friend! Living in this country is hard for everyone and being a Nigerwife is a special kind of difficult. We are far from our families, friends and the lives we led before our move, yet we must embrace Nigeria for the sake of our husbands, children and ourselves. I hope Vanessa’s book is a bestseller, all her dreams come true, and Zendaya plays me in the TV adaptation.

Mona Zutshi Opubor is an Indian-American and Nigerian writer. She holds an MSt in Literature and Arts from the University of Oxford, an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University and a BA in English Literature from Columbia University.



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