I have spent a significant part of my life living in the West. When I was a student at university, I was often asked questions about Africa that were embedded in ignorance and negative perceptions. Most Africans in the West, can probably relate to having being asked a version of questions such as: “are you a princess”, “do you live in a hut”, “do you have lions as pets”, “do Africans run so fast because they have to run from wild animals”? Back then, I rarely got angry at these questions and sometimes, I figured quite unkindly, that I could facilitate the ignorance. And I did.
Throughout my life and time before that, Africa has been referred to as the ‘dark continent’. The accepted rationale and half-baked explanation for why this was and continues to be used as a synonym for Africa is that Europe coined this term because it didn’t know much about the continent until the 19th century. But I am not here to debate the origin of or underlying meaning for this term. I am here to draw an analogy on how this phrase has seemingly manifested itself in my life experiences.
The African continent has been reduced to a negative construct. These days however, I am more interested in hearing about actionable and sustainable solutions to the problems. Being an African in the Western world comes with many responsibilities. How I behave not only reflects on me, but seemingly also on the entire continent. It does not matter which country or region I am from or represent, since we are all classified as one. But writing about how it feels to be African in the West could potentially lead to 54 volumes of very large books—sometimes sad, sometimes humorous, and most times frustrating.
So today, I’d like to talk about Nigeria, my very beloved home country, so close to my heart that sometimes, it is difficult to be what I am exactly remarkably proud of –being Nigerian. There is no easy way to say this, so I will put it simply. Being a Nigerian is sometimes tricky. Nonetheless, not being Nigerian would be way worse. Everything I am, the boldness, strength and insurmountable confidence I feel is rooted in my Nigerian heritage. My unshakeable faith in my ability to make a difference in the world is due to my being Nigerian.
Nonetheless, the reality of being African and Nigerian often feels like dodging bullets. Whenever I introduce myself as Nigerian, I am confronted with the many stereotypes, statements and questions, of which most are negative. They often go something like this:
-“Oh, I received an email from a Nigerian once…”
-“Ah many of the African prostitutes in my country are Nigerian.”
-“Nigeria is very corrupt…”
And while I know that these impressions are grounded in facts, I find myself starting conversations with “Yes…but, that’s only one part of the story.” And herein, lies the problem. If Nigeria were my client, one of the first things I’d recommend was to rebrand her. How do we showcase Nigeria for its many opportunities and beauty, despite the negatives?
Is it constructive to highlight that as a country of 170 million people and counting, a few have dubiously channeled their access to the world by scamming and ripping off unsuspecting people on the Internet? Is it fair to acknowledge that many Africans who engage in prostitution in Europe claim to be Nigerians? And is it right to accept that a significant part of the population lives in poverty while some in power bribe and cheat their way through life without no consequences or punishment?
So how do we move forward from this predominantly negative single-story of Nigeria? How do we rebrand Nigeria? Do we highlight the very many trailblazing Nigerians hard at work fighting corruption, creating jobs, and boldly venturing down a less travelled path? How can we expose and hold those who fail our country accountable? Should we tell the stories of fearless Nigerians like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Folorunsho Alakija, Obiageli Ezekwesili, Ola Orekunrin and many more who aren’t afraid to embody the changes they want to see in the country?
Or do we sit around and get angry at how ignorant many people are when they assume that Africa is a very difficult “country” to do business in; that Nigeria is only corrupt; or that all Africans live in huts and raise pet lions? Well, I have tried this approach and nothing good comes out of it. I have realized that spending valuable time and energy fraustrated at those who categorize a very diverse continent and country based on their limited understanding and self-serving images put forward by “well meaning” organizations, and news channels is not productive. Thus, I have decided on a different route. I often find inspiration in the following quote:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
So, I have embarked on the journey to change the negative perceptions by introducing a new dialogue—one that many people do not have access to. To see my continent, Africa, and country, Nigeria, as I see it—a land of frustrating and exciting challenges, countless opportunities, and overwhelming glory.
Changing the negative perceptions of Africa is a long and daunting task. But doing nothing, by default, makes me a part of the problem. And this is crippling. So, I chose the lesser of two evils.
I am no longer interested in simply hearing about and defending the many problems and unfounded negative perceptions of Africa (I have heard them all my life). I am here, now, to be a part of the solution. One of the ways I plan to do this is by engaging with the diaspora. Over the coming weeks and months, we, at Mettle, will engage with various stakeholders across Africa to explore concrete solutions to the many problems facing the continent.
What are you going to do?
Written by Chisom Udeze