After returning from Leeds, I decided that I really needed to take a shower and set up a base of operations for the next few days. I had a laundry list of things to do and it would help if I had a reference point for judging distance and time. A quick stop at a cafe which featured cheap lunch and free wifi enabled me to find an AirBnB that would suit me well. For less than $30 a night I had a bed, shower, parking spot, and all the wifi I could use.
Tony greeted me at the door with a warm smile and led me to my room. It was a little after 2pm, but I was in a daze. The jet lag and lack of sleep for the past few nights was catching up with me. Tony did his best to show me how to work the ring of keys he handed me, but all my thoughts were focused on "shower and sleep". Twenty minutes later, freshly toweled off, I was asleep on my soft bed.
The next couple of days I did not see much of Tony, I was gone during the days and pretty much passed out at night. It did not help that Tony works night some "days". So even thogh I only had one room in the house, the reality of the situation is I had the run of the place. As such, the microwave and the washing machine became my friends.
This morning I went downstairs to grab my laundry from the washer and contemplate where to dry it (English houses have washing machines in the kitchen, but rarely have dryers. People hang their clothes outside on lines, or on racks in front of the radiator.). Tony was eating breakfast with another roommate, Emanuel. The kitchen smelled wonderful, and my stomach did a little growl as I saw the plates piled high with steaming food. After Tony made room for me on the drying line, I was invited to join them for a breakfast of scrambled eggs with sizzling sides of fried yams and plantains.
The first question Emanuel asked was what I was doing visiting Sheffield. This is actually a pretty common question. Sheffield is kind of off the beaten path when it comes to historical or cultural activities, so tourist visitors are pretty few and far between. When I explained that I was here to start a road rally to Mongolia, his eyes got wide and he just shook his head. I tucked into my meal and we all began to make our acquaintances.
Tony and Emmanuel have an easy flow about them. They laugh and joke, and jumble on top of each other's sentences in the way good friends do. It was clear that I was a bit of a curiosity to them, so they each tried to simultaneously explain things to me about their culture, and ask me about mine. Both are from Nigeria, having lived in the UK between eight and ten years each.
Things really got rolling when we started talking about religion. Emmanuel asked my religion and, when I replied that I was Buddhist, his eyes widened again. It was clear that he had questions. He listened politely as I explained the Middle Path and the Buddhist concept of reincarnation. We talked about Christianity and compared the two religions. Then he quietly asked, "Does your religion allow you to have multiple wives?" I laughed and reminded him of the Middle Path. One wife was plenty for me! He then went on to explain that in Nigeria, a man had multiple wives as a way to not only show his power and wealth but to ensure that his lineage continued. "A male child is there to represent the father after he is gone," he explained. "If a woman does not give a male child to the man, then the man is expected to take another wife who will give him one."
Seeing as how we were all friendly and had bonded over tasty food, I took the opportunity to point out to him that it was, in fact, the male who was responsible for producing (or not producing) a male child. Emanuel smiled, laughed, and said that he knew that. It was then that I realized how both Emanuel and Tony were struggling to find their place between two worlds. Both are proud of their Nigerian heritage, but both chose to leave because of the troubles In Nigeria. They are happy being in the UK, but it is clear that they still are not comfortable. Each day decisions are made about which aspects of their culture too hold on to, and which ways they should assimilate to their new home.
Like most people I was familiar with the struggles the continent of Africa has faced in the post-colonial era. Tribal issues played out on a national scale. Rampant corruption. Multi-national corporations swarming in to take advantage of the deep deposits of natural reasources. All of it led me, and many others, to assume that what was needed was someone to swoop in and "save" these countries. No, I'm not talking about a white saviour. There are millions of intelligent, capable, and motivated Africans living both at home and abroad. Someone, anyone, could and should step in and lead the way out of this situation.
But the more I listened to Emanuel and Tony explain what was happening and why they left, I came to realize that there's was much more going on. There are deep, cultural and historical issues at play here that predate colonialism by centuries. "In America," Tony explained, you have people who want to be big. To have their name known. but no one wants to do that by stealing from someone else. In Nigeria everyone tries to get a little power for themselves so they can have money. Everything is about how they can get money from bribes and stealing from the taxes."
As as I pondered this, I was reminded of something Tolny had told me earlier. His grandfather had been the king of his village. When the British handed power back to the people of Nigeria, his grandfather had received a great deal of land. As the king, to help solidify his powers and ensure that his wealth and legacy would be passed down, he had 24 wives, and many, many children. When he died, that land and money was divided among his male heirs. That land then had to be divided among their heirs when they died. In short, within two generations all that amassed power and land had disappeared.
It it is not just the king who is expected to pass on his lands, money, and power to his sons. Every man in Nigeria is expected to do this. To not do this is dishonorable. But, since there is no more land to split, and even less money, people look for ways to amass money. "A person becomes president or a governor so they can take money from the taxes that are paid. A person becomes a police officer so they can take bribes. Everyone is looking for a way to get money and power from someone else." Wealth and power are seen as finite resources. According to Tony, People with ambition do not look to create their own wealth or power. They seek to take it from someone else.
And, if you happen to be one of those people I wrote about earlier, the kind that want to make a change and save the country? The politicians and government officials do everything they can to keep you under control. Why do you think so many Nigerians leave their country?
That is is one of the reasons why they were so surprised about this trip. No one in Nigeria, no man, would ever do something like this withpout first figuring out how they were going to make money for themselves. Even the churches are corrupt, they explained. They told me stories about pastors with four private airplanes while the people to whom they are supposed to minister go hungry or cannot afford to send their children to school. They spoke about the big payouts that came from Shell petroleum that were supposed to go to various public projects, but somehow mysteriously disappeared almost as soon as they were delivered.
The conversation had turned serious. Gone was the laughter and banter. Anger and frustraration had taken their place. The world was not a perfect place, they agreed. Sure there was corruption and greed all around the world. But nowhere was as bad as Nigeria.
As we began to talk about the future, their future, things eased. Both men have children. They are raising those children to be honest and faithful, to do good in the world, and not worry about amassing power. For Tony and Emanuel it is about doing good in this life, and making the world a better place, not taking from someone else to make yourself "better".
I don't know what the future holds for Nigeria, But if there are more people like Tony and Emanuel, the future is bright for Nigerians elsewhere in the world.