As is already pretty well known to our readers, most of the writers on this blog come from a school known as Loyola Jesuit College. It’s the one that lost sixty of its students in the 2005 Sosoliso crash in Port Harcout, and also boasts one of the few survivors as alumni (Kechi Okwuchi – read about her amazing story here). Unfortunately, it is now also the one you read about in the Punch on Sunday, where a woman blames the school’s “pursuit of transforming Nigerian children into Americans” for the distress suffered by her and her family over a prom dress. Even though it was actually Delta Airlines’ fault, as clearly stated in the article, she seems to think that Loyola is the root cause of the problem, due to it being founded by American Jesuits (the Jesuits themselves actually originated in France, by the way).
I absolutely cannot stand poor writing, and so I really want to just rip into this woman about her poorly researched, poorly written, and generally poor article. But for the sake of time, and to focus on more interesting topics, I will leave it at that. I will instead, address the larger issue that she should have talked about instead of complaining about Delta Airlines and beefing Loyola for causing her undue stress: that is, Nigeria’s obsequious aspirations towards the West.
This is really the heart of the issue isn’t it? She was mad that she had to spend all that time worrying about her niece’s dress, that didn’t even end up getting to Nigeria in time for the prom, when the girl could easily have had something sewn at home. Her own was, why must she buy it in America (and disturb my life)? It’s a good question though, and one that so far has not received a decent answer. Nigerians have always been fashion forward, and been able to make stylish Western and Nigerian clothes worthy of any high end fashion magazine. Don’t lie – you’ve seen photos of your parents in the sixties and seventies and wondered why they don’t let you wear that mini-skirt when they rocked their own well. So why then must it be a Mori Lee dress, or whatever the hell it was?
The truth is that, Nigerians just like to have. They want to have what everyone else wants, or has, are never content with anything else. The more affluent of our people have had the opportunity and means to go abroad and bring back cool things like iPods and Nike trainers and Apple Bottom jeans, so therefore, the average Joe decides that he must have it too. It’s this ridiculous sense of entitlement driving it all. There’s definitely an bit of “the West is better than Nigeria” in there, but the consumer culture is the bigger influence. Why else is it that fruit-sellers can be seen chatting with their homeboys on BBM when the cost of that phone is probably equivalent to about four month’s rent? Or when you return from a vacation abroad, your co-workers come up to you expecting to be gifted designer bags and shirts when they never so much as offered you a cube of sugar for your morning coffee? It’s like Nigerians don’t realize that they have limited means and are constantly trying to rise above their station in life. It may seem aspirational, but it’s more accurately described as delusional. This is why people steal money from the government – they think they deserve it, and that it’s theirs to take. Ever wondered why no one talks about the Nigerian middle class? It’s because the Nigerian middle class don’t consider themselves middle-class. They think that they’re upper-class people stuck in middle-class homes and jobs. It’s just as ridiculous as it sounds.
I won’t completely discredit the Western worship theory, however, because it’s very much tied into this culture of entitlement. The proliferation of television and radio and the emigration of our friends and relatives to America allowed us a glimpse into the world of the expatriates that came to work in Nigeria – one where the mom went on shopping sprees while the dad was at work, and the kids got the latest new toys for Christmas and New Years. And we wanted that, because it all seemed so much better than what we had. Then oil came, followed eventually by democracy, and suddenly there was all this money flowing around – mostly among the government officials and former military personnel, but still – we could go abroad! We didn’t need other people to buy this stuff for us, we could buy it ourselves! We’d had a taste of the quality products the west could offer, and we weren’t ever going back. Desperate to improve our lives in some way, we turned to the method with the most instant satisfaction – spending. Suddenly, those who had the money to spend on Western products became the ones to aspire to, and those who weren’t were left behind in the dust, considered lower-class, uneducated and generally not it.
Today of course, we claim to be returning to our roots, but a careful look at the state of things will show you that that is not true. Ankara is only cool if you’re wearing it in a western style, or in a Deola Sagoe or Tiffany Amber dress. Nigerian musicians are finally earning decent money, and yet their music videos parrot stereotypical American ones, and we’re still raving about the fact that D’Banj got signed to Kanye West’s label, as if only now is he worth talking about. The list goes on and on and on, because we still haven’t given up on this idea of the “good life” taken from the Western media, and reinforced by our fellow Nigerians more affluent than ourselves. It’s for this very reason that my classmates made fun of my British accent when I got to Loyola, but then harassed their parents to make sure that they were wearing the newest fashions from the US. They wanted to be proud of their culture and heritage, but the only way they knew how to establish a sense of identity and self-esteem at the time, being young and having to wear uniform all the time, was to have something no one else had. And those things happened to be fancy Nike trekking sandals, Timbalands and Sean John t-shirts. Unfortunately, many people don’t grow out of that habit.
There are a few things we need to accept here. They might be difficult to swallow, but you know what? So is that antibiotic that saves your life. First of all, dropping everything Western in favor of everything Nigerian is not the answer. That’s what Boko Haram suggests, and we already know they’re crazy. Contemporary Nigerian culture is an amalgam of local and Western influences. (Also an amalgam of different Nigerian cultures, but that’s a story for another post.) You couldn’t get rid of the Western bits even if you tried. So stop bemoaning the existence of the West in Africa. The colonists have come and gone, and we are benefitting as well as suffering because of it. Let it go. No use crying over spilt milk.
Instead, let’s be self aware. Don’t be a mindless consumer. Before you buy that Brazilian hair, think twice. Why is that hair so important to you? Could it be possible that you actually look better in braids (I know I do)? If you hate Blackberries, don’t go out and buy one simply because everyone else has one. If you need a handbag, go buy one from a local leatherworker or designer, instead of spending three month’s salary on a Gucci bag that someone richer than you bought from America and is now selling to you at a higher price. It’ll be much more unique anyway. Realize the beauty and opportunity present in Nigeria has potential, and put some effort into making it worth something, instead of turning your nose up at it because it hasn’t gotten there yet.
I want to hate on this Akpan-Obong woman more, but I really can’t. The truth is, a lot of these insights that I’ve had into Nigerian culture and my own attitudes towards it came only when I left Nigeria to go to the States. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it also provides a hell of a lot of perspective. The lady obviously appreciates Nigerian culture because she misses it, and is sad to see the great things about being Nigerian being shunted in favor of some glittery tulle ballgown thing that isn’t even all that. In fact, now that I think about it, some of the best dresses at my senior prom were the ones made in Nigeria by Nigerian tailors. So while she makes a false point, I suppose her heart is in the right place. Her writing still sucks though.