Possessed by the Nigerian Spirit

I have been in a bit of a mood for the past few weeks and I haven’t trusted myself to write something down. Perhaps this is because I have been afraid that every word I type on my keyboard will bring the feeling I have been nursing to life. I sat with my thoughts for a little while, and in the midst of the several issues that floated in my mind, I realized that I  have been worried about Nigeria, the fate of Nigerians and yes, my fate.

You see, a lot has been going on with the Nigerian economy. There is a great deal of uncertainty in the air particularly with regards the exchange rate. Churches have rightly increased the number of minutes (or hours, depending on which church you go to) spent praying for the nation. Employees resume at the place of their employment without guarantee that they will have a job by the end of the day. Power supply is still erratic and the tariff for the barely supplied electricity is now ridiculously high. In fact, even the weather has ganged up against Nigerians, as the heat over the past few days has been unapologetic.

The uncertainty in the nation is so great that as at the 23rd of February when I started writing this, one Dollar exchanged in the black market for about 400 Naira, while on the 24th of February, a Dollar was rumored to be exchanging for about 250 Naira. This is good news, but uncertainty still lurks in the air, as no one can predict what the future will bring.

If you are a Harry Potter fan, I can explain this feeling of dread by saying that the atmosphere feels like a few dementors are lurking around, and not many Nigerians have enough happiness or positive thoughts with which to conjure a patronous. It doesn’t help that over the past few weeks, my Facebook timeline has been inundated with a headline about President Buhari saying that Nigerians are criminals. I was already so frustrated by all sorts of bad news in the nation that I could not even be bothered to find out whether the headline was yet another propaganda by the opposition party, or whether it was true. Nigerians are currently going through a tough time and in the midst of it all, someone either misquoted the president, or the president actually goofed by implying that Nigerians are criminals. Whichever one it was, I could not just be bothered to find out.

In this mood, I went about my daily business, with thoughts about Nigeria churning continuously at the back of my mind. At least, irrespective of how I felt, I still had to get up to “adult”. Sometime last week, I walked to my car after work, with the intention of hitting the gym to work on my poorly progressing new year resolution to get me some abs. I usually park my car on a curb outside the office, and I have to reverse to descend from the curb. I am the kind of person who not only uses the mirrors to reverse, but because I think I have some trust issues with mirrors, I usually also stick my head out of my window, to see with my own two eyes that I am not unconsciously or negligently reversing into the bumper of some fancy car that I will have to sacrifice several months of my 20something year old salary to replace.

You see, I park on this curb every working day of the week, but I still reverse gingerly as if it is my first day of parking there, and I have no clue what I am doing – evidence being the head sticking out of the window. As I was reversing on this day, two young men were walking past my car in opposite directions, going about their own business. All of a sudden, it was as if they communicated to each other in some unwritten code, as they both stopped to watch me reverse, (my head sticking out of the window obviously) to ensure that I came down from the curb without hassles. These men are average Nigerians and since they were walking along the road, the odds are that they do not have cars. The strangers stopped in the middle of the crazy Nigerian exchange rate, crazy heat and general uncertainty, to help a young lady who actually knows how to reverse from her regular spot, but who for some reason cannot stop sticking out her head from the window when she wants to reverse.

This reversing was no joke oh, yet these two strangers waited for quite a while to ensure I was fine. One stood in front of my car and the other stood at the back. Two complete strangers going in opposite directions, stopped just to help me. My vanity will make me say that they stopped because I am a pretty girl (in Beyonce’s voice “I’m feeling myself, I’m feeling myself”) but I don’t think so, because I have seen what I look like after a long day at work, and even I am humble enough to admit that I don’t look very inspiring.  I was tempted to say to the men “please go your way, I know exactly what I am doing, you are far too kind”, but I allowed them to direct me instead, because I could see in their eyes (at least the eyes of the person in front of me) that they were just being kind to me.

I smiled, followed their instructions and vigorous hand gestures- which is typical of Nigerians trying to give driving instructions- until I safely got down from the curb. I waved to them, honked twice to show my appreciation and went along my merry way with a smile on my face.

In that moment, I had what I will call “a minute of smiles”, because I was reminded of something many non-Nigerians, and perhaps even some Nigerians, do not know or cannot comprehend- I was reminded of the Nigerian spirit. This Nigerian spirit is both a blessing and a curse, depending on the topic for discussion, and who is being possessed at the time. So it is a variant of this same Nigerian spirit that makes people comment about absolutely everything that is not their business, such as why your stomach is not already protruding after 6 months of marriage, or why you still drive a small Toyota despite the fact that you now work in an oil company. Taa! I cannot deal with this strain of spirit possession. This variant of the Nigerian spirit I encountered the other day is the kind non-nosey one, and I intend to focus on it. So with a smile on my face, heading home, after famously reversing from the curb, I remembered an experience I had about thirteen years ago when I was in high school that also left me with hope in my people. (At this moment I realised that this blogpost might be longer than I thought, so go get some food as we go on a blast from the past!)

In high school, the norm was for me to find my way back home after school. This was not really a big deal. I grew up in a safe and relatively quiet town called Ibadan, and went to high school at the International School Ibadan, which was within the University of Ibadan, the first university in Nigeria.  I was also spoilt for choice of a ride home, because there were so many neighbors and friends that I could follow. For some reason however, on this particular day, I could not get anyone to follow home, or maybe I had piano lessons (sigh, the things we give up) or some other extra curricular activity to attend to. I had to get home somehow, so I hopped on a bus to the university gate, and hopped on another bus that would take me home.

Inside the bus, I saw an unusual sight. There was a white man seating in the bus. What made this unusual was not the fact that the man was white, but because he was white and he took a commercial bus in Ibadan alone. I don’t mean to throw any shade on my darling Ibadan, but mehn, even I know that most Ibadan buses and cabs need some assistance. Majority of the buses are not road worthy. Back then I had to be careful when riding in a bus for fear that my uniform would get into an unapproved romance with an iron man in the bus- by iron man, I mean a random piece of rust covered iron sticking out from some part of the seat. A lot of those buses had dead shock absorbers and the “gbagam, gbigi, gbagam” sounds that emanated from the buses when they entered into a pothole were not for children. I think you get the general idea- Ibadan buses were not the best (please note the use of were because I hope things have gotten better). Typically a stranger to these parts will be accompanied by someone who probably owns a car, hence my surprise when I saw this man alone in the car.

The white man’s skin colour obviously gave him away, and we all knew he was not from around here. No one spoke to him or tried to be unnecessarily friendly, and if your opinion of Africans has been dictated by Hollywood or western media alone, please note that no one went to ask to touch his skin, and no one raised a native chorus in honour of the white man, or any other strange thing you might have been told Africans do. Anyway, this white man, (should I keep saying that or can I call him Harry) who I have now named Harry, was about to get down from the bus. He paid the bus conductor some money, and I kid you not, the bus became silent. You remember that unwritten code that the two strangers who helped me to reverse my car used? Well, all the Nigerians in that bus were also using that code. We all kept quiet to watch what the bus conductor would do. Will he attempt to cheat Harry who obviously does not know how much the bus fare is, or will he do what is right by giving Harry his correct change? 01001011 we kept communicating in this our unwritten code. 01001011. The bus conductor felt the silence and suddenly got on the frequency 01001011. He looked around the bus, and he counted the right amount of change and gave it to Harry. 11010110 The unwritten code changed, and everyone in the bus could breathe again. Each one of us was looking out for Harry, each one of us knew that everyone else was looking out for Harry, the bus conductor knew that each one of us was looking out for Harry and the bus conductor knew that each one of us knew that we were looking out for Harry. The bottom line is that all the passengers were looking out for Harry, even though Harry did not know we were looking out for him.

I was proud of my fellow Nigerians in that moment. This experience happened so many years ago yet it remains etched in my memory. I came to the conclusion that Nigerians are inherently good people.We are not criminals and we are decent. If the bus conductor had dared to cheat Harry, I can bet my last Kobo that he would have heard a mouthful from Iya Sikiratu or Mr Karimu Eleran in that bus, giving him a moral lesson on why it is bad to cheat people. In fact I am sure we would have all made him give Harry his right change. This is the Nigerian spirit I recognize and know and believe in. This is what I believe, but the circumstances in which many Nigerians have found ourselves are so tough that we begin to do crazy things to survive and in the process deaden their consciences. I however also admit that there will always be people who are intrinsically bad, but this is not a unique Nigerian phenomenon.

THE PRESENT

What does this have to do with anything you say? Well… it has everything to do with everything. I was feeling depressed for a nation going through tough times, but I had forgotten about the Nigerian spirit. The Nigerian spirit of kindness and helping each other in need- heck! the Nigerian spirit of helping strangers in need. I had forgotten about how resilient and resolute we are as a people, how against the odds we are still together as a nation. I had forgotten that we could communicate in that unwritten code, and despite being humorous  and creating crazy twitter bants about the exchange rate or about elections,  we all sort of know that we need to take things seriously and buy made in Nigeria goods, or vote as the case may be. I had forgotten about the Nigerian spirit that creates abundance out of infinitesimal opportunities. I had forgotten about me, and I had forgotten about you. How dare I?

So there you have it, we are going through tough times, and in as much as it is easy for me to say the problems will be solved if all 160 million of us hold hands and sing kumbaya while communicating in an unwritten code, I know that is just a dream. What I am confident of however is that even though the road to recovery is tough, we are tougher as a people, and if while driving along that road to recovery, one of us needs to reverse in order to move forward, I know many others will be there to help and give directions. I also know that if along this road to recovery, you need to collect your change from the bus conductor, many of us are silently watching, to make sure you are not cheated. This is my Nigeria, and this is the Nigerian spirit that will see us through these tough times.

Am I the only one who has experienced a good variant of the Nigerian spirit? Please share your experiences of Nigerian kindness, resilience or strength . I am always excited to read from you.

P.S. As I was reversing today, some other person seated near my car was using his side eyes to check that I was fine. You guessed it, my head was out of the window!

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