I met many Nigerians in the couple of weeks I travelled through the country. In a country of 140 million (one in every five Africans is a Nigerian), this is not surprising. I met Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Fulani. I met policemen, customs officers and many other government officials; students, professional engineers, teachers, preachers, international businessmen; labourers working for the ministry of transport and many other ministries besides, truck drivers, families running a restaurant, and countless people trading all things on the street. Everyone was kind, friendly, open and welcoming. Nigeria – Home of Hospitality, is a phrase I heard more than once. And so I was introduced to the culture of giving…
I have encountered many generous people on my travels. Again and again, people have given up their time to help me – To show me the way if I am lost; to explain something if I ask about things I don’t understand; to introduce me to people and places I may otherwise have never known. Especially in Morocco and Mauritania, people have welcomed me into their homes, provided me with countless cup of tea or invited me to join them for dinner. This is one thing that makes travelling in Muslim countries such an enjoyable experience. But this attitude is generally confined to those of the Islamic faith. Not exclusively of course, but I am only generalising here. It is their duty to help strangers and they do so as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. And so it is, in the Islamic world. But that is not the world I was brought up in.
In Nigeria, people give without thought, without a sense of duty, it is a part of their culture. On many occasions, the person I was talking to over breakfast or a coke, would pay for my meal. They were able to pay and wanted me to feel welcomed. I felt welcomed regardless. It didn’t matter if they were a well-paid minister or a poorly paid labourer – they all gave just as willingly. If I tried to refuse the gesture, the response was always the same: If I was in England, you would do the same for me. Well, yes and no. In the case of a coffee or a beer, I would undoubtedly pay. But in Nigeria, this generosity extended well beyond that.
I met a kind customs officer, Fatai, at one guesthouse I was staying at. He was intelligent and insightful and we talked all evening. When he knew I was staying in the cheapest, smallest room, he wanted to upgrade me to a more comfortable room. I refused, which he only accepted when I said it was too much effort to move all my gear. I let him buy me a coke instead. Unknowingly, he also had mineral water, apples and yoghurt put in my room for me. He was surprised I did not carry a mobile phone (everyone I meet here is surprised) and he said he would buy me one so I could keep in touch with my family and people I meet on the road. A coke or some apples is fine, but a mobile phone – that goes beyond simple gestures. That’s too much. I refused adamantly and bluntly. He was offended. Why wouldn’t I let him buy me a mobile? He could afford to and he wanted to. In the end, he was only satisified when I said I didn’t carry a mobile out of choice and didn’t want one. If it was simply that I didn’t want him to buy me a mobile, then he would have bought one anyway and put it in my room. As way of an explanation, he said to me, ‘If I was in England and needed a phone, you would buy me one, wouldn’t you?’ It was a rhetorical question. It was assumed. I said nothing, but was quietly embarrassed. In likelihood, I wouldn’t – not for someone I had known only an hour earlier. It would be nice to think I would, but I honestly don’t think that is the case, as many in the UK would agree I’m sure.
One thing I have noticed during my various travels, is that often it is the poorest people who are the most generous. Those with most money usually give the least. Perhaps that is part of the reason they are the wealthiest. But that was not the case I found in Nigeria. One businessman, Dennis, I met at the Sheraton, and I can only assume he was wealthy as he was staying at an expensive (even by western standards) hotel, said he was inspired by what I was doing. He asked how much longer I planned to be in Nigeria and was curious to know how much it was costing me. I could see him feeling through his pockets for his wallet and he seemed to be calculating in his head as I talked. He wanted numbers, not approximations or dismissive answers. Suspecting, I explained I’d be in Nigeria five more days and if I camped and ate street food (as I often do, but had been splashing out more than usual recently) I’d spend little. I’d barely finished my sentence and he had counted out fives day’s expenditure in crisp notes and forced it into my hand. I thanked him, knowing that to refuse he would be offended. I said I would put the money towards the charity. He was adamant that I spend the money, to fund my last days in Nigeria. He wanted me to enjoy my time in his country. I was and would have anyway.
This attitude to giving and sharing what you have extends throughout Nigeria and indeed many African societies I believe. I think it is both a blessing and a curse. Or so I believe, especially after little more than two weeks in Nigeria.
This culture of sharing what you have, which is especially strong within familiar groups, can also encourage the lazy to scrounge as it were from their successful kin. This is turn, for those who strive to better themselves by working hard at school and in their jobs so they can earn more and thereby provide for their children, can be down-heartened when they have to spread their money to any family member who comes in need. Where families are large, as is often the case, this may make being successful and working hard seem futile.
Chinua Achebe is an internationally-acclaimed Nigerian writer and his short novel, No Longer At Ease, although fictional, is all too relevant and close to reality. A story of a young, intelligent man who works hard at school and whose community pays for him to be educated in England. On returning to Nigeria, into a well-paid government job, he is expected to repay the debt to his community and by the time he has given money to various family members who need financial help, he is struggling to pay his own rent and finds life very stressful. He begins to wish that he had never gone to study in England and wishes for a return to a village life, where he may be poor but it would be simpler and less stressful.
On the other hand, on the street for example, people give freely to the old and infirm. In a country without a welfare system, this aids distribution of wealth. I think that if the problems of corruption within politics can be overcome, this culture and attitude can be harnessed to lead to a more just and equal society. Nigerian politics is a huge topic however and I shan’t go into that here. Needless to say, there is a long way to go, but I am optimistic.
Apologies if this wasn’t the update you were expecting – I got side-tracked in my thoughts. I’m settling down this afternoon to write about my last few days cycling into Cameroon so you can find out how it’s been going shortly!