RIVERS, Nigeria — I first left my native country to join my father and step-mother in the US city of Atlanta 15 years ago. It’s now been 17 months since I returned to live here as an ICWA fellow. Much about the country has changed since 2002: vast infrastructure developments, slightly improved electrical supply, a historic transition of political power from the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to the All Progressives Congress (APC) Party. (Before the 2015 election that saw the defeat of Goodluck Jonathan and victory of Muhammadu Buhari, the right-leaning PDP had ruled the country since 1999.) Also the rise of terrorism by the extremist Boko Haram group, continued ethno-religious conflicts in the north and a population bulge to over 180 million residents (an increase of about 50 million people since 2002).1Population Pyramids of the World from 1950 to 2100. https://www.populationpyramid.net/nigeria/2002/. Accessed: 29/01/2018
Despite the changes—including new and wider roads and railway networks connecting states, among other improvements—the country still lags in socio-economic progress. Malnutrition has worsened among children under age five, with the highest rates in the north, hoe to the radical Islamist militant group Boko Haram. “Child wasting (children who are too thin for their age) increased from 24.2 percent to 31.5 percent, while child stunting (children who are too short for their age) increased from 34.8 percent to 43.6 percent” since 2011, according to UNICEF.2UNICEF. New MICS5 data highlights nationwide drop in Infant Mortality and increase in Child Malnutrition in Nigeria. https://www.unicef.org/nigeria/media_11700.html. Accessed: 02/02/2018 More than 10.5 million children lack access to education and the unemployment rate increased from 14.2 percent to 18.8 percent in 2017, prompting the country into an economic recession.3Vanguard. Nigeria’s unemployment rate rises from 14.2 percent to 18.8 percent. https://www.vanguardngr.com/2017/12/nigerias-unemployment-rate-rises-14-2-18-8/. Accessed: 29/01/2018
Much of the development has occurred in major cities such as Abuja (the capital, where I reside) and Lagos, the country’s commercial capital where I lived for the first 13 years of my life. It’s been puzzling to see very little development in other parts of the country, including my paternal and maternal hometowns in the eastern and southern parts of the country. I decided to visit my mother’s town to ask what my relatives think of the discrepancies and try to understand the prospects for change.
“Why did you come back?” is the most frequent question I’ve been asked since my arrival. It’s always followed by “You don’t act like an American,” to which I smile, unsure whether it’s a compliment. I don’t personify the typical Nigerian “Americanah” people here have come to know—someone who lived abroad and returned with an air of pride and disdain for the underdeveloped state of society. My father was hesitant when I told him I would be returning to Nigeria as an ICWA fellow. His fears grew when he learned that I would be taking a trip to my maternal village in the sometimes volatile Niger Delta region. His experiences with roadside robbers and memories of friends who were kidnapped—some were killed—made him worried for my safety. To ease his fears, I exercised caution in timing my visit and ensuring that I traveled with family members.
People here are fascinated by my ability to adapt to the intrinsically complex cultural and social systems other Nigerians returning home disdain. Being able to still speak my father’s language (Igbo) has earned me respect from several acquaintances. The taxi driver who takes me around Abuja is perplexed about who I am as he can’t seem to wrap his mind around why, having had the opportunity to live in America, I would choose to return to Nigeria—a country from which it seems every citizen is trying to escape. Some of my acquaintances have jokingly asked me to give them my American passport so they can take my place and travel to the United States. “How can you choose to live in Nigeria?” they ask. When I tell them about the ICWA fellowship and the goal of advancing global awareness and knowledge, they appear only slightly satisfied, still finding my two-year sojourn in the country dumbfounding.
When my twin sister came to Nigeria for a month’s visit during the Christmas holiday, we traveled to our maternal village, Buguma in southern Rivers state. It is the home of the Kalabari people and ex-militants involved in the Niger Delta crisis, a conflict that began in the early 1990s between locals and oil corporations competing for oil wealth. Buguma is an hour’s drive from the regional capital city of Port Harcourt. Until recently, transportation was only by speedboat, which posed security risks from sea pirates and militants. But now a road network provides access to the village.
My main memories of the town revolve around the burial ceremonies of my great-grandparents, who were members of the town’s founding family. I remember participating in what’s called the home-going ceremony of my great-grandmother—whom we fondly called “Opu Mama”—when I was about eight years old. All of the children, grandchildren and extended family members dressed up in traditional Kalabari attire comprising of beaded hats, coral beads on the neck and “India” wrapper around our waists. We danced around the community for a few hours during the day in celebration of her legacy and participated in a traditional midnight ceremony involving more dancing and speeches from family members. It was a festive time that sometimes became violent when our uncles argued with family members about logistics and family matters.
Now, on arriving at the family compound—a large communal space with several houses with brick walls and metal roofs belonging to various relatives—I was shocked to see that, with the exception of a couple of buildings that had been completed, nothing had changed. My grandmother’s house was locked up as it had been for years, awaiting renovation. The reasons for the houses’ poor condition, I was told, include a lack of funds and the fact that family members rarely visit the village anymore. I remember being excited to go to the village as a child for a chance to reconnect, play with my cousins and receive gifts from uncles who had returned from living abroad. However, coming back as an adult has helped me realize why they now hesitate to return.
Fear of safety poses a challenge as many family members worry about being kidnapped or poisoned (by envious people) when they travel to the village. Relatives also often bombard you with financial requests. “What did you bring for us?” asked one of my uncles, Tomitamunaa Erekosima. “Your little cousin Elizabeth who came from the UK some months ago brought us pounds,” he added. “Hope you came with dollars.” I laughed off his comment and gave him some Nigerian naira notes, but I couldn’t help but reflect on how such demands have made visits to the village resistible and encouraged the degradation of family homes and, to an extent, a loss of family heritage, particularly for the younger generation. Tomitamunaa is in his early thirties and lives in a one-bedroom house in Buguma with his wife and two young daughters. He is not currently employed, but wants to own a store where he would sell alcoholic drinks because, according to him, alcohol business is profitable in the town. He perceives that as an Americanah, I am financially secure; anyone who has travelled and lived outside Nigeria should be able and willing to disperse cash generously.
There is poverty in the land
My maternal family is polygamous. My grandfather had two “official” wives who had eight and four children for him, respectively. Three have died. He also had several children outside his marriage. My mother is the eldest surviving child from her mother—the first wife—and I am more familiar with her siblings and their families. My mother is one of two females and three surviving males. She lives in Lagos state and works as a civil servant with the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN). My uncles are all married and live in Port Harcourt with their families. My mom’s youngest brother, Onengiya Erekosima, is actively involved in the peace and non-violence movement in the Niger Delta. He was a part of conceiving, designing and facilitating a Niger Delta amnesty program with the state and federal governments.
‘There is no genuine unity among the youths… Politics and politicians have infiltrated the system and have jeopardized their unity.’
One of the main attractions in my mother’s village is the riverside, where people go to dump trash and defecate. Pit (hole) latrines are erected above the water because residents lack proper facilities and efficient sewage disposal systems. Although the pit latrines were fun to use when I was a kid, I was disappointed to see their continued existence. It made me concerned about the unhygienic nature of the environment as the human waste contaminates the water where many residents fish and in which they sometimes bathe. I also noticed that the water level had receded greatly since the last time I was there.
When I asked Tomitamunaa why trash piles continue to litter the waterside, he told me the garbage is used to reclaim land because of residents’ inability to afford brick or zinc fencing to separate the land from the water. Residents are concerned about the pollution caused by oil spillage into their rivers. Still, despite the economic hardship plaguing residents of Buguma, they remain very proud of their city.
As I walked around my family compound with another uncle, Tonye, and my sister, I saw a man sitting outside a house on a concrete slab. In front of him was a plastic blue table holding an open notebook. Piles of paper forms with people’s ID pictures were neatly arranged on the concrete slab next to him. My uncle stopped to greet him, and I asked what the man was doing. He was recording residents’ names for a so-called empowerment program. I thought it was a nice gesture, but my uncle told me it was just one of many schemes by aspiring local politicians to collect personal information to be used in rigging ballot boxes in the upcoming election. Some of the residents whose information would be used would be compensated with cash or bags of rice.
I sat down with my 30-something-year-old uncle Ibinabo Robinson, who is the current chairman of the Kalabari Youth Leaders Council, to ask about life for young people in Buguma. The council includes the heads of youth councils in various Kalabari communities (including Buguma) who come together to try to find solutions to the problems facing their peers. Young people in Buguma remain deprived of job and educational opportunities. “There is poverty in the land,” Ibinabo said. “The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. The poor have no one to speak on their behalf.” Because of the stark poverty, the young have to be willing to do any kind of job just for food. Despite their abilities, their talent is not being harnessed. Some are gifted drummers, others can clean houses. But no one is hiring them. “We are all looking for white collar jobs,” Ibinabo says. “Nobody seems to care about work such as mechanical or electrical engineers and plumbing.”
Ibinabo believes ending poverty would require reviving the formerly strong crafts industry. Buguma once had a crafts development center and a computer training center, but neither has functioned for several years. The computer center existed only from 2012 to 2015, while Ibinabo was chairman of the Buguma Youth Council.
Poor and prejudiced leadership and lack of sustained funding for projects pose serious challenges for Buguma’s young people. Political bureaucracy has impeded transitions of power to qualified and committed youth leaders. There is no chair of the Buguma Youth Council at the moment, only an appointed caretaker leader with limited executive powers. When I asked why the chair had not been filled for two years, Ibinabo told me the state governor has not considered it a priority.
He also highlighted security challenges affected by joblessness. Many young men are involved in running illegal refineries called Kpo fire. Politicians also hire religious cult members to harass political opponents. That often leads to inter-cult violence.
No genuine unity
I met a 17-year-old girl named Alice. She lives with her mother and four older male siblings. To put food on their family table, Alice’s brothers engage in Kpo fire business hacking into pipelines and extracting crude that is then processed into kerosene and used for cooking (which poses a danger especially when improperly processed and mixed with other fuel). Alice helps her mother fry and sell peanuts at weddings, birthday parties and other events. They also sell kerosene that her brothers bring home. Alice’s estranged father does not support her education. “It is only my mother and brothers who pay my school fees and provide what I need,” she said. If she had an opportunity to speak to the governor, she told me, she would ask him to help her gain admission to university to study accounting.
The Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), a federal agency tasked with developing the Niger Delta, has set up some employment programs for hundreds of young people in past years, but many of the programs have ended because of inadequate funding. One such program, the Shore Protection Project, employed carpenters, brick layers and welders for building bridges. The project has been suspended due to lack of funds.
Returning to Buguma made me realize that for anything to change, residents must start taking local action and mobilizing resources. I asked Ibinabo why young people are not taking responsibility for the development of Buguma. “There is no genuine unity among the youths,” he told me. “Politics and politicians have infiltrated the system and have jeopardized their unity.”
As we departed Buguma after our two-day visit, my sister and I passed by a carnival celebration of people dressed in brightly colored traditional attire. It took me back to the funeral celebrations of my childhood, reminding me again of how little here has changed.