So many people told me about the violence in Nigeria, about places I should not visit, and quite a few said do not go to Nigeria at all, visit another African nation for my first trip to the continent instead. I am very glad I ignored that. In fact whenever I am told not to do something, or feel “advice” is rooted in fear and some level of ignorance, I do the exact opposite of what is being suggested, always.
I have found Nigerians to be incredibly respectful and mannerly, very deferential and humble, and so appreciative of the basics of life. There are many vicious stereotypes about Africa in general and, yes, of course, there is widespread post-colonization political corruption, of course there is internal violence born of years of ethnic strife, and of course there is a huge disparity between the elite in politics and business and the poor, which accounts for the masses of people in nations like Nigeria.
But there is also an incredible spirit of resiliency and a unique ability to survive circumstances I do not know many folks where I come from could handle, or do. Who could, for example, live day-to-day where armed military or police have random check points any and everywhere? Who could, for example, adapt to not even having the very basics of life; a life where you are forced, as is the case in the Yola area, into making traditional huts from mud and hay (a dying art in Africa, I am told) as your home, knowing you will never have running water? Who could, for example, overcome the challenge of living in a nation with literally hundreds of languages and not be able to speak or understand a language as you travel from region to region? I especially thought about this in the context of America. Yes we are a large and very diverse nation twice the population of Nigeria, but we speak English, mostly, and Spanish is perhaps the only other major language spoken regularly from coast to coast.
To put this in context, yesterday we encountered crew ship full of Cameroon sailors. I wanted to get on their boat but I speak no French and no Hausa. So the Nigerian driver we had, who speaks English and Hausa, had to translate back and forth between us. It was a fascinating conversation, as the Cameroon sailors were there to load supplies for a the day-long trip back home. What was especially striking to me is that even though the two men both spoke Hausa, even then there was some difficulty in understanding each other. But we got the basics of what the journey was about, and why they trek to Yola a few times each month.
Nigeria, Africa, at the end of the day, is full of vast possibilities, for business people, for politically and socially-minded people, for humanitarians, for artists who could be inspired by its stunning natural beauty and the soul power of its people. But it bothers me, deeply, when people come with a patronizing attitude, as if they are going to save Africa, or when making money seems to be their primary agenda and they refuse to balance conversations about business with an honest assessment of countries like Nigeria, and the present-day realities right smack in front of our faces. It is not an ‘either or’ conversation. It is both. Which is why I love the students at American University in Nigeria so much. They are brutally honest, about everything, and want to see one Nigeria where all come together, but also one Nigeria where every single challenge in the nation is discussed, fearlessly.
Kevin Powell is an award-winning writer, public speaker, and political activist. Through the years Kevin has written for Ebony, Esquire, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Essence, Rolling Stone, The Huffington Post, and Vibe, where he served as a senior writer. He is also the author of 11 books, including his latest, “Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and the Ghost of Dr. King: Blogs and Essays.” Follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org