‘My dear, when you come to Nigeria, you will always be di centa of attention, and you can’t just run around like you can ova there, so get ready o.’
…and with that, she hung up the phone.
I had been making plans to travel to Nigeria and visit my family, and these were the warning words of my mother-in-law, which had been accompanied by various rather alarming official travel warnings, and worriedly unnerving questions by my family in Europe.
Nigeria is a dangerous place for tourists, or so I’ve been told. While it would have been unwise to just ignore these warnings and travel carelessly, I was much more interested in the causes and reasons behind these travel warnings. I knew that in order to find out why certain people were bent on preventing others from visiting Nigeria, I had to go there myself.
Before continuing, I think it’s important to clarify that some of the ‘inconveniences’ I experienced in Nigeria were not a direct result of the fact that I am white. In many cases, I was faced with issues that everyday Nigerians (especially women) had to live with themselves. Having said this, however, it is the ‘issues’ that were specific and in many ways exclusive to me as a white person, that I will be focusing on within this post.
My first stop in Nigeria was Lagos. I stayed there for a week to explore Nigeria’s biggest city. The people I was with were often bothered by the police, traffic wardens, shop owners, or gate men for some money, because decades of exploitation of everyday Nigerians by political elites and neo-colonial forces have led to the chronic underpayment of regular workers, leaving them with no choice but to earn some money on the side to satisfy their basic needs and those of their families. There was, however, a difference in both their behaviour and the requested amount of money once they spotted the ‘oyinbo’ at the back of the jeep. The general assumption is that white people are rich, especially since most of them live in the nicer parts of Lagos, whereas everyday Nigerians, most of whom are hard working, have to live in the less developed and largely overpopulated areas with little to no infrastructure.
While I did attract attention in Lagos, once I arrived in the less urban town where my family lives, I experienced something that I had never experienced before: I was a sensation, something that turned heads, left jaws wide open and made children point excited fingers. I had been warned, but I was startled, nevertheless. While Lagosians did greet me with curious stares, compliments, and attempts to make the most of their encounter with an ‘oyinbo’, the pace of life prevented them from spending too much time on this supposed novelty. In the smaller and more rural areas, life is slower, people have less exposure to the outside world and subsequently, their reaction towards me differed in the sense that it was much more obvious.
People looked up to me for supposedly being rich and for being better than them – for being more beautiful, more intelligent, more admirable, more desired. This admiration of the people of course posed a certain danger to me, since there was always a risk of being kidnapped and only being released against a large ransom that the locals expected me to possess. Since I am indeed not rich, we had to avoid letting it come to that. This obviously resulted in me being very limited in my activities.
- Rule number one: never leave the compound alone, like EVER!
- Rule number two: Never leave the compound on foot or without male company.
- Rule number three: Never get out of the car unless the people accompanying you give you the go-ahead.
- Rule number four: Stay close to the people you’re with when you’re out and about.
- Rule number five.. Well, you get the idea.
You’re probably asking yourself how I could have enjoyed myself like that, or why I would ever want to go to Nigeria on a regular basis, right? Admittedly, it’s not easy to be this limited, especially for someone who has always lived in Europe and has enjoyed a considerable amount of freedom throughout my entire life. But it’s important to really understand WHY I was treated like a raw egg that could be damaged at any given time if we’re not careful. While the local children would leave their mothers and run to me to sit on my lap, touch my skin, call me ‘auntie’, and try to follow me every step of the way, their innocent admiration can easily turn into a desperate attempt to escape extreme poverty and inequality by their parents.
The admiration of those children and the other locals is the symptom of a much more sinister problem. The fascination with whiteness that looms over Nigeria, and especially the villages, is like an unshakable, toxic ‘post-colonial’ hangover.
Some of you probably thought I was going to write about how it is just as difficult to be white in Africa as it is to be black in Europe, how there is such a thing as reverse racism and how I did not have it easy on the black continent. Well, no – you’re on the wrong page for that.
What I’m saying is that in Nigeria, I was constantly reminded of my skin colour, not because Nigerians (or Africans more generally) are racist. On the contrary, it was because white skin and whiteness are still strongly associated with wealth, power, and superiority especially in the more rural areas where white skin remains a novelty that is often exclusive to the imagination and in some cases, the television. So much so that being in the mere possession of white skin makes you so precious that you’ll have to take care not to expose yourself too much, lest someone thinks you’re a human made of pure gold. And who could blame them for thinking so? For the most part, white people in Nigeria lodge in the most expensive hotels, live in the most affluent neighbourhoods, commute in luxury vehicles with military escorts, live behind high and well guarded fences, and have access to amenities that a majority of the locals can only dream of.
With social disparities such as these, it is no surprise that white skin is associated with wealth even in a country where whites are the clear minority. What is perhaps the biggest tragedy is the fact that this idea of white supremacy has become so normalised that anything presumed to be ‘white’ is presumed to be ‘right’ – even in a near-homogenous country where blacks are the clear majority.