Home Away From Home

by Banjo Odutola

The title of a song by William Jerome (1865-1932), American Songwriter: ‘Any old place I can hang my hat is home sweet home to me‘ may have been influenced by the escapism that melody and alcohol bring. However, when I consider: Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam, Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home; A charm from the skies seems to hallow us there, Which, seek through the world, is ne’er met with elsewhere. Home, home, sweet, sweet home! There’s no place like home! There’s no place like home! (The Maid of Milan; J.H Payne, 1791-1852 – American Actor, playwright and songwriter) amidst diverse confusion, economic depravity, insecurity, abject poverty and perverse polity of my fatherland, there is so much attraction in being a Nigerian living abroad. Perhaps, this is the reason for disagreeing with Mr. Jerome, for who sweet home is anywhere he laid his hat.

I agree with J.H. Payne because having lived a greater part of my adult life in England, I read her news as an alien for small talk at social gatherings. I contribute to her laws because my livelihood depends on it. Her society has provided me a space and in return, she demands obedience to its mores. She encourages that I find a path of fulfilment – however I can; and whatever that may mean within permissible rights and obligations. I am committed to pay my dues, socially and materially because it is where I lay my hat and my heart lies elsewhere.

So, where is my own Nigeria? Is it the physical construct that is Six Thousand miles away? Is it the one within my door through cyber connectivity or outside of it through hundreds of thousands of fellow sojourners sharing my existence in a foreign land? Is it the one that draws me to eat cold food during the weekday; and return to the microwave at night? Is it the one that makes me strive to align with my host and yet behave like the host of a foreign land in my own country? May be there is a new Nigeria that allows me to relate to others like my host; yet conducting myself as if the relationship would not be different, if I were back in Nigeria.

But, this is my Nigeria and it is what I make of it that determines what it is. It is not the distance that I travel to arrive at it, it is the distance that I am prepared to open up and mix with others to make bigger the community that resides outside of the Nigerian borders.

When I arrived in England, there were very few, if any Nigerians who were storekeepers. If there were many, I was blind to their existence and did not operate in their circle. Now, there are many colonising a part of South London. Many of the ones that I knew were young students like me and the older ones had menial jobs or nothing worthy of note. Then, it was shameful to admit working abroad. The Nigerian economy absorbed all sorts of mediocrity from every profession. A price, we are now paying very dearly for. Then and unlike now, what type of professional was staying behind in a cold foreign country? There were very few professionals making upstart of their careers. From time in memorial, there were many visitors from Nigerians who spent as if money was going out of fashion. Only a few can now luxuriate in such profligacy – a sizeable few, though.

The England that I arrived in was one at which many Nigerian spoilt brats whose parents could afford foreign education lived in opulence at the best addresses in London during their holidays. The others, in whose class, I uncomfortably resided were less fortunate and were scattered in various parts of inner cities, which were very hostile neighbourhoods; in some cases they were less so. Wherever rents, school fees and food could be accommodated within incomes from menial jobs, we lived there. As one of those from the less privileged side of the pond, I escaped on virtual Exeat to territories of those spoilt brats to be reminded of their luck and fortune. Then, I hoped one day, they would be measured by their personal achievements and not by their parents’. It was a time when the present was the future that seemed so far away. I was never intimidated by their luck; instead, I resented it and respected those Nigerians that had only their ten fingers and brains to find the right lane in the wilderness of a foreign territory. It was an attitude of circumstance. But, do I still resent go-lucky kids? A little bit. More out of envy. I have more respect for people who have succeeded against all odds.

Back to the nation and nationalities that I met here. It was a place where foreigners did not have their own places of worship. We worshiped in the buildings of Babylon, remembered Zion and how we worshipped the Lord. We had basements of houses, which we made our Zion and wherefrom we called on our God. Our hope was that the neighbours would not call the police or the Local Authority close down our little Zion in Babylon. I could never understand why our gatherings were unlawful at certain basements. Now, I am wiser. It is the restrictive covenants that meant the properties we turned in the House of God ought to remain the one of Man, Lest, we were in breach.

As for our food, we managed with substitutes and they were expensive. The beverages were those of the hosts. We complained about the weakness of their Guinness; and Special Brew Larger was our choice for ‘something strong’. Our beers had to be strong because the stronger they were, the more valuable we assumed the purchase. Quite the mentality of poverty. But, then we did not consider poverty was a shame. We had little and there was no need to compete with anyone else. Many of us inhabited the same boat. Even the kids of rich fathers knew poverty before their next allowances arrived.

I dated one of those spoilt brats and was amused me to no ends whenever she was on her last one thousand pounds. As for me, I was used to the life a cow without a tail. Her money did not impress me. It was great fun to be in her company and listening to her when she called her father in Nigeria to demand next allowance: she always asked the old man to send money or a coffin. It was hilarious. For as long as I was around, the father dutifully wired money. Golly, if she were my daughter, I would at least on one occasion have lived up to her threat and sent a coffin.

Now, the landscape is different. And it is not only exciting – it is promising. As posited by Mr. Gbola Oba in his treatise ‘Ore, look how far we’ve come in this London’; there is a nation of Nigeria outside of my door, where I can eat, drink, party as if the differences are good and honest leadership; and NEPA that works. The Nigeria outside of my door in a foreign land is not different to the one I left behind. Is it for a party that I need a Juju Band and money sprayed as it happens many miles away? It is available. And, this is not an experience limited to London. It is almost everywhere outside the Nigerian Borders.

I have witnessed the Nigeria outside of my door in various parts of the world. Go to Florence, Italy, the Nigerian joint is there. Try Barcelona, Spain not too far from The Ramblas, the Nigerian joint is there. I was in Dusseldorf, Germany and was advised where to find the Nigerian joint. Various American cities jostle for the same Nigeria outside of my door. From Houston to New York to Atlanta to many other States, I have visited numerous of them. Even in Las Vegas, Ghanaians are quick to advise where to find the Nigerian joint where Guinness douses the effect of pepper soup. And, the Nigerian dishes missing on the menu at the five star hotel are always toothsome, even if the service is not as cultured like the restaurants of the ‘White Man’ – whatever that means.

At these Nigerian joints, no invitations are issued to contribute to conversations blaming: ‘Obasanjo’, ‘Babangida’, ‘Buhari’, ‘the Military’, ‘419’, ‘National Assembly’, ‘they are all thieves’ ‘NEPA’ ‘Customs’ and so on. Most times the conversations are loud and meaningless. Gesticulations are intimidating to foreigners. The laughs are roaring as the conversant is throwing his hand here and there; others are screaming him down at the ‘facts’ someone ‘high up in the Nigerian Government’ told him. He insists on making his point amidst all of the acquiescence and disagreements. Star Larger green bottles are arriving full and disappearing empty. The other coloured bottles of Guilder and Guinness are coming and disappearing in the same way, Barrister or Ayuba in turn are competing for attention on the eardrums. Mr. Fela Anikulapo resurrects briefly and the whole place goes agog. The heated conversation turns into Kalakuta Republic lyrics.

After the time spent to renew membership of this new Nigeria without borders, new acquaintances are made: strangers become ‘friends’ as their drinks are paid for, and you are indebted to others, whom you have never met before and who have paid for your drinks and food. Thereafter, it is homebound to the new Nigerian Pirate radio station in the car, booming with the lyrics of Sunny Ade. This is the England that I now reside. This is home away from home.

What do I make of this home, where my offspring has uncles and aunties that are not related to me; and I, an uncle to many whose bloodline, I cannot trace? What do I make of this new home where I can step in and out of my door as if I were back in Nigeria. I replicate a new Nigeria where utilities work as they should and I am aware of my legal obligations and limitations like I do not care when in Nigeria. I am aware of the limits of my rights; and where those of others begin. In my new Nigeria, I accept to live within the confines of the space granted to me, lest, I invite trouble. My aspirations are not hindered, if I am diligent in my work. In this new Nigeria, I do not expect nor can accept mediocrity to be rewarded because it hardly happens as obscene as the land left behind.

I can exercise my legal rights where I have been short-changed at work or by officials of Babylon. Knowing what I can and cannot do in a foreign land, the existence of my rights and obligations is blurred in my fatherland. Does anyone still wonder why so many Nigerians do not yearn for the physical construct of the place of their birth? Why do many Nigerians in the country want to escape not from Nigeria but seek to escape from a land destroyed by bad leadership? Indeed, there are many that want to return to what J.H Payne calls refers as “Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam, Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home“.

Despite the amount of money we send to fuel the Nigerian economy through gifts to our loved ones, through levies to sustain our families’ names – should we just accept like William Jerome, that home is where we can lay our hats? Wherever home is for you, as for me, home is at Ijebu-Remo, where without opening my mouth to answer the all too common question – ‘where are you from?’ – my last name settles that inquiry. And, I am not changing that name for any lame legion or religion. My righteousness does not depend on my name – it depends on my heart. As for now, that heart remains in Nigeria – where possibilities are impossible and impossibilities make us say, it can only happen in Nigeria.

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1 comment

Chima Onwukeme April 6, 2005 - 5:05 am

That is a beautiful essay.


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