I arrived in London last September, hopeful and determined. After five years of working as a medical doctor in Nigeria and being frustrated by the system, the opportunity to study at the prestigious London school of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine appeared God sent. Not that it was easy, raising funding, obtaining a visa, the works… I ran the gauntlet and alighted at Heathrow that warm September evening.
I caught the Underground to Piccadilly Circus, where my Nigerian benefactor (and soon to be landlord) resided. Getting on the train, I saw a few people who instinct told me were Nigerians. Each time I recount this story, my English friends always ask how could you tell? None of the Nigerians I have told it to ever raised that question, probably because, they too can tell. It’s in the dressing, the makeup, the carriage, and when they speak, often the accent. In any case, seeing these fellow Nigerians, I quickly caught their eye, a smile playing on my lips just as I would have on a bus from Abuja to Lagos. The response could not have differed more. These people quickly shifted their gaze as if embarrassed to be associated with me. That was my welcome to London.
The same thing happened again and again in the course of the next few weeks. Overhearing cleaners on the Underground nattering in Yoruba, I would venture a “Bawo ni”. Instead of a smile, I was almost always greeted with suspicion. I tried to find out why this was the case. I asked my Nigerian friends who had lived here longer than I had. Their answer: Fear. Apparently, many Nigerians with shaky immigration status have been betrayed by their compatriots. Others have been duped and thus the myth of brotherhood and sisterhood has been shattered.
Before I had spent a month in London, I found myself reacting in the same way. Meeting a friend from Nigeria at Heathrow, getting on the train at Brixton, some brother or sister (probably newly arrived) would catch my eye with a smile and to my shame, I would glance away. Too late I would recall my own first experiences and venture a smile, but often the harm would have been done.
Contrast with my experience in Barcelona last week during the International AIDS conference. Walking from the train station to my hostel, I met some construction workers covered in cement dust obviously on their way home after a hard day’s work. I stared curiously at them, trying to figure out what part of Africa they came from. Through the furore of my mental calculation, a voice rang out, “Bros, wish ones?” I smiled and shook hands with them. We chatted and exchanged pleasantries. At least by then I had learned from London not to ask for too much personal information unless volunteered. So I was unable to get their stories of how they came to be doing construction work in Barcelona.
The next morning, on my way to the AIDS conference, I stopped at a luggage shop to search for a small bag. I had very little Spanish and as I pondered how to ask the proprietor if he had a small bag, I heard clear Anambra Igbo being spoken behind me. Turning I noticed two well dressed ladies conversing among themselves. The proprietor had apparently convinced them to buy a certain suitcase, but one of them had reservations which she now expressed in Igbo. Her description (in Igbo) of what was likely to happen to the suitcase if filled to capacity was so hilarious, I burst into laughter. They looked suspiciously at me then ventured to ask “I bu onye Igbo?” (Are you Igbo? I replied in the affirmative and we soon engaged in lively conversation. They had come for a Rotary International Convention and had stayed on a few days to do some shopping, that favoured Nigerian pastime.
That was the tip of the iceberg. At the conference, I met up with other Nigerians who had come from all over the world. There were Nigerians from Holland, Germany, the USA, Austria, India, Liberia, everywhere. Nena Uche from the US soon discovered a Nigerian restaurant in the heart of Barcelona which soon became our second home. Run by an Edo woman with her two male and one female siblings, it provided a delightful setting to savour pounded yam with egusi soup in Barcelona.
When the journalists from Nigeria arrived we took them there and they enjoyed themselves. One of them, the ever enterprising Ebere Ahanihu of The Guardian obtained an on the spot interview with the proprietress. Again there was initial suspicion, before we convinced her to speak. She had lived in Spain for twelve years but only opened shop last year. Her husband shuttled between Nigeria and Barcelona ‘sourcing for raw materials’ for the restaurant.
Loud gospel music of the kokoma variety blared as she spoke in her restaurant decorated with wooden carvings proclaiming “The Family That Prays Together Stays Together”, “I shall Overcome my enemies in Jesus’ name” and such like sentiments. One of us asked for a menu, only to be told there was none. Then we remembered and asked “Wetin una get?” which produced the desired response… Pounded yam, egusi, ogbono, rice, dodo, etc.
We were indeed at home, a feeling quite distinct from my experiences even in Nigerian restaurants in London. We were told there were about 10,000 Nigerians in Barcelona, a figure we could not verify. We later discovered a shop selling African foodstuff, beverages and toiletries right in the heart of Barcelona. It was weird seeing the tins of Milo, Omo and Lux packs amidst the Spanish signs everywhere. This I had also noticed in London and wondered why people still needed to buy the Nigerian soap and beverages at so much trouble. I mean I can understand importing yam and dried fish and uziza, but Lux and Omo and Delta soap?! I would love to hear other people’s views, experiences on this.