It all started as a joke. Alia, my Nigerian sister and schoolmate had encountered me in one of the dark corridors that traverse the bowels of our London college. We hadn’t met in a while and so she asked, “Ike, how’s your project going?” My reply? “We thank God”.
Now let me tell you a little about Alia. She’s young, intelligent, Nigerian, born to an Igbo father and an African-American mother in the States, but brought back to Nigeria as a young child. After a few years in Port Harcourt, she returned to the US and completed her education there. She doesn’t speak Igbo, much to her chagrin, but she bears a deep love for Nigeria and goes home as often as she can. Even her English is scented with a fleeting Igbo accent. Don’t ask me where from. Six odd years in Port Harcourt could not have done that or could they? Anyway, Alia is as un-American as can be, a shining example to some of her sisters and brothers in Nigeria who can’t wait to dump their Nigerian accents, dressing and passports for an American one. So that’s Alia.
Back to my story, “Hey Alia, what’s the matter”, I queried
“It’s you Nigerians and this ‘We Thank God thing’”, she fired back. “My grandmother came to spend summer with us last month. How was your flight, Mama – I asked? Her response was ‘we Thank God’. Now tell me what does that mean, was her flight good, bad, boring, what???” Alia’s exasperation was written all over her face. I burst into laughter. I saw the absurdity of it and I began to explore the dimensions of that phrase… We thank God.
I raised it with another sister in Barcelona. Nena reeled with laughter as she recounted how whenever she would phone home to ask after her siblings, the response to her query how is Mama X or broda Y would be “We thank God”. While one of the journalists in Barcelona interviewed the proprietress of the Nigerian restaurant, he alluded to how busy the restaurant was and asked if it was making a lot of money. Madam Proprietress’ response? Yes you guessed it! “We thank God”!
Sitting with several other Nigerians over pounded yam and egusi soup, we tried to determine what lay behind this non-committal standard response. Our conclusion – life in Nigeria is so precarious and unstable that people are scared that saying things are fine may be tempting fate, in other words an invitation to disaster. On the other hand our strong religious beliefs and the underlying “E go better” or “Oga adi mma” philosophy that underpin our lives, preclude us from saying “it is not well” even when it obviously isn’t!
And so we have arrived at “we thank God”, which, all things considered is not a bad response, even if it is meaningless to non-Nigerians. So next time a brother or sister responds to your “How are you” with a studied “We thank God”, you’ll know just where they’re coming from, won’t you?