“Seriously, of all the countries you can move to with your passport, you wanna come live here in Nigeria?”
The question was not addressed to me, but despite the din of conversation and the deafening music, it resonated strongly in my mind. The weekend had finally begun – a Saturday in early January 2020. I was having dinner with friends at RSVP, a trendy restaurant on the Island, with an outdoor swimming pool, a hip DJ, and VIP clientele.
“No but honestly. Why do you wanna come back?”
My friend Tinuke’s cousin had come to Lagos for “Detty December”. And she didn’t want to leave. She was born in the US but since Trump, she said, her life in DC was not the same. People were looking at her funny, with her African name. Racism was pervasive, the atmosphere suffocating. She was tired of fighting, it was too much, this country was sick, she said. Here, she could become who she really wanted to. A businesswoman. A married woman. Anybody. But at least somebody.
Tinuke exploded: “Bullshit! Stay where you are, don’t make the same mistake as me. I studied in London. I was working in marketing in Italy. I had a great career lined up in Europe. And now? Here I am. Chasing contract after contract, threatening crooks who will never pay me and who don’t respect me because I am a woman. What do I get in return? Nothing. I’m stuck.”
Everybody was adding their bit: “She’s right. Don’t come back if you don’t have the right connections. There’s no way you’ll make a place for yourself if you don’t know the right people. There won’t be anything for your kids either, schools cost a fortune. The medical system is also terrible. I’d rather be a foreigner in the US, a second class citizen, than belong to the so-called elite of this country.”
The debate was raging. As the conversation grew louder, so did the number of bottles on the table.
“How dare you say such a thing? A second class citizen! NEVER! I’d rather starve than bow down to the whites. NEVER again, you hear me?”
Sodiq had returned to Nigeria two years earlier. Perhaps return isn’t the word, because he had never set foot in his father’s homeland until he came to live in Lagos in 2017, at the age of 28. He had spent his entire life between the US and the Caribbean, before trying his luck here. He is an engineer. He builds factories, waste centres, water treatment plants and bridges. Everything the country needs. From the end of the table, he helped himself to another glass of Hennessy and Coke.
“You can always come back here but if you do, always remember that you do it for the money. Don’t expect anything else… And don’t forget it’s a game of chance. In my first year, I signed a 500,000-dollar contract. Just like that, a stroke of luck. Nothing since… But it will come back, I know it.”
The music was getting louder, and I lost the thread of the conversation. I had heard it a thousand times anyway. We were all obsessed with this question. Why on earth did we come to Lagos when our passports allowed us to be almost anywhere else? And yet, for most of my friends who had grown up elsewhere in the world and whose parents were Nigerians, this choice came more naturally to them. Their roots were here. They had been here on holidays sometimes. It was almost a patriotic and ideological duty to come back to Africa.
As for me, I grew up in the east of France, in a small, ordinary city. I don’t know how to build factories nor bridges. I am not an engineer, or a businesswoman either. I had never experienced racism, I had never felt like a foreigner in my own country. And I didn’t come here to make money either.
“…Of all the countries you can move to with your passport…” The question continued to resonate in my head as loudly as the afrobeat music that was shaking the tables.
A different evening, a different weekend, I would probably have participated in the conversation. I would have contributed a few platitudes about the energy in Nigeria, about its extraordinary youth and all its endless possibilities. I would have lost my temper. “Here, people are free to dream!” “Here is the future of the world!” But that night, try as I might, no arguments were coming to my mind. I wasn’t finding the words and I didn’t want to talk.
In truth, I had no idea what I was doing here.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Mr. Zulum, an old man I had interviewed at the entrance to his house, a few days earlier, before it was reduced to rubble by bulldozers. I was wondering if the people who signed his eviction order were also having dinner at RSVP. Maybe I was going to meet them. We would warmly shake hands or we would hug like old friends. Maybe I knew them, actually. Who knows. And even if nobody here was responsible for Mr. Zulum’s fate – not them, not me, not anybody here – for the first time in many years I felt this unquenchable rage rise again. A great sadness, too. I wondered where Mr. Zulum was sleeping that night, if he had found shelter while we were arguing around a bottle of Hennessy and partying in a VIP club.