Today is Nigeria’s Independence Day!
The internet is already being flooded by a cadence of articles questioning why a country with such bad governance should be celebrating at all, a position which, of course, is being countered by just as forceful a digital stream of idealist sentiment: “We’ve come so far, Africa is rising, let’s focus on the positives!”
To be honest, it’s challenging to keep the positive in focus, especially in the face of landlords who refuse to rent to you because “you’re a single woman who could potentially use the place for prostitution”, or men who literally grab you by the neck and pull you closer to them just so they can say they find you attractive. But on the up side, hey, there’s no “street” harassment in Nigeria – oh no, we’re way more advanced in our unapologetic display of chauvinism. Women can be sexually harassed anytime, anyplace, anywhere: grocery stores, hotel elevators (yes), in taxis, churches…everywhere.
But let’s talk about how prosperous Nigeria is when woman can be raped in broad daylight and them shamed for reporting it. After all, it’s Independence Day.
Thankfully, Nigerian women have always been outspoken about both the country’s failures and successes in achieving gender equality, balancing out oft male dominated political governance commentary with poignant social context, and painting a more authentic picture of Naija year round. I can always look forward to commentary from some of my favourite progressive bloggers and thought leaders: afropolitan feminist scholar, Minna Salami (of MsAfropolitan) a staunch advocate of African women’s history, Nigerian feminist lawyer, Lesley Agams, whose personal storytelling grounds privileged theorists in reality, and one of my favourite self-identified “proactivists” Omojuwa, who speaks on and about everything, and recently challenged religious institutions to redirect congregation giving to social justice initiatives.
I’m proud of Nigerians, as people. But my perception of the country’s progress is coloured by my own reality.
My partner visited me for my birthday recently and we had to spend most of our ‘long walks’ fending off men who invited themselves to accompany us, much less “hold hands.” My job involves using media and communications to equip and inspire audiences to see adolescent girls as critical drivers of social change, and I have to do all of this from the discomfort of a professional closet. And I’m not alone in this.
It usually takes about a half day or so for the customary ‘gay Nigerian’ narrative to emerge: “torn between two worlds, two identities, what being a gay Nigerian on independence day means to me.” Or something like that. (Hey, no judgement here. I’m totally guilty of this, too.) Despite safe spaces being created by LGBT activists all across the country, Nigeria remains largely intolerant of gays and lesbians. Shoot, a few weeks ago, my favourite artists, P-Square (who I had dreams about inviting to perform *this song* at my wedding!) just – out of nowhere – decided to go on a rant against the LGBT community. The sad thing is I love their music so much it’ll hurt me more to boycott them :( #chrisbrowndilemma
Incidentally, coming out as queer here isn’t half as bad as being perceived as a gender nonconforming person. The other day, a coworker decided to go in for 20 minutes about the way I dress – “Why do you try so hard to not be pretty? You are a woman, but you’re always wearing trousers, shirts… *laughing*” – that my boss had to intervene, diplomatically, boiling down my gender expression to a matter of personal choice. It is. But many Nigerian women I’ve met don’t see it that way. In their mind, I could be “getting so many men to fall for me” that they’re puzzled – even if I already have a partner and I’m not looking to get married (to a man anyway)- that I wouldn’t dress to attract the male gaze. “Wear some lipstick now… Or some light makeup… Buy these shoes, they’re nice.” Oy vey.
Today is October 1st, but I can’t focus on my country’s progress — I still haven’t landed my feelings yet. However, despite the challenges I’ve experienced adjusting back to life in Nigeria, I am grateful for many things, including that after 5 months of living in a hotel, I finally get to check out and move into my new permanent home.
After months of praying for my safety in street taxis tasked with delivering me to addresses I could never locate on Google maps, years of living away from my country, subsisting on nostalgia – Afropop music, Iroko.tv, makeshift Nigerian restaurants, and old photographs — all the while ducking and weaving through racism and xenophobia in the US, Nigeria with all its complexities is finally beginning to feel like home again.
A creator, arbiter, and advocate of online support systems, my world shrank almost instantly the minute I arrived to an unsteady (and at times, completely absent) internet connection. It has taken almost 3 months for me to open a bank account (don’t even ask), even longer to rent an apartment, I’m still trying to learn how friendships (with predominantly straight women – a new one for me) work here, and I can barely eat traditional Nigerian soups because no one gives a rip about my seafood allergy.
But this week… I attended TEDxLagos, where I met so many Nigerian women in tech and media, fellow entrepreneurs boostrapping their way to their dreams, passionate and politically-minded Diaspora returnees, and folks from my parents generation who are mentoring so many rogue young people like me with loving non-judgement.
I woke up this morning intent on commemorating Nigeria’s Independence Day, yet I found myself wanting to finally celebrate this… this unexpectedly warm homecoming. The past 5 months has been complicated: challenging, surprising, wonderful, crazy, and inspirational all at once. Yet, despite all Nigeria’s governance issues, the homophobia, the gender policing, etc., I’ve emerged with a renewed, more mature, realistic love of the place in which I grew up, insensitive to my food allergies as it may be.
As Nigeria is still coming of age, so am I, which connects me to all its struggles and successes; Nigeria’s struggles and successs are mine as well.
Independence, personal growth, and a diaspora homecoming: Nigeria, you and me are still taking this journey together, even after so many years apart. That love, that commitment, that courage against all odds. Now that’s worth celebrating.