The Nigerian experience is physical, emotional, and sometimes international. No one knows it better than our features on #TheAbroadLife, a series where we detail and explore Nigerian experiences while living abroad.
Today’s subject on Abroad Life visited Cape Town in 2016 and swore she had to move there. A few months later, a job that paid 10x of her Nigerian salary poached her to South Africa. To her, Cape Town is the perfect balance between Nigeria and the UK, where she’s a citizen.
When did you realise you wanted to leave Nigeria?
I was in my second year of university studying law. I tried to leave, but it didn’t work out. I was born in Switzerland because my dad’s job took him there. In 1981, after living there for six years, the same job took us back to Nigeria.
Do you remember what Switzerland was like?
The things I remember the most about Switzerland are winter and Christmas. We’d go up to a family friend’s house in the mountains and go skiing. It was fun spending time with family and friends, but I remember hating the skiing part because it was all so wet and cold.
In Switzerland, my siblings and I didn’t learn French because people told my parents that teaching a child multiple languages would confuse their brain. We went to an English school, and our parents spoke English to us. It wasn’t even until we returned to Nigeria that they started speaking Yoruba to us, so as you might imagine, my Yoruba isn’t the greatest.
Haha… Wait, are you a Swiss citizen?
Nope. The process of getting Swiss citizenship isn’t so easy. It takes over 10 years and has mind-boggling requirements. For example, you have to prove that you’re living as a Swiss to get Swiss citizenship. What that means is that they have spot checks. If they come to your house and see you watching Nollywood, or having garri in your pantry or ankara in your wardrobe, it means you’re not ready. A family we knew stayed after we left and their children have only just recently been able to get citizenship.
That’s hilarious. You said trying to leave didn’t work out when you were in university. Why?
At that point, we didn’t have internet and my parents couldn’t afford to send us to school abroad, so applying to schools meant finding programmes I wanted to do in print, then writing to multiple NGOs to sponsor me. When none of that worked, I decided to stick around and finish my law degree and then go to law school in Nigeria.
In the period between my second year in uni and when I finished law school, my parents got a bit wealthier, so they were able to send us abroad for our master’s. First, it was my older sisters, then me.
When you say they got wealthier…
They got promotions at work, and that came with more money. My dad’s promotion meant he also got to travel more and get bonuses such as hotel allowances, feeding allowances, per diems, and all that. When he travelled, if he got $5,000 for a trip, he would spend only $500, staying in the smallest hotels and rationing everything he did so he could save the rest of the money for our master’s.
Love it. Where did you go for your master’s?
London, 1999. After getting my master’s, I didn’t want to go back to Nigeria, so I started looking for a job. It took a few applications but I eventually found a lecturing job in a university in Scotland. I took the six-hour train ride there, did my interview, got the job and moved.
Fun fact: For some reason, my mum was in the UK when I was to start my new job, so she came to Scotland and followed me to work for my first day. Now that I think about it, it’s the most ridiculous thing ever, but I don’t know why we both thought it was a good idea. I was going around introducing myself like, “Hi, I’m the new lecturer, and this is my mum.” I’m now thinking of making it a family tradition for when my children start their own jobs.
LMAO! What was Scotland like?
Coming from England, Scotland was aesthetically pleasing. Scottish people are nicer, friendlier and more genuine. The English are a bit cold and less friendly, just like their weather. It was in Scotland I started living as an independent adult. All my life before then, I’d lived with my family. Even during my master’s, I lived with my older sister. In Scotland, I was finally able to discover who I was and the things I liked.
I stayed in Scotland for two years before I got a call from a bigger university in England. I had applied for a job there when I was initially looking, but they have an opening for a law lecturer with my specialisation. When they reached out, I moved back to England and took the job. I stayed at the job for about 10 years, and in that time, I got my doctorate and was able to get my UK citizenship and change the colour of my passport.
It was also in that period I met my husband in the UK and got married. In 2010, four months after I had my first child, we moved back to Nigeria.
From the outside, Nigeria, and Africa on the bigger scale, seemed to be on an economic and infrastructural rise. There was a fresh wave of Pan-Africanism that intoxicated a lot of us outside and brought us back home. It seemed like we were finally getting things right and Nigeria was becoming a good place to live.
What was it like when you came back?
It was difficult to settle in. This was my first experience in Nigeria as an adult, so there was a bit of a culture shock. One major way I suffered was in the job market. In the UK, there isn’t much “man know man” that goes on in the job application process. You find a job, apply, and if you qualify, they call you for an interview. In Nigeria, I learnt the hard way that it wasn’t always like that. In many cases, you had to talk to someone. At first, it was confusing that nobody ever reached out back when I applied for jobs, not even to say my application was rejected.
After two years and a lot of struggle, I finally got a legal department job at an NGO, and two years later, I got a lecturing job at a university’s law department. The position was much lower than my qualifications and number of publications commanded, but I took it because I was desperate.
Fair enough. So when did you leave again?
2016. Before that, I already started to feel like although some aspects of Nigeria were good, we were failing at many others. One of the major problems was Boko Haram during Jonathan’s regime. Nigeria was feeling more and more unsafe, and my family had started considering moving, but I didn’t want to go back to England because I don’t like the weather.
In April 2016, I had some health issues that meant I had to travel to Cape Town, and I went with my family. The beauty of the place overwhelmed me. It overwhelmed all of us. I could see myself living there immediately. I contacted a friend who worked at a university in Cape Town and told him that if any open roles came up, he should let me know.
By June, I got a job in Cape Town. I didn’t go through the hiring process, I just got the job. My friend recommended me as I asked, and coincidentally, someone was resigning from a role they needed to immediately fill. Buhari had come into power and things were already looking bad economically in Nigeria, so the timing on this job was perfect. By July, we packed our bags and moved to Cape Town.
I was hired as an associate professor and shortly after, promoted to professor. The salary I got at the beginning was 10x what I earned in Nigeria.
Sweet. Was it difficult settling in?
In some ways, it was. First of all, I found out that the school session from primary school to university runs from January to December, so even though we moved in July, school was still in session. I had to jump straight into work, and my daughters had to get into school even though normally, they’d be on summer break in Nigeria. What this meant was that we had to juggle working with finding a good school for our daughters. Many primary schools here don’t accept students midway through the session, so we went through a ton of schools before we finally found one that made an exception.
When we eventually put them in school, we found out that they were way ahead of their mates academically. What a primary 1 student learns in Nigeria is what a primary 3 student learns here. We had to get them lesson teachers.
Something else I found interesting was the way the economy is set up. Even though the poverty rate in South Africa is high, things are set up to favour the rich. In Cape Town where I live, you either buy your things at a big supermarket or at these tiny markets called spaza shops where things are sold to low-income earners. In these shops, instead of buying a loaf of bread, you can buy four slices.
One more thing is labour. Labour is much more expensive here than in Nigeria. What I pay my nanny now is about the same thing I used to earn as a lecturer in Nigeria.
Are applications open for a new nanny?
Haha… No, thanks!
Do you see yourself leaving South Africa?
Nope. I think it’s home. At first, I was scared of xenophobia, and even though I have experienced some slight racism here, it’s not so bad that it’ll make me leave. My family is settled here and I enjoy it. My daughters are growing up to be confident young women, and I think it’s because of our environment. The place is beautiful. The weather here is never too cold and never too hot. I enjoy my job. I don’t see any reason to leave. You should come and see it for yourself.
I’m adding it to my bucket list for when I can afford it!
Hey there! My name is Sheriff and I’m the writer of Abroad Life. If you’re a Nigerian and you live or have lived abroad, I would love to talk to you about what that experience feels like and feature you on Abroad Life. All you need to do is fill out this short form, and I’ll be in contact.