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 has a principle: staying in Nigeria is better than moving abroad. So when she moved to the UK for her master’s and then to South Africa for her PhD, she didn’t expect much, but working in a nursing home with physically aggressive people and living in an extremely unsafe city made her realise she was actually right the whole time.
When did you first decide to leave Nigeria?
My decision to leave was strictly because I had an opportunity to.
After graduating at 29 as the best student in my department, I was retained and hired as a graduate assistant. I worked for a year at the department of environmental biology and fisheries, then qualified for a federal government scholarship that gave university lecturers the opportunity to further their studies abroad. For school, I decided to take the chance. I applied for my master’s at the University of Essex and got in to study environmental governance.
In my 30 years of living in Nigeria, I wasn’t interested in leaving. Nigerians always talk about japa, but I didn’t see the appeal. As long as I have a good job and a supportive family in Nigeria, why would I leave? I also noticed that, around me, the people who wanted to japa at all costs never really succeeded in life because they were too focused on trying to leave to see opportunities around them and never got to japa too.
Can you share a bit more about this scholarship?
By 2011, I qualified after one year as a graduate assistant. To be accepted, I signed a bond saying I would come back and work for the university for two years after my master’s. I also needed two guarantors who were lecturers in my university for the bond. If I didn’t come back, the government would hold them responsible, and they would have to pay back the cost of my tuition fees from their salaries—about ₦7 million each.
The government sent my living costs to my school, which was sent to my pounds sterling account. The arrangement was pretty organised. I don’t know if they do it anymore.
Expectations vs reality: UK edition.
Because one thing Nigerians that travel abroad do is send money home, I thought I would see extravagant wealth in the UK. I expected it would be easy to make money, and everyone there would be stinking rich because that’s just how stuff works abroad. It didn’t take me long to see that people were working really hard to make money. People were diligent. It wasn’t just la vida loca living. People had multiple jobs, shifts, paid bills and complained about finances just like in Nigeria. It made me realise that the concept of hustling wasn’t just a Nigerian thing, and that was interesting to see.
Was it easy for you to settle?
It wasn’t so difficult because I made friends who were new to the UK like me, and we bonded over being newcomers in the UK. I had a friend from Chile who couldn’t make out the accents from the lectures and would always ask me what they were saying. I met people from countries like Azerbaijan — which I didn’t know existed. I met people who were fascinated by the Nigerian culture and stuff they read about Nigerians. A friend told me she read that Nigerians were the happiest people and I explained how, even if we were going through hell, we would make jokes, but it didn’t mean we were happy. That’s just how we are.
There was subtle racism and profiling here and there, but I didn’t pay too much attention to it. The most prevalent one was hearing that people were avoiding me because I was a Nigerian, and therefore, a fraudster. Some people who had those opinions later became my friends because they got closer to me and learnt that the fraudster tag were just stereotypes. Some others kept their distance. Racism also showed up when I tried to get jobs.
What kinds of jobs were you looking for?
Anything I could do with my free time to make some extra bucks. Midway through my one-year programme, I got a job as a caretaker at a nursing home. I didn’t like it. Taking care of the elderly isn’t for everyone. They soiled themselves, fell, passed terrible remarks and misbehaved, and I had to smile through it all. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I was assigned to an elderly man that had mental issues that made him aggressive and physically violent. In total, I was at the job for about five months before I quit. It was a degree they sent me abroad to get, not to make money.
School itself was difficult. There were times when I just wanted to give up because I was tired, but I remembered that I needed to make the university that sent me proud.
Was there any point where you thought, “This abroad life might actually be the real deal”?
Never. My belief that being at home was always going to be better than being abroad remained. Immediately I got my master’s degree, I came back to Nigeria to start my job as a lecturer. I was in the UK for only a year.
But wo and a half years after I started my lecturing job, in 2015, I decided to go abroad again for my PhD.
Where, this time?
South Africa. More lecturers had seen the opportunity to study abroad so they were going to the UK, US and Canada, and it was expensive, so my school encouraged people who had already gone to more costly universities to consider cheaper places to further their education. That’s why I chose South Africa. I was pregnant when I moved, and my husband came to join me after some time. He, too, decided to get a degree when he got here.
Expectations vs reality: South Africa edition.
It didn’t matter what I expected. What I saw was too bad. I lived in Johannesburg for the four years of my PhD, and my God, I couldn’t wait to leave.
Where do I start? Is it the crime? People say Nigeria is dangerous, but if they know how prevalent crime is in Johannesburg, they’ll love Nigeria. One day, someone came to visit me briefly and a few minutes after he got to my house, they’d stolen his car from the street. You have to watch your back everywhere you go and clutch your purses tight because someone might just be in the mood to mug you.
Or is it the racism? You’d think racism in the UK would be worse than in South Africa, but nope. White South African lecturers and students in my school wouldn’t even talk to me directly. The same thing white faculty members would tell white students face to face, they’d send to black students as a mail.
Or is it the riots? Riots that can just start any time and you don’t know how safe you are? I really disliked staying in South Africa.
The cost of living there was also really high. Rent, water bills, electricity bills, all expensive. My health deteriorated because I couldn’t sleep well. I was never at peace.
Was there anything that was enjoyable about living in South Africa?
The only time I enjoyed South Africa was when my younger sister came to visit me. At least I had a family member with me. And then church also. The church was the only place I felt safe.
Apart from that, it was chaos. I remember one incident where we co-rented an apartment with a guy who spent his days and nights doing drugs, and he started beating his girlfriend and smashing plates in the middle of the night. In the same house where my husband and son lived. It was terrifying.
Was there any specific hate targeted at you for being a Nigerian?
From what I saw, South Africans generally don’t like Nigerians being around. To be fair, a lot of Nigerians are in the streets selling drugs and getting arrested, and it’s dangerous for their communities, but that’s not enough reason to dislike Nigerians as a whole. When I was there, I also heard stories about how South African women prefer Nigerian men because they’re “more responsible”, so there might be some hate spewing from there too. But no, I wasn’t personally attacked.
When did you leave South Africa?
I didn’t bother to wait for my graduation ceremony. Immediately I submitted my final papers and my supervisor told me I was done, I bought my graduation gown and my family and I returned to Nigeria. We stayed there for four years. Now I’m back in Nigeria lecturing.
So both abroad experiences proved you right.
Absolutely. I’d rather just be here with my family knowing I’m safe and praying Nigeria becomes better so Nigerians don’t have to travel and face uncertainty.