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.
For today’s subject on Abroad Life, moving to the UK when she was 10 is one of the things she wishes she could have changed. After experiencing racism from teachers and classmates for years, she finally learnt to stand up for herself. Now, she can’t wait to finish university so she can come back and experience what it’s like to live in Lagos.
When did you first decide to move abroad?
I was 10 in 2011 when my parents decided they wanted me to join my two older sisters in the UK. I didn’t know why I was going at the time, but I recently asked my mum and she said it was because I was lonely. The earlier plan was that I’d school in Nigeria, then leave for university. But they saw I was sad and lonely all the time, so they decided to ship me off in Primary 5.
I don’t remember being lonely o, but I would have preferred being in Nigeria for secondary school.
My first few years in London were brutal. I went to an all-girls school and was the only black student in the entire junior school — JSS 1to JSS 3, in Nigerian terms. I didn’t have anybody close to me that I could relate to. One of my sisters was already in senior school and the other was had gone to university.
And then the racism. It was a boarding school, but whenever we needed to get on a bus to go somewhere, nobody sat beside me. Kids gathered in small groups and laughed at me too. Even the friends I made randomly said offensive stuff. Even the teachers were racist because they called me rude every single time I had a dissenting opinion.
I’ve never been one to take nonsense, so whenever anyone said anything I needed to address, I swiftly did. And this got me in a lot of trouble.
One particular incident that will stay with me forever was when they said I needed to see a child psychologist because I left the school clinic. The flu was going around and I caught it, so I had to be in the clinic for a few days. When I recovered, I met the nurse to ask if I could go back to the hostels, and because she was on the phone, she just nodded and gave me a thumbs up. A few days later, I had to be in a meeting with the school administration and my dad. They called him to come all the way from Lagos because there was an issue that needed critical attention. Apparently, in addition to all the trouble I was getting into, I ran away from the clinic, so it was time for me to take things seriously and get me a psychologist.
My dad changed it for them o. He called them racist and threatened to take me out of the school if they kept misunderstanding me. But that experience really hurt me.
Did your sister know you were going through this stuff?
If my sister wasn’t in that school with me, I wouldn’t have been able to cope. She’s the one I ranted to whenever stuff like that happened. In senior school, things were a bit more diverse, so she had Nigerian friends who rallied around me and told me things would get better.
Did you return to Nigeria often?
I went back every year. Before my sisters left for the UK, they did a few years in secondary school in Nigeria and they always had interesting stories to tell. I wanted that. But the more I interacted with Nigerian kids my age, the more I realised I couldn’t relate to their stories — the shows they watched, the jokes they made, their slangs. It was painful.
Did the racism stop at any point?
No, but I learnt how to handle it better. The turning point for me was when I got into senior secondary school and Nigerians started joining my class. It’s like nobody sends their kids abroad for junior secondary school, but they do for senior secondary. These people had started secondary school in Nigeria and then transferred in senior secondary school, and they were exactly what I needed. With them, I had the freedom to speak without feeling judged, form cliques and just be a kid again. I could listen to them speak about their different experiences in Nigerian secondary schools for days!
With my new social circle, I became more confident and was able to stand up for myself. If a teacher ever did something I thought was racist, I’d look them in the eyes and say, “You’re being racist.” And white people detest being called racist.
Was moving back to Nigeria ever on your mind?
Not really, no. I had become used to being in the UK, and seeing how people complained about schools in Nigeria striking, the economy, and just the general state of the country, I knew I’d have better opportunities in the UK. Immediately after secondary school, I went into uni. I’m in my third year now.
What has that been like?
I’ve absolutely loved it thanks to the people I’ve met. All my friends here are black, mostly Nigerians. I don’t interact with white people except there’s a school project where we have to work together. In my first year here, I was voted as president of the university’s Nigerian society. It’s been amazing meeting and representing Nigerian students from various backgrounds, and making sure they don’t suffer any form of unfairness.
What’s the plan for after uni?
I definitely want to live in Nigeria for a bit after university, just to get some of the experiences I might have missed. For example, I want to know to live in Lagos and experience the Lagos nights everyone talks about. So if I find a good job, I’ll go back. When I eventually have children too, I want them to experience Nigeria. The end goal might not be to live there fully, but I want to be able to go and come whenever I like. I can’t make any solid plans yet because I’m still in uni, but that’s where my head is at.
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.