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 moved to South Africa in 2011 after her husband persuaded her to join him for greener pastures. She talks about the struggles of settling into a new place, the thrill of starting a successful business and the acceptance that came with losing it all.
When was the first time you left Nigeria?
November 2011. I was 21. My husband had gone to South Africa to check on a business opportunity his friend told him about, and even though the opportunity didn’t turn out well, he wanted us to move there.
What does your husband do?
At the time, he frequently travelled to Dubai and sold whatever he brought back — clothes, phones, shoes, watches, everything. He had been doing it for eight years and it was bringing good money to him. From the money he was making, he set up a business for me where I sold recharge cards in bulk.
By 2010, his business started failing because he didn’t have a shop. People would buy things from him, come to the house to pick them up, and promise to pay later. He realised that something had to be done.
Tell me about the business opportunity in South Africa?
As the debts increased, and his business in Nigeria stopped working, he started considering other options. One of these options was the phone market in South Africa. The idea came from a friend there. He could come in and sell phones just like people do in Computer Village, and make good money.
At first, my husband fought the idea. To him, South Africa was an African country just like Nigeria, so they couldn’t offer him anything special. He didn’t have any faith in Africa. Apart from that, he also knew about the xenophobia that was happening in that period, so it didn’t make any sense to go. After a bit of convincing from his friend, he decided to visit.
When he got there, what he saw wasn’t what he expected from an African country. There were good roads, water, and electricity. The phone business didn’t work because he realised that his friend was trying to get him into selling stolen phones, but he saw a life his family could enjoy, so he stayed.
How long after did you join him?
Seven months later, but after a lot of fighting. When he told me he was staying in South Africa and that I needed to join him there, I outrightly refused. I’d never left Nigeria before and I was enjoying my life, so I didn’t see any sense in leaving. I’d also heard of all the xenophobia and I was pregnant so I didn’t want to go into a country where I thought my life wouldn’t be safe because of a man.
After I had my baby in June 2011, my mum convinced me to join my husband, so I did. In the few months, while he processed our visas, he advised me to learn hairdressing because he wasn’t sure I would easily find a job in South Africa. Even he didn’t find a job easily, so he resorted to barbing, a skill he’d picked up in his youth.
What were your first thoughts when you arrived in South Africa?
I didn’t have the mental space to think so much about the country because when I saw my husband, I was in shock. He looked so shrivelled and despicable. Like he’d been suffering.
He was disguising. It’s not like we were flat broke before he left Nigeria because he still had money from his former business dealings, but he didn’t want people there to know he had money. He lived in an apartment with eight men, most of whom were strangers and so he lived like them — sleeping on the floor, skipping meals, living rough, etc. I remember one day before I joined him there when he called me crying because he removed a pair of jeans before taking a bath and one of his roommates kept it for him. He thought they would find the dollars in his pockets and steal them. It turned out the guy didn’t even check his pockets and just returned his jeans when he came back to the room.
What was he keeping all his money for?
He was keeping it to relocate me and our daughter. He got our visas, paid for flights, and brought us down here. Three days after we got there, he got us an apartment. I used the money I got from selling all my bulk recharge cards off to furnish the apartment, and our life there started.
What was life like?
In the beginning, we struggled because we were new to the society, and South Africa isn’t the most welcoming place. There was no straight-up xenophobia, but it was hard to find jobs, make friends, and all that. We survived on my husband’s barber salary until he found me a place to work as a hairdresser. Omo, my boss was evil. She constantly cheated me of my wages because she thought I didn’t understand how much I was meant to be getting. This went on for a few months until I couldn’t take it anymore, so I left.
I got another hairdresser job shortly after, and while this woman didn’t cheat me of my wages, her problem was that she liked my work a bit too much. She enrolled my daughter in school to rid me of distractions and made me work long hours. Every time I tried to spend time with my daughter, she made it a big deal. I was good at hairdressing and my services were bringing lots of customers to her shop, so she didn’t want me to go. On the surface level, she was nice, but deep down, she was strategising ways for me to work for her for as long as she could . People started noticing and warned me to keep my distance from her.
In South Africa, it’s common for residents and citizens to hold foreigners who work for them hostage by threatening to put them in police trouble that could get them deported. Some employers even go as far as planting drugs on their employees and having them get caught by police. Because it’s all planned, they’ll talk to the police to let the employee go, and the employee would have to keep working for them for saving their lives. If the employee tries to leave, they pull the criminal card and threaten them with jail terms.
Did that ever happen to you?
I think it almost did. I left my daughter with her one day, and a few days later, my daughter fell really ill with diarrhoea. When I took her to the hospital, the nurses called the police on me because they found huge amounts of a natural laxative in her system and they needed to know how she ingested it. After I explained that I didn’t know, they let me go. I went back to the shop and caused a huge storm and that’s when I quit. I didn’t want anyone messing with my daughter.
A queen! Did things get better?
Yes. Because my husband and I knew we wanted to stay in South Africa for a long time, we lived a simple life and saved most of the money we got. By 2015, we were able to open a huge hairdressing shop for me and that’s when things started getting better. In the same period, my husband got his cut from a monthly contribution thing he was doing and decided to start a second-hand car business. He’d found out that South Africans often disposed of cars with the slightest problems, so he went to the park, found a car with a tiny problem, fixed it, and sold it at a huge profit. That way, he was able to buy another car and do the same. Within a short while, he was buying three cars and selling them.
Nice. How was the hairdressing shop on your end?
It was blooming. People loved me and loved my services. I know my employees can never forget me too because they still call me to thank me for “changing their lives”. I understood what I’d suffered in the hands of my former employers and I promised myself I would treat my own employees right.
So business was good, I had another child, life was good, and my marriage was good. The only problem I remember having in that period was fighting with my husband daily because he wanted me to come home early. He was always home by 6 p.m. with the kids while I worked till midnight because my working-class customers trooped in after work. We’d talk about it, I’d change a bit but go back to coming home late again. It was just the nature of the business. At some point, he understood. He was just afraid for me.
I’m curious, what was your relationship with your family back at home like?
Almost non-existent. My dad died when I was a child and we weren’t on good terms with his side of the family. My mum, with whom I had a great relationship, passed away in 2017, so the only person I spoke with and sent money to was my sister.
Did you ever consider coming back?
The first time we ever considered coming back to visit was in 2017, but things were moving so smoothly, we didn’t eventually make the trip back until 2020. March 2020.
Right in the middle of the pandemic.
Exactly. Shortly after we got back, lockdown happened. We’ve been stuck here since.
Wait, what happened to your shop?
I left it in the care of a friend without any legal agreement. I just told him to send me money occasionally. I haven’t gotten any money from him since. At first, he and his wife ran the business terribly and then because of the pandemic, they had to shut it down. Now, I hear that the business is running again, but he’s blocked me. I have decided to let it go.
AH! What about your husband’s car business?
By the time we were leaving, he had 9 cars ready to be sold, and he left them with his friend to help him sell them and send the money.
Oh my God…
We’ve received only about ₦50,000 from that friend for cars worth millions. We’re pretty sure he’s sold them and he’s just being fraudulent, but what can we do? After my husband dragged the issue with his friend until the point where they started cussing each other out, we decided to let it go too.
What’s your plan for the future?
We’re staying in Nigeria. It’s home. Last year, we used the money we had to build our own house. I got a job as a hairdresser at a small salon and that’s where I work now. In December last year, I found out I was pregnant again and had the worst nine months of my life because I absolutely did not want a child in the situation we were in. But when the child came a few months ago, it was like I was giving birth to an angel. Every negative emotion went away. She’s the highlight of my return to Nigeria.
That’s amazing. What does your husband do now?
When we were building our house, he decided to import a bulk of the house’s furnishing from Germany, so he bought them along with a huge bus. After we settled, he was looking for something to do when an old friend reached out to him to find out if he wanted to work at the cargo-hauling area of the international airport. If he wanted the job, he would need a bus, and luckily we have a huge bus. That’s what he does now.
Sweet! Good luck in your future endeavours.
Hey there! My name is David 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.