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 Russia when he was 17 instead of joining his family in the US because he wanted some independence. He talks about discovering himself in Russia, leaving religion, living a double life, and being scared of facing his parents again.
When did you first decide to leave Nigeria?
In my last year of secondary school, my mum and little sister left Nigeria to be with my dad in the US, but I couldn’t join them because I had to write WAEC. The plan was that when I finished secondary school, I would go and join them.
How long had your dad been in the US?
About six years. He left for work when I was 10 and never came back to Nigeria, and not living with him in my more aware years meant we didn’t really have a relationship.
After secondary school, I wrote JAMB and POST UTME to go to UNILAG and got admission. My parents’ plan was to make me go to UNILAG so I wasn’t idle, but also start processing admission into a university in the US. Me, I had different plans.
I didn’t want to join them. I wanted to stay in Lagos. I grew up in a small town in Western Nigeria and didn’t get to do much. I was questioning religion and the values my mum raised me by, so I wanted some freedom. Lagos was supposed to fix that for me, but I hated staying there really quickly.
It was a terrible place. It was always rowdy and generally felt unsafe. Very bad vibes. UNILAG itself was a struggle for me because I didn’t get a hostel, so I had to find an apartment outside school and make the commute every day. That’s the worst period of my life.
One day in my second semester, I got a WhatsApp message from a friend. They’d sent one of those broadcasts advertising scholarships in Russia, and for some reason, I decided to apply. If Lagos wouldn’t frre me, I’d find freedom elsewhere.
How did the application process go?
Smoothly. I didn’t have to do a visa interview. I just compiled all the documents they asked for and sent them. In the same period when I was applying for the scholarship, my parents were ready for me to start my US university application. They sent me money for processing the admission and to write my SATs, but I spent it on the most random stuff. I was pretty confident the scholarship was going to go through because the process was moving swiftly. There was a lot of back and forth. I lied to my parents that I was processing my SATs and US admission just to keep them off my back for a bit.
After some time, I stopped hearing from the Russians, and that’s when I started getting scared. But I still didn’t tell my parents. I was holding on, hoping something good would happen.
The visa came. I was so relieved. I finally told my parents, and while they were angry at first, they calmed down when they heard “scholarship”. I wouldn’t spend money on my university education? They were in.
On Christmas Day in 2017, I left Nigeria and went to Russia. The scholarship paid for everything, including my flights.
Expectation vs Reality: Russia Edition.
Because I did some reading online, the two things I expected were the cold in the winter and racism. . But, I promise you, nothing can ever mentally prepare you for the cold that’ll hit your body when you step out of the airport. I had to run back inside to gather my thoughts before going out again.
I’ve been here for almost five years, and I’m still not used to the cold. I don’t think I ever will be. In the winter, I stay indoors except it’s absolutely necessary to go out, like when I need to go grocery shopping.
One more thing. People talk about the winter in Russia; they forget to talk about the summers. The winters go as low as -37°C, but the summers also go as high as 40°C. That’s hotter than a lot of places in Nigeria get.
And the racism?
I don’t know if I can call Russians racist. I think they’re just ignorant because they’re not so exposed. I don’t live in a big city, so when some white people see me, it’s probably their first time ever seeing a black person. I’d be on the bus and get questions like, “Why is your skin black? Did you paint it?” I’d see genuine looks of confusion on their faces. Whenever I walk past children playing on the roads, I see them stop and stare. Like they’ve just seen a ghost. I don’t know if I’d consider all of that as racism.
That’s interesting. Was it difficult settling in?
For a couple of reasons, it was. First, it was the cold. Every day I went out was the worst day ever. I would come back home freezing. Second, the language. My delayed visa meant I had to learn the nine-month language course in six months. I went for the classes, but communicating was difficult in the periods when I didn’t know the language. I babbled a lot and used hand gestures.
I also found it hard to make friends. When I got here, I met Nigerians but many of them were religious, and I was trying to leave religion.
On my first week, someone invited me for a Friday night vigil. I was tired and slept off, and the ushers came to wake me up. It was in that moment I realised I didn’t want to do Christianity anymore. I believe in God, but I’ve always had questions about the worship of God in organised religion. I couldn’t ask those questions when I was a child. With my new found freedom, I didn’t have to bother about it.
Did you eventually make friends?
Yes. Most of my friends are southern African. People from that part of Africa are more liberal and open to new ideas. Many of them didn’t grow up with religion, so they seemed like the perfect people for me.
How were things in school?
They were going pretty smoothly. The school accommodations were terrible, so after my first year, I moved out and got a shared apartment with a few of my friends. I was making money from freelance writing online and getting monthly stipends from the scholarship, so I was able to split the bills with my friends.
The more I hung out with them, the more my views on a lot of things changed.
Things like what?
Growing up, I used to look at people who drank and smoked like they were deviants. As I saw my friends do it, I started to open up to the idea that people who did things like that were normal people like me. Gradually, I also started drinking, smoking, going to clubs and going for parties, and I really liked it. It made me feel free.
Because I was going to a lot of parties, I got interested in music and started learning how to DJ online. In my personal time, I made DJ mixes that were a mixture of house music and southern African music, and whenever we went to parties, I told people I was a DJ. People who were interested asked if I had a sample, I played it for them, and that’s how I started getting jobs. Now, I make good money as a DJ.
But the thing is, my parents don’t know I’m living the life I’m living. Every day, I live two lives — one in reality, and another where I constantly lie to my parents. They don’t know I’m a DJ, they don’t know I drink and smoke, they don’t know I sleep around, they don’t know I have tattoos. They just think their son is studying hard in Russia and will come to join them in the US when he finishes his education this 2022.
Are you going to join them?
I’m afraid to. I’m not at the point in my life where I can face my mum despite the things I’m doing. I can’t pretend when I’m with them because I smoke cigarettes, and I probably would need to smoke after a few days. The thought of my mum’s reaction to my tattoos is scary enough to make me stay away. I miss them, but I’m only going to see them when I’m confident enough in myself to defend my actions. I don’t know what that’ll take or when it’ll be, but it’s not now.
Do you know what you’ll do when you’re done with education in Russia?
My friends and I have joked about moving to the Netherlands because weed is legal there, but when we tried, we couldn’t get the Schengen visas because of lockdown.
How do you get your weed in Russia?
The dark web.
There are sites on the dark web where you order weed, pay and they give you coordinates to where they’ll drop it on a random street near you. It’s movie-like stuff. During the lockdown in 2020, I also got into psychedelics like mushrooms and LSD, and that’s how I order my stuff.
You were talking about where you would go after you get your degree.
Maybe South Africa. Or the UK. I don’t know yet. I have to make up a lie to tell my parents first. Maybe I’ll tell them I’m going to do my master’s somewhere.
Have you ever thought of returning to Nigeria?
My mum won’t let me. She doesn’t want us to go back because she thinks Nigeria has nothing more to offer. Every time I bring up going back home just to visit and eat Nigerian food, she says they’re using juju to call me and I shouldn’t answer them.
I decided to go for two weeks without her permission in 2020, but shortly before I bought my tickets, lockdown happened. I’m thankful I didn’t go. I would have been stuck there.
LMAO. Are there many Nigerians in Russia?
So, so many, and the Nigerian population greatly increased during the 2018 World Cup where people didn’t need visas to come to Russia and watch the World Cup. Many Nigerians from Nigeria didn’t come here for the World Cup; they came to japa.
Did you watch the World Cup?
I did. I took a 48-hour train to watch Nigeria vs Iceland. It was fun.
People don’t realise just how massive Russia is. A lot of people also don’t know that 77% of Russia is in Asia, while 23% is in Europe, and the 23% amounts for almost 40% of the total area of Europe. I live in European Russia. This is where most of the population lives.
Mad. What’s your favourite part about living in Russia?
The safety and the freedom. I have never for a moment felt unsafe in Russia. I can go out by 3 a.m. and be sure nothing bad will happen to me. It’s the same for women. You almost never hear that someone was hurt. When I leave here, it’s what I’ll miss the most.