What does it mean to be a man? Surely, it’s not one thing. It’s a series of little moments that add up. Man Like is a weekly Zikoko series documenting these moments to see how it adds up. It’s a series for men by men, talking about men’s issues. We try to understand what it means to “be a man” from the perspective of the subject of the week.
Tolu Olasoji has built a career writing important Nigerian stories. Cutting across sports, culture and technology, his work has been featured in Vice, Quartz and Al Jazeera. But despite all of this, Tolu is not a fan of interviews, especially when they place him front and centre.
Considering the fact that storytellers rarely get a chance to talk about themselves and their experiences, I reached out to the renowned writer and convinced him to sit for his very first interview.
In this episode of Man Like, he talks about leaving home for the first time during his NYSC, how the #EndSARS protests influenced his decision to finally leave Nigeria, why he doesn’t like the word “japa” and why Nigerian men seem to be obsessed with football.
When would you say you had your “man now” moment?
When I moved away from Lagos and my family to do my National Youth Service (NYSC) programme in Taraba state. It was my first time out of Lagos.
Yes. Before going for service, I had succeeded in avoiding anything that would make me travel out of Lagos or far from home. It’s not a sentimental thing for me, it’s more about the physicality of travelling. I don’t mind moving from point A to B, but I’d have to physically make that journey and I hate it. I actually rejected my admission to a university outside Lagos because of this.
But when Taraba came along, I didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t something I anticipated. I thought I’d redeploy to Lagos because I had dreams of making it as a radio presenter there, but I got to Taraba and everything changed.
I started to enjoy myself in camp. My mum called me and also got other family members to convince me to redeploy, but I made up my mind to stay and start afresh there.
My family was worried about the insurgency in the north, but I found myself having such a great time meeting people and rediscovering myself, moving back to Lagos just seemed unnecessary. The media career I wanted for myself in Lagos, started manifesting in Taraba right after camp. I started hosting shows with my friends on the radio.
I felt like there was something for me in Taraba and I owed it to myself to explore it. I was finally experiencing life on my own, and it was so good, I asked them to stop sending me my allowance. I was ready to build my life around my ₦19,800.
LOL. How did that go?
Omo, looking back, I realise that it was a trap. LOL.
So did you struggle with adjusting to anything in Taraba?
I won’t say I “struggled”, but no matter how open-minded I am about things, I draw the line at food. Even though I tried, I found it hard to enjoy the food there. I was like, “Where is the pepper?” The traditional food there didn’t gel with me, so I just stuck to their versions of regular food I was used to.
Was that all?
There’s also the thing about moving to a place where they speak different languages from what you’re used to. But it wasn’t such a big deal because I was focused on overcoming that barrier. Interacting with people who don’t understand what you’re saying can be difficult, but just like most people who find themselves in this situation, I did my best to learn. I started with the bad words and worked my way up. LOL. Football also played a vital role in helping me connect to the people around me. It was a good way to immerse myself into the community because I was always either playing football with some of them or catching up on football games at random viewing centres.
What were the hardest and easiest parts of moving?
The hardest part was definitely travelling by road for 31 hours from Lagos to Taraba. That was a lot.
But it’s ironic because the easiest part came from that trip. This long ass trip from Lagos to Taraba introduced me to one of my close friends, T. We were on the bus together, got to camp at the same time, and because we got to camp late, they made us sleep outside the regular hostels for corpers. At some point, we were so pressed, we had to go into the bushes to take a shit together. We talked throughout. It sounds weird now, but it was really cool. We stuck together after that and throughout my service year. Fun fact, he’s still in Taraba.
I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who get thrown into the deep-end of NYSC with no one in their corner. It was easier to settle in because I had friends like this.
With the way you’ve hyped your time in Taraba state, I’m surprised you didn’t stay back too.
Oh I had plans to stay in Taraba, trust me. I had made another friend after we left camp, and we both bonded over the fact that we had studied tech-related course in school and I had a tech background. We realised there was an untapped tech market in Taraba, so we both made plans to stay back after NYSC to see if there was a way we could penetrate this nonexistent tech ecosystem. Unfortunately, he had to leave immediately after service for personal reasons and I was left alone with that plan.
I did try to see it through, but they weren’t really receptive and I ran out of money to sustain myself so I ran back home. I got back to Lagos, reached out to people I knew and eventually got a job as a sports writer and the rest is history.
You mentioned connecting with people through football, which makes me wonder how you found your own connection with football?
Fun fact, I might be popular for writing and offering commentary about soccer, but the truth is I never really liked it from the jump. I thought watching 22 people run around on a pitch was a waste of time
I preferred basketball. But the more I came in contact with football, the more I got attracted to the stories behind it. You have all these different players and fans from different backgrounds losing their minds over this sport. It’s fascinating.
There’s a story to every match, and I’ve learnt to look beyond the pitch.
Has football taught you anything about who you are as a person?
It has helped me unlock my power of imagination. I don’t know how to explain it, but I didn’t immediately learn football by playing it physically. Instead, I played a lot of games in my head first before eventually hitting the pitch. Another thing is, football helps me relax. It doesn’t matter if I’m playing it, watching it or writing about it, something about it just calms me down. I love soccer so much that I have two scouting certifications that I’ve never used before.
Why are Nigerian men so into football?
For the most part, I think Nigerian men are attracted to the sense of community it brings. You can’t walk through an estate or street without seeing one makeshift goal post made of things from bricks to metal and even bathroom slippers.
Football is what calls us because, for a lot of us, it’s the one thing we have easy access to. Maybe it would’ve been different if these goalposts were hoops. Maybe then Nigerian men would be really into basketball.
Pivoting from football, I recently found out you moved again. So you’ve done the Japa thing too?
Japa throws away context and creates this feeling that I’ve escaped, and I’m not coming back. People automatically assume I’m gone for good. To be honest, I’ve never been a fan of moving out of Nigeria. The only conscious effort I’ve made was to study away from the chaos here. I’ve been wanting to do this for years, but the opportunity finally came and there was money too.
For someone who didn’t want to leave Lagos at all, you’re a really long way from home.
I know right. Like I said, I always wanted to leave for school. I got to a point where I felt like I needed a journalism degree to match the work I was doing after freestyling for about seven years. But another thing that motivated my move was how the #EndSARS protests played out.
Luckily for me, my only experience with SARS was when I had a close-shave with them in 2017. But outside of my personal experience, covering stories during the protests showed me that every Nigerian knew someone who had been harassed or suffered violence at the hands of SARS. For a guy with beards like mine, I knew I was an easy target.
I didn’t feel safe anymore, especially in a country where I was being profiled.
What surprised you the most about how Nigerian men navigate masculinity in America as opposed to back home in Nigeria?
People don’t really give a shit about how you look here in America. So a friend of mine recently saw a picture of my dreads on Twitter, and he went off about how most Nigerian men land in America and start dressing and looking anyhow. LOL. It’s wild to me because my dreadlocks weren’t intentional and even if it were, does it matter? Even if I was in Nigeria, I would do the same thing. I’ve always been unconventional in the way I look and dress. One thing that happens a lot in Nigeria is how we are all expected to look a certain way that passes the mark as responsible. These restrictions shackle us as Nigerian men.
The big difference between navigating masculinity in Nigeria and in America is the freedom from people’s projections of who I should be or how I should look.
Nice. So I’m curious to know what brings you joy these days.
Okay, in this order: love, food and soccer. That’s all.