I’m often asked why I love Nigeria. How is one supposed to answer that kind of question? It’s just like being asked why you love your husband, or mother or best friend. All the things we love have faults, but we love them despite. We see something in them that others don’t. We love the way they make us feel. I love the smell of Nigeria. I can’t explain the smell, but I know I love it. I love its’ dilapidated, imperfect roads. I love how green it is and all incredible, unknown sorts of trees and plants that grow here despite the heat. I love the laugh of its people, their songs and the way they dance even when there is no music playing. I love the colors of their traditional clothes as much as I love the colors of the sky above Nigeria- always new, unexpected, perfect blends. I love the loud and excited way they celebrate God,full of faith, but are still afraid of “juju” magic. I love how close the moon looks on its dark sky. And the stars! You should see the stars…
I remember the day when I fell in love with Nigeria. It was my first day in this beautiful country, and the night before seemed like some nightmare that never really happened. Actually, it was the first morning in Owerri, the capital of Imo State, one of the 36 states in Nigeria, when I fell in love. Imo State is in the South East of Nigeria, and the Igbo tribe is dominant here. Everything grows on Imo’s red mud. However, I will write more about it in the future, let us go back to that first morning in Nigeria. We spent the night in a hotel. Kelvin, the Nigerian man who traveled with us told us to lock up and not open the door for anyone. He seemed more afraid than the three of us. We left the hotel early in the morning to the house where we were supposed to be accommodated during our one-month-planned stay, while we are engaged in the project.
The morning was hot and sunny. Humidity was so high that asphalt was completely wet. Not many white people visit Imo, so for Imolites seeing a white person is kind of event. An exciting event too! Since I grew up in Serbia, which is inhabited only by Serbian people and 99,9% of the people are white, I can understand the feeling of seeing the person of another race. It sticks out. When I was a young girl, Serbia was going through crises and sanctions and was highly avoided by tourists and visitors. I recall I was maybe 8 or 9 when I saw a black person for the first time. I was on a holiday with my parents in Dubrovnik, Croatia. I was so excited to see him that I asked my parents if I can take a picture with him. They said that is not polite, and I couldn’t understand why.
Nigerians don’t restrain themselves. As I was walking through the hotel, I felt like a celebrity. Some of them were just staring in awe, some were smiling at us and notifying people next to them that we were passing, some were greeting us and some shouted “Onyeocha”. I asked Kelvin the meaning of the word and he said it means “a white person”. In years to come, I will hear Onyeocha more than any other word both in English and local languages.
We entered the same Landcruiser from the last night, still surrounded by a battalion of policemen. I felt excited because everyone in the hotel was so happy and excited to see us. As we were driving through Owerri, I have noticed many peculiar things on the road. Firstly, I have observed something that would be fascinating to anyone not accustomed to Africa- the way they drive. It strongly reminded me of bumping cars. Lanes, if there were any, were ignored by everyone. Every car was cutting off another as if it was alone on the road. Somehow, what was supposed to be two lanes became four and that created huge traffic. The craziest and the bravest drivers were the ones driving tricycle that is called here Keke Napep, as well as the motorcycle riders. Motorcycles here are a very common and cheap taxi, and believe it or not it can take up to 4 passengers here! The pedestrians were crossing the street courageously literally everywhere. That created an additional traffic jam. Young boys were using the slow movement of traffic to try to sell an incredible variety of items such as water sachets, peanuts (they call it groundnut) in glass bottles, gums, umbrellas, rubber bands, watches, sunglasses, newspaper…It all looked like fair. On the side of the road, women were selling bananas and pineapples that they carried on the trays on top of their heads. Nigerians have very strong necks, I concluded. You could see many things on the side of the road- buildings, old houses, market posts and the amount of trash that I can’t possibly describe. Women were wearing very colorful and bright clothes, some traditional and some modern. The common factor of the clothes was colors – Nigerians love bright colors, especially Nigerians from the south.
What greatly contributed to the beauty of the whole city were palm trees. The State of Palm Trees, I like to call Imo State. Each time I land to Owerri, that thought goes through my mind. Nigeria used to be the number one exporter of palm oil in the world. However, they neglected that business like many others, because they are so focused on oil and gas. We arrived at the top of one hill that was full of gorgeous, huge houses that made such an immense contrast to everything else I have seen in the city. It is very nice that Los Angeles has Hollywood when the whole city is already beautiful. But Hollywood would look disturbing in the city with terrible roads, dilapidated buildings and no electricity almost all day, right? A big gate was opened, and we entered the house of my former boss. The oversized villa was full of police, servants, and people that kept coming because some celebration was happening that day. Canopies were set up in the large backyard of the house, and chairs were decorated with colorful materials. The band was already playing and many guests were dancing. Their music is sort of magical and it makes you want to dance.
Even at this place, everyone stared at three of us, waved, smiled, and shouted Onyeocha. Many of them approached to introduce themselves. Everybody was excited to meet us. Their women were beautiful. Up to this day when I fly from Abuja to Owerri, I like to joke that I am going to attend a one-hour Fashion show on the plane. No matter the height, weight, age, status or amount of money in their pockets, Imo State women always have a million dollar look. No matter if they are wearing traditional or modern clothes, their style is always on fleek. These women always have nice hair and they always look like their makeup was professionally done. They like large jewelry, designer bags and sunglasses, and long nails. As I said, the Igbo tribe that lives in Imo State is generally known to be the richest and most “westernized” tribe. However, that is not the topic, I will certainly talk more about Nigerian tribes and the difference between the rich and poor in Nigeria.
They sat us at one table under the canopy, offered us the most expensive drinks, and the best food. Everyone was cheerful, talkative and interested to know where we are coming from and to also tell us that they have houses and families in Houston, Atlanta, London, Dubai or similar.
Despite the fact that Nigeria is a high-level class society, and that there is no middle class, one thing is common for both rich and poor. Every Nigerian likes to dance, sing and every single one strongly believes in God. At one point of the night, when my former boss showed up at his high seat, a group of 15 women came in front of him and started singing loud in the local language and dancing passionately. Each woman was wearing exactly the same traditional outfit of the same color and fabric. My former boss took out a bundle of Naira bills and started throwing the money on them. They shouted excitedly, hailed at him, while the guests were laughing, applauding or cheering. The celebration continued through the night. Music was playing, people were dancing, everyone was eating some strange meals ( I did not dare, not because I did not like them but because I have many food allergies so I didn’t dare), and friendly conversations and laughs were heard everywhere.
That night, as I was lying in the beautiful room they gave me and listening to the sweet sound of silence, I could not stop smiling. The laughs, the energy of the people, the basic and rooted beauty of the city, palm trees, the street sellers, traditional clothes, culture, dance, and everything else I have seen that day was playing in my head and I could not control the happy feeling in my chest. Then I knew that I will never want to leave Nigeria.