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A portrait of the Nigerian abroad

At a Beijing restaurant, two Nigerians meet. A conversation ensues.

"I noticed, as we spoke, that Sunny spoke of Nigeria as something that he was not a part of, something that he had left behind."

Illustration by Noah Olayinka for the Question Marker
“I noticed, as we spoke, that Sunny spoke of Nigeria as something that he was not a part of, something that he had left behind.”

Illustration by Noah Olayinka for the Question Marker

I found out about Andy’s Restaurant on the web. It was a Nigerian restaurant nestled inside Sanlitun Soho, one of the many sprawling architecture projects that dot Beijing’s landscape. I knew, when I discovered it, that I wanted to visit, and one Friday afternoon, the sun dancing in the sky –welcoming spring’s dawn – I slung my camera bag across my shoulder and set out. I used the subway, alighted at Dongsishitiao Station and walked ruler-straight along the edge of a busy road for about 18 minutes before spotting Sanlitun Soho ahead, a set of futuristic glass buildings that resembled alien domes. The area was crowded, not so much, but enough for me to squint nervously at my phone, trying to quickly decipher the GPS’ directions before I get swept off into a black hole. I read numbers off the glass shops as I weaved through the giant structures, before spotting a plaque-like signpost that pointed me to the basement where Andy’s Restaurant was hid, like a shy bride.

If I had not known that the Restaurant was Nigerian beforehand, I could have missed its uniqueness. The man at the front desk, which doubled as a bar, was Asian, and there were two other Asian ladies, servers perhaps, who looked towards my direction as I made my way in. I had to ask whether I was in the right place and the Asian man nodded, gesturing for me to take a seat.

The restaurant was designed to be deeply dark and mysterious. It was possible that the interior decorator that called the shots had wanted to recreate a vision of Nigeria as a bleak but beautiful country, a place where things were dead but hope flowed like a river. The tiles were black, thick black. The tables and seat were bold and brown. On the wall was a colourful drawing of a drummer working his magic and a dancer moving to the rhythm of the melody. The space was small, but it did not feel cramped.

I found a seat somewhere at the centre and the Asian man brought the menu. I asked him whether he was the manager, but he shook his head, muttered something in Chinese and disappeared. I returned to the menu, but before long, a new Asian lady, slender and tall, was by my side and she spoke English. I told her I was a Nigerian journalist who was curious about the restaurant’s story. She was warm and had a small smile on her face. Andy was her husband, she said, but he was presently not around. I would have to wait till 22 hours. (The clocks had just struck fourteen) I told her that was not a problem. I had time.

Since I was not expecting the food to be spectacular, I ordered the safest option, for my palate, on the menu: egusi with okazi and pounded yam. When it came, the egusi looked white and bland. On my tongue, it was too soft. But these were minor conflicts. I rolled up my sleeves and dug in with relish, letting my mind wander, if just for a while, to a place I called home.

Halfway into the meal, a black man walked into the restaurant and proceeded to the bar, where he struck up a conversation with the restaurant’s mistress. At some point, I thought I heard him address her as ‘Nwannem’, a word in Igbo that is used to address one’s sister. Then, with a can of malt, a tin of milk and a glass cup, he walked past me to a table. And, as it is customary with most of the black people I had met in Beijing, he waved at me – this comrade in a foreign land, a smile forming across his fleshy lips. I waved back. He settled at a table just perpendicular to my right and, although his seat was facing the opposite direction, he refused to obey the geography of the arrangement and swivelled his body towards my direction. Which country are you from, he asked. I could tell that he was both amused and excited, but I did not reply immediately: my mouth was filled with pieces of tasty goat meat.

When I finally did reply, he refused to believe. You don’t sound Nigerian, he said. You should be proud of your country, now tell me which country you are from.

Now it was my turn to be amused. It is true that I do not speak with an accent, but I had not expected anyone to dis-Nigerianise me based on that. I was curious to why he thought that way. So I told him to allow me finish up with the food. When I did, I pushed the plates aside and invited him to join me at my table. Then I asked him why he thought I was deceiving him.

I meet a lot of black people who claim to be Nigerians when they are not, he said. I think you are from Sierra Leone or Liberia.

Or Ghana, I offered.

No, Ghana people don’t travel, he replied.

Why is that?

Because Ghana is a very good country. Maybe after South Africa, Ghana is the best place to live in Africa. They have light and life is good. Why should they leave their country?

From here, the conversation moved towards familiar territory: politics. I have interviewed enough Nigerians to know that politics is perhaps the best conversation starter, the window through which you warm your way into their soul. And Sunny, the name my acquaintance gave me, was no different. He spoke with bitterness about the country’s leadership and he did not tire.

Nigeria has money, he said, God has really blessed that country, but the problem is bad leadership.

When I asked him who he thought should be elected President in 2019, he was dismissive. No person you will put there that will make that country better, he said, what they need is for every state to be doing their own thing. If that is not possible, then they should divide into three.

I noticed, as we spoke, that Sunny spoke of Nigeria as something that he was not a part of, something that he had left behind. He used ‘that’ instead of ‘we’, used ‘your’ instead of ‘my’.

Do you think dividing the country into three is feasible, I asked him.

Yes, he replied. Only three tribes make up the country: Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa.

But what about the Niger-Delta tribes, the middle belt, the multiple tribes spread across the northern region.

He shook his head. Look, there are only three tribes I know in Nigeria. The Calabars and Niger-Delta people are Igbos, they just changed the language. The same thing with Yorubas and Hausas . . .

I let him talk and explain, at length, his three-tribe theory without interruption. Before long, we were back to how bad the Nigerian leadership is. He was vicious with his condemnation, calling names and describing them with unprintable adjectives. I simply nodded and soaked it all in. It was quite obvious that there was a story beneath the rage, a personal story that had left him scarred, and I was keen to hear it. But Sunny was reluctant. Why should I share my story with you, he said, are you going to pay me for it?

Is this your first time in Beijing? I asked.

No, my first time here was in 2010, he replied.

He had been a trader, buying clothes and shoes from China and shipping them to Nigeria to resell. But in 2011, something tragic happened that made him stop. He would not say what it was, but he relentlessly cursed the Nigerian Customs for ruining him. When I asked him what he was currently doing in China (According to him, he had returned some two months ago before our meeting), he declined to answer.

I am not happy with what I am doing, he said. I am doing it with pains and I am not proud enough to say it.

What is it, I pressed.

No, I cannot tell you. It is not something that should be said.

Is it illegal?

Yes, but I am forced to do this because of the bad leadership in that country Nigeria.

He had grown up in Isuochi, a town in eastern Nigeria, he told me, and the local politicians had done nothing to develop the community. They did not do anything for us, he said. That place is still like bush till now. No light, no road. I don’t know the essence of why these people travel abroad, because they are not learning anything. I am a family man. I have two kids and a wife in Nigeria. I am not supposed to be here. What am I doing here?

A stretched silence ensued at this point. I am fiddling with my notes, but my thoughts are jumbled up. This is familiar territory: interview subjects lamenting how the government is so terrible that they cannot but turn to crime. But what about personal responsibility? Still, the phrase – personal responsibility – is like gravel in my mouth, because I realise he is being held to a standard without considering the privilege of those, including people like me, who have set those standards. It was Ta-Nehisi Coates, in ‘Between the World and Me’ that wrote: “What is ‘personal responsibility’ in a country authored and sustained by a criminal irresponsibility.”

Nigeria’s criminal irresponsibility is well documented. The amount of money that has been siphoned corruptly from government coffers is so huge that it would not be an exaggeration to say that the entire economy is literally running on stolen funds. In 2016, a former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, was alleged to have diverted $2.1billion dollars that was originally meant for arms purchase for the fight against violent Islamic group, Boko Haram. When President Muhammadu Buhari shared this instance with Christiane Amanpour on CNN, she could hardly believe it. The former army chief, who had been voted the previous year on the platform of ridding the country of the corruption plague, had to reiterate his figure. Billion, not million dollars, he said.

When I finally found my voice, I asked Sunny whether he was going to return to Nigeria. He leered at me and then burst into raucous laughter. I don’t want to go back anymore, he said, can’t you see a beautiful China. You, do you want to go back?

I left Andy’s earlier than I had anticipated. The sun was setting and the crowd outside was thinning. I checked my GPS and decided to walk back to my apartment, rather than take the subway. It would take an estimated 40 minutes, but maybe the evening breeze could help lighten the headache that had gripped me. Listening to Sunny had been difficult, because he confirmed the negative adjectives foreigners in Beijing use to describe Nigerians: the criminal, scam artist. I will, of course, argue that there are far more honest, hard working Nigerians than the dubious, but the stereotype is not exactly built on air. Once, I had visited Warri, an oil rich region in Southern Nigeria, and spoken to young men engaging in online scam. The justification was eerily similar to Sunny’s: the government has failed us and we have to find our way. Once, an Indian colleague had asked me, what’s wrong with black people? Nothing, I replied. We have just been unfortunate to have bad leaders. But he would have none of it. Other races, he said, have also had terrible leaders, but that has not stopped them from pushing the boundaries of progress. I saw his point and I threw my hands up. Then I really don’t have an answer to your question, I told him. It occurred to me to talk about the Atlantic Slave Trade and the case for reparations, but, the way I see and feel it, the answer is multifaceted, a complex beast with many heads that can only be tamed with powers beyond my pay grade. Besides, I tried to console myself, a journalist’s task is not to provide answers but ask the right questions.

The walking did help to clear my head. On the six-lane Dongdaqiao road, which was heavy with traffic, I spotted some Asians taking photographs of cherry blossoms that had sprouted in the wake of spring. I brought out my phone too and clicked away. ✚

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