Traveling in Nigeria, meeting people with Inge Ligtvoet, PhD student in the research programme Connecting in Times of Duress.
Nigeria has lots of oil, but access to water and electricity is a serious problem. Generators are polluting the public space, creating dusty air and a noisy environment. Here one could easily forget what it is to be in silence. But Nigerians have to endure more, due to increasing levels of ‘insecurity’. Criminality, now combined with Boko Haram threats and the 2015 election tensions, feed into a general emotion of insecurity. That emotion is exacerbated by a lack of general trust in the government’s intentions to take care of the people, as they are too busy enriching themselves following rules of corruption. Although nothing might actually happen and life is relatively calm, this discourse dominates the attitude and action in daily life. Remarkable is the absence of night life for the commoner. Many people rather go home around 10 pm or even earlier, except during holidays or on special occasions. Nevertheless, the number of cars, the shopping malls and the festivities do show that Nigeria is a relatively rich country, with a substantial middle class. The advertisements in the streets all cry out the better life, a life of well-being, good food and good cars. And indeed, things do work: taxis function and are well controlled, communication infrastructure is very good, and cheap. Universities and schools keep up high standards. As a young lady commented when we were discussing the situation in the neighbouring countries: ‘No no, life is ok in Nigeria, except for this “insecurity”’. Energy through generators has become the norm, but only for those who can afford the 97 naira per liter for fuel. Acceptance is smoothened by the deep religiosity of most Nigerians. Religion and churches or mosques are such an indispensable part of life here. Their adagio: work hard and trust God, and you will succeed in life. Which translates very well into the general ‘religious’ sigh of the people in the south of Nigeria: ‘It is well’.
The Nigerian Dream
In this environment we hook up with some young people who are Inge’s informants. Young people who struggle to become the person they want to be. These young people work hard to sustain themselves and they have a dream. It’s the ‘Nigerian dream’: to become someone starting from zero, from poverty to wealth. From nobody to somebody. But while achieving this dream and becoming rich, one should do good. Share whatever one attains with family, friends and the people in need – be valuable for society.
Oge is certainly one of them. He has a broad smile and is very talkative. We meet on the day of our arrival in Enugu, after a long trip by road from Ibadan, in a nice open air bar. Before we got here, we were visiting the shopping mall, where many inhabitants of Enugu spend their free time. The mall is the place to be. Oge likes it as well, but he will only buy there if he can make his girlfriend happy. This first meeting was an immediate introduction to Oge’s openness: he started explaining us about the first kiss he shared with his girlfriend in public, his girlfriend blushing next to him. This evening was an outing and he dressed for it, wearing nice trousers and good sneakers. His girlfriend clearly prepared to look good as well, having her hair done stylishly and wearing a playful dress. Both appearing as a young urban and successful couple, real urbanites, enjoying life.
Oge’s story is not what it seems at first sight. Oge’s father is a retired military man who fought in the Biafran war. He returned from the war carrying his brother’s dead body home on his own already weak body, a hero in his community. But listening to Oge’s story about his father, that is all: he returned. He was never a happy man and father after these experiences. Although Oge acknowledges the fact that he inherited his creativity from his father, who is a great painter, he describes his father as a man failing to take care of his family. His mother maintained her children and their education in her own way, by selling porridge and bean cookies. When Oge finally went to secondary school, he started taking care of himself. With money obtained from petty jobs, e.g. in a dry cleaning store, he found his way through school without putting any more pressure on his family. Currently, Oge is taking care of his younger sisters and his parents with the work he is doing in his own shop in Enugu. The sour memory of his childhood in poverty pains and rages him. Especially the time he was sent to his uncle, where, instead of experiencing a lovely youth, he was turned into a house slave. But it also taught him a lesson about life and how to become somebody. Supported by his faith, he is chasing his own ‘Nigerian Dream’.
Shoes, fashion and wealth
Oge is a fashion designer and a very entrepreneurial person. He is active everywhere, both on- and off-line. He sells his products mainly through Whatsapp and Facebook, but also benefits from word-to-mouth advertisement. His shoes and bags are real fashion. His workshop is a
place of wisdom. With him works a young female student who wants to learn his skills. Oge already ‘graduated’ more than 5 shoemakers. He enjoys transmitting his skills and is not afraid they will become his immediate competitors. He is certain of his own style and sure that he will soon have a real factory. Creativity and skills are his ideology. He is aiming at buying machines. The generator that he bought on the day we visited him in his workshop, symbolizes his wish for independence. This generator means liberation of the caprices of the odd functioning electricity company.
He set the scene for our filming endeavor, fabricating a handbag for Mirjam. We filmed the whole process in which he showed to be a very precise and concentrated worker. He used the cloth we bought for the making of dresses and he enjoyed the idea that I would later be dressed complete with dress, bag and shoes in similar style. Fashionable! After finishing the bag he embraced us and we took pictures, one of which he immediately posted as his Whatsapp display picture (see page top).
Independence is the core of Oge’s Nigerian dream. His wishes to build an empire of skilled shoe and bag makers, to create a community of independent young people, avoiding contact with the destructive Nigerian State mentality of corruption and neglect. By doing so, he can build a new Nigeria. Wealth will help him to do so, because being wealthy is definitely the way out here. It will be as God wishes, he confirms with his big smile!