When people in England ask what life is really like in Africa, I wonder if they suspect that it is more than what the media perpetually portrays it to be. Growing up in Nigeria is like growing up anywhere else in the world – there is good and spades of bad. That said, I would describe my homeland as a country of complexity. Along with the politics of everyday living, even the weather is extreme – torrential rain, blinding sun, humid heat, dense dust…
I grew up with my parents, three sisters, three brothers and extended relatives occasionally pitching up. I was very much a bookworm as a child and drove both parents and siblings up the wall with my persistent questions. Church, school and family trips to the village (in true Igbo tradition) were a big part of our lives. Books and TV were windows to far-flung shores.
I wanted to become a writer from as early as I can remember. My parents often purchased books written by a vast range of authors (local and global) so were pleased when I wrote and rendered poetry and theatre plays at school. However, like most well meaning parents, they were also ‘realistic’ and urged me to become a doctor – and when I declined, a computer scientist. I wanted to make use of my talents by educating people, (essentially this is what writers do through their work – educate and inspire people).
However, in Nigeria, families have a lot of power over people’s destinies and independent thinking is not particularly encouraged. So I had to fight for ‘the right to write’ (persistence being the only weapon I could afford) and in many ways, I am still fighting even though I no longer live in Nigeria.
As my country marks 50 years of independence, I wonder what it means to be free and if any individual or nation really is. I also wonder if absolute freedom is not an utterly dangerous thing. Growing up, there were many strict rules that young people had to live by. For instance, we couldn’t look elders straight in the eye or even use their names in some cases.
I was surrounded by male relatives but was constantly told that I couldn’t speak assertively like them, couldn’t sit ‘carelessly’ like them. Although my mother’s peers were mostly teachers, my generation was encouraged to aspire. I grew up believing that I could be anything I wanted to be – except of course the very thing I wanted to be. Such is the myth of freedom and independence…
History lessons were never lacking in our house. My parents spoke vividly of colonial times and British suppression, waxing lyrical about pioneering leaders like Nnamdi Azikiwe, the hope and excitement of the early 60s and the foundational cracks which led to a civil war in 1967. I remember huddling around the radio listening to coup broadcasts in the 90’s whilst feeling my parents’ deep fear of the unknown. I remember the ethnic clashes that left bloody bodies splashed on the streets.
However, I also remember that tribe and tongue didn’t matter when the entire nation cheered the national football team in the 1994 World Cup and on to win the Olympic gold medal two years later. So I suppose we have what it takes to set conflict aside when it no longer serves a worthwhile cause.
Nobody, no matter how well-heeled, escapes the general hardships of life in Nigeria – battered roads, epileptic electricity and the frequent teachers’ strikes which extended my course of study at the university by well over a year.
People leave their homelands for various reasons – the quest for education, adventure or perhaps a better quality of life.
My case was simple. I left because I met an amazing man who happened to live in England and I had to do what all old fashioned women do when they fall in love. In a sense, love is what makes us travel out of our comfort zone. Inspired by the yearning to make a difference, to create change for ourselves and others, anyone can defy the odds.
Life in the UK was way harder than I thought it would be. My expectation at the time was that I was riding off in the sunset to this story-book world where there are no serious problems. Imagine my surprise when I arrived and discovered that there was barely any sunshine to begin with! I had left behind a promising career as a marketing executive as well as all my family and friends.
For the first time in my life I felt different – in a way that is hard to describe, even for a novelist. However, this distance from everything I have ever known, bred a new perception of my homeland. I saw the rot garnished with redeeming qualities… and perhaps that is why my novel, ‘Egg-Larva-Pupa-Woman’, tells Nigeria’s history with such scope, passion and unflinching honesty.
What would any decent story be without a twist or two? Egg-Larva-Pupa-Woman is filled with many surprises – as is my own life. For instance, after I rediscovered my entrepreneurial inclination and embarked on the convoluted process of starting my own business, my computer science pedigree became indispensable.
I was business writer by dawn, website designer by noon. Business Consultant by mid-day, technical workhorse by mid-night. I was humbled afresh as life experiences (both good and bad) and every skill I ever had, slotted sleekly into place. There is a reason for everything and I wouldn’t trade my imperfect journey for anything.
The BBC World Service has recently asked me to speak about various aspects of history, politics, economic progress and future prospects at a London seminar commemorating Nigeria’s 50th independence anniversary. I feel blessed to have various opportunities to share my talent – to educate and inspire others.
To women (and men) who still feel as if they don’t have a voice or a choice, I say “a dream is worth believing in… and fighting for if necessary.” Simply because it is uniquely yours and has the potential to make a difference.
‘Egg-Larva-Pupa-Woman’ is available for purchase on Amazon and other good bookstores. For autographed copies of this exciting novel, please order through her website now.