Are You One of Us or One of Them?
Pondering cultural bigotry and intolerance
When you think about yourself in relation to your place in Nigeria, do you consider yourself first as a Nigerian or first as your tribe? Think about it for a few minutes. How do you relate with other Nigerians especially those who are not from your tribe? Think about the types of conversations you have with them. Do you share similar viewpoints on many of our national hot-button topics: religion, politics, marginalisation, banditry and terrorism, to name a few or are your views largely divergent?
Do you find it easier to associate with people who speak the same indigenous language as you do or are you comfortable speaking in a neutral language like English or Pidgin English with other people who are not from your tribe? Do you have relatives from tribes that are not closely associated with yours? Now, ask yourself again, do you consider yourself first as a Nigerian or as your tribe? If you consider yourself as first a Nigerian, what are the things that make you see yourself this way?
Truthfully, for many people, it may be hard to consider themselves first as Nigerian because in reality, who is a Nigerian? What are the unifying traits that all Nigerians have? Do we have a common Nigerian dream that is beneficial to Nigeria? Are we more likely to derive benefits because we come from a certain tribe or because we are Nigerian?
My father was Itsekiri and my mother is Yoruba. I was born, bred, and buttered in Lagos. I speak Yoruba very fluently and I am conversant with Lagos. Every time I remind a Yoruba person that I am not Yoruba, many of them are quick to say: “but you’re one of us now” I often wonder whether this is because I grew up in Lagos or because I speak Yoruba, or because I come from a tribe closely associated with the Yorubas.
Many of my paternal and maternal family members are married to people of tribes other than Itsekiri and Yoruba, spread across Nigeria. Most of them grew up outside of their hometowns, the majority were probably born in Lagos, and Lagos has been home. This is the same for many people from non-Yoruba tribes across Nigeria. Many even speak Yoruba better than some Yoruba people.
Whilst I am conscious of both my Itsekiri and Yoruba heritages, I struggle to think of myself first in terms of either of the tribes. Learning Yoruba was easy as I was more immersed in it due to the closeness of my mother’s family. I never quite caught on with Itsekiri, on the other hand, because I didn’t learn to speak it even though I understand a bit of it. My father did try to teach my brother and me how to speak the language many years later but we were already much older and there were too many distractions.
I often wondered how Itsekiri I was even though I have been to my hometown a few times in my life. Back in university, I immediately joined the Nigerian Association of Itsekiri students chapter just so I could learn about and experience the culture better. It helped a bit as I got to meet many Itsekiri people and learn a few things but I didn’t end up learning to speak the language. The funny thing was that I met Tunde there. His mother was Itsekiri and his father was Yoruba but he was more Itsekiri than I was and I was more Yoruba than he was. We always joked about this.
I remember also meeting two guys during the National Youth Service programme: a Yoruba guy who had a Fulani mother and a Hausa guy who had a Yoruba mother, and both of them were more aligned with their mothers’ cultures than their fathers. It was so funny discovering that Dele looked like and spoke like a Fulani but was Yoruba and Hassan looked like and spoke like a Yoruba but was Hausa. One of the many results of intertribal relationships.
I have taken the time to provide this background because of the tribalistic discussions that have filled the social media airwaves as a result of the ongoing elections. It’s not new though as it has been building up for a while but for me, the most shocking thing is realising that many of the people I assumed were detribalised maintained opinions that betrayed their biases. I cannot help but wonder whether some of these people are tribalistic or whether they are situationally tribalistic, i.e. voicing tribalistic opinions as a form of retaliation because they have also been the focus of recent tribalist attacks. With the thoughts many people have expressed recently, I wonder when non-Yoruba, Lagos-bred people like me could ever vie for political office in Lagos without experiencing some dissent. Could I also successfully vie for office in Delta State as I have never lived there? We must have this discussion one day.
The more I think about it, the more I realise that one of the core reasons many have maintained their tribalistic opinions is that we never really discussed the civil war after it happened. I heard about the civil war from my parents, not in school. An Igbo friend said he didn’t hear about it until he had finished secondary school! I didn’t study History in school but I haven’t met anyone who learnt about the war in History class. Why don’t we have official study material about one of the most important aspects of our national history? Why haven’t we distilled learning value for our society? Granted that some of the headline actors have written books but I have heard some people say that the perspectives offered in those books may not reflect the true story of the war.
I believe we have not healed from the war and parents have transferred their hurt to their children who are also transferring this hurt to their children. Many people are fighting battles on behalf of their progenitors without a clear understanding of the basis for such fights. Was there really no victor, no vanquished? Did all parties suffer the same consequences? Were all parties treated equally after the war? Did all parties have the chance to discuss the war and heal? Did all parties walk away from the war believing that some, if not all, of their objectives, had been met? What about those who were not the main parties but suffered similar consequences for various reasons? Have they had a chance to heal?
I visited the Rwanda Genocide Memorial a few years ago. I was intrigued about how the nation preserved a very painful event in their lives and turned it into a learning point, not just for themselves but for the rest of the world. May we never experience what happened there. But as I say this, I see people making statements that may just push us over the edge if we are not careful. When did we become so intolerant?
As a nation, we need healing. We need to talk, we need to address the various elephants in the room. We need to build trust across the various divides otherwise, we may never truly have a nation in the true sense of it. Things do not appear bright and cheery now but we can hope for the best if we work for the best. This is the way I see things today.