Childhood moments can be colourful,raw, sometimes contradictory and deeply refreshing, Although born in The UK, I went back to Nigeria with my parents what seems like many years ago at the age of 9, and it was in this great nation that I completed my primary, secondary and university education.
Growing up in Nigeria, really played a great part in shaping my identity, my being, my beliefs and my vision. I was a very curious child and sometimes curious children get into a lot of trouble.
My child-hood days were sometimes confusing, vast but colourful and sometimes i feel, i became a MAN to quickly without going through the process of being a BOY, I am very proud to say that it was destined privilege to have lived in three region of Nigeria at different stages of my Life – THE NORTH, THE WEST AND THE EAST (PART OF WHICH IS CALLED THE SOUTH SOUTH TODAY)
The experience not only opened my eyes to various cultural customs, traditional institutions and ways of Life (especially when I lived amongst The Yorubas,The Hausas, The Fulanis and The Efiks at different stages), but it also enriched my world with a unique but unbiased perspective to Life in a nation with well over 250 languages and The most populated Black nation in the world.
Many years later and Today, I can honestly say that there is so much more I dont know about Nigeria, even though I have always been hungry for history, geography and the philosophy and mindset that shapes cultures and traditional institutions.
Sometimes i reflect back to the endless adventures i embraced whilst growing up and I also ask myself, How much do Nigerians really know about Nigeria?
My Father comes from Calabar, A small friendly city in South South Nigeria and even took me a while to learn that this city was the first capital of the Niger Protectorate, The Southern protectorate and The Oil River protectorate, The city also boasts of The first ever public general hospital, the oldest post office, the first modern road network, the first presbytarian church, the first professor, the first playwright, the first Nigerian world boxing champion and the first ever social club in the whole of Nigeria.
There are also claims that my late grandfather, Late Alexander Pedro Sixtus Fernandez, owned the first ever photographic studio in the whole of Calabar, which can still be found in Henshaw Town, Calabar.
Calabar is also famous for arguably some of the best cuisines in the whole of Nigeria and even Africa and also hosts The biggest street carnival in The whole of Africa, every year.
I lived in this city for just over two years, and even though i got to learn a lot about its deep history, I still find myself empty with knowledge from time to time.
Calabar has also been known to European sailors as far back as the 15th century and was a major slave trade port from the 17th century to the 19th century. The history of the origin and the settlement of The Efiks, date back to the 14th century.
I remember the first time, I moved back to Nigeria with my parents in the late 70s, we ended up in Lagos, still regarded as the business capital of Nigeria – it was a big culture shock- from East Dulwich to Moshalashi (two places with practically nothing in common). I had never seen so many Black faces, I had never seen so many people, and when people spoke to each over- they shouted on top of their voice, as if the other person was miles away.
In the daytime, heat became my number one enemy, mosquitos paid me frequent visits at night, i became their number one customer, it always seemed as if they knew instantly, I came from a foreign land because I hardly ever heard my uncles, aunties or cousins complaining of mosquitoes, there were black- outs all the time and sometimes, when you put the taps on, there was no water, but it never ever bothered my uncles and aunties, they just laughed all the time, I had never visited a place where people laughed a lot- they laughed when they were happy, they laughed when they were sad, they laughed and when there were problems- Laughter was still the key.
My first six months in Lagos, was a journey into a different world and the little tiger in me slowly became fascinated to explore, to ask questions and sometimes get in trouble – this was my first sub-conscious awakening to find out more about my homeland – Nigeria and in the process, also finding out a bit how much or how little Nigerians knew about Nigeria, but to my surprise, the more questions I asked, the more i I was greated with the speechless gaze of funny looks, but the looks never discouraged my thirst to know, to engage and to question, I wanted to know more about Lagos, I wanted to know more about Nigeria and I wanted to one day become, one of the scholars of such a great nation, as soon as i got into primary school, history became my favourite subject and I was always asking so many questions, In history class, my eyes always lit up whenever Mr Jeffrey began history lessons and the questions kept coming and coming, One day Mr Jeffrey got so frustrated that he snapped at me in front of everyone in the class “Ah Ah, Na only you sabi ask question” which meant in Nigerian pidgin, “Are you the only one who knows how to ask questions” the whole room fell silent, and from that day onwards, for some reason, I stopped asking questions in History class and the burning curiosity inside me, slowly became silenced, this also got the attention of my mother, as one day- she was about to take me to to school, she turned to me and said, “What is with you these days, you no longer ask questions like you used to”.
I told her the brief story about Mr Jeffrey, the history teacher and I could see her eyes lit up in fury, and then all of a sudden, she took me by the hand and marched down to the school, when we got to the school compound, she told me to stand in a corner and I could see her walk towards Mr Jeffreys office, I could see her walking towards him and she had a go at him for nearly an hour, he just stood in silence slightly confused and trying to take everything in at a go.
Growing up in Lagos was fascinating, it felt like a city which belonged to everyone, I had Yoruba Friends, Igbo Friends, Friends from Delta, Friends from Edo and several friends from Ghana, Liberia and Sierra leone, but one thing i always found interesting (from a personal point of view), was how little people from one tribe knew about other tribes and I suppose coming from a mixed background myself, “My Father being Nigerian and My Mother being Jamaican”, i perhaps had acquired a sub conscious awareness of people’s attitudes, perceptions and the stereotypes people had for other tribes.
I also noticed that most of my Yoruba friends hanged out together and most of my igbo friends hanged out together and this pattern even became more obvious when I later lived in Northern Nigeria for 5 years to do my secondary education.
Nigeria is the most populous black country in the world with no less than 250 languages, it is also a huge country with so much going on at different levels, yet “How much do Nigerians really know about Nigeria ” (including me).
Do we really know our History? Do we really know much about out other tribes? How many Nigerians really travel within Nigeria? Are we just a collective family of group(s) of families, tribes, dialects and lineages bonded by the consequence of geography and partition? – but actually living in isolation, without the warmth of a mutual thread.
I know of people who have lived in lagos for most of their Life and have never travelled to the east or to the north,
Also when I lived in the North, i knew of people who had never ventured out of the regions of the former Bauchi state for most of their Life and even when I lived in Calabar, it was the same story, I met Efiks, Igbos and Ibibios who had never travelled to the west or the north.
On my 12 birthday, something happened that opened my eyes and stayed with me forever, one of my favourite aunties Aunty Joyce- came to see me all the way from a neighboring town. She had fried some fish, plantains and yams for my birthday and had taken the day off to celebrate my birthday, we spoke for a very long time. Aunty Joyce was always full of advice and she always spoke in riddles half of the time, i had no idea what she was talking about and then when i asked more questions to find out what she meant, she kept on saying i would find out one day, She also taught me how to play Chess- and always told me, that Life was like a game of Chess, you always had to know when to make the right move and when to defend your pawns.
My Mother had also cooked lots of food and my friends were coming round that afternoon.
Aunty Joyce and I spoke for hours but she had refused to allow me to beat her at Chess (even on my birthday), “I want you to learn the hard way my dear” she said.
the time was approaching for her to go back to Ibadan, and as she was about to leave, she brought out a book from her handbag, called “The History of West Africa ” by KB C Onwubiko, “i know you like reading” she said “This is for you, I hope it answers many questions, never forget your history” and she slowly made her way to the door, then just as she was about to open the door, she turned around as if she had forgotten something, and said in a very serious voice “You are a very special child and I know that, sometimes people will take you for granted, be prepared for this, but whatever city or country you end up in Life, take time, not only to understand its history and its people, but also take time to make your impact felt in that City” I will never forget those words and it was the first time in my life that i had ever seen my Aunt not smiling and for the first time ever, I also sensed a sadness behind the mask of her smile, from that day onwards, I became more hungry to ask questions and to discover.
Even though I lived in Lagos with my Parents, I did not get the opportunity to spend a part of my childhood with them, as i was in boarding school for five years in Northern Nigeria and later spent a few years in the east, but this also made me to grow in new situations and to adapt to new environments and to change.
I also liked Lagos- but it was not a city for everyone and i also wanted to know more about its history.
Lagos was originally inhabited by the Awori sub group of The Yorubas, under the leadership of Oloye Olofin.
The Awori were said to move to an Island called Iddo and then to a larger Lagos island in the 15th century.
In history classes, I learnt that the Awori settlement were attacked by The Benin Empire and the island became a Benin War Camp called EKO.
In history classes, we also got to learn about The History of Nigeria before 1914, We got to learn of the kanem Borno Empire, of the Calabar kingdom (believed to have been founded in 1000AD with the earliest contacts with The Europeans), The Benin Empire and The Oduduwa Empire.
I also got to learn about some great Nigerian heroes, like King Jaja of Opobo (1821-1891), Sir Herbert Maccauly (1864- 1946), Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo and many others.
We also had great Nigerian Female heroes and Role models such as Queen Idia of the Benin Empire, Queen Amina of Zaria, MS Kuti and others.
Looking back to all those years of asking questions in History Classes, looking back to all those years of asking the most random questions to family, friends and strangers (thirsty to feed from the history of our story and our stories), I sill sometimes feel many questions are still not answered.
I also remember my first ever meal in Nigeria- a hot plate of Jollof Rice at a party with my Father, and when I asked one of my Aunties where Jollof Rice came from, A big quarrel broke up between my Aunt and A Ghanaian Man as to where Jollof Rice originated from, My Aunt was arguing on how it was one of the best cuisines to come out of Nigeria, while The man was so convinced that the dish originated from Ghana.
Several years down the line, I discovered that it did not even originate from any of the two countries.
Every day I am still discovering new things about Nigeria, the other day, I discovered that one of my closest friends while growing up, was the son of Nigeria’s first ever playwright, the problem might also be that sometimes, we also make assumptions as to what might appear to be obvious.
I also bump into people who claim to know so much about Nigeria and then sometimes, I also bump into people (both Nigerians and Non- Nigerians) who say to me “But you don’t come across like a Nigerian”- and then I ask myself “How are Nigerians suppose to come across?”, “Can we really stereotype a Nation of over 250 Languages just based on the popularity and the population of three main tribes? ” “How do you describe a Nigerian?” “Who are Nigerians”