Friends and relatives warned me against going to Nigeria. They pointed to the scorched earth tactics of Boko Haram, the bombings in the capital Abuja and the internecine conflict in Jos. But my colleagues at Kwara State University, where I was invited to offer seminars in the Department of Languages and Literary Studies, assured me that the situation there was normal.
So on May 1, 2014, I arrived in Ilorin, a city of two million inhabitants, and spent a month participating in academic programs. My colleagues were right. Despite the alarming news about the country, life in this city went in its own way. People drove, walked, went to the market, made calls, and took care of their families despite the tremendous challenges they faced. Not once was my life in any danger.
In my reports back home, I tried to describe my interactions with people I met to give a sense of a place beyond headlines and symbols. Specifically I wrote about how my time in Ilorin forced me confront the privileges of race, age, and professional status that I can more easily avoid in Columbus, Ohio.
In Ilorin my whiteness endowed me with near ennobling qualities that emphasized my elevated social status. When I walked the streets, people addressed me as “oyinbo” (white man), not as an expression of hatred but of curiosity and often friendly greeting. Sometimes children wanted to touch my hands as if I had talismanic potential.
At a performance of neo-traditional Yoruba poetry, music, and dance, my race identified me for special treatment. At the end of the presentation, some of the performers invited me on the stage for photographs. Confused by this gesture, I asked my Nigerian colleague for an explanation. He suggested that the group would likely use the pictures for promotion, to demonstrate that “we are so good that even whites come to our shows.”
Yet while whiteness made me a “star,” it also implicated me in the painful history of colonialism. At the market I was called master. “Masta, masta, bananas?” the women cried out. This was disconcerting, entangling me in previous and current injustice.
Just as I could not escape my race, I couldn’t avoid the honors of professional status. When my colleague’s driver took me to the market, he always carried the bags of fruit and vegetables. If I had insisted on taking them myself, I would have brought shame to him in the eyes of those around him. For he would not have been performing his job properly, letting the oga (boss) do the work. I also rode in the back, right-hand side of the car, a carry-over of colonialism. One day, having forgotten this arrangement, I tried to open the front door and the driver kindly pointed to the back seat.
As a white middle-class professor, I was nearly at the top of the pecking order. You could say that this is also true back home. But in the United States it is easier to avoid thinking about class divisions.
My age also identified me for special treatment. When I first visited the house of my host, his maid bowed to me. Out of discomfort I bowed back. But my colleague advised against repeating this for it would imply equality between us. In reality, age, class, gender, race, and culture permanently separated us.
The bow of the maid also illustrated the tacit rules of ceremony and respect that were foreign to me. Her average day, and that of other residents of the city, constitutes an intricate dance of curtsies, bows, dips, bobs, and genuflections in front of elders and social superiors. All the men I talked to prostrate in front of their parents each morning. At the gate to the palace of the Emir, my friend dropped down in front one of the Emir’s advisors and with his right hand clasped his own left ankle and then asked permission for us to enter.
The emphasis on hierarchy pointed to the difference between the western celebration of choice and the local reliance on obligation. In a conversation with a young man, I learned that he was in line of succession to be Emir. I, who considered emirates mostly a mode of travel, asked clumsily whether he would like to be Emir of Ilorin. “If it is my destiny,” he responded. Had I in my 58 years ever used this expression? His understanding of fate and vocation showed that not just race but also the pull of tradition distanced me from him.
My attempt to see a normal Nigeria obliged me to face the contradictions of my own thinking. Every day I tried to align the divisions of age, gender, race, profession, and ritual with my own faith in egalitarianism, liberalism and cosmopolitanism.