After several years of living in Africa, I never thought I’d say this, but I’m having a bit of culture shock.
I’ve been in Nigeria for a little over a week. And it would appear that this country is rather like sub-Saharan Africa on steroids. The volume of voices a little louder, the tolerance for n’importe quoi greater and the prevalence of enterprising crime more frequent. Nigerians like to think that they are “the Americans of Africa,” – Noisy. Impolite. Industrious. Resilient.
However, such generalizations are never fair or accurate. As I'm quickly learning, this is a vast, multi-dimensional country encompassing a wide spectrum of cultures, socio-economic levels, belief systems, languages and climates. Based on my very limited experience in country, here are some observations.
First of all, Nigeria is gigantic. This past week, I flew from Abuja in the center of the country, to Owerri in Imo State. While it might seem like a small distance on the map, the flight was one hour. Here are a couple size comparators to put things in perspective.
Naturally the sheer geographical size of Nigeria translates to climate variations. A scorching sun, dry heat and savannah grasslands embrace the nation’s capital, Abuja. Meanwhile, the southeast is graced with slightly cooler temperature, greater humidity and lush tropical vegetation. This week, the average temperature in Abuja is 35C/95F, in Owerri 30C/86F.
Nigeria hosts vast array of ethnic diversity. Between 250 and 500 ethnic groups lie within the country’s borders, including the Hausa and Fulani 29%, Yoruba 21%, Igbo 18%, Ijaw 10%, Kanuri 4%, Ibibio 3.5% and Tiv 2.5%. Of the main languages illustrated in this map, there are an estimated 500 dialects.
English is also widely spoken throughout the country. But those with an American accent be warned! You’ll be more easily understood if you imitate a British accent. "I’d like a bottle of wha-tuh." "I read the news pay-puh."
The range of economic levels in Nigeria is as vast as its cultures. On the African continent, Nigeria’s GDP is second only to South Africa’s and is expected surpass its southern rival within the next decade. Nigeria boasts a 6% growth rate compared to South Africa’s 2%.
Despite the perception of its market being risk prone, Nigeria is ripe for investment. Forbes magazine recently compared the country’s economy to Brazil’s, "rich in petroleum but blessed with an abundance of other resources and a population that is only now starting to live up to their potential as consumers."
Signs of affluence are clearly visible in Abuja. Million-dollar cars pepper the streets and designer bags the likes of New York’s Fifth Avenue grace women’s shoulders. Last month, Lagos hosted its third annual Fashion and Design Week, an event sponsored by several multi-national companies that showcased the work of Nigerian designers to the new, wealthy elite with Naira (Nigerian currency) burning in their pockets.
However beyond the petrol-financed, intertwining highways of Abuja and the glitz of Lagos lie a host of slums and people living in poverty. Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics determined that in 2010 61% of the country was living in poverty. That rate is increasing annually.
Lack of affordable housing in Abuja and other major cities has pushed much of the working class into overcrowded settlements, lacking latrines and running water. The UN Agency for Human Settlement estimates that half the country (71 million people) live in slums.
Indeed such rifts have caused great factions in Nigerian society. This, however, is a topic best saved for next time. Now, if you'll excuse me, I’m off to have my di-nuh (dinner).