The Burden of Imposed Identity

I would be guilty of blatant exaggeration if I claim here that I don’t have my own daily rude experiences and encounters with some of the people who I run into in the course of my undertakings as an individual.
But it seems like no matter how much I try to purge some of those experiences from my mind, there are still some of them that refuse to yield to my efforts: they lodge themselves so deeply in my psyche and refuse to dissipate.
I have noticed that most of the hurtful experiences that refuse to dissipate came my way because of the imposed Nigerian identity that I carry along with me.
One such experience came my way during an academic conference that I went to in Brisbane, Australia in the summer of 2000.
It was just not because the experience occurred at all that made it painful for me.
Instead I found the said experience so painful because it obstructed my honest efforts to explore a potentially lucrative business endeavour.
As is the case each time when the said international conference is convened, the local organizers of the conferences had been mandated to organize visits to places of interest for overseas attendees.
For this particular conference, members of the Research Committee on the Study of Military Organization, International Security, Peace-making and Peace-building that I belonged to and who were based in Brisbane had arranged tours for us to visit a major Australian military installation and base to give us the opportunity to meet, interact, and exchange ideas with senior military and national security officers on their professional experiences.
That interactive outing was quite an insightful experience for us and the Australian officers: there were ample opportunities for all to mingle and raise and discuss issues and ideas.
Then came the time for lunch in the senior officers mess and I found myself sitting next to a conference attendee from Norway.
As you would expect, the man and I delved in a small-talk session.
Our conversation was quite cherry at first, especially after he learnt that I had resided in the US for quite some time.
He offered information about his son who is resident in the US, and other facts about himself.  There was no doubt that this Norwegian was also impressed by my cranial takes on every bit of subject that cropped up in our conversation.  His disclosure that he was Norwegian made me mention Norway’s historical links with West Africa, particularly over stockfish or dried cod which he generically called “dried fish”.
When I indicated that I was thinking seriously about exploring business possibilities in the Norwegian stockfish trade some day, he offered to help to link me with a friend of his who is in the business.
He threw in the first chiller a little after he offered to link me with his friend in the business, by disclosing that he receives countless unsolicited pieces of e-mail every time from Nigerian scammers who offer to help make him rich.
My spirit went into a tailspin.
On my part, I frantically made some salvage efforts to reassure him that I am not just another Nigerian scam artist.
That included strong emphasis that I considered myself primarily Igbo.
Although we amiably parted company after the event, subsequent developments were proofs that my Nigerian identity had instantly sealed my fate and rendered me unworthy of that man’s friendship and assistance.
You can imagine the extent of the hurt that I still feel over how my Nigerian identity materialized as an instant burden that subsequently sealed my honest desire to explore opportunities in the stockfish business.
I wasn’t suspicious in the least of the depth of the stigma that I incurred because of my Nigerian identity even as we left the military base that afternoon on the bus where I sat next to the Norwegian.
A few weeks after I returned to the US, I received what I felt was a brief cryptic e-mail from the man, which just disclosed his friend’s e-mail address and the instruction that I should write and ask him for the necessary contacts for the Norwegian Seafood Export Council.
The only other content of the e-mail was his instruction that I should not mention him at all in any of my correspondence in my pursuit of the possibilities.
The message was terse and almost embarrassing.
All the same, I still thanked him in my brief reply to his e-mail.
The only response that I received from his friend when I e-mailed him was an official membership list of the Norwegian Seafood Export Council.
There is no doubt that he may have alerted his friend to be mindful of dealing with a potential Nigerian conman who might attempt to make contact.
Knowing better and not being prepared to lend myself to more blatant embarrassment, I decided against acknowledging the e-mail from his friend.
I thought that it was more dignifying contacting some of the entities in the list directly.
When I embarked on the task of identifying and contacting some of the names on the list, it was painful and tasking.
Most of the contacts led nowhere when I called them on the telephone.
But I got an e-mail response from a couple of them after a long drag of time.
I was surprised when one of the e-mails that I sent yielded a telephone call from someone who claimed to be a Nigerian from Akwa Ibom, who claimed to be based in Norway and in the stockfish business.
As you can imagine, I became suspicious.
But since I lacked a trusted contact in Norway who could help me verify the individual’s credentials, I was compelled to call the Norwegian whom I met in Australia.
As you might expect, he was so dismissive — he barely listened to me.
“I can’t help you,” he said before hanging up.
That was how my endeavours to explore possibilities in the stockfish business frizzled.
I had been penalized again for being a Nigerian.  I experience similar treatment almost every time.
In Durban, South Africa in the summer of 2006, I had a similar experience, which I found more painful than the aforementioned simply because it came from a hapless looking Indian graduate student that I ran into in the lobby of the hotel I was staying in.
The first observation made by that miserable looking fellow as soon as he learnt that I was from Nigeria was to burden me with the story of the filth he met in Lagos during a visit the previous year.
Although I lost no time to coolly cut him back to size with a reminder that Calcutta and other Indian cities are even filthier than Lagos, I felt completely like the proverbial person who was derided by someone that he is better than.
The reality is that, these days, as a Nigerian, everywhere you turn what confronts you is the burden of being a Nigerian.
No one takes you seriously at all.
More painful is that the burden keeps frustrating one’s honest efforts to get ahead in life.
Almost every story of Nigeria in the international media is the story of swindle, scam and of all sorts of negatives.
When Charles Taylor, former Liberia President, was first arraigned for crimes against humanity at The Hague, The New York Times printed an elaborate story of how highly-placed Nigerian government officials shielded his stupendous investments in that country from investigators.
In the July 2, 2007 edition of the same newspaper, there is a different story about the then President Olusegun Obasanjo’s protégée, Emeka Offor, who was at the centre of an unfolding scandal involving crude oil finds in neighbouring São Tomé and Principe that involved a coterie of parties and individuals.  The intriguing aspect is that Mr Obasanjo’s name and picture were also right there in the middle of that story of infamy.
Where do you begin? It doesn’t seem like it will ever end either.
I don’t know about you dear readers, but this burden of Nigerian identity weighs terribly on me!
Is it not time that other people who have also been victimized  did something drastic about an identity that we had no hand in choosing?
I’m one who subscribes to the view once expressed by my fellow Igbo, Chinua Achebe, that Providence placed each one of us wherever we were born for some remarkable reason.
I don’t have any doubt that I was born an Igbo for some special reason, but the self-seeking British found cause to make me a Nigerian.  That identity has subsequently become a burden, which I have strongly resorted in the last few years to shirk. These days I quickly introduce myself to people whenever it becomes necessary as an Igboman whose homeland was carved into what exists today as Nigeria, by the British, at the turn of the last century.
Who, amongst you out there will blame me for so-doing?
 · Professor EC Ejiogu is a political sociologist and the author of the paradigm changing “The Roots of Political Instability in Nigeria,” published recently by Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

December 2011
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