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Sipping tea and sifting through the narratives

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nigerian-womenOver the past several weeks, I’ve been doing some research for a few articles in progress in Northern Nigeria. So far, my work has led me to meet and talk with women from various states across the region. Because of the hospitality and openness of these women, I am learning a lot about specific aspects of their cultures and traditions, and also how they see themselves versus how they imagine others regard them. It has been both a beautiful and humbling experience.

Mainly because I believe that whenever women come together to share boldly about their lives and to tell their unique stories to one another, we often find that regardless of our cultural differences and life experiences, there are usually beautiful points of connection where we can relate to one another. But it has also been a humbling and painful experience because these conversations bring to light how far we still have to go as a country in being able to see and appreciate one another from various regions and tribes. Yet a certain beauty also exists in the ability to converse openly and sincerely with others about sensitive and sometimes uncomfortable topics.

Last week, I had a two-hour conversation over tea with a young woman named Aisha. Though we’d never met, I recognized her right away when she walked into the small Abuja eatery. She was a tall slim silhouette of a woman, covered head to toe in a bright green boubou and matching headscarf. We had met to talk specifically about women and vocation but within 10 minutes of our conversation, we found ourselves talking about the tensions between ethnic groups and how ethnocentric Nigeria still seemed to be. She is from the North-East and I am from the South-East so we were soon discussing how people from these regions perceive and talk about one another.

Aisha is barely 30 years old, yet at such a young age, she still feels that no matter how we try as a country, we will never be united because we can’t seem to let go of the stereotypes we hold about one another. We can’t seem to let go of the emphasis we’ve placed on what it means to be from certain parts of the country. I listened to her speak and found my own points of connection. When I returned to Nigeria in 2014, it took me less than a few weeks to observe that people here were more concerned about what part of the country I was from rather than simply seeing me as Nigerian returning home. It seemed important to people to place me in my ethnic tribe and in a geographical region.

As the hours went by, Aisha and I talked openly about the negative and different stereotypes that ethnic groups have of one another and how, as individuals raised in these contexts, it can be hard to strip ourselves of ingrained mentalities. I asked her to share more about why she thought these stereotypes would never fade.

“In my experience, we were raised to see the differences. Nobody told us to treat everybody equally. We may all say that our parents told us to do so but really, we also listened to our parents talk about differences in a tribalistic way.”

She acknowledged that like most Nigerians in her age bracket, raised in the country, she did not know much about Nigerian history. Now she is extremely interested in learning and trying to read and learn more about the civil war in particular. Despite her interest and even wanting to visit certain towns in the East, Aisha believes it will be difficult for her as a Northern woman. Regardless of whether this assumption is a fact or fiction, the sad point remains that these are still concerns we as Nigerians think about and hear about. It was disturbing and saddening to hear Aisha share some of her own conversations with others about this topic.

“I was talking to someone about wanting to visit the Southeast and they told me I couldn’t go unless I would remove my scarf and this dressing, because they don’t like people from the North.” Even in parts of Lagos she felt she had to change her clothing because she got tired of people asking her if she was from the North and then making all sorts of assumptions about her. Aisha openly confessed that it took leaving her home state and the country for her to gain new perspective on the ethnic relations in Nigeria. It was while spending a few years abroad that she slowly tried to learn new ways of seeing people in general, without judgments and labels we pile on one another.

“With all the labels we attach to one another and definitions of what it means to be Hausa or Fulani or Igbo or Yoruba etc. it’s like we are not even allowed to just be ourselves. It’s like we’re supposed to just fit a template, a version of who your culture tells you to be.” Aisha told me.

Being able to talk so frankly with one another was enlightening and refreshing. I learned so much just listening to Aisha talk about where she is from and what it means to be from her particular part of the North. As Aisha talked about her ambitions as a woman, her views on relationships and life, I found myself thinking that cultivating a friendship would likely be a rich experience for both of us, not only because of a natural connection but because of our ethnic, cultural and religious differences.

Building a friendship despite what our unique cultures have taught us to believe or suspect about one another, despite the fact that she openly says she could never bring a man like my brother home without a fight from her family. Yet, despite the awareness of the mutual value of a growing relationship, I know that sharing one pot of tea, having these conversations and practicing honoring one another’s stories does not make us friends.

I realized that it would require many more conversations, shared activities, mutually-acknowledged respect, being invited into one another’s homes and communities, and an ongoing desire to learn from experiences together would do a lot to strengthen our bond. But sipping tea is a start. Listening to one another is a start. Sifting through the various narratives we’ve construed about one another is a start. Imagining a distant future where these conversations are no longer necessary is not the craziest thing either. Stranger things have happened.


In this article:
Enuma Okoro

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