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Social Media: Sustaining Family Ties In The Japa Season

By Wole Olayinka
30 August 2022   |   10:05 am
As the pursuit of a better life detaches young Nigerians from their loved ones back home, WhatsApp becomes the thin rope securing the bond until an uncertain reunion takes place. 32-year-old Osakpolor Omoregie has not seen his sister in 23 years; she left for Europe in 1999 when he was just nine. She has remained…


As the pursuit of a better life detaches young Nigerians from their loved ones back home, WhatsApp becomes the thin rope securing the bond until an uncertain reunion takes place.

32-year-old Osakpolor Omoregie has not seen his sister in 23 years; she left for Europe in 1999 when he was just nine. She has remained away from her dearest ones back in Nigeria, detained by financial pursuits and unforeseen setbacks.

“At some point, I even started to forget her face, what she looks like,” Osakpolor says, apparently a sad recollection for him. 

Given that many Nigerian cultures are family-oriented, this kind of forced distance is typically heartbreaking for immigrants and their people back home.

But Osakpolor can remember her face now, thanks to regular video calls on WhatsApp. He started to see pictures of her in the early 2010s because of Facebook, where she uploaded photos. 

Nigeria has a large diaspora base. There are supposedly over 1.7 million Nigerians abroad as of June 2020, although the actual population could be higher, considering undocumented migrations. Money sent to Nigerians may present a better picture; personal remittances received in the country totalled over US$ 23 billion in 2019, over 5% of the country’s gross domestic product for the year.

Yet, many Nigerians, especially youths are still looking to migrate in droves. A survey result from a Gallup poll as of 2018 suggest that 52% of respondents are keen to leave permanently. In 2021, Nigeria was the fourth leading source of new permanent residents in Canada, behind India, China, and the Philippines. Young Nigerians on social media have even coined a name for this trend- japá, to ‘run away’ in the Yoruba language spoken in Southwest states in Nigeria.

Some are eager enough to risk their lives like young people of African descent yearly cross the Mediterranean on flimsy boats to get to Europe. Nearly 40,000 Nigerians arrived in Italy in 2016, with over 90 per cent arriving via dangerous sea routes. In the first eight months of 2021, over 600 migrants with Sub-Saharan African origins died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

This legal and illegal immigration is largely due to a lack of adequate employment and unfulfilled aspirations and a pursuit of it drives Nigeria’s teeming youth population to seek greener pastures abroad. Between 2014 and 2020, Nigeria’s working-age population rose about 3 per cent annually, from 102 million to 122 million people, and its unemployment rate hit 33.3% in 2020. Living conditions are also relatively poor, with inadequate health care, educational systems, lack of adequate security, and even polluted air. So escaping to seemingly better climes looks like the best option for many.

Years ago, when these Nigerians leave, often individually, or sometimes with their spouses,  family ties can be strained as many rely on family as moral, social and even spiritual anchors. Many immigrants have difficulty being thousands of miles away from their support systems. 

Ifeoluwa Odeleye, a freelancer, left Lagos four months ago to settle in Alberta, Canada and sorely misses her family back home. Ifeoluwa’s siblings and parents would come together every Christmas, but “I’m sure this year will most likely be virtual for us,” she states. “I miss dropping in on my folks and just having their company within reach,” she says, but with the caveat that she’s in a better environment: “on other fronts, though, I think I am getting a better deal where I am so I have no complaints.” 

When my grandfather died in 2021, his clan of children and grandchildren congregated at his house and rallied physically around my grandmother. In mourning, we had one another as support during funeral preparations and until he was interred. My uncle, who had moved to Canada only a couple of years back, could not afford to come home for logistical reasons; he mentioned how painful it was for him, mourning in faraway Quebec, away from his siblings. A small consolation, however, came from being able to communicate with the rest of the family in Nigeria on WhatsApp; funeral preparation meetings were held on the platform to ensure he and my aunt in London could participate.

There’s also Adaora Nwaka, a PhD researcher in the  United Kingdom who moved out of Nigeria four years ago. Adaora is still very close to family but does so through, in her words, “Lots of video calls, especially Whatsapp calls or direct calls.”

Back in Nigeria, she was very attached to her family, “Very close, in fact, I couldn’t go more than three months without seeing them. My dad would always visit me if I couldn’t make it [back home].” 

Now in the UK, she misses physical interactions with people closest to her heart, “Abroad is lonely, people don’t believe it, but sometimes being there in person is very necessary.” The researcher talks about missing many important family events, “Lots of it and there’s no way to make up for it. I have made up my mind to accept my reality. It’s also vice versa because even when I have celebrations over here, they can’t come.”

Even in honouring the dead, she said “I attended my late brother’s burial virtually. So most times, especially for us here, the only way not to feel left out is to attend virtually. I attend weddings, child dedications, and other events virtually.”

Whatsapp is the most popular social media and instant messaging platform in Nigeria. Over 95 per cent of Nigeria’s 33 million social media users use the platform, and it is the major means of communication with family at home and abroad for many.

Like my mother’s siblings, Osakpolor and his six other siblings, four scattered across Europe, some with their nuclear families, now communicate regularly on Whatsapp calls and chats. You’d find all seven siblings and their mother congregated on the instant messaging platform, discussing essential family issues, bantering and sustaining the family bond. Sometimes, they are joined by their children or partners. Osakpolor now has memories of his kin abroad, even if he has never seen some of them physically. 

It’s not as if Nigerians never got to see or hear from their migrant family members before smartphones and the internet became ubiquitous and easily accessible for the everyday person. Phone calls were possible, although expensive for many families. Osakpolor recalls his mother having to travel over two hours to Benin city to receive calls from her daughter. His sister also used to send photos and audio tapes containing her recorded voice with updates on her life. The tapes and photos were couriered by friends and acquaintances travelling to Nigeria, although this occurred months apart. The clan back at home would gather to listen, and the memorabilia were treated with utmost care. Thankfully, technology has made communication more instant.

Today, many ageing parents, such as Osakpolor’s ailing mother, want to have their children next to them, to at least hold their hands “one more time.” But, bereft of this option, they take solace in the next best thing, a smartphone held up in front of them, saying prayers, muttering complaints and offering advice to their children thousands of miles away via WhatsApp. 

Wole Olayinka is a public relations manager with insiderPR and writes on technology and social issues. He is on Twitter at @thewoleolayinka.

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