Stereotypes and Swiss Interns: An Academic in Africa

Nigeria street scene

You move to a country like Nigeria, and you instantly don’t want to conform to, or believe any of the stereotypes that your pinko-lefty-post-colonial-post-modern-feminist-queory-post-structuralist background has taught you are horrendous.

I hate the rich bastards in this country

And they are horrendous.

The stereotypes, I mean, not the theories beginning in “post”.  I’m actually rather fond of those.  But the problem is that stereotypes, or cliches, are there for a reason.  Most are just random prejudice or embodied cultural values (good or bad), but others are a kind of distilled wisdom – or rather the only way to say something at a particular level of abstraction.  A bit like the difference between “it’ll get better if you don’t pick at it” and “women can’t drive”.

I’ll leave you to decide which one’s which in that example.

What I’m trying to say is that after a while you have to be willing to say what you think.  But the problem is knowing what it is that you think in the first place.  And Nigeria seems to be a strange mix of the incredibly simple and the incredibly complex which makes it very difficult, at times, to say anything at all.

That might sound slightly bizarre from someone who is admittedly opinionated, willing to argue just about anything and, indeed, not quiet on the subject of criticising Nigeria. But you can’t give a running commentary on everything just because you have a PhD (or a blog).  Although, having said that I don’t think I’ve compromised any of my principles in anything I’ve said here, because I’m basically just saying that I hate the rich bastards in this country who cream off the profit and shit on the poor.  But then I would say that in any country.

That’s what I mean about cliches.  To a certain extent when you express an opinion on that general a level it sounds so much like other opinions that it’s very difficult to judge its meaning. Depending on who you are, you will read something very differently.  In this case my Mum, for example, will worry about the things I am saying about powerful people in Nigeria and whether I’m going to get sacked/kidnapped/killed.  On the other hand, I have slightly right-wing friends (you know who you are) who’ll think I’m being a typical leftie, and other people who don’t know me and just want to hear a funny story about prostitutes…. and so on and so forth.

There is also something here about the difference between knowledge and wisdom, I think.  I knew, academically, that Nigeria was one of the most unequal countries on earth, but living here allows you to understand that in an entirely different way.  But, ultimately, even with that understanding – if you’re asked to discuss it in one sentence you’ll end up saying something pretty trite.

the fourth incarnation of the Swiss intern

This is exacerbated by the pace at which things change here in terms of people.  So many of the ex-pat crowd are on short term contracts of one kind or another that no sooner do you know someone properly than they leave.  And suddenly you’re the person who’s spouting the cliche about Nigeria that you first heard from someone else only a couple of months before… or meeting the fourth incarnation of the Swiss intern, or engaging in another one of those conversations where people tell you what’s wrong with Nigeria.  Although it’s mostly Nigerians who want to tell you about that.

Trying to express pithy opinions about Nigerian life whilst not sounding like (or maybe just feeling like) a bigoted git can therefore be problematic.  Of course, all of this is probably just a sign that I think too much, but at least it gives you some insight into how my mind works.  Whether you wanted it or not.

Because this is more than just tortuous liberal guilt to be somewhat painfully navigated.  I’m not necessarily sure what that “something more” actually is, but I think it has to do with responsibility and trying to work out how you form opinions on something new.

Either way, it’s a bugger.

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