I grew up terrified of the Hausa and Fulani because of made up tales about the “man with a long dagger” who killed those he did not like simply because they offended him, somehow. He was the boogeyman! Anytime we went to Zaria or some other part of the North in my childhood, I was scared out of my shoes. On one occasion, simply because I had to go and buy something, being terrified to leave the house my father, sister and I were staying at during a trip to either Zaria or Kaduna, I burst out crying. Why? I thought any Hausa man who saw me and realized I was Yoruba would kill me. Yes, I was that misinformed though it was based on actual incidents which took place — religious riots in the North. Once, on the campus of Ahmadu Bello University, when we visited close family friends living there, I remember seeing a man dressed in a flowing Kaftan coming towards me and immediately I froze! He was just going somewhere. My perception was tainted by false narratives imbibed during my childhood.
Were it not for my father who took me on a tour of some Northern states in my teens when he was working with local farmers on his Hybrid Maize farming project, I might have been unable to get rid of that fear. I met local rulers, head of communities and ate with them and their families, sitting exactly the way they sat and tasting for the first time their local meals, especially their stew which was very strange then, the vegetables used being very coarse. Initially, I was not comfortable among so many Northerners but my father told me they were the nicest people and he was very comfortable with them. However, the warmth of the local people in those poor farming communities changed my perspective of the average Northerner for ever. They treated us like VIP’s They were not the “blood thirsty savages” I had been made to believe.
The Igbo have always been people I considered friends and later, family. The second close friend I made in Nigeria was IK when I was seven years old. We reconnected on Facebook after 30 plus years of no contact because his family moved away from Ile Ife to Nsukka. In my teens and early twenties, Igbos numbered among the closest family friends I had. People I just had to see and know on a very deep level. Aba and Owerri were my favorite destinations in the East though Enugu was also on the list. I went there not for sightseeing but to see friends. My first trips by luxurious bus were for that purpose. So, I have never had any questions about them.
Unfortunately, there are people I met over the years who have been unable to see beyond the tainted perception they grew up absorbing from what was around them. Some hated Igbos and had fixed opinions about what they thought of them; they could not understand why I was so close to several Igbo families. What I figured out was that negative isolated incidents were used by them to paint an entire people, be they Igbo, Hausa, Fulani or any other tribe a single ugly colour. We see traits of this in how many craft their comments on social media. I understand where they come from as more often than not there is a perceived cause for their intense dislike. However, the unfairness is in applying that paint brush on a whole tribe.
One of the nicest people I have ever met was Musa the ‘Maiguard’ of the block of flats opposite the house I lived in Lagos. He had this little stall where residents in that neighborhood bought items we might need from him. Musa and I got so close that he was welcome to my flat for a chat or a bite and we spent time talking about his family back up North or things going on around us. Several times I manned his stall when he had to pray or go somewhere. Several residents on that street did that for Musa I recall.
This great human being has probably saved my life through his timely warnings he heard from other ‘maiguards’ about thieves operating in an area close to our street which made me either go back into our compound or rush into his when those hoodlums came to ours, shooting sporadically. When I was leaving Nigeria, we shared a sad farewell and have spoken several times afterwards. On one of my trips back home, I was able to go say hello to him. That was special. My reaction to finding out that Hausa people are just as nice as any other tribe was to start wearing their native attire as often as I could. Their hats and Kaftans became my traditional attire of choice. Several friends asked why I liked dressing like them so much.
People like Musa show us that our perceptions of a group are often tainted by narratives based on actions of a few. Most of those who have treated me badly even though we were not close have been Yorubas just like me. Maybe because of proximity or the fact that I lived in Yoruba land. However, my feelings towards all Nigerians are the same. I focus on the individual and do not judge a tribe by what someone did. So, my immediate reaction if you declare for instance that Igbos hate Yorubas, is to see you as someone with a ‘wall of issues’ that has not been climbed over yet. There are Igbos who hate Yorubas but there are also Yorubas who hate Igbos. Yorubas and Igbos as entities do not hate each other though. Thinking they do is a tainted perception; my experience of them has been very far from that narrative.
For a long time, it was hard for me to have fondness for Germans because of what the Nazis did during World War II. As a child, I read books about the Holocaust and horrific accounts within them stayed with me. So I rooted against them at every World Cup and international sporting event. The only Germans I liked were the children of a famous writer who lived in Ile Ife with his German wife; their son was a football wizard and one sister a ‘fish’ in the swimming pool! My dislike for Germans was due to a tainted perception based on reality but a skewed one nevertheless because I know there are many great Germans who are nothing like the Nazis. So, now I admire their efficiency and FC Bayern Munchen has been one of my favorite football clubs in the world for ages. I still do not like it when Germany dominates sports events though. Do not get me started on Russians and the Soviet era!
This kind of tainted perception is what Nigerians have to deal with in every region. Ethnic bigotry is a dead weight around our necks and I have no idea when we will take it off because the impression I get is that right now, it is worse than in my father’s day. In spite of the National Youth Service Corps program which had the goal of drawing all Nigerians closer through affording the nations educated youth the opportunity of living in regions other than their state of origin for a whole year, we seem to be moving further apart. I do not think it achieved that objective from what I read on social media.
The tainted perception is a deeply rooted fixture of the narrative we read in so many discussions held about Nigeria. An ill wind that has blown no one any good. The mistrust it breeds in no small measure has hurt us all and aided our lack of collective progress as a nation. We need to get rid of it.
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