The Nigerian experience is physical, emotional and sometimes international. No one knows it better than our features on #TheAbroadLife, a series where we detail and explore Nigerian experiences while living abroad.
The subject of today’s Abroad Life went to the United States of America for school in 1979. He talks about leaving to get an education so that he could return for a better life, and meeting a completely different Nigeria when he returned in 1983.
When did you decide that you wanted to leave Nigeria?
As a child, the message about leaving Nigeria was constantly ringing in my head. My dad used to tell us stories of people that went abroad for university, came back and automatically got good jobs, cars and houses. His message was simple: “Going abroad is the thing to do when you’re done with secondary school.”
When did you eventually leave?
1979. I finished secondary school in 1976. Shortly after, I got a job in the ministry of education as a teacher and then I crossed over to the ministry of information to work as a cleric officer. By 1978, I was already a level 4 officer earning ₦96 after tax. That money could take me to London and back comfortably. I was only 19.
Then in 1979, I met a man that changed my life forever.
Tell me about him.
I was working at a government catering restaurant in Ondo state at that time. I was young, energetic and hardworking, so I would always get to work super early — even before my resumption time. My job was to book people into the government guest house.
One morning, a man in his 50’s, let’s call him Mr G, walked up to me and presented me with a piece of paper. There was a name written on it. Whatever the amount that the person had spent at the guest house, he would pay it. I just had to send him the cost.
At that time, many people had outstanding debts, and I assumed that this would be a case like that, so I brought out my book, found the name and discovered he owed ₦1.50k. I told him that it would be better if he paid upfront, and he agreed. Our conversation about money brought up the subject of tipping and he told me about how he used to tip waiters in the US.
Immediately he mentioned the US, I said, “Sir, I want to go to university in the USA, but I don’t even have a passport”.
He looked at me, smiled and told me to meet him in Lagos in four days.
When I got to Lagos, he gave me a letter to deliver to a military officer in Bonny Camp. I got to Bonny Camp, but I didn’t find the office, so I took it back to him. He was furious. I needed to be smarter if I wanted to go to the US.
The next day, he followed me to Bonny Camp, and the office was right there. When we met the officer, he said, “This is my brother. He’s following me to the US in one week. Make sure his passport is ready.” In less than one week, my passport was ready.
Whoa. How did you get a US visa though?
A few days after I got my passport, I was back at my job in Ondo state when Mr G came and asked me to give it to him. He said he was going to Lagos to get my American visa for me, and I didn’t have to follow him.
That sounds sketchy.
That’s what I thought, but I didn’t have a choice. I gave him the passport. Some days later, he was back, but he didn’t have the visa. He said the embassy asked him to bring me along.
The deal was that he’d say I was an employee that he was sending to America for business. That’s why he thought he could get the visa in my absence.
Did you follow him?
Yes I did. It was my first time at an embassy. As we approached the end of the queue, he showed me the officer that requested my presence. He’d hinged all his hopes on the probability that it would be that same person that attended to him so they could just pick up where they left off.
We got a different person.
Mr G was so visibly frustrated. He was opening his briefcase to bring out the documents he’d need for the process when two American passports fell out.
The interviewer was puzzled. Why did a Nigerian have two American passports in his briefcase? When he asked to look at the passports, I was terribly scared. But then I saw a smile on the interviewer’s face when he opened them up, and that got me a bit more relaxed. They were Mr G’s children’s passports. They were little kids. The interviewer was deep in his feelings, so the only question he asked was, “Do you want to travel with this boy?”
The answer was yes, and my visa was approved.
That’s mind blowing.
My flight from Nigeria to the USA took 27 hours and three flights. It was ₦280. I took ₦700 as cash to the US and changed it to $1000. My older brother was already in school in San Francisco, so I joined him there. We went to the same university.
Damn. What was the US like?
It was really good. School was good, but I also made some good money there. I got my first job as a busboy. From busboy, I became a dishwasher, then a prep cook and then a chef, all in that same restaurant. By the time I was leaving the US, I was earning $10/hour and working at least 40 hours a week.
I was the restaurant’s top chef across its 18 branches in San Francisco, so, many times, I had to work extra hours because someone always needed me.
I had my own car, apartment, and everything. It was really good.
When did you leave?
1983. Immediately after university.
For the same reason I went: I knew a good life was waiting for me in Nigeria. When the restaurant owner found out I was leaving, he tried to beg me to stay. I told him it wasn’t about the money, but about the fact that I was going to get an amazing job as a bank manager in Nigeria. The government would give me a car and I would get a free house.
He told me that I was going to get my job back if I ever decided to come back. I laughed and said I wasn’t going to go back.
What was Nigeria like?
I got back in October 1983. In December 1983, Buhari overthrew the civilian government. That was when the trouble started. I remember looking for bank jobs with my NYSC and getting the same response: “There are no more jobs.”
Why didn’t you go back to the USA?
I had met my wife in NYSC camp, and we were in a serious relationship. My US visa had also expired, so we both would have needed to apply for visas. It was a much easier choice to go to the UK, get a nice job in London and settle there. As a Nigerian, you didn’t need a visa to go to the UK then.
Is that what you did?
Nope. My wife had never travelled, so we just decided to stay. We thought about starting a family and decided it would be better to start ours in Nigeria. We thought things were going to get better. I started a janitorial business that failed, and did some other stuff along the way including becoming a general manager somewhere. The economy kept getting worse every day until it became what it has become today.
So you’ve been in Nigeria ever since?
I’ve travelled a lot since I got back. My job as a health and safety officer makes me travel around Europe and go to Canada a lot. I haven’t been to the US since I left though.
I just don’t want to go there.
Have you met Mr G since you got back to Nigeria?
I didn’t want to go back looking for him when things were not good. I wanted him to see that I’d made it thanks to him. So, in 1992 when things had settled for me and I was doing better in life, I bought a Mercedes Benz and thought, “Now would be a good time to visit him.”
He was old when I saw him, so I had to reintroduce myself. When he heard my name, he screamed. He was angry at me for coming back to Nigeria. He couldn’t stop saying, “What are you doing back at home? The country is destroyed. Why are you here?”
So I reminded him that on the day he handed over my passport to my parents in 1979, he, like my father, also advised me in front of them to get an education and come back home to get a good life. I told him that the reason I’d not seen him for the nine years that I’d been around was that I was waiting for things to become better, so I could impress him.
I asked about his two children and he told me that just the day before I got there, they’d left the country with their mother to live in the US permanently. I would have met them if I came a day earlier.
I haven’t seen him since then.
Do you regret staying in Nigeria?
I probably would have had a better quality of life somewhere else, but I don’t think I would have had the quality of family life and family time I have in Nigeria. I was able to raise my children very well and build a lovely family.
I don’t regret staying.
Want more Abroad Life? Check in every Friday at 12 PM (WAT) for a new episode. Until then, read every story of the series here.