(Naija Monday Series. Theme: Destiny)
There was nothing remarkable about the girl I was talking to. She was in her third year of a PhD program, and had graciously agreed to be my host for a night while I visited the school. We had taken an instant liking to each other: when we first met at the department, all through the tour of the campus and the drive around town, and were now at dinner at a Mediterranean restaurant in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
Then the dreaded question came: Why were so many of the 419 crooks out of Nigeria?
It always takes me aback when I have to answer these questions, and I’ve had to answer them quite a few times. The first time it had come up, it’d been at work. My all white-male team and I had been gathered in a conference room, ostensibly to review design files, when someone had gone online and started projecting overhead humiliating images of my country men from 419eater.com. I wanted to cry. Why are your country people crooks? They’d asked me. And why are they so stupid they’d actually take these pictures of themselves and send it abroad? Are they that desperate for money? I looked away in shame and stuttered an answer I can barely remember – something about how all countries had crooks and poverty and unemployment drive people to extremes.
Now, however, I looked Helga full on in the face, and smiled. "Because they’re smart," I said. "And sharp but temporarily idle minds find things to do. But surely you will not judge an entire nation by the mistakes of a few?" She smiled back at me. "Of course not," she said. And we continued our conversation.
I don’t know if my answer was completely true. But I do know that my days of being ashamed of Nigeria are over.
During the course of the same weekend I had to answer several questions about government policy with regards to Science and Technology in my native home, and some of the projects being done. I proudly pointed them to the Science and Tech University in Abuja, crossing my fingers and hoping that the website would not be down. How about industry in general? I was asked. What progress had been made? Although I privately railed about the low quality of the wireless telecommunication infrastructure that had been installed – low because prepaid plans offer carriers little incentive to deliver quality service as they have few contracts to maintain – I waxed poetic as I described the fact that communication isolation was quickly becoming a thing of the past, and painted delightful pictures of the numerous possibilities that awaited my generation. How about power? I smiled. The power problem has already been solved, I said. All that remains is to figure out how to deploy these small scale alternative power sources and make a real impact.
Some of the professors were amused, others downright cynical. How will you deal with the vested interests? They asked. You have all these dreams. How do you hope to accomplish them? And why you?
Because this is what I was made to do, I answered. This is my destiny. And it's not just me, I continued. I told them about this generation, our generation. About the murmurs of unrest that have been echoing from the congested islands of Lagos to the rocks of Abuja... The echoes that had reverberated and birthed foundations and non-profits and businesses from Atlanta to Seattle, to London, to Kiev. I told them of the things I had seen – the businesses making profits even as they competed in a landscape rife with uncertainty, but showing the kind of resilience and creativity that only Nigerians are known for. I told them about my friends and frenemies, about icons and politicians who were using their positions and their stature in community to make a difference. And as I spoke, I realized something:
This wasn’t the run-of-the-mill, tell-them-what-they-want-to-hear BS to get the offer. This was really what I believed.
I am proud of Nigeria. Of the faceless Nigerians that go about their business everyday, and of the famous CEOs that now serve as role models. I am excited about Nigeria. And I am excited about this generation.
The winds of change are coming. It is destiny. Even if we try to run, we cannot avoid it. If we sit back and watch, and refuse to help, it will simply consume us. We have a unique chance to shape the future, to make an indelible mark on our Nation. Won't you come join us, and fulfil destiny?