In Lagos all the talk is of wealth and economic boom. But a return to my family hometown, still waiting for a tarmac road, tells a different story.
I went back to my village in Nigeria this year, after an absence of 10 years. The Igbo are a travelling people: we cross towns, cities, nations and continents in search of new opportunities. Thus there is a saying in Igboland: Agaracha (the traveller) must come back. No matter how far-flung a person, no matter how many waters he has crossed, he must eventually make his way home. And here I was, 10 years after I left Nigeria for England, Agaracha returning to Ubulu.
I expected some epiphany to come to me . I had a certain idea of myself as I approached: portrait of the writer going home. My notebook lay open with my pen poised to jot down my first impressions.
The reality was more prosaic. When the bus turned off the main road into my village, the tarmac ran out and we were faced with a path of mud. It was the rainy season and the usually compact dirt road had disintegrated. We contemplated completing the rest of the journey on foot. It was not the glorious homecoming we had imagined, but we were hungry and eager to reach our destination.
The bus carrying our luggage went first, slipping and sliding its way to the far side where the road was firmer. Next, the van with our armed security guards sped through recklessly, wheels barely touching the ground. Last was our bus, laden with uncles, aunties and cousins, two generations of the Onuzo clan stuffed into a 40-seater Toyota. There was a horrible moment when it seemed we would be stuck in the mud. The wheels churned. The engine struggled. Then with a lurch we were free and on our way again.
When we finally reached the family compound, there was singing, dancing and a throng of waiting arms. There were strangers who said they were friends and strangers who said they were relatives. All were embraced. All were exclaimed over.
I sang and danced and embraced but something was wrong with my glorious homecoming. At the end of my first day in Ubulu, the only thing I had written in my notebook was, “Why is the road still not tarred?”
As I moved through the village over the next few days, I was delighted and dismayed by how little had changed. Ubulu was still as beautiful as it had been in my childhood. The squalid, grey urbanisation that certain types of “development” bring to Africa had not touched my village. There were still wild places to run in, tracts of free vegetation, acres of sky filled at night with stars you could see. I bit into mangoes seconds after they had fallen from trees. I breathed in clean air, fresher than the smog we inhaled in Lagos.
But yet, after a decade, Ubulu still had no electricity, no local industry, no municipal authority to collect the heaps of rubbish around the village, and no computers in the village school. The villagers were still the same wiry, hardened people who were quick to smile a greeting – but poor. Very poor.
There was a national election in Nigeria when I visited but you wouldn’t have known it. Ubulu doesn’t even have billboards. A few enterprising local aspirants had set up sandwich boards with their jowly faces on either side, but the big hitters, both at the state and federal level, didn’t bother with us.
And though there have been few material changes in the past decade, there will be stark social changes. When I was a child, we never went home with armed guards. It would have been unthinkable: such measures were for politicians and other dangerous people, not the doctors, lawyers and engineers that make up my family. Now, with kidnappings and armed robberies common in south-eastern Nigeria, you grit your teeth and pay the cost of the extra security. Throughout my stay, each night the guards would give a single blast of their sirens to warn any lurking village youths turned criminals that our compound was armed and willing to retaliate. It was a necessary precaution. Our compound had been attacked before.
Returning to Lagos was like travelling to a new country. Lights, roads, public transport, billboards, noise, enterprise: the good, bad and necessary of urbanisation were here. Lagos is far from perfect, but I could see why every day, thousands flock from rural Nigeria to my city.
Naturally I am proud of how Lagos continues to grow and develop year after year. It is true that regional discrepancies occur everywhere in the world. Northern Italy versus southern Italy, northern England versus the south-east, Greece versus Denmark, and so on. But I am worried by the tendency to conflate progress in Lagos with progress in Nigeria and the increasingly dominant “Africa rising” narrative, which focuses on megacities and hurries the cameras away from places such as my village. Yes, the economies of Lagos, Nairobi and Luanda are growing. Yes, the rich are getting richer and there is a burgeoning middle class. But where do places like Ubulu feature in this story?
Every oil boom has passed these villages by. Every military, civilian and interim government has forgotten us. I think of the new Buhari government in Nigeria, which came into power promising change. Change is not only for Lagos and Port Harcourt and Abuja. Change is not just for the urban centres where the foreign media will go. Change is for Chibok. Change is for Ubulu. Change is for the villages of the Niger delta.
A country is not measured by the number of millionaires it can produce, or the number of private jets its citizens fly, or the gallons of champagne they can guzzle. A country is judged by how it treats it poorest and weakest. The people of Ubulu are still waiting for change.
Source: Chibundu Onuzo, The Guardian