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I Found an Unlikely Refuge in Ibadan, Nigeria

A Black woman and her family find an escape from the coronavirus and threat of everyday racism in Nigeria.

2014. That was the year I announced to my family and friends that I would be moving from Seattle to Nigeria with my 10-month-old daughter.

It wasn’t a good year for Nigeria’s international reputation. In April 2014, online protests saturated social media worldwide under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls after the disappearance of 276 students from the town of Chibook. By the end of July, the Ebola virus arrived via a traveler who collapsed at Murtala Muhammed International Airport upon landing in Lagos from Liberia. Our flight arrived on August 26.

Before we left, people strained to offer words of support, while underlying feelings of skepticism leaked from their eyes. “Have you heard the news?” was one of the most popular follow-up questions used to passive-aggressively judge the logic and sanity of our plans, making it difficult to respond without sounding defensive or reckless.

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In my home base of the past six years, the Yoruba people who make up my community in the city of Ibadan are unapologetically direct with their communication. Strangers feel welcome to correct how I carry my infant son and question if I know how to cook the local greens that they watch me buy in the market.

Meanwhile, even though the Ebola outbreak was efficiently contained and popular memory of the Chibook girls has long-since faded behind the newest headlines, Nigeria’s international image hasn’t changed much. Its reputation as a place of notorious dysfunction, a breeding ground for government corruption and international fraudsters, is as persistent as ever.

And yet, in this blockbuster year of the unexpected, the tone from the States has changed. As my community in Seattle has watched my family grow in relative safety, many of their apprehensions have calmed. And now that 2020 has brought COVID-19, friends and family call me “lucky” and even “blessed” to be mostly out of reach from a crisis that has altered almost every aspect of their daily lives.

In the midst of a pandemic, Ibadan has become a refuge, and Nigeria a place of relative safety.

Matthew Omojola | Dreamstime

In a dramatic interview in April, Seattle-based philanthropist Melinda Gates told the world to expect the coronavirus to leave dead bodies in the streets throughout Africa, fearing that underdeveloped conditions would make the virus uncontrollable. Fortunately (for now), numbers of coronavirus cases are rising slowly in most countries on the continent and are nowhere near comparable to those in Latin America, Europe, and especially the United States.

What Gates didn’t anticipate was that the most astounding outpouring of bodies in the streets would be in the United States and in the form of national uprisings against police brutality sparked by the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

As protesters made their presence know in all 50 states, media pundits questioned the wisdom of mass gatherings during a pandemic. Public health officials quickly responded concluding that systemic racism poses a greater threat to health and safety than public demonstrations.

Since I moved six years ago, killings of Black men, women, and children at the hands of law enforcement have been so frequent that different incidents are easily confused in conversation. When I WhatsApp-message my Black friends in the U.S., all I can think to ask is, “How are you coping?”, knowing that the emotional assault I feel from this distance can’t compare to what they must be experiencing at ground zero of the police brutality crisis.

The first time I experienced feeling safe from racism as a Black woman was during a semester study abroad in the Dominican Republic. Out and about in Santo Domingo, going to my classes and internship, I blended in completely. Coming from Seattle, one of America’s whitest cities, and a college that was less than 10% Black, my experience was both surreal and instantly comfortable. A weight was released from my shoulders and replaced with a sense of relief along with a new self-confidence that came with feeling accepted. It was a weight that I had never thought to imagine could be relieved. (It must be noted that for my Black classmates with darker skin tones, study abroad in Santo Domingo was not a utopian experience. Their skin color affiliated them with people of Haitian descent, and they were treated with frequent and sometimes physically violent discrimination.)

Now, my children, all young, are living the luxury of navigating their lives, oblivious to the privilege they have: their experiences are not governed by assumptions projected on them because they are Black.

Matthew Omojola | Dreamstime

My daughters get their hair braided every Sunday in an array of beautiful styles that they wear to school, where on Monday they meet friends and teachers who have done the same. No one questions whether their cultural beauty standards are appropriate. No one threatens to cut their braids or expel them from school. No one meets them with the curiosity of an enlightenment-era scientist upon first encounter with an exotic animal, arm outreached to explore.

When I was in elementary school, “monkey” was the daily slur my short afro merited. Many schoolgirls in Nigeria wear the same, effortless style with a casualness that comes from its ubiquity. It’s too normal a sight to even provoke commentary.

My children’s textbooks are populated with Black faces and Black bodies of different shapes. I don’t have to go to the librarian and beg for books with visual representation of their Black skin.

TV advertisements, billboards, even the images on children’s snacks and Tylenol bottles are all happy looking Black people.

Ibadan is Nigeria’s third-largest city after Lagos and the capital Abuja, with a population of about three million people. Known as a city initially founded by iconoclastic warriors, its modern history has been a source of pride within the country as a place of many firsts. It’s the home of Nigeria’s first national university and skyscraper, Africa’s first television station, and as an incubator of some of Nigeria’s most touted artists and intellectuals.

But as the years have passed, what’s left of Ibadan’s mid-century glory is mostly faded memories. What remains is a city with the feel of the suburbs, a place that is affordable for most, and a good place to raise children.

The gems of Ibadan life are mostly very hidden. The city scenery could be generously described as “rustic,” with the actual red rust of the aluminum rooftops, a sprawling scene which can be observed from one of its seven hilltops, being its most prominent visual feature.

Nigerians of all classes regularly lament our lack of access to basic services like electricity, water, and road maintenance (no doubt an enduring relic of imperialism), but we are free from direct threats to our livelihood posed by white racism.

Having grown up in Seattle, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, living in a place with minimal natural beauty can be a personal struggle at times. My weekday walks to work used to be postcard-perfect, featuring sunrises over the Cascade Mountains to the east and crisp views of the Olympic Mountains to the west. Lake Washington and the Puget Sound were both within a 10-minute drive from my home.

Seattle is also a dynamic center for arts and culture while being most widely known as a hub for innovation and home to some of the world’s most influential corporations. And yet, in one of the wealthiest cities in the United States, no one has seemed to be able to engineer a solution to its drastic racial inequality.

Most folks in Ibadan would find it impossible to accept that an oyinbo (“foreigner” in Yoruba) could ever think that living in Nigeria offers more safety and opportunity than living in the West. They don’t believe my cautions and fantasize aloud about applying for foreign visas to escape. They don’t know the facts behind the well-produced façade, that in Seattle, while the median household income for white families is $105,100, the median Black family doesn’t even earn up to half of that, with a median of $42,500.

Nigerians of all classes regularly lament our lack of access to basic services like electricity, water, and road maintenance (no doubt an enduring relic of imperialism), but we are free from direct threats to our livelihood posed by white racism.

Black Seattleites fight daily for their personal safety and struggle for affordable housing, culturally relevant health and community services, and income equality, all while navigating the constant stress of white micro and macro-aggressions.

Their efforts are sincerely necessary and worthy of reverence. And yet, most would rather just not have that burden of struggle on their necks. They would prefer to use their energy to deal with the challenges and joys of raising their families and developing their personal goals and dreams.

They want an opportunity like the life that we have here in Ibadan, where it is a given that my family’s Black lives matter.