Expat (IN) Nigeria : If you don’t tell anyone you’re coming to Nigeria, no one will need to warn you
Updated: May 6
Expat (IN) Nigeria? Get it? No, ok we'll explain. It's a play on words on 'expats in Nigeria trying to 'expert' Nigeria. We think it's pretty witty don't you?
This is a new segment on the site where we talk to different expats living in Nigeria about their experience in a bid to show how varied their situations are and also dispel or reinforce myths.
Today's guest is a 31 year old American male whose move was facilitated by him falling in love with a Nigerian girl and can't wait for the day Nigeria will have constant electricity.
Didn’t anyone warn you about coming to work in Nigeria?
I lived three years in a small town in the middle of Benin Republic.
Near the end of my second year in Benin Republic, a friend and I got bit hard by the same travel bug. We declared boldly that we would cross Africa on motorcycles. We wanted to see Lagos nightlife, climb Mt. Cameroon, listen to soukous and rumba in the Congo and taste Victoria Falls. We wanted to talk to people form Gabon, DRC, Kenya and everywhere in between to get a better sense of the entire continent.
We had two problems. The first problem was that we didn’t know how to ride motorcycles. That was easy to solve. The second problem was convincing everyone we wouldn’t get kidnapped, killed or harmed in some significant way. That was harder.
Stereotypes and misconceptions about Africa are rampant; not only among Americans, but among Africans themselves! My Beninese neighbor told me there were cannibals in Nigeria. Cannibals?!?
The Nigerian couch surfer host writing my invitation letter threatened not to send it if I insisted on traveling east past Lagos. She said it was far too dangerous and she could never live with herself if I was kidnapped (and presumably eaten).
So yes, I was warned about coming to Nigeria then but that was in 2014.
When I decided to move to Nigeria at the end of 2018, I applied the lessons learned in 2014: If you don’t tell anyone you’re coming to Nigeria, no one will need to warn you about it.
So why did you still come?
I fell in love. There were different formulas to make it work but I felt coming to Lagos and getting to know her family was the best option.
Interesting, before we carry on, where are you from and is this your first time being an expatriate?
I’m from the US. I’ve been an expat twice for just over 7 years. I moved to Benin Republic when I was 22 and lived/worked there for 6 years. Then I spent 1.5 years in Mali.
What do you do here?
I work for a small social enterprise that installs water purification systems in schools. Both the company and I were a bit surprised during the first interview. They didn’t think they’d be able to recruit an expat for Lagos, and I certainly didn’t think there were jobs in Lagos for expats outside of oil, government, NGO or tech startups.
How long have you been here for?
A year and a half.
...and now you’re married to the Nigerian woman you moved for; how’s that going?
The short answer is great. God added jara when he created her.
You’re probably wondering about the challenges of cross-cultural relationships, how I’m getting along with my in-laws and how many times a week I eat eba?
Yup, so enlighten us on the challenges of cross-culture relationships
-The stares and wisecracks: When we go out and about in Lagos, people frequently stare. Unless you’re the Dalai Lama, people staring at you inevitably makes you a bit uncomfortable and self-conscious. You feel like shouting "No, we’re not a couple on 90 day fiancé! We’re together because we love each other! Our mothers talk to each other on whatsapp!”
Some Nigerian men feel the need to go beyond staring. When we were walking in GRA the other day, the driver of a police vehicle slowed down and shouted out the window, “Hope say you go marry our sister!”. When we were on my moped (a type of bike) headed to a restaurant around the corner, another driver rolled down the window and shouted “You no go follow him if he be Nigerian”. This is funny if it happens once or twice. But when it happens all the time, it’s annoying.
-Cultural Onion and Iceberg: Back when I was a volunteer in Benin Republic, we talked a lot about the cultural onion and iceberg. The onion is often depicted with 4 layers: the outside layer of culture is the clothing, language, gestures, food, music and rituals. The next 2 layers are the pattern of behaviors and norms. And the deepest layer of a culture is the shared values and worldview. The iceberg illustrates even better the idea that the visible part of culture is tiny compared to a much bigger invisible part.
Cross-cultural relationships require much more calibration and often accepting not to touch certain dials. The deeper the layers of the cultural onion go, the harder the dials are to calibrate, and the harder it is to accept not to touch them.
A few dials that were difficult to calibrate for our relationship: the sense of entitlement Americans have, spending the night at my apartment pre-marriage, the pros and cons of living in Lagos and the amount of influence family should have on life decisions.
At the beginning, we benefited a lot from the fact that I had already lived in West Africa for 8 years and understood (and liked) the culture. We also had a lot of shared interests and values, like traveling, reading, and having strong bonds with our families. As time went by, we kept an open mind, explored different frameworks to make relationship work (like the 5 languages of love), made changes where we could and found ways to accept the things we couldn’t.
-My in-laws: My Beninese friends always told me that, when you marry an African girl, you’re marrying her family as well. This meant two things: 1) you have to consider your in-laws opinions on matters you consider private and 2) you may have to help people financially or open your house up to others. These are fairly big cultural differences. In the US, kids are relatively more independent and parents respect their opinions. Sharing your home and resources certainly happens, but occurs less frequently and the expectations around sharing (and the willingness to do it) are lower.
Also, when coming to Lagos, I was expecting at least one auntie like Patience Ozokwor in Wedding Party 2.
So far though, there have been no crazy aunties and no other “downsides” of becoming part of my wife’s family. They have blessed the relationship from day one, they respect our opinions and want us to be happy, and they are wonderful people.
Does being married to a Nigerian color your experience of living here?
Yes, in a million little ways and one big way. The little ways are all the anecdotes about her life, her “inside” perspective on everything that happens, and her explanations of trending topics on twitter. I feel I know the country a lot better and have a more nuanced understanding of how and why things happen.
The big way is making Nigerian my adopted country. My wife is proud to be Nigerian. We may move eventually, but we’ll continue to rep Nigeria.
Good stuff. What does your daily life look like? (including weekends)
I wake up at 5am, take a helicopter to gym/spa, drink a smoothie made of imported fruits, suit up and head to the office to make millions.
Just kidding. Though I imagine that's how most expats in V.I live, right?
I live in a serviced apartment in GRA that I pay N3.8 million ($10,500) a year for inclusive of service charge. The apartment complex has a pool and 24/7 lights. My apartment is relatively nice, but not elegant. This is the second apartment I’ve lived in.
My first apartment was also in GRA and a bit cheaper but the landlord refused to turn on the generator from 1 am to 6 am despite the contract saying he would guarantee light from 8 pm to 8 am, 24/7 on weekend. He also claimed to run out of fuel frequently on weekends. My frustration with this was not so much sleeping in the heat, but paying for something that wasn’t provided. There were a few expats and Nigerians in that apartment complex and everyone disliked the landlord. He finally agreed (in writing) to let me leave after 6 months and reimburse me 50% of the rent. Others left too. He never reimbursed me.
I like GRA. It’s calm. There are 3 big Supermarkets within a 10 minute walk from my apartment with a great selection of food. There are 5-6 restaurants - Nigerian, Thai, Chinese and Indian - I like that they are also within a 10 minute walk.
Most mornings, I wake up and try to go for a run around GRA. I pass by a lot of gate men and Indians going for morning walks. People often stare; some shout oyibo! Then I come home, drink a coffee and head to work on my moped.
My ride to work takes 5 minutes. I used to take the same Keke every day. His name was Mohammed and I called him my Keke Uber. He picked me up every morning and evening and I paid him for the entire week on Fridays.
People at the office thought it was funny that I was taking a Keke. After a few months, Mohammed stopped showing up. I still don’t know what happened. He didn’t speak English and he didn’t have a phone. Recently, I bought a sweet moped for around 100k naira.
As I drive to work, I see other expats and GRA residents in their fancy cars, mostly in the back seat. If I didn’t know better, I would think expats didn’t know how to drive because all of them seem to need drivers.
At the last social enterprise I worked at in Mali, we wore t-shirts and jeans to work. Nigerians care more about dressing “smart” though. Most guys at my office wear a suit and tie, so I felt I had to wear the same. Nowadays, I get away with dressing business causal.
Dress how you want to be addressed is the motto we suppose...
I imagined working in a fancy office on Victoria Island when I was applying for the job. Instead, we’re in GRA and the office is very normal. We keep overhead costs as low as possible to make sure money is spent on installing systems in schools. Sometimes the generator is on and I bask in the coolness; most times we are on the inverter, it’s hot and I day dream longingly about what Nigeria would be like if there was constant, cheap electricity.
Trust us, every Nigerian day dreams about that.
When I’m not day dreaming, I’m working with everyone at the office, trying to add value wherever possible. Sometimes that means writing a concept note on how to improve a feature on Salesforce. Sometimes that means listening to Customer Service calls, making improvement to scripts and getting their feedback on what’s going on with schools.
Sometimes it means visiting schools to get direct feedback from students and staff on how they like the system and what we can do to improve our service. Other times I'm talking to the Country Director for hours about strategy and budgets. I started out as the Business Manager in 2018. Now I’m the Deputy Country Director.
I’m the only expat at the office. For me, it feels normal after spending 8 years in West Africa with 3 of those years in Benin without another expat within 30 km of me. I’m not sure how normal it is for everyone else though. I think people are surprised when I behave "like an African”, e.g. take a keke to work.
On weekends, I mostly relax, go food shopping, read and spend quality time with my wife at home. Sometimes I go to Pub 1 on Friday with my Nigerian neighbors to eat fish and enjoy live music. Sometimes my wife and I go out to dinner, a movie or a play at Terra Kulture. We have also gone on excursions to Jara Beach Resort and La Campagne Tropicana.
How would you describe the life of an expat in Nigeria from your own point of view?
I think most people would describe the lives of expats in Lagos like this: they live in expensive apartments in VI with a private pool and a few domestic staff.
They get dropped off and picked up at work in nice car by a driver, hold top management positions that have a better salary than they'd make elsewhere, go out to restaurants on weekends with other expats, they spend 99.9% of their time inside because they can't survive without A/C. They like most Nigerians because of how friendly and welcoming Nigerians are and they enjoy the privilege and power that expats have by default. They don't trust many Nigerians though (because other Nigerians tell them not to, due to the systemic corruption and because expats are a bit racist) and they are always concerned about security and they hate the traffic.
Sounds about right, no?
The reality is that most expats lives are as varied as Nigerian lives. There are expats living in Calabar working to protect the almost-extinct drill monkeys, some are in Kaduna working at NGOs and then we have the ones in Lagos who club every weekend, eat out every night and live in massive houses with private pools. Some expats love living in Nigeria. Some hate it, but stay because of work, family obligations or some other reason.
What’s been the biggest cultural shock
The biggest shock was how aggressive and rude some people are in Lagos. In Bamako and Cotonou, I never saw people raising their voices or quarreling. I see this a lot in Lagos.
If you no get sense dey go just gba e loju is the cause. Anyway, what’s the hardest part about living here
The pollution, traffic, lack of green/public spaces, overpopulation and heat make it difficult. But what makes it hard is the pessimism of most people in Lagos. I've never lived somewhere where people so frequently and so passionately talk about how terrible their country is! I'm hoping the general frustration that many people feel is channeled into positive change some day.
Nigeria has a high expat community. So do you only hang out with the expats or you have Nigerian friends too
I mainly hang out with my wife and Nigerians.
Do you have any beliefs that hold you back from adapting to culture here
Of course. The average American has different beliefs than an average Nigerian about a lot of things like equality between men and women, how someone should spend their time and money and whether snails are delicious or disgusting. There are many layers to the cultural onion. It's easy to peel off a few American layers and replace them with Nigerian ones, but the deeper you go, the harder it is to peel off.
We think snails are delicious sha but what do you think is the best & worst thing about living here.
Best - Nigerians are very welcoming and friendly. Life is vibrant here and people are fun. The music is great and jollof rice and chicken are delicious.
Worst - pollution, lack of clean outdoor environments like parks, climate, lack of constant electricity, crowded, people are sometimes aggressive and rude, risk of crime
Can you communicate in any of the local languages? If yes say something
Willing to stay in Nigeria or can’t wait to get the hell out of the country
I'd love to stick around and see where the country is going. There is so much potential. But I'm still a bit consumed by wanderlust and my organization recently offered me a position in Kenya.
Advice for expats?
Paraphrasing a quote I heard somewhere else: Luxury cannot be bought. It is the reward of those who have no fear of discomfort.
Any last words
I love Unravelling Nigeria’s project. Nigeria is a big, diverse country. There’s a lot of hidden gems and amazing people. If you're a tourist or expat looking to explore a different side of Nigeria, book a trip or reach out.
Awww shucks, thank you :)