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The Globe and Mail

A new Nigerian-ness is infusing the nation

Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


Mine is a dispersed family. My engineer brother lives in England, my doctor sister lives in the United States and I, with the peculiar good fortune of being a full-time writer, divide my time between the United States and Nigeria. We are not very different from other middle-class Nigerian families; most of the friends I grew up with in the academic town of Nsukka now live abroad.

When these friends, and many others like them, graduated from university, they were shrouded in the lethargy of military rule. The future was a vision of impossibilities. They could not find jobs, could not start businesses and so the only thing to aspire to was a foreign visa. They are now working abroad as doctors and security guards, home health aides and lawyers. They form vibrant Nigeria-focused groups on the Internet and regularly send money back to relatives. Some save carefully for yearly visits home. Many others, like an acquaintance I will call Emeka, have not been back in years. Emeka finally visited Nigeria last Christmas - the first time since 1996 - and what he found most striking was this: The nightclubs in Lagos played Nigerian pop music.

I realized, listening to Emeka, that the Nigeria of today would indeed be unrecognizable to a person who left during the last year of General Sani Abacha's regime. Little has changed with infrastructure - the roads are just as bad and electricity supply is arguably worse, although cheap generators are now ubiquitous. Nor has much changed in the largely patronage-based way our government is run. What has changed is cultural, but even more so it is psychological: There is a growing collective confidence in our future, a new restorative sense of self, and nothing exemplifies this more than the explosion in Nigerian pop music.

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Fifteen years ago, what little Nigerian pop music existed was niche. Today, it is mainstream cool. The young musicians are legitimate stars; some are very talented, others leave me puzzled about why anybody would listen to them, but what is never in doubt is how central they are in the newly energized self-image that young Nigerians have of themselves. The music is cross-cultural, polyglot, derivative, but is also, at its core, very nationalist. It is music whose centre is its Nigerian-ness.

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Corporate businesses pay these musicians well to perform at their events. Even the businesses themselves are focusing on their Nigerian-ness, too. One major multinational has a large billboard in Lagos that says "Naija," a colloquial word for Nigeria that only a few years ago had negative connotations of all that was wrong with Nigeria. Young, cool people wear T-shirts with images of the Nigerian flag or Nigerian money or some form of something distinctly Nigerian. They are dreaming and doing, these young people, they design clothes and they publish magazines - most of which fold after a few editions - and they represent a new entrepreneurial outburst, one in which spaces exist for the quirky and the unusual. Even the entries for the creative writing workshop I teach in Lagos show this new confidence. There are far fewer blatant copies of American commercial fiction, and almost none of the familiar "government oppression" stories. Instead, for example, the writers explore sexual abuse or the challenges of urban Nigerian life.

Perhaps this change was inevitable, with the Internet's democratic access to information, the removal of political strictures and an economy that employs a pitiful few but still enough people who become real-life images for others to aspire to. The recent global economic downturn pushed Nigerians back home and considerably reduced the amount of money sent through Western Union, but many are voluntarily looking homeward because they sense a new possibility. Some have already moved back - and even their contrived accents and the unfortunate whiff of hauteur that sometimes comes with having foreign work experience adds another layer to our new cultural nationalism.

Most Nigerians are libertarians, not ideologically but by circumstance: Government will not provide running water and so people focus on getting private boreholes, government fails at the basic safety net and so people scramble to build their own. But that attitude of accepting a limited role for a bloated government is changing, particularly among young people. Recently, after our President disappeared - ostensibly to a hospital in Saudi Arabia - and Nigerians were not formally told what was going on, a group of young people, ENOUGH IS ENOUGH, boldly marched in Abuja, demanding rights that for so long others like them have not had, and saying what it seems many Nigerians are increasingly saying: We matter. We know we matter.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the author of Half of a Yellow Sun , winner of the 2007 Orange Prize. Her latest book is a collection of short stories titled The Thing around Your Neck .

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