Yesterday on Facebook, I came across this post on Anglo-Nigerian publisher Jeremy Weate’s page:
“In Aba, they make Italian-style shoes from Kano leather which are labelled “Made in Italy”. No one would buy them if they said “Made in Nigeria”, although everyone knows they are made locally. Nigerians don’t trust products made in Nigeria and prefer to pretend they were made elsewhere. How can this attitude be turned around?”
It’s something I think about often.
I lived in Nigeria for just over a decade and it was an attitude I saw a lot of, as well as internalised myself. I’m British and a lot of the things we had at home in Lagos and took away to boarding school were from England, thereby re-inforcing the idea that ‘British is best’. I remember being baffled at the sight of the hawkers selling multi-coloured pills in giant metal basins balanced on their heads, and my dad saying, “Thank God we don’t have to buy our medicine like that – you never know what’s in those capsules.”
Only a couple of years ago, I was using some of the baby lotion purchased by my mother at a Lagos market while she’d been on a trip there. The infant on the front of the bottle was Caucasian. “Curious,” I thought. “But maybe it was imported to Nigeria.” I turned it over, only to see ‘Made in Nigeria‘. Oh. How sad. Because while it’s possible (!) that that white baby was used as a result of Nigeria’s multi-ethnic/cultural outlook, it is far more likely that he/she was used to make the product appear more desirable.
But I also remember going on holiday to northern Nigeria as a kid and visiting the leatherworks in Jos with my cousins. I remember the pride (and exhaustion) on the faces of the tanners as they worked their craft and I remember buying two bags with my pocket money – bags I happily used over the next 10 years. There are very few things I’ve bought (from all over the world) which have lasted as long; why aren’t we more proud of such workmanship?
The cult of ‘from abroad’ is still strong in Nigeria. Why else did the category of ‘Most Assorted’ exist in our house awards at school? And why did I feel a sense of pride (regrettable with 20/20 hindsight, obviously) at winning or being nominated for it almost every year? It seems tired to say it, but I think the reasons for our obsession with imported goods comes from a number of factors as intertwined as a ball of wool. Our former colonisation plays a part, definitely, as does the preoccupation with ‘Big Manism’ (kari mi – keeping up with the Joneses). In the midst of grinding poverty, and a massive inequality gap between the rich and the poor, getting your stuff from overseas marks you out as different and special; exclusive.
What to do? The government introduced the ‘Buy Made in Nigeria’ campaign back in October 2009. This is great, but is it enough? People arent stupid, the basis of the problem is deeply ingrained. If there’s little pride in anything Nigerian, the government needs to fully adopt and crucially, be seen to adopt this approach. We’ve had enough of ‘do as I say’ and need more ‘do as I do’. If we look at India, the change started out there as an act of will. In their quest for a more literate population, India has made it easier for companies like Amazon and Flipkart to come in and further revolutionise publishing over there. The literary festivals aren’t doing too shabbily, either. India’s huge burst in patriotic purchasing has come about from the confidence of knowing your country is on the up. India made themselves more competitive and are reaping the rewards.
Install the infrastructure, support it and promote it. It’s not that hard, I don’t think.