Murtala Mohammed Airport is a portal into a different universe. Time moves slower and yet faster, queues stretch for hours, luggage crawls out onto luggage revolvers at snail’s pace yet bodies pulse and writhe in thick crowds, flies are abuzz and landing on any given surface, children scream over toys and adults scream louder over luggage all to the blaring din of horns and the scrape of wheels against tarmac. It’s the best welcome to Nigeria you could ever get. In the chaos for a trolley after standing for forty minutes I finally push my way to the front.
“One or more?” The bored looking woman at the counter snaps at me.
“Two.” I respond and I watch her respond to my voice, watch her eyebrows rise slightly, the bored look in her eyes cool into a grudging respect.
“Martin, two.” She snaps behind her and an aging man with a speed that boys half his age couldn’t master runs up to me with a trolley.
“Good afternoon Ma.” He says in Yoruba. Before I can respond the woman at the counter gives a sardonic laugh.
“This one is aje butter. English please.” She mocks before turning to another customer, smirk still intact.
The definition of aje butter lies in its origins. The phrase was coined in the early sixties with the production of an expensive butter in the time of the postcolonial recession. The few who could afford it were called “ajebutters” and it was seen as a symbol of economic prosperity. But with advances in transportation and the rise of the media and hence the increase of globalization, ajebutter has taken on a whole new meaning. The Nigerian middle class can afford more than just fancy butter, they can afford trips to Barbados and America they can leave their children in boarding schools for weeks at a time, only returning them to Nigerian soil for Christmas or funerals. ‘Weakling’, ‘spoiled’, ‘foreign’, these are the synonyms that follow after the immediate utterance of the word and accurately describe how Nigerians treat those who’ve schooled abroad. As a member of such a class after schooling in the United Kingdom for two years, it’s almost magical the variety of responses I can evoke just by opening my mouth. Resentment, Dismissal, Amusement, Annoyance, Envy. Judgment is quick and often irreversible with receptionists, hairdressers, waiters and street peddlers rolling their eyes before I’ve even fully mouthed the first word. But the source to such reactions lies ironically not in our own culture but a foreign one. But ironically, the Nigerian stigma towards foreigners stem from foreigners itself.
Upon colonization, Nigeria’s sociocultural structure underwent a complete transformation with British colonists establishing themselves as the better “superior” and condemning Nigerian culture as “lesser”. This led to a self-destructive social paradigm shift of Nigerians psychologically rejecting Nigeria and all things considered Nigerian, seeing it as “unfashionable” and hence “lesser.” The desperate bid to emulate our white oppressors began from bleaching skin to appear lighter and hence “whiter”, to culturally distancing from Nigeria as a whole, rejecting the languages, tribal roots and history ingraining itself into the very essence of middle class culture. The working class who couldn’t afford the constant hair relaxing treatments or the French tutors or the trips abroad became seen as “lesser” by the illusioned middle class. This created a class divide so potent sixty years later in a postcolonial Nigeria it still exists to this day.
Those who travel abroad are seen to those who can’t afford to as wealthy and hence rich, spoiled and stupid. With over 80 percent of the population living on less than one dollar a day, this view is shared by practically the whole country. Most middle class student expatriates don’t challenge the stereotype. They flaunt dual nationality passports, foreign designer labels and summer trips to America. They flash international driver’s licences and visas in skinny jeans and foreign university sweatshirts. But the message behind this is often mistranslated behind years of colonial reform. The aje butter identifies as foreign and other because they are denied the chance to identify as Nigerian.
Most educated abroad often staying abroad to continue education there not due to a need to reject Nigeria but due to being rejected by Nigeria. Being treated as a foreigner in your own country at its worst makes you question your very nationality but being treated as a traitor makes you question your very identity. Nationality is an integral part of identity and when it’s stripped from you, it can change your very outlook on life.
I spent twelve years of my life in Nigeria before I was sent abroad, now I can’t start a conversation with anyone I haven’t met before because they can’t be bothered to try to understand my accent. Or worse yet they already think they do understand: self-hating, dual nationality wielding, spolied, rich, stupid aje butter who’s only here for a holiday. It’s this stigma that makes me consider it, makes anyone consider leaving a place that no longer feels like home. And with the mass exodus of students trained abroad, so goes the years of international education that could fuel our workforce and lead the next generation. It isn’t unheard of, and in the thousands of conversations that take place every day, about why Nigeria remains in political and economic turmoil it always comes up: those who can afford to leave don’t stay. And it’s seen through colonial tint lenses. But it’s been over sixty years and it’s time we took the lenses off.
Because some of us stay, some of us power through the smirks and hisses, some of us persevere through the “Ehn? Ehn? I don’t understand what you are saying.” Some of us keep going through the fake smiles and the mockery and not so polite nods. Because some of us won’t give up our passports so easily. Won’t have our identities stolen without a fight. Some of us turn back to the woman at the counter and tell her: “oloshi” or “elete ponmon” because some of us aren’t aje butters, we’re Nigerians. And we’re not going anywhere.