Whilst rustling through my documents at the weekend – I forget what prompted the decision to take on the Sisyphean task of rummaging through drawers filled with several years’ worth of papers of varying vintage – it struck me that it was now nearly five years to the day since I dragged myself, bags in tow, off the East Coast train from Newcastle to Aberdeen to begin a new life of sorts. Ditching my Nigerian job for grad school 18 months before meant that nostalgia – and twenty-something years’ worth of memories – counted for little; pragmatism was very much the defining consideration. In a sense, Newcastle, and then Aberdeen afterwards was about tearing everything up and starting afresh from scratch, pretty much the recovery from a self-imposed apocalypse. The driver for that decision was a sense of injustice at the Nigerian work environment; five years of being unaligned (being from the minority in a minority state didn’t help), a sense of having hit a glass ceiling and the desire to prove myself on a global sense all contributing.
I had a soft landing. Unlike some of my peers who had dependants and money issues to focus on, I had the good fortune of cashing in on my Nigerian stock market investments just before the big crash and did not require supplemental income from overnight stints at the Greggs warehouse across town, or tours of duty as a night club bouncer or a as a security guard to make ends meet. That coupled with my not inconsiderable experience acquired whilst working my way up the ranks at a global major in my discipline deluded me into thinking making the transition would be a cinch
The first few months of job hunting with little tangible success, bar the odd interview here and there, put a big dent in that super sized ego. What confidence that was left ebbed quickly with each dead end; being replaced by a hardened pragmatism as the reality that my Nigerian experience – global major player or not – was discounted out here began to sink in. With slightly lower expectations, fitting in and becoming one of the guys became the imperative, even when it meant ditching my very passable Nigerian accent for a (perceived) posher sounding imitation RP version, cobbled together from years of watching British sitcoms. My otherness was a perceived liability, one to be sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism.
Between distance and time working together to conflate memory with imagination, and less pressure as some of the aspirations of those early years become either solid achievements or at least seem far more attainable than they once were, I am finding that that hard, pragmatic stance is slowly yielding, being replaced by a more nostalgic notion of home. This notion of home is one that I find seeks out sameness, emphasises commonality and seeks to build community; the difference between cringing inwardly at the overdressed Nigerian bloke on the 727 to the airport speaking loudly into his cell phone in Yoruba and smiling wistfully at the memory it teases out of the mental ether of my friend M and his (well-earned) reputation for classic Awe-bred razzness.
Two events last week reinforced the sense of a far more nostalgic perception of home for me. First off, at around mid-day on Wednesday, I got an external phone call at work. That happens fairly regularly on any given day except that on this occasion it was from a vendor I had only started using at work in the last few months. By the time the conversation safely navigated the terse, opening introductions – not helped by the fact that we both sounded a lot different from how we used to in the throes of 500 LT, and she had a Scottish surname these days – it turned out that my caller had spotted my name in an email she had been forwarded. After privately wrestling with the pros and cons of reaching out, she had decided to give me a call to confirm if I was the self-same person she’d known in the past. I was, it turned out she’d been a class mate of mine in under grad. We spent a fair few minutes catching up; who was where now, and who we had stayed in touch with or hadn’t. We agreed to catch up in person if we were ever in the same city over the next few months. Thinking over the conversation later, the sobering thought I couldn’t shake off was that with confirmation that she lived and worked a few hundred miles away from me, there were now only four or so people from the top ten finishing positions in my final year class still living and working in Nigeria. Clearly, tearing everything up and starting over isn’t something a lot of my peers are averse to.
Later, on Friday, whilst waiting for some hot water for a cup of tea, I ran into one of the cleaning lads. The sum of our conversations prior to the day was nodded greetings when our paths crossed. A little digging revealed that he was Nigerian, and was working part time with the service company that manages the facilities in the building I work at. Having just wrapped up a Masters degree, he was working part time to make a little cash whilst waiting on applications and interviews. Not a real surprise given that Nigerian students tend to drift to this city, oil capital of Europe. What was more than a little surprising was that he had also graduated from my Nigerian alma mater, and was from the area in which I had spent my own formative years. Our conversation naturally segued into our memories of studying at my previous department. The academic landscape has changed considerably over the intervening years – two deaths, a couple of lecturers who have been lured by the call of big bucks into oil, and a number of retirements – with a few of the young Graduate Assistants from my time blossoming into lynchpins of the departments. As to future plans, he was eyeing up a few PhD options across the globe, the current socio-political climate not being particularly geared towards easing the progress from studying to work in my corner of the world. When the subject of my previous experience came up, he seemed befuddled that I had decided to chuck it all in and start over. There it came out that for the right job, Nigeria would be his preferred destination. For him, nostalgia clearly won over pragmatism.
Implicit in both conversations was the sense that we are always returning, our current locations as homes in name only, dictated by the pragmatics of life rather than any overarching sense of love or attachment. Interestingly, even B – Scottish Husband notwithstanding – mooted the idea of returning to Nigeria in the (distant) future in an expatriate capacity to work for big oil. Maybe for my children, without the hang ups of a past life, a past home and nuclear family in the motherland, the choice will be a lot more clear cut, but for me and my generation I suspect this battle between head and heart, between pragmatism and nostalgia is one we will have to get used to. In a sense, we are always returning.