My uncle Chukwuka left Nigeria for the US when I was only in primary 6, some good years ago. Just last week, a call came through my office line and it was from no other person than my Uncle. At first I couldn’t place who he was especially as he spoke with an American accent (sounded more like spri spri spri) and he introduced himself as ‘Chuks’. Not until he called his full name and spoke in Ika, saying ‘mme ro, Chukwuka, nwene nedi i’ did I remember who he was. I was filled with so much excitement because as a child, I was very fond of him and use to call him ‘Onku Tututa’. He told me he saw my profile on Ikaworld.com and went to my company website which I included, from where he got the phone number with which he called me.
My parents never stopped talking about Uncle Chukwuka after he left about 20years ago. He was very hard working and very brilliant with outstanding performances in school. But when he didn’t get a job after two years of graduating and NYSC, uncle was forced to abandon his dreams of working with the ministry of Works (ministry jobs were the most lucrative at the time), travelled to the United States to do a master’s degree, married an African American lady and he never came back.
Uncle Chukwuka was quite surprised that I was listed on the Ikaworld; he was even more surprised that several Nigerian based Ika people where also on the website. I was equally surprised at his reaction. When I told him that the organisation I work for was not an International NGO but completely Nigerian, he was amazed. When he asked if he could call me next time on my office line and I gave him my mobile phone number and that of both parents in Agbor, uncle was astonished; I was astounded.
Well I don’t really blame my uncle. He left Nigeria at the time when the ‘kingdoms’ of NIPOST (Nigerian Postal Agency), strictly NTA (Nigerian Television Authority)/other local state TV stations and NITEL (Nigeria Telecommunication) where the kings and the only players in their domains. Those were also the days of letter writing. I used to write loads and loads of letters and I would make a planned trip from DSC Township in Aladja where we lived to the only post office then in central Warri, near the Catholic Cathedral, opposite Ibo Market, just to post the letters. In those days we wrote with catchy phrases like ˜picking up my golden pen from the basket of love" and when it had to do with the issues of love and romance, we wrote from the ˜innermost sanctum" of our hearts while ensuring that every ˜i"was dotted and every ˜t" crossed. And then in trying to inquire about the welfare of the other person, we would say ˜I hope my letter meets you and your family in good condition? I hope you are flourishing in sound health of mind and body? If so, doxology". And after constructing a carefully worded letter with ˜big-big" grammar that could only be understood by the recipient following due consultation with the dictionary, we would post the letters and wait for another 8-16 weeks before receiving a reply. Presently, with the reformation of NIPOST, thanks to the late Postmaster General Alhaji Abubakar Argungu (who died in Bellview October 2005 plane crash in Nigeria) letters can now be safely posted and delivered in good time.
Here I am, sitting in front of my laptop, tapping on the keys without looking at them and trying to articulate my thoughts with less pressure of consulting the dictionary to see if my spellings are correct or the nearest in meaning because I can do all of these and even more on this same ˜word page" simply by right clicking and doing a spell check or scrolling down to thesaurus to see the meaning and synonyms. And these days, I hardly go to the Post Office except it was expedient, thanks to the internet, I can send and receive emails within split seconds of having typed them.
However, the initial arrival of the internet to Nigeria had its fair share of challenges. Due to the limited access, a lot of us Nigerians were exploited as we paid as much as one thousand naira to get an email address. Cyber cafes were few and only found in major cities. The cafes outside of Lagos charged as much as N800 to N1000 per hour of internet surfing, and those in Lagos charged N10 per minute. The frustrating part of the whole thing was that the server would be so slow that one would spend 45minutes of the whole 1hr trying to open just one web page. I used to print out junk mails thinking they were actually meant for me. Those days are gone now; with as low as 100 naira, one could surf for an hour and the more air time you buy the cheaper. Also, we now have access to internet facilities from the comfort of our homes, thanks to private telephone operators which brought the most welcomed technological advancement in Nigeria; the introduction of the GSM and the Fixed and mobile wireless telecommunications.
Before the advent of GSM and wireless networks, we relied completely on NITEL for the provision of telecommunication services which left much to be desired. Telephones were only found in the houses of the affluent. I remember when we had to go to a family friend’s house, some kilometers away from our house, to receive phone calls from relatives. We had to speak in hushes and couldn’t really express ourselves in our language because we didn’t want to disturb the owners of the telephone. And then came the NITEL phone booths with call cards which came in several units of 200, 500 and 1000 units. Those who could not afford the cards would buy units from vendors and pay at rates twice the normal costs and join the endless queue waiting for your turn to make use of the phone. The first mobile wireless 090 was analogue, very expensive and was reserved for the very few. It indeed was a status symbol. But it had limited coverage. But to the glory of God, the GSM and digital fixed and mobile wireless telecommunication technology was introduced and it brought a near permanent solution to communication challenges. As against the initial throat cutting cost of the GSM (as much as N20, 000 and more for one SIM park), SIM packs are now sold as cheap as N350 and every one has access to it and can afford to buy a GSM phone.
Another major change in the society which has helped the economy in Nigeria is in the area of banking. I can never forget the good old bank TV commercial of the 80s and 90s where a retired court clerk (courtuma) walks into a bank and says ˜give me my tally number o"; aimed at promoting the introduction of InfoTech to banking. In the old banking method, everything was hand written and we had to make endless queues and take tally numbers. Customer care relationship was next to zero and withdrawing money from the bank was a whole day’s affair. But with the reconsolidation of banks to 25 major banks in Nigeria and the use of modern technology like credit cards, debit cards (ATM), ˜slip-less" and internet banking, bank transactions are less stressful than they use to be. Also, there are lots of credit facilities in place and many working class Nigerians can now buy properties like houses, cars, land and household appliances which could be paid for over a long period of time.
I am also quite sure that Uncle Chukwuka left Nigeria when we still had a mega sized wooden framed (with shutters) black and white dome-shaped screen analogue television. I remember when our TV developed a fault, we would hit it by its side (gbom! gbom!!) like smacking a naughty little boy and it will become clear again for our viewing for another while (I wonder where the hitting technology came from). Nowadays, most average homes own flat screen televisions, LCDs and home theatres. Before my dad bought our video machine, (VHS) in the early 80s, we used to go to the Okafor’s (our neighbours who owned a Betamax video player) to see movies. In fact, we had to make extra efforts to be well behaved in order not to be evicted from the "local cinema" of the Okafor’s. When tables turned, and Betamax became outdated, our house became the video centre of our compound and the Okafor kids had to come over to see movies. And later came the lacer disc (now out of market) and VCDs and now the DVD players which can be found in most average homes in Nigeria. Also, there are many private owned television stations which are not politically motivated, but full of substantive contents and entertainment. With the fading away of large sized analogue satellite dishes, we now have smaller (18-31 inches) digital satellite dish which connects us to the happenings around the world. There is a Nigerian based satellite television, HITV, the Nigeria version of DSTV (thanks to Toyin Subair of Hientertainment) that has quality local and international contents and satellite viewing for Nigerians gradually becoming what average families can afford.
In Lagos and Abuja, there are shopping malls where practically anything can be bought. There are also cinemas where we can go to see movies. With the rest of the world, we can view the premiering of new movies. These developments I believe will soon spread round the country. In the area of fashion, we now rely on our locally made fabrics to make outfits for special occasions. Many of our fashion designers are now known internationally (Deola Sagoe and Ade Bakare). In the area of literature, progress is also being made like in the days of Chinua Achebe with the coming of the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (my favourite Nigerian Author). There are also several private Universities and secondary schools, though expensive, but offer quality education.
My Uncle Chukwuka and I now communicate often over the internet and telephone and he has renewed contact with my parents, thanks to GSM and ikaworld.com. I asked uncle when he will be coming to Nigeria, he replied with his ˜developed" American accent ˜I aint comin no where baby. There’s a lot of cheating and corruption over there in Nigeria, girl. We was unfortunate to be from there, girl. There aint no place like America." I quite agree that we still have corruption embedded in our veins; that there’s a lot of cheating; our southern roads are death traps and we have a lot of ˜419" all over the country. But I do believe that something positive can still happen if we lay a proper foundation for our children. A generation would have to make that sacrifice. There are lots of people who believe in a better Nigeria, like Rev. Fr. Mathew Hassan Kukah, Rev. Sam Adeyemi of Daystar Christian Centre and of course the newly formed New Nigeria Club www.newnigeriaclub.net. True, there is a lot of frustration in the land and a lot more people are more hungry than satisfied. But I still believe there can be a change if we keep trying and believing.