Matryoshka Dolls is a reflective piece on the experience of a white man living in Nigeria in the early '80s. As one of the few white faces in a crowd, Stephen Cutting eventually found solace and understanding in the unfamiliar.
- Stephen Cutting
In 1983 I was living in Nigeria. I was a baturi to Hausa speaking people an oyibo to Yoruba people. Both terms mean white man. ‘Come buy bread oyibo’ the market mama’s would call to me or ‘Buy heg [egg] oyibo’.
This one day, during a federal election, I found myself amongst a crowd. The only baturi in sight at a huge rally. It was standing room only, the sun beat down on the surging mass and I was in a crush of many thousands of people, all chanting the word ‘power’ while simultaneously thrusting clenched fists into the air.
I had been living in Nigeria for around 12 months and assigned to a fairly remote school on the border of Kwara state and Niger state. I started out as one of three baturi teachers on staff but when the other two moved on I was the only baturi left standing. I soon grew accustomed to being the only white face in the small community made up of teachers, students, and the people of the neighbouring village of Kainji. I didn’t mind being the only white person around but I would sometimes find myself looking into passing cars on the road that ran past the school to the Kainji dam to see if there were any white faces inside. On the trips I made into close by town New Bussa I would go to ‘The Club’; a rundown bar with a poorly maintained swimming pool that had been built for expatriate European workers [all long since departed] who worked at the nearby Nigeria air force installation. I guess I was seeking out another ‘white face’ however it could equally have been a ‘black face’ as long as they shared my cultural perspective on the world. Someone with whom I could share a joke without having to explain; or someone I could talk to about the scarcity of cheese and chocolate in cheese -less and chocolate-less stores which were the rule rather than the exception across the country. I was lonely for the familiar although I very quickly tired of it on a short visit to Lagos where I stayed briefly with Australian embassy staff and visited their social club. Arriving through the chaos of Lagos traffic the gates opened into a replica of an Australian suburb with manicured nature strips, concrete curbing and brick veneer houses. In the social club embassy staff downed cans of VB and watched re-runs of Countdown and AFL Grand finals. I fled back to my village and the unfamiliar, which was becoming a new familiar.
So there I was, on this day in 1983, in a crowd of maybe twenty thousand Nigerian People’s Party supporters. Green and white banners whirling in the dust of the Harmattan winds, megaphones screeching, when it occurred to me that I was the only white ‘somebody’ as Nigerians like to say – in the crowd. I had no business being there. I had no vote, I was not reporting on the event and I knew very little about Nigerian politics. How did I feel? Very white I suppose, but I enjoyed the press of the crowd, the mass of humanity, the polite ‘sorry’ when someone bumped me as they passed. The good-natured ‘eh, baturi’ from someone in the crowd, after all I was a baturi, a white man.
Thirty-four years later I reflect on being a white man in Africa and can only recall one incident when I was made to feel unwelcome because of the colour of my skin. I was in a café with my then Nigerian fiancé [now wife]. We had ordered our food, slipped out to do a message, and come back to wait for our meal. In the meantime two young ‘dudes’ or ‘guys’ - in Nigerian parlance –had come in and were seated at another table. The waiter was placing our food on the table when one of our fellow diners began to complain that we had been served before them. ‘Just because he is white!’ he shouted. ‘Come on, shut up, you are a Bintu!’ [been to here, been to there] retorted the waiter and smiled as he placed our cutlery and napkins before us.
People are like matryoshka dolls. The first doll – the big one might be black or white but when you lift that one, you will find another and another – eventually we find our identities connect, we have something in common and might laugh together.