By NBF News

Regan Burke Bardeen
(USA; U.I.)

It's good! 'Things like amala, we don't have in Sierra Leone. We have yam but we don't have pounded yam. We don't pound the yam. We just boil it or maybe cook it as porridge.

The mandate to our correspondents and reporters was as clear as the noonday: get the foreign or international students studying here in Nigeria to talk about their impressions of the country.

With the country celebrating its 50th Independence anniversary, what do they like about Nigeria and what do they dislike?

But getting the students, drawn from countries in Africa, and a few outside it, to talk to Education Review on the subject, turned out to be an uphill task. Questions along that line were viewed with suspicion. It was like, 'what are you guys up to? I hope you are not trying to put us on the spot, into trouble with powers that be?'

You shouldn't blame them. An African proverb says: 'a guest who breaks the dish of his host is not soon forgotten.' A Togolese proverb counsels: 'If you hurt the reputation of another, you damage your own' and a German proverb roars like the German Shepherd dog: 'it's easier to hurt than to heal.'

But when assurances and reassurances showed that they were not being asked to break the dish of their host country, Nigeria, nor hurt its reputation, some were willing to talk.

Margai Raymond Hindolo, a Sierra Leonean, had his first degree in Philosophy and Sociology at the University of Sierrra Leone, Fourah Bay College. But right now, he is into a Masters Degree programme in Humanitarian and Refugee Studies, at the University of Ibadan.

A Mother's Fear
Giving his impression, Hindolo who said he is visiting Nigeria for the first time in his life said his mother was scared when at first she learnt that her son would come to Nigeria to study. 'She said, 'Oh, Raymond, why can't you choose another country like Ghana?', he recalled. 'I said, actually I want to go to Nigeria. You know, it's because of so many bad stories we heard, maybe because of what one or two bad Nigerians did. But since I've been in Nigeria, sincerely, I've not seen most of those bad things that we were used to hearing about the country.'

What was his mother afraid of, you wondered. 'My mother is a nurse and she was afraid of this issue of human ritual sacrifices because she heard some bad stories even though there are so many good stories about Nigeria,' Hindolo informed. 'You know, if you hold up a white paper, people will not see anything. Even when they are seeing a white paper, they will say they did not see anything. But if there is one spot, they will say, 'oh, I saw a spot.' So, it is a natural thing that people tend to see negative things clearer than they can see positive things. So, she was not able to see anything good about Nigeria, but there are so many good things in Nigeria. Actually, most of them think that all those things they watch on M-NET's, 'Africa Magic', are really happening in Nigeria. So, it is what they watch on Nigerian movies outside that inspire the fear.

'When you are back at home, you hear so many negative things about Nigeria. But I have discovered that Nigerians are not like that. Nigerians are friendly people. Life is relatively cheaper in Nigeria than in Sierra Leone. There are opportunities in Nigeria, educational opportunities. They help you to become wiser when you are leaving Nigeria. Those are the kind of good things that I like about Nigeria.'

Nigeria's versus Sierra Leonean Foods
Someone said you learn about another country's language faster in the kitchen than at school. How does that read with Hindolo, with regard to Nigerian food language? He laughs aloud and says: 'In Sierra Leone, our food system is different. We have these vegetable leaves like potato and cassava. When I came to Nigeria, one day I went to a 'cook shop' to buy food. In Sierra Leone, if food is N50 or N100, you just give your money, they will serve you complete dish. But in Nigeria, you buy everything piecemeal. You buy the rice. Then you buy the meat (general laughter). It's good! 'Things like amala, we don't have in Sierra Leone. We have yam but we don't have pounded yam. We don't pound the yam. We just boil it or maybe cook it as porridge. Sometimes, we boil it and apply soup on it. In Sierra Leone, we have th e cassava leaves. We use them for vegetables for making soup. We cook them just like you people cook ewedu. But here they say cassava leaves are for goats (more laughter).

'But you have good food in Nigeria. In fact, most of the times, I eat amala because I am now used to it. There are so many things to remember about Nigeria, for example, Christianity is very dominant in Nigeria, at least, in this part of the country. There are churches and you find that most people are very, very religious. You hardly see somebody who is not religious; no matter what he might be doing, he has that regard for God. If you go to share the word of God, they sometimes listen to you. They have high regard for God as they also have the desire to pursue their education. They are not complacent with first degree level because the number of first degree holders in this country is almost becoming like the number of secondary or even primary school leavers in other countries. If you have first degree, it is just like a cliché. It is becoming very normal. So people are desirous to pursue their education and secure their Masters. So, when you are in Nigeria, you become educationally-motivated. So many good things, you know.'

Nigeria: good people, great nation
Dodzi Koffi Elemawussi spoke in similar vein. A Togolese, he had his first degree in Management Science and his first M.Sc in Finance and Accounting, respectively at the University of Lome, Togo. But right now he is reading for his second Masters degree in Humanitarian and Refugee Studies, at the University of Ibadan. 'Honestly, when I told my people that I was going to Nigeria, after I had gotten scholarship to study in Nigeria, they shouted and said, 'Why Nigeria? Why don't you go to Ghana?,' Elemawussi recalled. 'They have this fear about Nigeria. Outside, Nigeria has this bad image of insecurity and those kinds of things. When I came, I was scared at the beginning.'

What was he scared about? 'About insecurity and all that,' he said. 'It is like if you are in Nigeria, you must be very careful, control yourself and not be carefree as if you are in Togo where you can move about 24 hours without anybody harassing you for any reason. In fact, when I went back home, I discovered that my mum was fasting and praying every day (general laughter). When I went home during the strike, she was so happy. I told her, no, 'Mum, Nigeria is not the way that you are thinking.' Yes, there are pockets of incidents that seem to heighten the sense of insecurity but it is not as bad as the picture that people are painting about the country in many places. At least, if you are inside the campus, you enjoy the place because you are secured.'

How about the food? 'In fact, that's still a challenge for me because you hardly cope with Nigerian food, basically Ibadan food because someone made me to know that if you travel to other parts of the country like Igbo land, Calabar, you can eat good food prepared with plenty vegetables. But the fact is that we have the same food along the West African coast - yam, maize, rice but the difference is in their preparation.'

So, how do they prepare their own food? 'In Togo, our basic food is maize. We call it akume. It is like tuwo in Hausaland. My problem is with the soup; you hardly enjoy it. Talking about our soup, we prepare it with plenty vegetables; here they put too much palm oil in the soup. I wonder too when you go to the market and see how they expose the meat everywhere. In our country, you cannot see meat openly displayed in the market and flies flying about here and there. We are not like that. You must go to the meat stall, we call it butcherie and buy the meat you want. And, in cooking it, we add more spices. It is seasoned very well and it is softer. But when you want to eat meat here it is very tough and they are cut it into too tiny bits. In Togo, we boil our meat very well to make it softer. But when I go to restaurants like Tantalizer and Mr.Biggs, I really enjoy their food. So, I feel the population has to do with the quality of food that is served. Sellers want to maximize their profits.'

Fiasco, Food and Friendliness
But all the same, he confesses that he's enjoyed his stay in Nigeria 'Yes, this place is enjoyable, especially if you have money in your pocket (laughs). But regular supply of electricity is a problem in Nigeria. They say Nigeria supplies my country with electricity but here you cannot enjoy the same power for 24 hours. Yet we do so in our country. There is no generating set in my country. We have light 24 hours. That was one of the challenges I needed to cope with when I came here. I think it has to do with the large population too. It just like what Malthus said in his theory on population increase or explosion. Although his theory was based on food production but it can be applied to other areas of a country's economy where population increase is a problem. In Nigeria, population is increasing, but the facilities required to take care of their basic needs are not increasing with the same proportion. That's the problem.'

Other international students who spoke passionately on their likes (and dislikes), about Nigeria, include Matthew Brown, Regan Buck Bardeen (both Americans) and Valorine Fongwi (a Cameroonian). While Brown, a Fullbright scholar and a PhD student in the Department of African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the U.S.A but who, at present, is on a Fulbright-Hays fellowship as well as the Ebrahim Hussein fellowship to study about Nigerian film industry, at the University of Ibadan, enjoys speaking Yoruba language, as well as 'eating iyan with egusi'; Bardeen, a doctoral candidate in African History at the University of California, Los Angeles, but at present a Fulbright scholar at the University of Ibadan, conducting research on the development of a reading public in South-Western Nigeria, between 1920 and 1980, enjoys 'learning how to cook Nigerian food - especially my favourite meal, eba with egusi' while Fongwi, a 600-level student of Dentistry at the University of Benin, remembers mostly the friendliness of Nigerians. 'I feel at home,' Fongwi said in an interview with Education Review. 'I have a lot of friends here - my course mates and even my lecturers who are my mentors. I have a lot of Nigerians taking very good care of me such that I can stay here for two years without going home.'

- With report from TONY OSAUZO, Benin.