Growing up, I was vaguely aware that there were different ethnic groups in Nigeria. I knew there were Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo people who had their individual languages and cultures, and there were also hundreds of other groups, who also each had their own identities as well. What I didn’t realise at the time, was that each ethnic group had different stereotypes that other groups projected onto them. Interacting with more Nigerians as I got older, I was able to see how other groups viewed Northerners in particular and the assumptions they had about people from the region. Some were tame, others were not so nice. Yet it was eye-opening seeing how others viewed people from where I was from.
I didn’t grow up with many Nigerians around me, but the ones I did know growing up were Northerners like myself. At that time, I thought the main difference between the ethnic groups was in a language, but once I became accustomed to other groups of Nigerians, I soon realised there were a lot more differences. From the food we eat to how we show respect to our elders, every single one of us had different customs.
It was at university that I suddenly met loads of young British Nigerians like myself. Whilst it was great to have people that I shared a similar cultural background, it became evident to me that because the majority of them were Yoruba or Igbo, the cultures we’d been brought up in were very different. I was often told that I was the first Hausa person that some people had met, and with that knowledge came a great deal of responsibility to disprove the stereotypes and prejudices I was now learning about us.
Being a proud Northerner I often feel like I have to defend us in situations where we’re being unfairly represented. Like every part of Nigeria, we have our faults, but I don’t feel like that should define a group of people, especially if you’ve never interacted with them before or even been to that part of the country before. I recently read an article from a Nigerian media company that spoke about poverty in Northern Nigeria. I took issue with this particular piece as I felt it lacked nuance. Whilst the writer used facts and figures from official bodies, their lack of familiarity with the Northern part of the country was evident. I’ve read several stories about the North on this particular platform and each one sounds very one-sided. Upon looking at the list of contributors, I could see there were maybe five northerners out of 50 writers who were supposedly representing all of Nigeria.
This is something I’ve seen quite a few times with platforms, organisations, and initiatives, especially coming out of the UK, that claim to be a voice for Nigeria. But how can you be a voice for Nigeria when vast parts of the country are being underrepresented? It creates an imbalance in the voices we’re hearing from, the stories being told and the communities we’re serving and highlighting.
Amongst the Black British community, I often hear the term “Nigerian culture” thrown about. What people are really referring to when they say this is Yoruba culture. Yoruba people and their culture tend to dominate the British-Nigerian community as they make up a larger number of the diaspora population. They’re dynamic, entertaining and have greatly influenced Black British culture. But I don’t agree with the term Nigerian culture. To use such a term rids Nigeria and its people of its unique qualifiers. Nigerians are not a homogenous group of people. We are hundreds of different ethnicities with our identities that make us unique and identifiable.
If you had asked me when I was younger, which do I call myself first, Hausa or Nigerian, I probably would’ve said Nigerian. Back then, all Hausa meant to me was a language that I spoke with my family. As time has gone on and I’ve become more exposed to other cultures within our country, I realise that now I probably identify as Hausa first. That’s not to mean I’m not a proud Nigerian.
I absolutely am and I believe that rich cultural and ethnic diversity can be our strength. I don’t believe identifying with your specific cultural background is divisive either. But I do think as a people, one of the ways we’re going to prosper and move forward as a nation is if we really learn to understand and respect one another and each other’s cultures, including our similarities and differences. Too many assumptions and stereotypes arise from a lack of knowledge and exposure to one another’s cultures. I think we’d be surprised by how much we actually have in common, rather than the differences we’re always trying to highlight. We need to unite to build a better Nigeria.