Respect..or is it?

I stepped into the office. It was the first day of my observership in a family physician’s office. An observership is strongly recommended as part of the process of getting a practicing license to work in Canada. I was to discover later that it didn’t make much of a difference. I digress.

I said ‘Good morning, sir’ to the doctor. His secretary was in the room. They turned to look at me and stared strangely at me as if i walked in naked. It took them a while to respond. I am quite awkward with first encounters generally and they made me feel even more self-conscious.

He showed me around the various rooms in the office and explained what i would be required to do. I responded ‘yes sir’, ‘ok sir’ as he talked. Eventually, the poor guy couldn’t take it anymore and told me. ‘I am not a lord. Please don’t address me as sir’. I was shocked but at least i finally understood why i had gotten the strange stares earlier.

It took a while but i finally learnt how little importance they attached to these things. They didn’t even consider it a show of respect. Sometimes you wonder if Nigerians remember their own names. No one wants to be called by their name. You addressed them by anything but their name…Mrs X, mummy X, aunty X…etc. Age is such a big deal. Everyone wants to know who they are older than and force some ‘respect’ out of them. The younger is excluded from calling the older by name.

I still don’t know if all these truly show respect. I call my consultants by name. It took me a while to get used to it but it’s the way of life here. I respect them just as much as I would have if i were still back in Nigeria. I have learned that when i make mistakes, they don’t need to humiliate me to correct me. When a consultant tells me ‘I think you probably shouldn’t have done XYZ’, i know he/she is basically saying i made a poor decision. When a consultant tells me ‘Could you please do XYZ?’, I know he/she isn’t asking me a question, he is giving me an order.

I guess the lines are just getting a bit too blurry for me. I just think we focus too much on ‘respect’ and perhaps use it as a shield to avoid accountability. Everyone is guilty of this as far as I am concerned. The husband who refuses to be accountable to his wife…the parents who yell ‘I am not your mate’ when corrected, the teacher who flogs the students for correcting him, the politicians…everyone plays this card from time to time when necessary.

I think it isn’t respect in the true sense of the word. It’s just an armour.


The bus was running late on a cold and snowy winter evening . Quite a decent crowd had gathered as a result. We didn’t have a car at the time but generally didn’t let this stop us from going  out to explore the city.

A month before I left Nigeria, I was working in a densely populated area of the country called Sango-Otta. Decorum was neither expected nor needed. Traffic was heavy and the town never went to sleep. At 1 a.m, you could still find people going about as if it was daylight. The buses only slowed down for passengers to alight or board. They rarely ever fully stopped. You had to shove and push through to get on to the bus. I hated this way of life initially as i had grown up in a more laid back city where life was a bit slower. However, with time, i adapted, thrived and even grew to love it.

Now back to my snowy evening. A few minutes later, the bus arrived and we all clustered around the entrance. My Nigerian ‘fight instincts’ kicked in and I started to shove my way through to the front. My husband figured out what i was up to a little too late. Everyone simply stepped aside for me and where i had expected resistance, I saw everyone giving me a look i would come to understand over the years meant ‘crazy black woman’. In a very slow and orderly manner, the rest of the crowd filed in. My husband of course was one of the last to come in. Thoroughly embarrassed i must say by his crazy wife.

So I learnt. In these lands, order exists. Queues are not jumped. No one enforces people to abide. They just do. They offer their seats to the elderly, the little children(yes! kids do not vacate seats for adults as we do in Nigeria), the pregnant women and the disabled. Decorum is the watchword.

After all these years, I still itch to shove and push when i see 30 people ahead of me on a queue anywhere. I still itch to run across the road instead of using the traffic light but I have learnt to control that itch.

Pay your share

A week after i arrived, my husband’s family decided everyone should meet in a restaurant. We all gathered at an Italian restaurant. I hate meeting people. I am very shy with people i do not know and as a result i often come across as quite stiff. This wasn’t any different. I knew my in-laws but there were spouses i hadn’t met. The gathering was a bit formal seeing as we all had to sit at a table. I totally felt like a fish out of water. We were a total of 4 couples in all. My husband parents included. I needn’t worry about being shy. The culture shock i soon experienced provided adequate distraction.

A member of the family announced a pregnancy. I had never attended a pregnancy announcement before. I had no idea such things even happened at all. In Nigeria, in most cases, we all just await a bulging tummy or sickness as proof of pregnancy. No one expects to be told. If you decide to tell or not, no one cares. So i was later to realize-from personal experience- that in this new society, people expect pregnancy should be announced. In fact, they take offence if they are not informed.

We finished eating and the bill was brought. I was shocked to see it passed round and a small math was done to figure out how much each person had to pay. I couldn’t believe my eyes as i saw all the men gathered round digging into their pockets to produce their share of the bill. Now, any Nigerian reading this would understand how much different this is from our culture back home where someone foots all the bill. I can only imagine a son-in-law in Nigeria going to a restaurant with his wife’s parents/siblings and then splitting the bill with his father-in-law. They all acted normally (even my father-in-law), brought forward their shares and paid the total and we left the restaurant.

Now many years later, i still struggle with splitting bills with people but i have become accustomed to this way of life. I even understand it. Why should one person have to bear the cost of a get together? Besides even back home i remember some people who never took a turn to pay for others. Takers. I just learn to switch when i am with my Nigerian friends and we take turns paying when we go out.

I’m leaving on a jet plane…

I took my first step on the flat escalator and slipped. Attracting the attention of other travelers in the crowded Murtala Muhammed airport. It brought a bit of smile to my lips. My first since I left my sweet mum crying. I am often clumsy and on occasion, socially awkward. I am cursed with my mum’s genes. I had made my peace with it over the years and as a result rather than get embarrassed,  I laugh at my own self when I make mistakes in public or fail to catch up quickly on some elegant social skill. A few minutes earlier, my mum and I had held each other and wept as if I was never going to be back. We had thoroughly embarrassed my brother who (bless him) had inherited both my father’s looks and ability to blend in anywhere he found himself. If he dined Chinese, he used chopsticks while I politely ask for a fork. My mum and I are quite different however.

I left Nigeria on November 8th. Prior to this, I had never been on a plane. I generally lack any adventurous spirit. I simply didn’t have the gene for it. I had visited just about 6 of the 36 states in my country. I loved home and familiar things. I rarely explored. Whenever I spent a night at my mum’s, I not only shared a room with her, I begged to share a bed. How I was going to go a month without seeing my brother and mum I still didn’t know yet.

Every one asked for money. The customs, the security…it was ‘sister, anything for us?’ everywhere I turned. The airport was also filled to the brim. I was almost wishing I had flown through Abuja. I had made this trip to the airport several times to see my husband off as he returned to Canada. Abuja was always calmer and less crowded. I was advised to split my luggage and before I could turn around, a lady handed me a Ghana-must-go bag for 1000 naira. My mum didn’t take it too well. Why was it 5 times the normal price, she accused the poor lady. I got through customs still crying and looking back to wave again and again to my crying mum and brother until I couldn’t see them anymore. She complained often that I was a bit clingy but I knew she would miss me. We were more like best friends/sisters.

I hadn’t seen my husband in the past 11 months. He had refused to make any more trips to Nigeria. The marriage was starting to tremble a bit. So I just had to go. We had been friends since I was 14 and dated from when I was 19. We loved each other deeply, our bodies spoke the same language…our love story was beautiful but the distance was taking a heavy toll.

I slipped on the ascending escalator despite carefully watching others get on. A kind professor from the university of Lagos steadied me and showed me how to get on the next one. I held the railings with both hands desperately. While waiting to board, I went to the washroom and saw some fellow passengers holding hands and praying loudly to arrive safely. I wondered if I should be scared of flying because they were still intensely praying when I finished. I asked the man beside me to show me how to buckle my seat belt and he did.

As the plane took off, I felt uncertainty creep into my mind. I was leaving life as I knew it. My birth home and country. Loyal friends, family…job prospects. Certainty. What waited at the other side? What would it be like? The only certainty was my husband. Nothing else. My ticket was a return for 6 months. So I told myself I would be back in 6 months. Little did I know I wasn’t to visit my country again for a long, long time.

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