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Sense of elsewhere

By Donu Kogbara
AN  immigrant  friend of  mine gloomily described it as a “sense of elsewhere”.
Not everyone who resides outside the land of their forefathers has this problem, but quite a few do. What a “sense of elsewhere” boils down to is a nagging, ever-present feeling that there is another often distant place to which you truly belong and should probably make strenuous efforts to connect with.

This persistent restlessness eventually overwhelmed me and, in a desperate bid to exorcise it, I moved to Abuja a decade ago. I was in my late 30s, jobless, short of cash and emotionally fragile, but so ever so tremulously full of high hopes and so ever so absolutely determined to finally be at peace with myself that it never occurred to me that the “sense of elsewhere” can cut both ways.

Little did I know, at the beginning of my brave-if-I-immodestly-say-so-myself journey into my ancestral heritage, that I would soon start to feel like a displaced person again, and to be haunted by a gnawing suspicion that my soul and this new Nigeria place were not as gloriously compatible as I had imagined.

Within weeks of my arrival in Nigeria, the thrill of having relocated to my ‘real home’ had completely worn off. And I began to feel like an insecure fish out of water, yet again…and to miss the UK like crazy and harbour grave doubts about the way this society operates.

I couldn’t understand why Nigerian politicians and technocrats who sounded so intelligent and well-intentioned whenever I chatted to them could perform so appallingly in their workplaces and were so shamelessly uninterested in recruiting the most qualified and honest individuals to handle various tasks.

I couldn’t understand the rampant tribalism. I couldn’t understand why authorities who weren’t totally brainless or unexposed found it so difficult to deliver stable electricity supplies, decent schools, etc.

I couldn’t understand the widespread belief in juju in a place where most folks piously flocked to mosques and churches every Friday and Sunday and never tired of assuring the world that they were devout Muslims or Christians.

I couldn’t understand why the blatant corruption that crippled the system here was tolerated by the general public. I couldn’t understand why so many educated Nigerian women from respectable homes were so cheerfully willing to sell their bodies to the highest bidders, not because they were unable to afford necessities but simply so they could purchase essentially meaningless luxuries.

When I lived with Brits, I bellyached about their shortcomings. Now that I was cohabiting with Nigerians, I was utterly traumatised by their imperfections.

My beloved brother Poage is – let’s call a spade a spade – just as neurotic as I am. We once, many years ago, had a marathon discussion about the demons that tormented us at all-too-regular intervals and concluded that we, rather than the locations we inhabited, were the main causes of the alienation angst that assailed us, whether we were in Europe or Africa.

“Wherever we go, we will always be unhappy on certain levels because we, alas, will always be there,” was Poage’s grim verdict. And I couldn’t have agreed more.

The painful truth about some of us is that we are psychological cripples, to some extent. Not necessarily mad or bad, but paralysingly sad a lot of the time – and, ultimately, incapable of fitting in anywhere comfortably enough.

Samuel Johnson, the famed English l8th century Man of Letters, said that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” ; and Johnson certainly had a point, given that patriotism is frequently used as an excuse for blind loyalty to unworthy governments, rabble rousers or cultural norms…and that patriotism is a favourite cover story for those who wish to indulge in jingoistic outrages.

But I envy people who possess strong, unapologetic allegiances to one country and have an unambiguous and passionate attachment to one particular corner of the globe and don’t walk around thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’

I suppose, in a world that is always going through one major disaster or the other, that the average victim of this ”sense of elsewhere” syndrome does not deserve much sympathy because many of us are, despite our possibly tedious complaints, basically OK.

I’m still based in this country and have had some nice times here; but 90 per cent of my experiences have been disappointing; and I recently realised that I must return to good old England if I want to be more appreciated and less stressed.

But I now know that I’ll never be entirely liberated from that subtle ‘sense of elsewhere’…and that even if I benefit maximally from rejoining the civilized and meritocratic UK scene, it won’t be long before I start to feel like a square peg in a round hole who left half of a very aching heart in the giant of Africa.

The trouble with being saddled with a perpetual “sense of elsewhere” is that you will never become a truly authentic or satisfied citizen of anywhere.

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