The cost of survival

Leaving costs just as much as staying.

This month’s letter has little to do with the author life, and is brought to you by musings on Nigeria’s Independence Day (today), Squid Game, and the latest disasters to hit Louisiana and Haiti. Some heavy thoughts in this one. Reading time is 12 minutes. You might need some coffee.

The cost of survival

In the last year-and-a-half, the Yoruba word japa has entered colloquial Nigerian usage. “Ja” is the verb “to go,” so in effect, japa means to leave, most often a place. In this recent colloquial form, though, japa means something more specific. When someone says they want to japa, they’re saying they want to leave the country behind. To escape, for good.

The term as it’s used colloquially today originated in Lagos, where only one year ago, military officers murdered young Nigerians in cold blood at the Lekki Toll Gate massacre during the October 2020 #EndSARS protests. Amongst other things that happened in 2020, this was the biggest blow in decades to the psyche and morale of young Nigerians. It will not be far-fetched to attempt to draw a line from this specific event to the rhetoric of leaving that currently dominates the discourse of Nigeria’s youthful population. Not that young Nigerians are strangers to emigration--in 2017, there were 1.24 million Nigerians in diaspora, and my guess is that number has since increased. But there is a certain desperation to this current exodus that has not existed quite to the same degree outside of wartime.

Only a week ago, the hashtag #japa trended on Nigerian Twitter, as many young people posted photographs of themselves in airports, leaving the country for new temporary or permanent abodes. The photos would often come in a specific pattern: one or two photos of themselves at the airport or of their air ticket and passport; a photo of them deleting the VPN which most have used to access Twitter since the Nigerian government banned the social media giant in June; and a meme of a popular Nigerian actress, Sola Sobowale, lifting a champagne glass, with the subtitles below announcing: “Welcome to a new dispensation.” It’s meant to be a funny, lighthearted way of announcing one’s life changes (and it is). But as with most things Nigerian, humor is an iceberg, and the ice beneath the surface is very, very black indeed.

Survival of the “fittest”

Very few migrants ever speak openly about the true cost of migration. Having recently migrated myself--through a typical student-worker-permanent-resident route--I've experienced enough to know that migration is often a matter of survival. Whether it’s for a reason as “trite” as being scared of militant police in one’s own country (Nigeria) or as serious as finding oneself seeking refuge due to a natural disaster (Haiti) or war (Afghanistan), the reason for leaving is often in search of survival. No one wants to leave home, says the poet Warsan Shire, unless home is the mouth of a shark.

But leaving isn’t without its costs. I was in the US during its 2020 summer of racial reckoning, and I watched how people struggled when they suddenly realized that, “If you don’t like it, why don’t you leave?” is easier said than done. When Hurricanes Katrina and Ida hit; when wildfires chomped at the US west coast and Australia; when wars break out in parts of the world, people ask: Why do you stay? And the answer is simple: Survival--whether that means leaving or staying--is always costly.

We may even start by taking costly at face value. As an international student freshly in the US, for instance, I was required to have $8,000 sitting in my bank account before I could even apply for a visa for my spouse to join me from Nigeria. And that’s 8 grand separate from the money I use for daily living. What about a move from the US to Canada, in effect neighbouring countries? Between applications and carting one’s life northward, you’ll be looking at coughing up $5k-$10k for such a move (and that’s without kids). When friends ask how often I visit Nigeria and I tell them, “Not as much as I’d like,” I like to remind them that the cheapest return ticket from Lagos to anywhere in North America is $1k+ (for context, the minimum wage in Nigeria is about $75 a month). This is for the roundabout route of 48 hours of flight + layover time.

Survival of the fittest? Make that survival of the richest.

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If we take away the middle-class lens with which we view this, we can see how leaving is completely out of the question for a lot of people, even in less dire circumstances. I often think about how the meaning of  japa morphed from leave to escape. You’d often have to be running from something in order to leave in search of a means of survival. Which is why when people do leave--especially those without the wherewithal to leave in a way that makes us comfortable--it’s interesting to watch how we respond to them.

When images of border patrol agents at the US-Mexico border beating back Haitian migrants hit the mainstream recently, it sparked the usual discourse about “entering the country the right way.” I had friends who fled Louisiana for bordering states during Ida, and for a moment, was glad Louisiana is bordered by US states. Where might they have gone if the state--in which ten Haitis can fit--was its own nation? (Do we see how borders make absolutely no sense?) I also wondered what would’ve happened if they had no car, and had to, say, hitch a ride in a truck along with other friends without cars. How different would that look compared to those who ride La Bestia up to the US-Mexico border? This is not to compare global disasters and failures of government, but whether we agree about borders and migration laws or not, one thing is clear: survival is always costlier than we often think it is.

In dependence (on each other)

On October first every year, Nigerians spare twenty-four hours to care about their country. Most of it, in true Nigerian fashion, said Independence Day celebrations are mostly superficial. There’s a joke that more diasporans are proud to be Nigerian than actual Nigerians are. As someone who's existed in both spaces, I can't fault that logic. It's easier to be proud from a distance. (I mean, look at peak diaspora baby Eric in Sex Education, living his best life. Who wouldn't be proud?)

This year is slightly different, though. For once, both continental and diaspora Nigerians are united by the events of October 2020. The most shared media on Twitter is a photo of a Nigerian flag dipped in blood, which was used on the night of the Lekki massacre as a tourniquet to try to save those who were shot. This year, young Nigerians carry a stronger collective understanding of the costs of survival: that the personal is not always enough. As the pandemic has demonstrated, there is still strength in the collective. Survival as a community--no matter how small--is often a foolproof way to lower the personal costs.

If you, like me, are currently watching the sensational Korean Netflix show Squid Game, you get to witness a dramatized version of how high the cost of survival can get. It is a true demonstration of how sometimes, survival may mean staying. And even it means leaving, the costs--financial and otherwise--don’t always disappear. Whatever the systemic constraints, so long as they are gamified by the few for the many, the cost of playing or opting out will always stick. But perhaps, like the contestants in those death games, if we stick together and discover the humanity in our comrades, looking beyond their faceless numbers and saying their names, we have taken the best step: the first. Now, to take a great many more.

PS: Happy Independence, Nigerians (the people, not the country. The country can rot, lol).

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ICYMI

  • I didn’t win the second Ignyte Award I’ve been nominated for (third time’s the charm, perhaps?) but I enjoyed this year’s award event so much! Big congrats to all the winners, the presenters and organizers, and especially my man Tochi Onyebuchi, who carted away THREE awards on the night. Huzzah!

Where to find me in the coming weeks

For the first time in a looong time, I have a whole month free! I might be showing up at the World Fantasy Convention this year (simply because I’m within spitting distance of Montreal), but my only interest is in barconning with authors + readers I’ve only ever met online, friends I haven’t seen in ages, and new friends I make along the way.

Recs Roundup

  • 📚 Reading: An advance copy of The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez. I can’t talk about it just yet, but it’s engrossing!

  • 📺 Watching: Sex Education S03, Squid Game S01 (both Netflix). I know these are in the zeitgeist right now, but if you want to step away from usual Hollywood stuff right now, you couldn’t do worse than these two.

  • 🎧 Listening: The Cult of Pedagogy. I've been thinking a lot about learning and learners, their ideas, feelings, what drives them. This podcast, put together by a long-time educator, is a treasure trove of gems that help me think more critically about this.

  • 🌐 On the interwebs: This essay by Nigerian writer Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu documents the collective and individual heartbreak, grief and resilience of the young Nigerians of the #ENDSARS protests of October 2020. One thing that struck me is the comparisons between the Lekki toll gate massacre by soldiers of the Nigerian Army and the Iva Valley massacre of protesting Nigerian workers by the British colonial constabulary, reminding us that though the oppressors have changed, the violent legacies of colonialism are still being felt today. If you'd like a visceral peek into what survival looks like for those who stay, see this harrowing narrative of a group of young Nigerians simply roadtripping through their own country.


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