Home away from home The long road from Ejigbo, Nige­ria to Abidjan, Côte d’ivoire

Three coun­tries sep­a­rate them, but Ejigbo, Nige­ria and Abidjan, Côte d’ivoire are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked. The Africa Re­port takes a jour­ney into the lives of a Yoruba com­mu­nity on the move

The Africa Report - - CONTENTS - By Eromo Eg­be­jule in Ejigbo and Abidjan

Event he triv­ial mat­ter of or­der­ing a meal re­quires some diplo­matic skills in the tiny, trilin­gual town of Ejigbo, in the state of Osun, in Nige­ria’s south-west. Guests por­ing over the menu at Palm Ho­tel, ar­guably the town’s big­gest recre­ation spot, will find Ivo­rian meals of at­tiéké and ked­je­nou along­side well-known Nige­rian soups like efo riro and egusi. At some point in the day, Ivo­rian boy band Magic Sys­tem’s 2000 con­ti­nen­tal hit ‘1er Gaou’ or any of the more re­cent songs from that coun­try is cer­tain to play over the bar’s sound sys­tem; this, as the man­ager dishes out in­struc­tions to stew­ards and wait­resses in rapid French. A back­wa­ter town 242km nor th of La­gos, Ejigbo has a pop­u­la­tion of fewer than 150,000 peo­ple, who are pre­dom­i­nantly Yoruba. As such, the lin­gua franca here is nat­u­rally Yoruba and, to an ex­tent, English, but also – strangely, for a non-bor­der town in an an­glo­phone coun­try – French. The le­gal ten­der is the Nige­rian naira, but some shops, mar­ket women and even

in­ter­state trans­porters read­ily ac­cept CFA francs, the cur­rency of francophone coun­tries in West and Cen­tral Africa. In the small mar­ket be­side the palace of the town’s tra­di­tional ruler, the Ogiyan of Ejigbo, house­hold uten­sils, fab­rics and other im­ported wares from Abidjan are dis­played for sale. Across the town, there are more el­derly peo­ple than young. It’s a civilser­vice-based econ­omy and those in the state em­ploy­ment are cur­rently owed sev­eral months’ pay, de­spite bailouts from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. There are few or no jobs for re­cent grad­u­ates; res­i­dents say these young­sters are keen to em­i­grate to Cote d’ivoire soon af­ter grad­u­a­tion from high school. Those who stay back for their ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion at the state univer­sity cam­pus in town go for in­tern­ships in the Ivo­rian cap­i­tal or move there af­ter grad­u­a­tion.

NAIJA SOUNDS AND SMELLS

About 1,200km – and four coun­tries – away, in Abidjan, the cul­tural in­ter­course is strik­ingly sim­i­lar. On rue Princesse in Yopougon, a sub­urb of the city, pros­ti­tutes hag­gle and laugh in Yoruba and pid­gin English. An­other sub­urb, Tre­ichville – which has an Oba, a tra­di­tional Yoruba monarch – has been home to West African mi­grants since the Nige­rian civil war, when those flee­ing their coun­try set up shop in an area now called Quartier Bi­afra af­ter the short-lived se­ces­sion­ist state. In yet an­other area, Ad­jamé, it is com­mon to find loud­speak­ers blast­ing the mu­sic of fuji su­per­stars Sa­heed Osupa and Pa­suma Won­der out­side bukas sell­ing amala and other meals na­tive to south-west Nige­ria. A pop­u­lar dis­cotheque in the area also be­longs to a Nige­rian. Ven­dors and their pa­trons are mostly Nige­ri­ans from Osun state who ei­ther em­i­grated from their home­land or were born and bred in Cote d’ivoire. For these peo­ple, their ‘new’ place of abode has be­come home away from home. Out­side one of these bukas, Sam­son Oladi­ran, a 36-year-old me­chanic tired from a long day of work oil­ing car un­der­sides in the district known as Sapeur Pom­pier, re­counts his story in sparse English. Hav­ing lived all his life in Abidjan, he vis­ited La­gos two years ago – his first and only trip to the coun­try of his par­ents. In 1994, his

me­chanic fa­ther died and his mother re­turned to Osun state. Oladi­ran and his three sib­lings had to move in with his un­cle in Abidjan. At pri­mary school he reached class five at the Nige­rian Bap­tist School in his neigh­bour­hood, but had to drop out as the fam­ily could no longer af­ford to pay his school fees. “I just got mar­ried to an Ivo­rian and we are happy,” he says. “Here is my home. Ev­ery Yoruba per­son you see here is from Osun. We are ev­ery­where in this coun­try; ev­ery­one in con­struc­tion and build­ing ma­te­rial busi­ness here is Nige­rian. We have Yoruba churches and schools here. One woman from Burk­ina Faso mar­ried one of us and now she and her kids speak Yoruba well. They have never been to Nige­ria.” He pros­trates in true Yoruba fash­ion and greets ev­ery elder ap­proach­ing the buka. “E ka le [Good even­ing, my se­nior],” he says. Given the dis­tance be­tween them, just how did the sib­ling­ship be­tween Ejigbo and Abidjan develop? No one is ex­actly sure of the gen­e­sis of the ex­o­dus from Nige­ria, but Baba Jerusalem, an elder who re­tired from the Ivo­rian army and now lives back in Ejigbo, traces the ori­gins to the early ’40s and ’50s.

BABA JERUSALEM’S JOUR­NEY

“My first trip was in 1953 by ship from La­gos and it took us three days to get to Abidjan. Our peo­ple would go to Benin Repub­lic, Ghana and Ivor y Coast,” says Baba Jerusalem, who speaks 11 lan­guages in vary­ing de­grees of flu­ency in­clud­ing French and Baoulé. “There were no jobs then. Those of our peo­ple who went to Ivory Coast re­turned in shorter time and bet­ter con­di­tion than oth­ers, even though it was fur­ther away, so many of us started go­ing there.” The sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian, who re­fuses to give his ac­tual age or real name, got his nick­name af­ter a 1983 month­long holy pil­grim­age to Is­rael. On that trip, he was one of three blacks among the 44 tourists – the other two be­ing a Ghana­ian and an Ivo­rian. It was one in a se­ries of trav­els across the world us­ing his Nige­rian pass­port in tan­dem with his ac­quired Ivo­rian pass­port. “I was a driver in Abidjan and that fi­nanced my 57 years of travel all over Europe,” he boasts. A pri­mary school dropout, Baba Jerusalem made ends meet in the new city by also work­ing as a travel agent ar­rang­ing Ivo­rian pass­ports

for Nige­ri­ans born in Cote d’ivoire. He then joined the Ivo­rian army. Now too old for the commute, he sits in his wife’s shop in Ejigbo, help­ing sell se­lected sun­dries such as slip­pers, grind­ing stones, soap, jewellery and cloth­ing, in­clud­ing from Abidjan. In Abidjan, Oladi­ran the me­chanic says there are many other el­derly men and women like Baba Jerusalem who moved from Nige­ria and now have dual cit­i­zen­ship, hav­ing lived and paid taxes in Cote d’ivoire for decades. His late fa­ther was one, his un­cle who raised him is an­other. And many more Nige­ri­ans are still troop­ing in. Some of the mi­grants stopped in Ghana and Togo, while oth­ers went along the coast to Liberia and Gam­bia. This led to the emer­gence of pock­ets of wholly Nige­rian com­mu­ni­ties in var­i­ous cities and towns across the re­gion.

These days no one goes by ship any more. Also, thanks to the free move­ment polic y within the Eco­nomic Com­mu­nity of West African States (ECOWAS), na­tion­als of the re­gion can work and re­side out­side of their home coun­tries for up to three months at a time. There are five dif­fer­ent trans­porters whose coaches ply the Ejigbo-abidjan route on a weekly ba­sis. Bashiru Salau, the ac­counts clerk at Bully Ore­lope Trans­por t (B.O.T.) has seen many of these ve­hi­cles come and go over the years – al­most al­ways full. B.O.T. op­er­ates a bus ser­vice twice a week, con­vey­ing Ejigbo in­di­genes on the 30hour trip across the bor­ders of Benin, Togo, Ghana, and into Cote d’ivoire. On the large wall be­side his cu­bi­cle hang three large clocks set to the time in Nige­ria, Côte d’ivoire and Saudi Ara­bia.

Salau him­self goes to Abidjan twice a year to visit fam­ily mem­bers there. “Abidjan is like Lon­don for us here,” he beams. “Peo­ple go there for their hol­i­days and to start a new life. Even the many Mus­lims here use it as transit point be­fore go­ing to Mecca for pil­grim­age. And the Ivo­rians them­selves come to learn fash­ion tips and then go to trade in the east of Nige­ria.”

FOL­LOW THE MAR­KET

These em­i­grants from Cote d’ivoire (and some­times Senegal too) bring their lo­cal fab­rics along with them and are em­ployed as cheap labour by wealthy fash­ion­istas and busi­ness­women. Their em­ploy­ers, who are in La­gos and parts of south-east Nige­ria, some­times also pro­vide food and shel­ter for them. The trans-countr y commute has brought a sig­nif­i­cant cul­tural im­pact

to both sides, but the rel­a­tively higher stan­dard of liv­ing in Abidjan made the flow in that di­rec­tion more at­trac­tive. Begin­ning in mid-2016, the Nige­rian econ­omy suf­fered its worst re­ces­sion in over two decades, con­tract­ing for five suc­ces­sive quar­ters be­fore an up­turn in late 2017. In that pe­riod, the CFA franc waxed stronger as the Nige­rian naira be­came weaker. Oladi­ran, the me­chanic, watched as his neigh­bours and oth­ers in Ad­jamé be­gan buy­ing com­modi­ties cheaply to sell for high profit mar­gins back in Ejigbo, which, like the rest of Africa’s big­gest econ­omy, was im­mersed in dou­ble-digit in­fla­tion. “Our peo­ple are not lazy,” he says. “We have sense to fol­low the mar­ket but we don’t cheat peo­ple be­cause we are all broth­ers. Whether from Ejigbo or Abidjan, we are broth­ers. This is our home too.”

Ejigbo, an un­likely out­post of fran­co­phonie in Nige­ria’s Osun State

Clock­wise from above: Nige­rian soc­cer fans liv­ing in Abidjan cel­e­brate their mo­ment of glory in the African Na­tions Cup 2013; Nige­rian work­ing girls on rue Princesse; im­mi­grants from Ejigbo board the bus for the long ride home

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