Sunday, September 13, 2020 12:00 pm
By Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi
In September 2009, I was standing in line at the customs desk at Kotoka International Airport, Accra, waiting for my bags to be checked so I could proceed to the airline check-in area. I was with a colleague from work, and we were on our way to a meeting in Senegal. There was a Chinese gentleman ahead of us. All of a sudden, this Chinese man started clearing his throat very loudly, and before we knew what was happening, he brought up what he had been able to summon from the deep recesses of his throat and spat on the floor. Yes, you read correctly. He spat right there, on the floor of the Kotoka International Airport, right in front of other passengers and customs officials. Those of us standing there raised our voices in anger and disgust at what this ungentlemanly Chinese man had done. He stared at us as if he had no idea of what he had done wrong.
What happened after our group of indignant passengers stated their dismay at the actions of this rude person? Nothing. The customs officer did admonish him, telling him he had no right to do that, but that was it. Nothing else was said or done to him. The spit stayed right there on the floor. My colleague and I talked about it later on and wondered what would have happened if it had been one of us who spat on the floor?
Fast forward to November 2009. Exactly the same spot at the Kotoka International Airport, Accra. Same routine, waiting in line to be checked by customs before proceeding to check in. When it was my turn, I lifted my suitcase from the trolley to place it on the desk that was used for the checks. The customs lady leaned over, and beckoned to the person standing behind me to push his trolley forward. I stood there while she marked his luggage with chalk, which implied he had been checked and his bags could go on board. She did not ask for his passport, she did not ask him where he was going; she did not ask him what he had in his bag which was wrapped in luggage cling wrap. She did not ask him anything. She just marked his luggage with chalk and sent him on his way. And then she turned to me. This is what followed:
Customs lady: Open your bag
Customs lady: I need to check your bag
Me: Why do you need to check my bag? You did not check the bag of the man standing behind me who you just sent away. Is it because he is a white man?
Customs lady: Are you going to teach me my job? OK, I am not attending to you.
When you wake up very early in the morning to catch a flight, the last thing you want to do is to start your day with a quarrel. I could have held my tongue and let the insult pass, but thinking back to the spitting incident in September which took place right at the same spot, I was not about to take another glob of spit. Since Madam Customs, with a wig that looked like a battered bird’s nest, had refused to attend to me, one of her colleagues came over and tried to be helpful. He whispered to me that maybe the guy had a diplomatic passport and that is why she waved him on. I was about to tell him not to insult my intelligence, but decided it would be unwise to fight two battles at once, so I whispered back that the man had no such thing on him, but I would appreciate his help. All this time, the customs lady with the bad wig kept going on and on about how people come and try to tell them how to do their jobs. Since our exchange had held up the queue, she now had a bit of an audience. I kept quiet and it seemed as if my silence made her angrier by the second as she continued her tirade. And then she said, I have not come to your country Nigeria to tell you what to do. Aha!
In September 2009 when I witnessed ‘Spitgate’, I thought I was an African who felt insulted that someone had the audacity to spit on the floor of an airport in Accra when he knew he could do no such thing at Heathrow Airport or JFK Airport in New York and get away with it. At that moment, every inch of soil from Cape to Cairo, was sacred to me and was worthy of defending. And here I was two months later being reminded that I was not an African who deserved respect, justice and fairness at home and abroad, but a Nigerian, a stranger who was foolish enough to call an almighty customs officer to order. At this point, I walked back to Customs Lady with the bird’s nest on her head, and asked her, what does my nationality have to do with all this? You were being unfair to me. Africans are treated badly wherever they go. Why are we treating ourselves this way? Why did you attend to someone who was behind me? Because he was a white man? Why should I keep quiet when I am being treated like a second class citizen on my own continent? The customs lady with the bad wig shut up.
I lived in Ghana for ten years (and I still call the country home) and I was not unaware of the subtle and sometimes, overt ambivalence towards ‘outsiders’, especially Nigerians. I learnt to deal with this. It helped that during the years I lived in Accra, I worked with amazing women and men who never made me feel I did not belong. I was also part of a small but influential community of Nigerian professionals who had moved to Ghana to take up senior positions in the corporate and non-profit sectors. We established the Forum of Nigerian Professionals and we did a lot of good work with the Ghanaian government, and we also provided support to one another. Living and working in Accra, I did not feel as if it was not my home. This is the country of Kwame Nkrumah we are talking about. I think what hit me hard that Thursday morning in November 2009 was the realisation that the Pan-African project that the likes of Kwame Nkrumah made his life’s work, had become imperiled and too many people werenow more interested in creating ‘otherness’ as opposed to building solidarity and mutual respect across the continent. In September 2009, I was the vigilant Pan-Africanist standing up for a continent that people are always pissing and spitting on, and taking on someone literally spitting on my beloved continent in my presence. In November, at exactly the same spot, I became the foreigner who deserved to be spat on.
A lot has changed since 2009. Many things have gotten worse. Now, the livelihood of many Nigerians trying to make a living in Ghana is under serious threat. The xenophobic attacks on Nigerians in South Africa still continue sporadically, and it is only a matter of time before there is another major crisis. Nigeria did not earn the nickname ‘Giant of Africa’ merely because of the size of our population. We provided political, economic and ideological leadershipfor many years, through our vast financial, diplomatic, educational and intellectual contributions. Most of that history is now either unknown to new generations or totally lost. The teaching, learning and understanding of all this history is important, before we all get lost in the inanities on display on sites of ‘preferred learning’ such as Big Brother Nigeria. For example, if we understand this history, then we will know how wrong it is to refer to a light skinned Nigerian as a ‘Somalian’ in purely derogatory terms. Let us stop spitting on ourselves and others. No one wins.
This is a revised version of the essay ‘Spitting on Ourselves’ from ‘Speaking for Ourselves: Social, Political and Feminist Activism in Africa’, Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, 2013.
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She is the First Lady of Ekiti State, and she can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com