I realised my privilege after landing back in the UK

Chapter 3: MAVERICK

▶ Privilege

I realised my privilege after landing back in the UK in 1998. I had made my trip, simply with a duffel bag, and turned up with my Nigerian passport, stamped with a right of abode. The immigration officer raised a quizzical eyebrow and queried why I had queued on the Foreign line, after all he pointed out, I showed up on his database as “Born in the UK”.

He looked askance at my duffel bag and waved me through, so I strolled to the Customs zone, Green sign- Nothing to declare, since I had no suitcases checked in. My thoughts whirled back to my last stay in the UK, to be precise – Montrose, Scotland in 1986!! I had graduated (1985) as a chemical engineer in the USA, and spent the summer in Westchester county, New York since my father was the Nigerian Consul General based in New York.

However, I was unable to get a job due to my student status and my parents then hit on the bright idea that I could be bundled off to the UK, for an engineering internship. A phone call to the right quarters, and I was accepted with GlaxoChem, so got on the plane straight to London HQ. And that’s where the fun came to an end, because the big chief at HQ gave me joining letter to start with their factory in Montrose, Scotland! This was a shock to my system since I had planned on spending time and board with my cousins in London, and hitting the clubs.

It was a culture shock moving to this provincial village situated on the Scottish coast. Firstly, I had to stay in a Bed & Breakfast since there was no suitable accomodation, for short stays, and I had no car to drive so was reliant on riding a bicycle to work! The mitigating factor was that scots are a friendly bunch, love their liquor, and if you close your eyes the accent sounds Nigerian. Suffice to say I gave my notice within three months, upset my sponsors, and got on the plane back to New York.

“Privilege is invisible to those who have it”

Mark Martin

▶ The Highway

Once I got through the Customs zone at Heathrow, I had to find my way to East London, where friends had invited me to stay for a short while, after I had explained “Project Icarus”.

The Project name was a nod to the idiom “don’t fly too close to the sun”. This was my thought about my harebrained “exile” scheme to escape the “Nigerian patriarchy”. The duffel bag was my only possession after moving out of my Lagos flat, which I had left fully furnished with my car in the driveway and then dropped all keys with my folks before getting onboard the plane, with a One-way plane ticket.

Two years previously, I had quit my job as Manager, Corporate Banking in a Commercial Bank to setup a Consulting firm. I hitched up and got Office space (gratis) from a Legal chamber, with prime location in the City square. I then plugged into my network at Ikoyi club to find assignments but all this fell flat, since (I only found out later!) my communication and soft skills were woeful and prospective clients perceived me as arrogant- “My way or the highway”.

I had bought into the fallacy of being independent and self made, so refused to grovel to the “powers that be” and the establishment. I found out my reputation from the bank, of refusing bribes and kick backs, had gone around and I was seen as inflexible in business practice. I had to fall-back on sub-consultancy and contracts which gave me less than my projected income. Shorthand to say I failed.

After my engineering internship and return to New York, I had taken the plunge and arrived back in Nigeria with the intention of fulfilling my one year period with National Youth Service (NYSC) and then returning back to New York for graduate studies. Fast forward, to completing another internship with Gulf Oil, and failing the (final) interview at Shell Oil for Drilling engineer (permanent position) and I was stuck. My parents for reasons, to be revealed later, did not welcome me back to New York and I was stuck. However, the strings could be pulled and I embarked on a corporate career working with Multinational subsidiaries in Lagos, before I ended up at the Bank.

“No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.”

John Donne (1624)

▶ Growing Up

The child is the father of the Man : We are all products of our background and the path to self-development is a different track for everyone. I would describe my initial upbringing as a cookie-cutter stuff.

Since my father joined the civil service at the country’s independence in 1960, I was brought up on the wave as ‘first transition’. It was the typical traditional strict African family upbringing;. Christian One wife Metropolitan template. I had my schools chosen for me, my social status laid out and jobs lined up at graduation. The conflict came from the flip of studying in Nigeria and spending most school vacations outside the country.

Looking back, my father was my hero but he was a highly principled (judgemental) Christian and blunt with his words to a fault. This certainly did not bode well for his career in the diplomatic service. And it certainly made an impact since I absorbed his traits subconsciously with the maxim being “ My way or the Highway”. Unfortunately, I was also obtuse and could never pick up the signals when I upset the social apple cart and caused upheaval.
One particular aspect was I was being perceived as being rude to elders since I always stuck to the fact, this went against the norm where “elders are always right”.. However, I was protected from the ‘sticks and stones’ due to privilege and only came unstuck after graduation from University, when my career path began.

A tale of Two cities.: Candidly this should be numerous cities! Somehow as the middle child and due to the veracities of the school calendar, I found myself living abroad and absorbing foreign cultures between primary through secondary and unto graduation. Privilege came from holidays in foreign countries, for instance country skiing, in the French Alps before I started Secondary school, and learning French culture in Geneva. My father’s foreign postings were invariably french speaking, mostly in Africa but included Switzerland and finally New York, where he ended up as Consul-General.

“You don’t know what you have until it’s gone”

Joni Mitchell