During my time in Lagos, Nigeria I had a chance to read a biography that gave me a window into colonial life in Nigeria. The book, A Train Ride to Zaria by Bankole Ososanwo was set in Lagos and it helped me to understand the history of the state as well as the names of famous streets and city centers. The book follows the life of Yetunde Ososanwo, a woman descended from an influential Yoruba King and the only daughter of her wealthy influential parents.
In many parts of Africa, it is the responsibility of the woman to produce a son. If she does not, the husband is encouraged by family and society to take on another wife to have a son. In some cases the woman could actually be put out of the home to become a single mother if she did not produce a son. Yetunde’s case was different, the family refused to conform to that tradition, and instead lovingly doted upon their only child–a girl. This gesture toward love and justice over rigid tradition endeared me to the story and I was eager to learn more.
Yetunde was undoubtedly a part of Nigeria’s privileged upper class. A class that existed as something of a buffer between Britain and Nigerian locals. Without this class of people and the special rewards they were afforded; it is doubtful whether Britain could have long held its colonial authority in Nigeria. There were times when the elite class did protest for greater autonomy in certain areas; but by and large such tumults were not an attempt to throw off colonial rule entirely, but simply to modify it.
Yetunde went on to pursue nursing and finally social work. Her career was stellar, spanning education in the UK and Nigeria’s finest schools. During her young years in nursing school, she was tragically raped by a married faculty member who wanted her as a second wife to bear him a son. The violation resulted in a child. It was curious to me that the rapist was not prosecuted and jailed, but rather the family of the rapist and the girl came together and decided that a family member would care for the child and allow for visitation rights by both the victim and the rapist. Wow!
Despite her impeccable pedigree, being a single mother tarnished her in society and so she had to settle for marrying an Igbo man which her family strongly cautioned her against. The union was a disaster, as the man already had a child out of wedlock himself and quickly became violent. Yetunde left him after having two children with him.
Her story was set during a time when the relations between Britain and Nigeria were great. As I read, it was clear that the relationship between Britain and Nigeria was a parental one. A relationship in which the father always knew what was best for the son. In this way, Britain was seen as the nation that brought innovation, education and structure to Nigeria. Nigerians working for British companies often changed their surnames to the company name out of pride at their affiliation. Western-style class and distinction was everything in a society that by and large considered itself “British.” The decision to give Nigeria it’s independence in 1960 came not as a result of massive Nigerian discontent, but prevailing sentiments rushing across the continent from Ghana’s defiant leader Kwame Nkrumah, hastened on by the U.S. Black Civil Rights Movement powering a global change that swept through Asia as well. The resulting “freedom” set the new Nigerian nation into chaos as the fight for primacy began among the many tribes jockeying for position.
But life continued on for the young socialite. It was after separating from her abusive Igbo husband that Yetunde met an influential Yoruba man from a good family. On a train ride to Zaria, the man asked if she would marry him. Despite being still married to her Igbo husband who refused to give her a divorce, Yetunde began a relationship and bore a child. She later learned that the Yoruba man had a village wife and child as well as another child out of wedlock with an Igbo woman. Despite this, both stayed together for many years and had many children hoping that one day Yetunde’s Igbo husband would grant her a divorce. Their lives moved through major developments in Nigeria, from its independence to the subsequent Biafran War.
Train Ride to Zaria was a masterful work, that was not only well written, but historical. I enjoyed every minute of it as I learned more about how culture and politics in Nigeria worked from Colonialism to present. Additionally, I was able to understand from both my visit, talking to average Nigerians and living there every day—that colonial powers ruled the majority by a small influential minority (often descended from ancient royals or early colonial collaborators). I learned that some Nigerians lived happily in comfort and luxury due to their cooperation, while the vast majority scraped by for survival. Even those seeking jobs today are duped by “scams” that promise employment for a referral or placement fee.
After reading the book and looking around Nigeria’s streets, I sadly realized that the average U.S. Citizen will never know the average Nigerian—the one that makes just over $150USD per month (sometimes less!); the one that actually makes up the majority of Nigeria’s population; the Tunde and Ebuka which are more like Pooky and Ray-ray, than Achebe or Soyinka. Instead we are toasted with the likes of Chimamande Ngozi Adiche, Fela Kuti and Aliko Dangote, successful icons indeed, but hiding the reality of Nigeria’s forgotten majority. All education in Nigeria comes at a cost, including elementary and high school, leaving a huge majority of Nigeria’s youth under or uneducated. Nigerian talk radio hosts and guests debated what would be done about the amassing unpaid school fees—the economic downturn was making it difficult for parents to pay and for schools to operate without revenue.
Train Ride to Zaria was an excellent discourse on education, West African family life, culture and colonialism. It illustrated masterfully, the unspoken caste system instituted centuries ago that still exists today. I was astonished to see how much Western culture had been inculcated into Nigeria–a majority African nation. Conversations with affluent Nigerians indicated they often saw poorer Nigerians (or certain tribes) as stupid, lazy or inept. Some even told me that if you were not clever enough to “master the system” whether by corruption, connections or family you were obviously not the brightest bulb in the shed. And because I talked to so many people from different stations in life, I learned that many Nigerians did not have the educational foundation necessary to critically understand how current events affect them. I was party to many conversations in which Nigerians plainly said that the majority were kept uneducated because it made them easier to rule.
I was so impressed by the book, that I would love to make A Train Ride to Zaria into a full length feature movie (any collaborators interested)! The protagonist seemed to be an equitable woman who wanted the best for Nigeria, working tirelessly to make it better and advocating for an end to corruption and better care for citizens. I was enlighten on the peculiar mix of African and Western thought that dominated Nigeria for years, showing up in rampant skin-bleaching, western education and a caste system based on economics and tribal affiliation. More than a story, “A Train Ride to Zaria” was a history lesson that helped give me a birds eye-view into Nigeria’s complex life, cultures and politics.
Authors Note: The author indicated in an email that
Ososanwo is descended from Faseke Olukolu, the first African member of the Legislative Council of Southern Nigeria, and Herbert Macaulay who formed Nigeria’s first political party and her first husband, was an Ijaw from Asamabri and his mother Itsekiri from Warri (March 5, 2019),
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