The burden of souvenirs, and the fear of coming home, By Zainab Usman

Zainab Usman

I just made it to Nigeria yesterday morning. I am finally home for a visit, after what seemed like eternity because the last time I was in the motherland was August 2011. I put off my trip home several times last year, and in the interim, I “endured” concerned, cheeky and some downright snide remarks such as: ” … it seems you have no intention of coming back home” “…you are busy ‘enjoying’ and you have abandoned your country”. In fact, one concerned and angry fellow a few months back, in an email, accused me and other “Nigerians in the diaspora” of “…staying abroad and abandoning the comrade struggle in Nigeria…”

As most Africans in the diaspora will confirm, “going home” can be quite an ordeal for one major reason — Souvenirs! One is expected and/or obligated to get gifts from “abroad” for legions of immediate, extended, and distant relatives. Add neighbours, friends, acquaintances, former colleagues and many others to that list.

Now, getting a gift or souvenir shouldn’t ordinarily be a problem if most people would appreciate thoughtful items such as beautifully worded and crafted greeting cards, little ornaments and miniature depictions of famous land marks or flags, vintage books, exotic scarves or funky embossed mugs. Few appreciate these things — maybe the elderly. Many expect designer-brand perfumes, shoes and bags, shirts and apparel, wristwatches and jewelry among other things. The mind-set behind these expectations is that since one is based in a rich, developed, and industrialized country, then one is also “rich” with easy and affordable access to all the developed and industrialized goodies.

Even if these items are as ridiculously cheap as many erroneously think, consider a student or a young professional with an immediate family of four back home, plus two parents, making six people. Then add at least four cousins, four aunts and uncles, minimum of four close friends, four neighbours, four acquaintances and four in-laws. That’s about 30 people. Typically, the people expecting or those who one feels obliged to get “stuff” for exceed this estimate. I didn’t even factor in extended family in a polygamous setting or “significant other(s)”. Woe betide those who play around with several “significant others”. So if one is to get designer brand or at least decent quality “stuff” for these thirty people, then do the math.

Now consider a single student on a restricted budget or a young professional on a comparatively fairly decent budget, with monthly bills such as rent, all sorts of insurance, telephone and Internet bills, layers of taxes, feeding, transportation and entertainment. More deductions apply if said person has a spouse with children. Now consider that travelling back home means paying thousands of pounds for the airfare.

If the person is expected to bring souvenirs for an average of thirty people as outlined above and if one spends an average of £20 (N5000, taking the exchange rate as £1:N250) per person, then £20 multiplied by thirty people equals £600 or N150,000. Assuming one gets their flight ticket for an average of £700 or N175, 000, plus £600 or N150,000 minimum for the souvenirs, it all adds up to £1500 or N375,000.

Depending on one’s responsibilities, when one finally makes it back home, there is likely to be legions of country folk expecting hard currency because living abroad means you have an endless supply of Forex to freely distribute. In the end one budgets about £1500+x minimum, x here being a variable, to get a true picture of what going back home costs.

The expectations and the sense of entitlement they create of what the traveller should bring account for only half of the story. There are also obligations, mostly self-imposed, due to the norm of giving gifts in many African societies especially when one is away for a while. This obligation also is a way of expressing appreciation to family and friends for invaluable love, support, friendship and advice in times of need which no amount of expensive gifts will ever make up for. It is one way of showing them that they have not been forgotten. For some, this obligation is also a “yes-you-can” attitude.

These expectations and obligations borne out of our African sense of community have been further enhanced by the trappings of global capitalism. People want you to get them what they see in ads on TV, magazines and on the Internet since you’re in close proximity to these things. Thus, the few days before one goes back home are usually extremely stressful, entailing a lot of running around, endless shopping and hunting for souvenirs. Some people start this gift hunting months before.

So dear Nigerians and fellow Africans, please give your sibling, cousin or friend a break next time they are visiting “from abroad” by appreciating whatever they get you. Whether it’s just a not-so-expensive shirt, a single bottle of perfume, a vintage cookery book or a Gypsy inspired exotic sarong, consider the time, effort and hard-earned resources that went into obtaining that.

And I am not just speaking for myself. Seriously, money doesn’t fall from the sky here, few people are super rich and Queen Elizabeth doesn’t give migrants a hefty monthly allowance to splash around.

That said, I am happy to be home.

Zainab Usman is a doctoral candidate in International Development at the University of Oxford

  • ewulo

    Hope our leaders do the right thing by governing to create a better state for all to enjoy the wealth of our Nation, then families, friends, and acquaintance will be less demanding.

  • OCCUPY NASS

    Zainab, thank you for this very peace.