‘Even before the dust and smoke of slave raids and the accompanying inter-tribal wars had settled down, Nigeria, as well as the rest of tropical Africa, was agitated by happenings the repercussions of which are with us today.’
One of the repercussions of the abolition of slave trade implied by Nduka Otonti in the quote above was the race to acquire western education by the African elite following the impression that the technological base of indigenous education was weak and therefore could not keep pace with its western counterpart. Again, the indigenous brand of education did not brandish the liberal sophistication upon which the fecundity of western pedagogy was based. Perhaps the most basic reason for the search for western education was the inadequacy of tertiary schools in the colonized regions to cater for the intellectual thirst of the black elite. So, immediately he was weaned in the secondary school system in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Gold Coast (Ghana) or Nairobi an average black hopped in a ship and off he went to Britain or America searching for a degree in Law and allied professions. This class of Africans returned home and, in consonance with their training and political experience while abroad, the agitation for self-rule was set in motion. However, following the near collapse of the economic base and structure of most African nations, resulting in decaying social infrastructure, insecurity and robust directionlessness, the trend changed: not only do African youths and professionals want to leave the continent in search of a more clement environment, but unlike their progenitors, their inclination to return home and help rejuvenate the continent becomes justifiably dull.
Deprived of the true picture of life abroad but daily assailed with the opulence and economic prosperity displayed by those who have traveled abroad and who are home on a short visit, the average African who is still in the throes of obtaining a visa has his instinct sharpened to the dimension that ‘the streets of Europe and America are paved with dollars, pounds and euros.’
It is the untold experience, the quotidian uncertainties of the legal immigrant (I hope somebody will tell the experience of the illegal immigrant one day) that Awoshakin has graphically painted in Lost and Found in America, so that the aspiring immigrant like myself can pick a copy of the novel and avail himself of the nature of racism, linguistic dichotomy indeed, the whole gamut of culture shock that awaits him in the land of the white man.
Employing implied comparison, dialogue mixed with a sprinkle of proverbs, the author laid bare the stark realities of the pains and gains of migrating; the shattering of dreams, the actualization of ambitions, and the dynamism of the unknown which can only become a pulsating insistence in the life of an immigrant who ‘must not return home without achieving anything.’
The story of Lost and Found in America, a one-hundred and fifteen page novel divided into twenty-six chapters, revolves around Akobo the son of Akinde who won a green card lottery, a euphemism for official permission to permanently live and work in America. Akobo, a Nigerian, in the first two chapters is depicted as a man who is moderately successful because, ‘…he had a good job, a nice car, a new apartment and lots of friends.’ So what could such an individual, obviously comfortable in his country, be going to do in another man’s country? The answer lies in the protagonist’s earlier reflections on the gains derivable from his adventure: ‘He would get more education; he could send money to his parents; he could finally get married; his children will be American citizens; he would return one day and build a big house.’ The intrigue is: can’t this immigrant achieve these feats without traveling out of his country to face the unpalatable consequences of an immigrant? While pondering the poser, we realize that our protagonist has a dose of a revolutionary in his vein. Completing the list of his expectations is: ‘…and help strengthen democracy and good governance in his country.’ The puzzle is moderately resolved: it is the pains of obtaining the basics of life compounded by bad governance wobbling democratic operations, and the most significant the exchange rates that drive people like Akobo into the waiting hands of the likes of Uncle Sam.
Subsisting in an unfamiliar environment without a reliable guide is tantamount to a toddler learning walking without the helping hand of an adult or a contraption. This discomfort is resolved for Akobo by his friend Adio who is on student visa. And it is in the course of their search for an apartment that, a sharp distinction between the nature of policing Akobo is used to and an aspect of what to expect in Akobo’s new environment is unfolded.
On his arrival in the US, Akobo put up with Adio in his one room apartment. Not long after, Adio’s younger brother also jetted in into the US making three gentlemen to share a room apartment; needless to affirm the going must be cumbersome. So the three Africans chose an afternoon to search for ‘ROOM FOR RENT sign’. A police car smothered them in a corner and ‘two armed men jumped out. They were cops.’ What followed was a study in police investigation: apparently a white man has been robbed and assaulted by three black men and since the three room-searching Africans fitted the description the robbed gave, the armed cops had very good reasons to conduct ‘a suspect line up.’ The victim cleared the three Africans and they were released to continue their search.
Neat and clean, one is tempted to say but what would have happened if the incident were to have occurred in a place like Lagos where Akobo resided before journeying to the US? I am convinced that the three young men would have been arrested, taken to the police station and forced to part with some bribe which the police would have called bail. So, for the prospective African immigrant especially from Nigeria, the fear of certain indices of insecurity is milder but it may not be so mild, if the immigrant is guilty, even slightly, as Akobo’s experience was when he drove a car at speed 37 when he should be doing 35.
After several months of his arrival in the US, Akobo was still to secure a job. He needed to get one fast, and since he was a graduate of a Nigerian university his search, he thought, should be limited to the classified sections of the newspapers. It was his friend, Adio who opened the lid on the can:
‘You have to go out there and look for help wanted sign.’ He had admonished his friend. The advice to which Akobo naively responded: ‘Go out, but the agency said interested applicants should send a resume.’ Adio must have been amused at his friends level of ignorance for his response was: ‘ Ha! What resume? Adio sneered. ‘Your experience in Africa does not really matter. You have to start afresh.’ Akobo did not need any further encouragement because the following day saw him paddling the streets of New Jersey looking for job. He was lucky. He got the job of a security guard with a security firm– City Guards: The Trusted Security Firm– on $7.50 an hour, 9 pm-9am daily. The lesson could not be clearer for the immigrant: your African certificate is worthless in America; so be prepared to subsist, at least for a while, on incommensurable employ.
Although, he now had a job in the kitty, he could clothe himself, Akobo was still lacking the remaining of the basics of life- shelter. So it was at Irvington, in New Jersey that he was able to trap down a one bedroom apartment for $600 a month and a $100 security deposit. The leasing condition did not end there: The rent was due on the 3rd of every month; lateness would attract a $5 charge for every day of lateness. Heat was ‘included in the rent’ but Akobo was to be responsible for electricity. He was advised to call a company that would ‘set-up your electricity cable and other utilities.’ Easy life compared to what the hapless immigrant Akobo was used to in the process of securing accommodation in any of the parts of the developing life of Africa. Such things as provision for ‘heat and cold signing papers and a company setting up electricity cable and other utilities’ are a luxury which may manifest maybe in the turn of another millennium. Only God knows where America and other developed countries of Europe will be then? Living in Mars, I suppose.
For whom much is given very much should be expected. So in the course of formalizing the rent agreement, Awoshakin brought us to the reality of one of the indices of the reason for America being dubbed a developed nation—Social Security number. Hear him invoking the authorial comment device: Akobo soon realized that without having the number, it was impossible to get a job, open an account, rent an apartment or do almost anything in America.’ One may not be able to literally visit the restroom in the US without the SSN! Immigrants like Akobo should find the practice so odd, since his country of origin, in spite of spending several billions of dollars on the project; common national identity card project is yet to see the light of the day. So any Tom Dick and Harry of shady character may lay claim to being a Nigerian to perpetrate any diabolical tendencies.
You have left your home country with the promise to arrange for your fiancée or fiancé to come over for marriage and settle down as soon as things improve? Akobo, our reference point’s dilemma is very instructive: Koko, that is the name of his wife to be, had been waiting in Africa for two years for his invitation so that the two could tie the nuptial knot and start a family in America but things had not improved satisfactorily for Akobo so getting Koko to the US was not yet feasible. The following representative dialogue may ensue:
‘I know Koko but it’s not easy.Marriage cost money, besides, I just
rented this apartment. I don’t have things in place yet.’
‘That is okay, as long as you have a bed, we will be fine.’
‘You don’t understand.’ Akobo said…….
‘It is not easy, Koko.’ He continued.
‘Well, why don’t you return home if it is not easy?’
The last statement from Koko, a challenge if you like, must have jolted Akobo because his next utterance which was a monologue was: Did Koko or anybody for that matter, think I will return home without some achievements? Then we begin to wonder what ‘achievements’ entails. Akobo we are all aware had a good job, a car, and he had just rented a new apartment in Lagos before the news of his success at the visa lottery was brought to him. So, what achievements could he have been referring to in the monologue quoted above?
Maslow’s theory of needs may be relevant in providing a satisfactory answer to the riddle. Self actualization can manifest in varying dimensions. The fact that a man has a job that could afford him to rent a three bedroom apartment in Lagos of year 2008, has a car and other indications of success and material well being does not assure that the man is satisfied with the quality of life he his living. Other basics of life such as security, constant supply of electricity, good roads, availability of portable water, access to health facilities, qualitative education, and above all sound, reliable economy which culminates in strong currency may count more than all the rented apartments and cars in this world, in some people’s estimation of good life and good living. And this list of the basics is what the developed countries have never and will never take for granted.
The argument is simply this: both African and the developed countries have schools and system of education, they provide jobs for their citizens, the citizens ride cars, build houses, they enjoy health facilities and have hopes, ambitions, and aspirations. But given a chance like the one Akobo had, the citizens of the developing world will prefer the developed countries health facilities, cars, system of education etc to the ones obtainable in their countries of origin simply because the ones in their country are inferior in quality and inadequate in quantity.
While our Akobo was still making up his mind on when to bring Koko to the US, another man who was ready for a wife snatched her from him. That was the end of his dream of marrying the lady he had invested so much time and money on. So when the door closed on Koko, it opened on Keisha, a black American damsel, and, in entered Akobo; a relationship that actually led into marriage thus ensued.
After the initial shocks and discomfort of adjusting to a new life, a novel culture, which may include subsisting with the knowledge that the man sitting next to you on a bus might have just left the bedroom of his ‘wife’ who may happen to be another man! Two women may kiss passionately in the streets without anyone bothering to ask awkward questions. An environment where gays and lesbians are treated as minorities needed some learning especially when one is coming from an African country where homosexuality is regarded as a crime punishable with instant lynching.
One may learn that it is not all pains and pressures: some exciting freshness may crop up in one’s linguistic competence. American English is different from British one. So like the author exemplified: Men’s trousers are called pants; car booth is called car trunk and the bonnet becomes car hood it is flash light and not touch light… soccer is called football and a game many Africans knew as rugby is called football. And, if the immigrant’s first language is French, he must start to learn American English afresh.
Care must be exercised in the choice of words and expressions. Stupid instruction one might say, but the protagonist’s experience when he chose ‘drugs’ instead of ‘medications’ might prove very enlightening: He had just negotiated the purchase of a second hand car and he was test driving it at speed of 37 in an area where he should be doing 35. A police officer stopped him. One would have thought that the difference between the speeds was negligible but Akobo was actually booked. A dialogue ensued between Akobo and the cop:
‘…what do you have in your glove compartment? the cop asked.
‘The only thing in the glove apartment is my drugs.’ Akobo said.
It was a huge mistake. A bell must have gone off in the police
man’s head. ‘You have drugs in the car?’
‘Yes, my drugs and the book to the car, let me show…’ Akobo
reached to open the glove apartment, but the cop stopped him. ‘Hold
it. Keep your hand on the steering wheels where I can see them. Do it
now.’ He barked at Akobo, pointing the flashlight straight in Akobo’s
The cop then went to his car and invited an anti-drug cop who soon arrived with his trained dogs and a thorough search of Akobo’s car soon commenced. After some time of a fruitless search for the drugs, the cop went back to Akobo who had been ordered to sit on the bare floor beside the car:
‘Where is the drug?’ he asked.
‘In the glove compartment like I told you’ Akobo, muttered
his voice shaking from all the confusion.
‘Is this what you are talking about?’ the anti-drug policeman
produced the box of Tylenol tablet
‘Yes, sir that’s it,’ Akobo answered, bewildered. The anti-
drug cop looked hard at Akobo and shook his head.
‘In this country, you don’t call these drugs; you call it
medication. Do you understand me?’
‘Yes, medication.’ Akobo said.
From every indication, Akobo would have saved himself all the embarrassment and discomfiture he experienced in the hands of the cops if he had armed himself with the appropriate expressions and not transferred the diction appropriate in his country to the US. So, the prospective immigrant be warned. Be fast with learning the dichotomy between the brand of language peculiar to your country of birth and your country of immigration.
You should be ready to cope with scenes like this: Akobo was returning home from a visit to a bar, suddenly a van loaded with some white students stopped beside him. And a voice yelled out: ‘What are you doing here nigger? Go to the west-side where you belong. Better still go back to the jungle in Africa.’
That was an instance of an age-long infamy that has plagued humanity. It is called racism and, it is festering in the United States of America judging from the protagonist’s experience quoted above. How to eradicate it? It is impossible to eliminate it from the human psyche. How to contain it then? That’s a better way of dealing with the scourge. The first step is being sure that it exists and be ready to be at the receiving end, may be once. Secondly, the immigrant should choose his friends from among the whites who are not racism-inclined. Discuss its consequences with his chosen friends just like Akobo did. You may be sure to get the required relief from the therapy and even get to meet your wife from the group, if you are a prospective bachelor like Akobo. And if you are an eligible bride like Keisha, your husband may be the searching protagonist.
Some of the instances the author raised tended to tell rather than show the realities. The racism scenes are filled with adequate dialogue to do justice to the telling with just two physical presence of the showing. One can even argue that the
first example—the suspect line up following the robbery—did not ring true of a racism incident. Again, readers should be more interested in the showing details of the lots of failed marriages especially the one between African male or female resident of the US who decided to ‘import’ a male or female from Africa for marriage. The dialogue-shrouded instances of Demola and Anthony are too relishing to be told and not shown.
However, it must be emphasized that Awoshakin has successfully brought the realities of being a legal immigrant to the doorstep of all of us. The remaining gap in the 360 degree of the success of the story is for the prospective immigrant to get hold of a copy of Lost and Found in America and digest the lush yarn. With Lost and Found in America, no longer would a been-to paint a hazy, disjointed picture of the ups and downs of the life of an immigrant settling down in America and Europe, not any longer.
1 Otonti, Nduka.1964, Western Education and the Nigerian Cultural Background. University Press Limited, Ibadan. Ibadan Nigeria
2 Awoshakin, Tokunbo. 2007 Xlibris Corporation. USA.