Reviewer: Nwachukwu Egbunike
‘Being a Nigerian is abysmally frustrating and unbelievably exciting’ – Chinua Achebe.
Keith Richards’ Outsider Inside is a glittering paradox of the Nigerian story. A collection of Keith’s column in BuisnessDay newspaper, the book is laced with humorous stories, a popular cultural artefact that connects with anyone who has lived in this country. However, it also reflects the exasperating experience of living in this country.
Outsider Inside is an appropriate title for the book. Taking the premise cited by the author: ‘as a foreigner, I would always be an outsider, even though I had spent enough time and been a keen observer of the life around me to have been given a glimpse of Nigeria from the inside.’ Though garnished with the spice of unacceptability, the book shows once more the huge gap between Nigerians and their leaders. The essay portrays a fondness by the author, a Londoner, for his adopted country. Nonetheless, it is hid the fact that the author may continue to be just a welcomed guest.
Did this wall of integration prevent Keith from loving and living the Nigerian life, hell no! On the contrary a swim through the 300 pages of Outsider Insider reveals the authors attachment to this country. Broken into nine sections, the book covers aspects on self-help and business practice; corporate government and financial crime; tourism and travel; international; business; culture; Lagos; politics; and other miscellanies.
Save the usual clatter of kids – Onyeocha (East), Baturi (North) and Oyinbo (West) – most expats are shrouded in stereotypes: about them and about the country. ‘But Keith’ is ‘not like other expatriates’ an accusation that was tossed on him a Lagos bar. A group of young men had based their assertion on the well-know expats’ watering holes in Port Harcourt. For them, ‘all white guys they had seen firsthand were to found staggering out this bar, well into the night with one or two girls following them amorously who they either paid off or bundled into their car and drove off with.’ This was their definition of ‘all expatriates’. Keith’s defence was that: ‘there were thousands of expatriates from every walk of life here in Nigeria many of whom were family men who did their work and went home to their wives if they were accompanied or who rang them most evenings and missed them if they were not.’ Unfortunately most people don’t get to see this group. Whether or not he convinced the young men is certainly another story, but it shows that stereotypes are usually difficult to break.
Most expats in Nigeria live in ‘cages’, high walls, security arrangements that will make prisoners glee with jealousy. Not entirely their fault, because a white skin in this country is an automatic attraction for kidnappers. Nonetheless, there are those who get immersed in the mélange of the Nigerian social life and culture. These according to the author, usually seek ‘invitations to Nigerian homes, wedding ceremonies and parties…hanging out with their Nigerian colleagues and building friendships that would outlast the time of their stay.’ Keith falls into this category. It takes more than immersion to be a double chief, Ike-Oha of Umuobo autonomous community, Aba and Eze Di Ora-Mma I of Enugu State.
Nigerians like talking business, and anything that will aid their progress normally catches their attention. Keith in ‘Laugh your way to the Bank’ finds a middle course between work and humour in the office. Being an employer of labour – formerly as MD of Guinness and currently of Promisidor – there is always a constant stream of job applications. In ‘You and Your CV’ – the author gave practical tips on how to write a resume. It is worth reading especially by the upward moving young professionals. It provided an insight on how employers make their pick and revealed why most applications end up in the trash can.
I advice those prone to cardiac disorder to avoid reading ‘Travel Guide to UK’ for it will only trigger a bout of laughter that may precipitate a heart attack. This article was Keith’s rebuttal to ‘the xenophobic and holier than thou’ tone of What Foreigners Coming to Lagos Should Expect – an article published in the Economist. The author exposes this condescending stance by highlighting what Nigerians coming to Britain should expect. In the same section: Tourism and Travel, Keith laments the decrepitating state of most national and historic sites that litter Nigerians rich cultural landscape.
He pokes irresponsible corporates who take advantage of photo-op CSR projects yet do nothing as regards their immediate environment. The section on ‘Business’ leaves a sour taste as Keith gave a beating to local airline staff, especially the air hostess for their perpetual disdain for courtesy. The unfortunate scorn for Nigerian musicians by their international colleagues did not escape Keith’s attention. Having hosted many musical shows in Nigeria, the author is in a position to know. ‘For the attitude of the artists is mixed, some like Wyclef enter into the spirit of things and embrace their fans… Others refuse to condescend to greet their local equivalents.’ Keith could certainly not understand why ‘someone who calls himself a musician and who comes to Nigeria refuse to greet Fela’s son?’
Lagos Conundrum typifies the spirit of a city which many love to hate. Nonetheless, it is startling that this haze of madness is what inspired most articles in the book. The poverty, the incredible driving habits, the rubbish, the traffic girl and others constitute these pages. Though Keith tries to stay out of politics, unfortunately a writer in these climes cannot avoid it. In the concluding chapter, he castigates the West for stealing Nigerian doctors; dramatises the 2007 elections in a fictional flight from UK to Lagos; and dismantles 2020 as an illusion. Nonetheless, the book ends in a cheerful note with ‘2020…Nigeria in 2025’, Keith dreams about the future of Nigeria in beautiful prose.
Outsider Inside is a delight, though individual essays yet it has a unifying core. I must also commend the publishers – Bookcraft – for doing a good job. Save the discord of the title of section 8 (Lagos Conundrum) with that on the title page, the brilliant editing is obvious and the editor deserves a thumps up for that. The non-chronological presentation is not really noticed but reading through triggers a feeling of déjà vu. The remarkable sweet-sour taste of the book will make Achebe’s dictum – quoted in the beginning of this review – to read as follows: ‘living in Nigeria is abysmally frustrating and unbelievably exciting’.