LOUD WHISPERS : Spitting On Ourselves

In September 2009, I was standing in line at the customs desk at Kotoka International Airport, Accra, waiting for my bags to be checked so I could proceed to the airline check-in area. I was with a colleague from work, and we were on our way to a meeting in Senegal. There was a Chinese gentleman ahead of us. All of a sudden, this Chinese man started clearing his throat very loudly, and before we knew what was happening, he brought up what he had been able to summon from the deep recesses of his throat and spat on the floor. Yes, you read correctly. He spat right there, on the floor of the Kotoka International Airport, right in front of other passengers and customs officials. Those of us standing there raised our voices in anger and disgust at what this ungentlemanly Chinese man had done. He stared at us as if he had no idea of what he had done wrong.

What happened after our group of indignant passengers stated their dismay at the actions of this rude person? Nothing. The customs officer did admonish him, telling him he had no right to do that, but that was it. Nothing else was said or done to him. The spit stayed right there on the floor. My colleague and I talked about it later on and wondered what would have happened if it had been one of us who spat on the floor?

Fast forward to November 2009. Exactly the same spot at the Kotoka International Airport, Accra. Same routine, waiting in line to be checked by customs before proceeding to check in. When it was my turn, I lifted my suitcase from the trolley to place it on the desk that was used for the checks. The customs lady leaned over, and beckoned to the person standing behind me to push his trolley forward. I stood there while she marked his luggage with chalk, which implied he had been checked and his bags could go on board. She did not ask for his passport, she did not ask him where he was going; she did not ask him what he had in his bag which was wrapped in luggage cling wrap. She did not ask him anything. She just marked his luggage with chalk and sent him on his way. And then she turned to me. This is what followed:

Customs lady: Open your bag

Me: Why?

Customs lady: I need to check your bag

Me: Why do you need to check my bag? You did not check the bag of the man standing behind me who you just sent away. Is it because he is a white man?

Customs lady: Are you going to teach me my job? OK, I am not attending to you.

When you wake up very early in the morning to catch a flight, the last thing you want to do is to start your day with a quarrel. I could have held my tongue and let the insult pass, but thinking back to the spitting incident in September which took place right at the same spot, I was not about to take another glob of spit. Since Madam Customs, with a wig that looked like a battered bird’s nest, had refused to attend to me, one of her colleagues came over and tried to be helpful. He whispered to me that maybe the guy had a diplomatic passport and that is why she waved him on. I was about to tell him not to insult my intelligence, but decided it would be unwise to fight two battles at once, so I whispered back that the man had no such thing on him, but I would appreciate his help. All this time, the customs lady with the bad wig kept going on and on about how people come and try to tell them how to do their jobs. Since our exchange had held up the queue, she now had a bit of an audience. I kept quiet and it seemed as if my silence made her angrier by the second as she continued her tirade. And then she said, I have not come to your country Nigeria to tell you what to do. Aha!

In September 2009 when I witnessed ‘Spitgate’, I thought I was an African who felt insulted that someone had the audacity to spit on the floor of an airport in Accra when he knew he could do no such thing at Heathrow Airport or JFK Airport in New York and get away with it. At that moment, every inch of soil from Cape to Cairo, was sacred to me and was worthy of defending. And here I was two months later being reminded that I was not an African who deserved respect, justice and fairness at home and abroad, but a Nigerian, a stranger who was foolish enough to call an almighty customs officer to order. At this point, I walked back to Customs Lady with the bird’s nest on her head, and asked her, what does my nationality have to do with all this? You were being unfair to me. Africans are treated badly wherever they go. Why are we treating ourselves this way? Why did you attend to someone who was behind me? Because he was a white man? Why should I keep quiet when I am being treated like a second class citizen on my own continent?  The customs lady with the bad wig shut up.

I lived in Ghana for ten years (and I still call the country home) and I was not unaware of the subtle and sometimes, overt ambivalence towards ‘outsiders’, especially Nigerians. I learnt to deal with this. It helped that during the years I lived in Accra, I worked with amazing women and men who never made me feel I did not belong. I was also part of a small but influential community of Nigerian professionals who had moved to Ghana to take up senior positions in the corporate and non-profit sectors. We established the Forum of Nigerian Professionals and we did a lot of good work with the Ghanaian government, and we also provided support to one another. Living and working in Accra, I did not feel as if it was not my home. This is the country of Kwame Nkrumah we are talking about. I think what hit me hard that Thursday morning in November 2009 was the realisation that the Pan-African project that the likes of Kwame Nkrumah made his life’s work,  had become imperiled and too many people were now more interested in creating ‘otherness’ as opposed to building solidarity and mutual respect across the continent. In September 2009, I was the vigilant Pan-Africanist standing up for a continent that people are always pissing and spitting on, and taking on someone literally spitting on my beloved continent in my presence. In November, at exactly the same spot, I became the foreigner who deserved to be spat on.

A lot has changed since 2009. Many things have gotten worse. Now, the livelihood of many Nigerians trying to make a living in Ghana is under serious threat. The xenophobic attacks on Nigerians in South Africa still continue sporadically, and it is only a matter of time before there is another major crisis. Nigeria did not earn the nickname ‘Giant of Africa’ merely because of the size of our population. We provided political, economic and ideological leadership for many years, through our vast financial, diplomatic, educational and intellectual contributions. Most of that history is now either unknown to new generations or totally lost. The teaching, learning and understanding of all this history is important, before we all get lost in the inanities on display on sites of ‘preferred learning’ such as Big Brother Nigeria. For example, if we understand this history, then we will know how wrong it is to refer to a light skinned Nigerian as a ‘Somalian’ in purely derogatory terms. Let us stop spitting on ourselves and others. No one wins.

This is a revised version of the essay ‘Spitting on Ourselves’ from ‘Speaking for Ourselves: Social, Political and Feminist Activism in Africa’, Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, 2013.


Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She is the First Lady of Ekiti State, and she can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com

Source: Above Whispers

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19 Responses to LOUD WHISPERS : Spitting On Ourselves

  1. Olalekan September 10, 2020 at 8:23 pm

    I love that last part, she shut up! The lady with the bad wig shut her mouth up. I don’t know what it’s with us and segregation. We hate ourselves. We just display ignorance like we are animals even animals behave better.

    And yeah, that Somalian thingie, Issoke. Shebi one pastor used it to abuse someone on the altar. We are here

  2. Lilian September 10, 2020 at 8:25 pm

    Spitting on ourselves. I have been to Kenya and God, I cannot forget how they dealt with me at the airport because I’m Nigerian. I mean! Then you see the same set of people shouting black lives matter on the internet like they any better themselves. We humans are the worst!

  3. sharon September 10, 2020 at 8:34 pm

    This is a very necessary convo. When a white man is in our land, we do like we don’t matter and expect them to treat us like we matter in their own country. We are the perpetrators of racism. We allow it to fly and then blame others for treating us badly.

  4. Olufolake September 11, 2020 at 6:26 am

    This is the truth. Nothing but the truth. We are so evil to one another just like the woman with the bird like wig and the end of the day, I like she shut that her mouth up. Some people just don’t get it at all but I hope they do some day.

  5. Giftie September 11, 2020 at 6:28 am

    Oh, we are talking about different countries here have you seen how some Nigerians carry tribe on their heads? Have you seen some of them will clearly disregard you just because you aren’t their tribe? See ehn, I have given up on humans a very long time ago oooo. I have given up on them!

  6. Matilda September 11, 2020 at 9:08 am

    Mehn, I get the point but jezzzzzzzzzzzzz…. the shade in the story no be small. looooool. auntie wig like a battered bird nest. as in! the shade no be small ooooo. Mama di mama.

  7. George Martins September 11, 2020 at 9:08 am

    This is our forte now, to be racist to our own selves and be shouting black lives matter! God help us.

  8. Femi Diipo September 11, 2020 at 9:44 am

    It is appalling that despite all the developments in the world and the social fights against racism. We do worse to ourselves most of the times, with prevalent tribalism and discrimination that has become so rampant in this continent.
    Sad thing is this incidence that happened about ten years ago is still happening all over the continent. We need to get our from this shacked of self enslavement in our own land.

  9. Bisi Alawode September 11, 2020 at 4:57 pm

    When a pastor can stand on the altar and abuse someone for being a ‘Somalian’ in a derogatory manner… i mean, the people wey get sense for this world no pass three.

  10. Cecilia Andrews September 11, 2020 at 4:59 pm

    Lord, give us wisdom. The funniest thing is most of these foolish people show forth their foolishness in the open glare. They are stupid and they go about their stupidity like idiots. Who does that? God help us and I am happy you schooled that birdlike woman!

  11. Lauretta September 11, 2020 at 5:01 pm

    Kai. If I start to talk ehn… the things my eyes have seen just because I am a Nigerian in another African country and the things my eyes have also seen just because I am an Igbo girl in a Yoruba land… Kai! God will help us

  12. Veronica Imaseun September 11, 2020 at 9:48 pm

    I am sharing this right away… God, help the human race

  13. Tundun Phillips September 12, 2020 at 9:02 am

    it is only to be fighting for people we don’t know on Big brother that we know. The way and manner in which some youths take that show is appalling. We need sense o. We really need sense

  14. Oluseyi September 12, 2020 at 9:04 am

    It is easy to read this and be humming, and be yelling yes and yes but think deeply, aren’t we all guilty of this? Don’t we tarnish other people because they do not look like us or sound like us? Don’t we give people we think are of value more time and give the seemingly, lowest person no time at all? We need to think deeply. A lot of us are spitting on ourselves!

  15. Bright Vincet September 12, 2020 at 9:08 am

    Who has bewitched the black race? I don’t know why we are cruel to one another. I don’t know why.

  16. Funminiyi September 14, 2020 at 5:29 pm

    This matter taya me. na we dey always do ourselves o

  17. Olatide Omojola September 14, 2020 at 5:30 pm

    I have given up on the human race a long time ago. Especially on Africa as Africans. We are just somehow on this continent.

  18. DSEED September 16, 2020 at 10:34 am

    I could able to picture how the description of that wig will look on her. I appreciate the way you made her realised what her actions means to you and not letting it go like that. We all stand for #Blacklifematters but the way we the blacks treats ourselves is uncalled for. If we continue splitting on ourselves then what else do we expect from non blacks.

  19. Olakunle Olajide September 17, 2020 at 9:36 am

    “Na we dey do ourselves” in our Nigerian pidgin. I love the subtle jab at the end as well..


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