Late last year, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York opened an exhibit that, at first, seemed legitimately African. To Wander Determined featured portraits of two aristocratic families: the UmuEze Amara, one of the oldest noble clans of Nigeria, and the Obafemi, a minor house of traders and ambassadors.
A placard explained: “ … their lordships hope to engage visitors in an intimate experience of life between these two prestigious Nigerian houses.” It was signed by Toyin Ojih Odutola, deputy private secretary, Udoka House, Lagos. A familiarity with the work of Odutola, however, exposes her artist’s ruse — an imaginative play on Nigerian-American class consciousness and the so-called Nigerian “superiority complex.”
Long known for an intense cultural emphasis on success and education, Nigerians comprise one of the most urbane immigrant communities in the U.S. According to the 2016 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau:
The data showed 27 percent of non-Hispanic white Americans have bachelor’s degrees and 8 percent hold master’s degrees, according to the 2015 census. The survey also revealed that 4 percent of Nigerians in the U.S. have doctorates, compared to 1 percent of white Americans. And Nigerian-Americans’ education achievements top those of any other U.S. immigrant group. Asians come closest, with 12 percent holding master’s degrees and 3 percent having doctorates.
Odutola, an artist-in-residence at Barnard College in New York, has spent her career deconstructing the personal journeys of Nigerians in the world. “Everyone says, ‘I wish they were real,’” she told Vogue magazine about the fictional dynasty in To Wander Determined. “And the thing is, they could be … And so just imagine that [we Nigerians] were left to our own devices, and we developed on our own: Without any colonialist meddling, what would have happened?”
Does it mean that Nigeria is so broken that we strive for education so that we can become unbroken?
Chinelo Okparanta, novelist
As for educational meddling, that began in the 1840s, when European missionaries began to import formal, Western-style education to the coastal cities of Nigeria, such as Calabar and Lagos. By the time Nigeria became a British protectorate in 1901, Nigerian children were learning to read and write in English. The British government granted many students, especially the children of the Nigerian aristocracy, scholarships to study at universities in Great Britain until the country started establishing its own institutions of higher learning.
Education for Nigerians has also offered a way out of the war and corruption that has engulfed the country since independence in 1960. Many Nigerians have pursued higher degrees in order to remain in the U.K. or to emigrate to the U.S. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 made it easier for Africans to enter and stay in the U.S. as students — not through family sponsorships, according to research by Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice University in Houston.
Chinelo Okparanta, a Nigerian novelist who wrote the critically acclaimed Under the Udala Trees, also wonders about the effect of British colonization on Nigeria and the values instilled by Western education over an education in Nigerian culture. “Does it mean that Nigeria is so broken that we strive for education so that we can become unbroken?” asks Okparanta, who is a professor of creative writing at Bucknell University. “There are many broken parts of the world not pursuing education.”
The novelist’s grandmother did not attend university, but “she made sure that she was financially stable so that the next generation could get there and take care of themselves.” Born and raised in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Okparanta says she comes from a “line of people who prioritized education.”
Architect Chinwe Ohajuruka, winner of a Cartier Women’s Initiative Award, says that the movement of Nigerians toward more and better education has been in the country’s DNA all along. Growing up in 1970s Nigeria, Ohajuruka says her parents were not interested in her happiness because “nothing was more important than education.” Ohajuruka earned her first two degrees in architecture from Obafemi Awolowo University, in the ancient Yoruba city of Ile-Ife, and a third in Edinburgh, Scotland. The way she sees it, education for Nigerians is like “a tsunami with a slow and building movement that has not yet unleashed its full might.”