Up till 1 am in the early hours of Thursday, more than three hours after their arrival at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Ikeja, Lagos from South Africa, Richard Simon was full of life. He and his peers aged between four and six played gleefully inside the lighted pilgrims’ hall of the airport, racing against one another to catch a small round plastic object one of them thrown up into the air. They showed no sign of sleeping soon.
Most of them are beginners in South African schools and could barely keep memories of the harsh treatment they and their parents went through in the Rainbow country in the wake of xenophobic attacks. To them, a return to their fatherland came with no hard feelings – at least for now. “I am happy to be here,” Simon quipped in response to our correspondent’s question as he ran after his playmate, Sandra, five, who was also chasing after the object.
But for older ones who are in their teens, returning home is a mixed tale of excitement and sadness, just as it is for their parents. While the parents lived in fears of imminent attacks by South African mobs, the children grappled with frequent discrimination among their native classmates who saw them as strangers.
Since xenophobia became pronounced in the country about three years ago, Ogechi Maduagwu, a Grade 8 pupil in Johannesburg, has been struggling hard to cope with the growing trauma of racism at the school that should have shielded her from social oppression. “My classmates from South Africa talk down to Nigerian pupils. They are racists. Anytime, we have a little misunderstanding and they are moody, they would tell us, ‘Go back to your country. We don’t need you here!’ It was that bad! She exclaimed, mimicking her bullies.
To her and many Nigerian pupils evacuated to the country on Wednesday night, it was a big break from the manacles of repression and the dawn of a new life. “I am happy to come back home,” the 13-year-old native of Imo State said amid hearty smiles.
Ogechi could not hide her excitement as she posed for photographs with her siblings, Ijoma, 16 and nine-year-old Ngozi, who are also returnees. With their relatives waiting outside the premises to receive them after documentation, they were elated that they would now live among the people who love and care for them.
She said, “I will miss my teachers and my friends from other countries. It’s sad for me to leave South Africa because of the quality of education I had there. But what is important is my safety. I was on scholarship which I had to forfeit because of this crisis. It’s really, really painful.”
Her elder sister, Ijoma, a Grade 11 pupil, confirmed the toxic relationship they endured in school at the hands of their South African counterparts. Other than the country’s educational system which she described as “perfect,” Ijoma had no regret relocating to Nigeria in the heat of dehumanising treatments she frequently went through.
“The crisis in town and the discrimination in my school have become unbearable. So my parents decided that my sisters and I should come back home to continue with our studies. We live in Johannesburg with our parents. People are dying and their shops are burnt. Our parents are still in South Africa. They will soon join us,” she revealed.
Chubby and cheerful, Oyinkansola Ogunfolaji sat on a long steel chair in the hall devouring a plate of rice she and other returnees were served. Like Ogechi and Ijoma, the 12-year-old Ogun State indigene was a victim of verbal assault in school. According to the Grade 7 pupil, the past three years of her schooling in Mabopane, a suburb of Pretoria, came with painful memories she could not easily erase.
Aside from her class teacher and her best friend whom she would probably miss dearly because of their role in mitigating the impact of the racist slurs on her, parting ways with her South African classmates was a moment she had wished, long before now.
“I was discriminated against because I am a Nigerian. It was only two people I could rely on in school – my class teacher and my best friend, who are South Africans. Any time a South African classmate bullied me, I looked up to them. They would give me good advice. My classmates would tell me they don’t need me in their country and that I should go back to my home (in Nigeria). They would say I am too black to be in South Africa,” she lamented, almost in tears.
Despite learning in such an unfriendly environment, the teenage girl did not let the resentment affect her studies. She consistently found inner strength amidst the rising hatred and devised intellectual means to get back at her oppressors.
“So far, I have won nine awards in subjects including Afrikaans, English, Mathematics, Economics and Management Sciences, Social Sciences and Life Skills. I feel bad because no one would remember me for my achievements and it would be like all my hard work has gone down the drain.
“Now that I am in Nigeria, I will try my best to cope here. My dad is not back yet. He wants to take care of our property there. We have a house and two cars. He has a shop where he sells refrigerators. He wants to sell everything because of the attacks so that he could also relocate back to Nigeria,” she added.
‘I won’t miss my classmates’
His facial expression said it all. Michael, as his mother wanted him to be identified, was very excited to return to Nigeria. And when he bared his soul to our correspondent on the isolated life he had to contend with in school, it was discernible that he indeed had a cause to rejoice. For the 15-year-old boy, it was freedom worth celebrating.
“I was in Grade 9 in South Africa,” he began. “I was on 60 per cent scholarship and it is sad I would lose it. But I am very happy to be back to Nigeria because of the discrimination I went through in South Africa. I won’t miss my South African classmates there.
“They were very discriminatory in so many ways. The kind of jokes they cracked with foreigners are killing. When there is a misunderstanding between them and foreign pupils, their co-citizens would support them and shout at the foreigners to go back to their country.
“I don’t have a sense of belonging in the school. They want us to realise that we are not one of them. If we complain to our teachers, they will correct them but after a while, they will resume the discriminatory act.”
Michael’s mother, a native of Delta State, who gave her name simply as Felicia, said the trauma was as gruelling as his son painted it. A teacher at a special school in Pretoria, the mother of three said she had to come back to Nigeria after six years in South Africa because she didn’t want her children’s lifestyle to be influenced by such crude behaviour.
“Racism is much. It’s very traumatising and we feel like we don’t have a place. Even in school, they discriminate against foreigners, especially Nigerians. Their kids would tell our children to go back to their country. It’s really very sad and my experience has made me appreciate my country more.
“I hope our leaders will look into things that make us travel out. I have been there for six years. Their education system is perfect. How my children will blend with the system here is a headache for me because I never thought we would return to Nigeria this soon. However, I can’t continue to raise my children in an environment that is filled with bitterness and resentment,” she said, walking up to join a queue where returnees were being given new SIM cards.
However, the narrative was different for Adediwura Beckley, a Grade 9 pupil in Pretoria. She was lucky to be in the company of South African classmates who treated her like one of them. “I will miss my friends, my teachers and my school,” she revealed with a sense of nostalgia.
“On Tuesday when I went to school and told my teachers and friends that I was going back to Nigeria, they were sad. They were crying and were very emotional. I hope and pray that I will be able to catch up because I really fitted in nicely with my South African friends. We were like siblings and it was amazing.”
We lost everything, came home empty-handed – Returnees
Ibe Jonas, 34, was a renowned auto spare parts dealer in Pretoria. With a stock estimated at 1,200,000 Rands (about N29m), the Orlu, Imo State indigene was a ‘big man’ among his colleagues; highly revered. Unfortunately, all that he laboured for in the last 14 years when he left Nigeria was reduced to ashes penultimate Sunday by South Africans irate youths who were uncomfortable with his success story “in a foreign land.”
“I lost everything,” he bemoaned, noting there is no end in sight to the horror of xenophobic attacks. “But I am very happy that I am back to my country alive. They burnt down my shop. If I had the money I lost to that attack, I would be a big man in Nigeria. Unfortunately, I could not salvage anything. I came back empty-handed, except for some of my clothes and shoes.
“Only God and our government can help me because I don’t have any means to sustain myself. I ought to have got married. It was because of the crisis that I decided not to raise a family there. A lot of people are crying over there, they want to come back.”
Another returnee, Charity Okafor, from Enugu State was correspondingly embittered. She travelled to Brett, Pretoria North-West four years ago in search of greener pastures. A graduate and a fashion designer, she struck a chord with a number of clients as her business grew in leaps and bounds.
Sadly four months ago, the livelihood she strove to build crumbled before her eyes. The 33-year-old nursing mother ran for dear life as assailants set her shop ablaze. She lost all she had toiled for.
She said, “We struggled to survive there. We woke up early in a bid to make ends meet, yet they see us as threats to them. They felt we make money at their expense. If we go to their clinic and we don’t speak their local language, they would not attend to us. It was really awful. The discrimination was so much.
“If you want to rent an apartment in some places, they won’t attend to you simply because you are a Nigerian. I came back with my child. My husband will join us later. I thank God I’m home now; at least this is my country. I am ready to face the challenges here. I know it is not easy coming back home with nothing, but my life is first. If there is life, there is hope. I am a graduate and I’m not lazy. I will survive.”
Six years into their sojourn abroad, Chinyere Okafor and her son hastily returned to Nigeria with just two bags that contain their personal belongings, leaving their wealth behind in South Africa. In the recent time when racist attacks took a turn for the worse in the nation, every minute came with uncertainties that perpetually put the mother and child in shock.
“Animals are better than those people,” Okafor thundered, adding that Nigerians especially are targets of xenophobia.
She added, “The worst part is that you don’t know what they can do in the next 30 minutes. They can just enter your house and stab you. Some of us, our husbands are still there because of our property.
“For instance, my husband repairs and sells cars there. He has two cars he wants to sell so he could come back with something.
“There is a place called Location in Johannesburg. If they kill foreigners there, no one would know. The news came up on Monday that foreigners, especially women and their children at Pretoria West which is the centre of South Africa and close to the government house should run for dear life. My child stopped school two months ago because they were kidnapping foreigners.
“Even at the South African airport, they didn’t want to release us to come back to Nigeria. It was when we started to protest that they freed us.”
Make our country attractive to live, victims beg
The mother of one of the pupils Saturday PUNCH spoke with, Mrs Adejoke Beckley, urged the government to improve on the educational standard in the country so that her children would not regret coming back home.
She stated, “The educational standard in South Africa cannot be compared with what is going on here. That was why we initially refused to come home. At age six when children are in Grade 1, they can read already. One of the reasons why I came back home is the trauma that my kids are going through. They are traumatised.
“They couldn’t sleep at night and we don’t know if our house will be the next target. We have been there for five years and seven months.”
Felicia, a teacher in South Africa, urged the government to ease the process of obtaining loans to enable people to start up their own businesses.
She said, “There are no proper documentation here and no support from the government. For instance, if you want to do a business here, you have to struggle on your own to start. But back there in South Africa, it is easy to get loans with a soft landing. They have a lot of incentives being given to their citizens who are into business. The government has a lot of work to do to make life convenient for the people.”
Commenting on the accounts of the returnees, a professor of psychology, Oni Fagboungbe, said the victims, especially the children, would battle with the trauma of their nasty experience.
The don stated, “Traumatic experience is nothing palatable. It is something that lingers on for a long time and leads to depression, hatred and so many things. Once somebody’s cognition is affected by traumatic experience, the person will need experts to get out of it.
“When it comes to socialisation with other children, the suspicion will be there because they are going to experience cognitive dissonance. They may find it difficult to trust children here because of their experience in South Africa. They may also find it difficult to trust adults here because the older South Africans treated them and their parents badly. But gradually as children whose memories are not as deep as that of adults, they will cope faster than the adults.”
Fagboungbe said even after exploring counselling and other corrective measures, there could be a relapse the moment a victim received a stimulus that triggered their sad experience.
He called for special provisions to help the returnees tackle the trauma and enjoined the government to properly reintegrate them back to the society.
He added, “If we say the experience will not affect their living in Nigeria negatively, we are deceiving ourselves. They will get out of it but it will take time. They will quickly get out of it if the Nigerian government can provide what they missed in South Africa. So it would become an issue of elimination by substitution.”
While addressing the returnees on Wednesday night, the Chairman of the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, Mrs Abike Dabiri-Erewa, promised that the government would empower them. But how soon the promise, like many of its kinds, would come to fruition – if at all – remains a mystery. For now, they believe that when there is life, there is hope. They are exultant to return to their fatherland, but how long the happiness will last remains to be seen.