Thursday, May 14, 2009

Leaving Lagos

Over the last two years in Vietnam I’ve been curiously following the fate of the Nigerian community in Vietnam and have had some contrasting emotions and reached divergent conclusions.

In general, Nigerians living in Vietnam have been ostracised by not only locals but other foreigners alike, due to nefarious behaviour a number of them are involved in. I know this is not a localised opinion, from South Africa to England where Nigerians are seen “almost the world over as potential criminals and potential fraudsters”, according the country’s own Minister of Information and Communication, Professor Dora Akunyili, in a BBC podcast “This Week in Africa”. For example, type in ‘Nigeria’ in Google and the tenth most popular pre-emptive search option is ‘Nigeria Scam’.

This view is such a pervasive and global one that the Nigerian government have initiated a national “rebranding campaign” to try and reverse the negative perceptions held by others of the country’s people, by various plans and means such as targeting internal problems first, like corruption and other financial crimes.

Prof Akunyili is known as a strong and defiant woman who has faced similar uphill battles like taking on massive drug cartels in her stint as Director General of NAFDAC. The plan faces a lot of opposition after the “Heart of Africa Project” of the previous regime didn’t have much impact and the opposition argue the money could rather be spent on more immediate problems. On the other hand, journalist Uche Nworah debates well in favour of the project in the Daily Triumph, pointing out Nigerians should not “let others define who they are and how they relate with one another”.

Whether it will be successful is still debatable, but I’ve experienced first hand the way Nigerians are treated in Vietnam. It’s the tale of two Chris’: Let’s call them Chris D and Chris O.

Both are from Nigeria (both of the Igbo tribe I believe) and were lured to Vietnam by career prospects – Chris D is a 22-year old football player and was looking to break into a league where he could get some experience on his CV and make enough to get by to possibly be offered a trial in England with a decent club, and thus be able to provide for his remaining family in Lagos.

Chris O came as a businessman, vague as his “business intentions” were, I think he came looking to purchase fabric or clothes wholesale and ship it back to Nigeria, either to family or business partners to be sold at a profit. The reason I assume this is because I’ve spent some time talking to some Nigerians on numerous nights over a beer down in the Pham Ngu Lao area trying to pick their brains about what they do, without coming over offensive, as I was just genuinely interested in what they were up to. It seems a lot of the Nigerians here, as far as I understand, are of the Igbo ethnic group, and are attempting the get into the import/export textiles game. It’s difficult as their initial capital is low and they have to wait many months after sending the goods, usually clothes like pallets of jeans and t-shirts, home for a return on their profits due to the shipping time, having to wait for the clothes to be sold in Nigeria and money sent back to Vietnam to purchase the next batch.

The pitfalls are numerous, however, and what often happens is that a well-meaning business venture turns into a life of crime. I have a few theories as to why this happens. It doesn’t help that some Nigerian schemers make a quick buck out of luring fellow countrymen to Vietnam under false business pretences and then run off with their cash. Boo on you.

Another problem is the work environment. For example, what many Nigerians (and other Africans, Latin Americans and Eastern Europeans) would do in England when faced with financial and job problems is take up menial, unskilled or low-skilled jobs, such as security or dishwashing. However, being a cheap developing country the unskilled labour market in Vietnam is saturated by Vietnamese who work for extremely basic salaries; there aren’t any labouring or street cleaning jobs available. Even new university graduates work for a monthly average of about $200. Even if some of these jobs were available, a lot of Vietnamese are quite xenophobic and racist regarding black people, as I’ve found out over numerous classroom discussions and explanations with and to my students. If not themselves, they relate stories to me of other Vietnamese who discriminate against blacks in HCM City in various ways such as drivers not allowing them on their buses or restaurant owners banning them from their restaurants.

Peer pressure may also play a role as there is a large Nigerian community, possibly even two or three around HCM City, who live in the same neighbourhood, share houses to cut costs and are usually “in business” together or help each other out in tough times. Both Chris D and Chris O lived in one such community with over 50 Nigerians in Thu Duc District. When faced with capital that had dried up, the lure of becoming part of a “gang” or nefarious enterprises probably had a much stronger attraction than giving up and returning to Nigeria empty-handed and a few thousand dollars lighter. A Nigerian friend who used to live in Vietnam (and went back to the UK because no-one would employ him) used to actively avoid any of his countrymen for this reason.

Most times in turns out that Vietnam is not the ‘promised land’ many of these Africans believe to be when they arrived. Whichever way things go, what often happens is that lack of a fluid income and real business opportunities, very little or no chance of menial work, and a thriving and welcoming “fraternity” of Nigerians can pressure many of them in Vietnam to turn to criminal intent, as happened with Chris O. Chris got involved in drug smuggling, with the help of a Vietnamese woman who was later caught on the Vietnam/China border near Lao Cai Province for trafficking. God only knows what happened to her, as heroin smuggling is punishable by death in both countries, but Chris O was forced to flee to neighbouring Cambodia and hasn’t been heard of since.

Chris D’s story is very different, and the reason I’m writing this story. He had been playing football with my team, the Saigon Raiders, for quite a while and is actually a very good player (when he decides to pass the ball once in a while), agile, strong, fit and skilful. Off the field he’s a soft-spoken guy, who’s crazy about the English Premiership and is very religious (his ring-tone is a ear-splitting Baptist “Haaaallelujah!” sermon). As I said, he came to Vietnam with the idea of breaking into a team, building up experience and maybe making it big in a Western country. Despite a lot of help from the team; being photographed, videotaped and having a Saigon Raiders ID card made (the only player to ever own one), he wasn’t able to get a trial anywhere decent, as he was just not good enough for the big time.

While the rest of us paid membership and guest fees to play, it was decided Chris D could play for free as it was obvious he had nearly no money. Things were moving along okayish until the police started raiding his neighbourhood, obviously suspecting to find a whole crackhouse stacked with guns, a bevy of whores and generally illegal impropriety. They rounded up all the Nigerians they could find, took away their passports as many of their visas had expired (it doesn’t help when you don’t have much cash or a valid employer who’ll pay for a visa extension and you have to pay more than double what other nationalities do). They put them in a detention centre which wasn’t more than a cement cell until they could organise some money to pay for a flight home.

In the first raid, Chris D managed to elude them but they managed to get hold of his passport and refused to give it back until he showed them a ticket out of the country. It seemed the Vietnamese newspapers, such as Thanh Nien, were also running a kind of vendetta against the Nigerians as every week there would be a story of Nigerians involved in criminal activities such as soliciting women and sexual harassment, illegal immigration, fraud, counterfeiting and assault.

The second time the police came for Chris D he got away too but he arrived for a football match obviously shaken up and exhausted as he had to sleep on the floor of an internet café in his neighbourhood to lay low for a while. By this time the Vietnamese government had issued a “blanket ban on Nigerians entering the country following a wave of anti-social and criminal activities reportedly being perpetrated by Nigerian immigrants”.

Thanks to Les, one of the Raiders’ longest-standing members, we put a kitty together to get Chris D out of the country. He estimated that he needed about $250 to get himself a ticket to Cambodia and to get set-up with accommodation there. We got about $230 together when Chris phoned Les saying they had finally caught him and he was being held at the detention centre. Les went over and took him some hot Western food, some cold drinks and gave him the money.

We’re not sure what happened after that or where the money went but Chris phoned Les to say that he had a flight back to Nigeria. The other day he phoned from Lagos to say he had arrived safely and was staying with some of his relatives in the city. He also wanted to find out whether we won our last football match and to thank all the Raiders for their support. Many of his countrymen aren’t as lucky and are still stuck in Vietnam, hiding or detained in the detention centre with no foreseeable solution.

I’m trying to avoid the stupid apple cliché but its true that a number of bad people really spoil it for others with good, honest intentions. Coupled with xenophobia and unique cultural, economic and social conditions, what seems like gold can really turn out to be a lump of coal sometimes.


po said...

Wow Henno this was fascinating reading. It sounds like a bit of a witch hunt.

I have encountered the bias against Nigerians wherever I go. I remember applying for a Bulgarian tourist visa and noticing that Nigerians were charged ten times the amount of other people.

It is almost like a myth. But interestingly, Nigerian businessmen are warned about travelling to Joburg as they are targeted for hijacking and muggings as they tend to carry cash. So it aint just the Nigerians with the bad rep.

sarah said...

this is a really good post. and i couldnt help but notice some similarities with what you said about Vietnam Nigerians and the ones in Tokyo. even back at WIts, the Nigerian students were treated with suspicion.

And I am interested in country `rebranding` happened after WW2 with Germany . Many people say thats why Germany was awarded the Soccer World Cup - to help with Germans own self enhancement and for the world to associate something positive with the country.

A Girl in Asia said...

Fascinating story!

Henno said...

Yeah, it's an issue I've thought about for a while now and my friends and I have discussed a few times. It's a sad situation to say the least.

Rebranding is really interesting - I wonder if Fifa awarded SA the next world cup to 'rebrand' Africa?

Pham ha said...

I'm really moved this entry.Acctually, sometimes I don't know why a lot of Vietnamese are quite xenophobic and racist black people.They have bad character. One times, when I was going on the street, I saw a black people.At that time, he was finding a house to rent.He asked many people to help but noone wanted to help him. They was contemptuous of him. At that time, I really hate them.Why they had a bad behaviour??After that, I came near him and help him.He looks very kind and austere.After a month, I saw him near my house and He looked better.He said that he rented a small house around there.I'm so happy when I can help him.

Henno said...

Nice Ha. Sometimes people are afraid of things they're not used to - I'm sure having Africans in Vietnam is a very recent thing and I know Vietnamese history books don't really have much info about Africa. I still get asked nearly every day: 'Why aren't you black?' when I tell people here that I'm from SA. Hopefully things will get better and perceptions will change.

Teddy said...

I'll never forget the Thanh Nien headline: Blacks in Vietnam find disillusionment, resort to crime

Anonymous said...

I understand that not all of them are into illegal businesses and others are into using women as a financial crutch, partner in internet chat crime or just suck these women dry out of their resources.
Some of them prey on tourists and get into relationships with Vietnamese or expats for financial security or in the hopes of getting married and securing another passport (although most of these men are married in Nigeria).
It's truly sad but the reality is this is happening. Although I have befriended real businessmen with valid visas but these men also acknowledge the rest of his people are doing in Vietnam.