Growing Up In Nigeria: Then and Now

Lockable TV of the 70s

To today’s Nigerian adolescent, some of the information in this article may seem like a fairy tale but they are true. However, for those who were adolescents and young children then, it should kindle nostalgia.

For Nigerians born and bred between 1963 and 1983 in Nigeria, it was a potpourri of experiences growing up. Depending on where they were and regardless of their socioeconomic statuses, they saw things work as they were said and meant to work. The public potable water taps gushed at almost every distance between two electric poles. No water sold in sachets or even bottles. There was no need as the quality was safe and world class. Trains and the railways functioned properly alongside planes belonging to British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) which later metamorphosed into the now extinct Nigeria Airways and very well-managed road transport companies like Midwest Line (later Bendel Line, now Edo/Delta Lines); Izu Chukwu, Ekene Dili Chukwu, The Young Shall Grow and the likes. The latter did run their transportation ventures with ‘luxurious buses’ as they were then called (and still called even though these days we do not really feel any luxury in them).

Now these services were open for all as long as they could be afforded. The Naira then vacillated between 25 kobo and about 70 kobo to the US Dollar. It was about the second or third most powerful currency in the world at that time because it was introduced in 1973, during the oil boom and three years after the civil war by the Military Administration of General Yakubu Gowon alongside changing from right hand steering to left hand steering, and the National Youth Service Corp (NYSC) among other parastatals and national organizations. Only the pound sterling could really boast of ‘looking down’ on the Naira at N1.20k (one naira, twenty kobo) to the British currency.

In 1972, one day, children saw parents jubilating after starring at the front pages of newspapers or listening to the news on transistor radios (TV’s were rarely owned those days): the Udoji Awards!

The late Chief Jerome Udoji did the civil service proud in 1972 with his salary and other benefits awards. It is still being referred to as the golden era of the nation. Then, he headed a Civil Service Commission to review standards of service and compensation within the civil service which made sweeping recommendations on the public service including the recommendation of an objective or goal oriented management style. The review was popularly known as the Udoji award.

Toys were bought for kids, who hitherto were content with playing with kites made from old newspapers or polythene waste. Then craftsmanship for kids was almost a reflex. Kids made cages with trap-doors to catch birds, or made mini-cars out of old and disused motor bearings. ‘Borris’ as it was called, was mostly driven on hard surfaces if there were no tarred roads around the neighbourhood. Home decors were changed and ‘modernised’ and new clothing were acquired. Some in the middle class bought their first cars and they were brand new or ‘tear rubber’ as it is called these days. Second-hand cars were ridiculed at and were mostly used by people who returned home from overseas. Known as Aloku (‘used’, In Yoruba), these second-hand cars are now revered in Nigeria as people now literarily give thanksgiving in church for purchasing one!

Hold your breath. Night-soil men aka ‘Agbepo’ (‘pail-carrier’ in Yoruba language) were common place in those days as pit toilets were still in vogue for the average city-dweller. The men came in the dead of the night anyway to evacuate human waste but that did not go without its attendant unpleasant consequences to anyone who was awake then. Children slept earlier than what is obtained these days.

Television sets as earlier mentioned were rarely owned by most homes except by the affluent in the society. Those who had it kept it under lock and key as the brands of teevee available in those days were lockable since they had retractable wooden ‘doors’ and locks built into them. Their homes became a sort of Mecca or viewing houses especially during international football matches involving the then Green Eagles. Those who couldn’t afford TV, or who weren’t allowed space to view from windows and living rooms of teevee owners settled for live commentaries on transistor radios, so vividly relayed by the late radio journalists, Ishola ‘it’s-a-goal’ Folorunsho and Ernest Okonkwo. They relayed the matches so well that it seemed listeners were right at the stadium seeing the games live!

Video? not until the early 80’s that people got first, Sony Betamax and later, VHS types. Children had teevee viewing times and strict sleep-time rules. Films and movies which had explicit content were the last programs of the day only available to adults. However, some ‘stubborn’ kids sneaked up at night to catch glimpses or one or two scenes of shooting or smooching as the case may be.

Valentine’s Day was marked out there in Europe and the western world but it was almost zero celebrations about it here in Nigeria as we almost had everyday as our Val’s days. Then, love letters could evoke real emotions as young adults and adolescents had not the sort of out-going freedom experienced these days. Perming of hair and make-up were mostly the deeds of prostitutes or returnee Nigerians from the western world. In fact in Warri and Lagos those days, women or young ladies who wore lipsticks or trousers were referred to as ‘Ashawo’ (or call girls), except of course they were the educated ones who as earlier noted just returned from overseas with such lifestyles. Moreover, then, there were no hair-dressing salons in almost any neighbourhood to provide such services in the first place. What our ladies wore in those days were wigs; and it was only during festive periods. Morality was held in high regard as no family wanted to be identified with ignominious reputations.

Pupils ran away from teachers even when they were at home, off school and after school hours as memories of school and no-nonsense teachers stuck throughout their student lives. Children found with any shiny coin in those days (6 pence or 5 kobo, 12 shillings or 10 kobo and 30 shillings or 25 kobo, aka ‘dollar’) would be taken home to get assurance from their parents that the child was actually given such an amount. Kids were able to drive cars at younger ages than now and most learnt vicariously. Churches were not as many as we see nowadays but moral uprightness was way above what obtains these days.

Recreational facilities were plentiful and top class. Those who were bred in Lagos had a choice of places to go. Lagos Luna Park on Randle Road and the Apapa Amusement Park. There was also Rowe Park in Yaba from which world beaters like Akeem ‘The Dream’ Olajuwon was first sighted playing basketball. Tinubu Square had its fountains spewing water day and night non-stop. Father Christmas of those days were ‘richer; than those we see around today, and they gave kids much weightier gift packs.

Extracurricular activities in schools were also in abundance and secret cults or gangs in schools were almost unheard of, except in heavily hushed forms, in the biggest Universities. Children had the Boys Scouts, Boys Brigade, Girls Guide, St John’s Ambulance Brigade, YMCA, YWCA, and the Red Cross among others, to choose from.

Funnily though, during birthday parties for most homes, food and refreshments were served for groups of invited kids. Rice spread on trays with the sauce poured on it and parts of chicken garnished on them were sumptuously relished by kids of this era. Richer homes served refreshments per plate, and they were not so many of such around then.

Electric generating sets were virtually non-existent as the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN) did very well to supply mostly constant power to the average home where electric poles could reach and there was announcement on radio about any potential power cut. But when the ECN became the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA), electric power generators arrived Nigerian markets in the early 80’s for the first time.

To sum things up, the account hereunder is what this writer gave in response to a Facebook friend’s status message when he asked about how growing up was like:

‘’In my days, things were far better than today’s Nigeria as even the poorest of the poor had more nutritious meals to gobble up. There were no ‘Mr Bigg’s’, ‘Tantalizers’ or ‘Sweet sensations’ (fast food joints), but the Gala sold then were bigger and more filling and our christmases were smelt at least one month before. The then poor could afford a live chicken or some other poultry like guinea fowl. The Udoji award was evident in almost every home. We were even fed right inside our schools, with fruits served after meals. Although there were not many nursery schools, the predominantly public primary schools had better motivated and trained teachers. Independence and Children’s day celebrations where like Xmas. We created the words AJE BUTTER and AJEPAKO, because then, butter was not sold in sachets as it is done these days to ensure affordability. Even primary school certificate holders spoke better and wrote better than some secondary school leavers we see around these days. A youth Corper? He was almost living like a king during service as he could save enough to purchase at least a VW Beetle (about 600 Naira) those days. Clamour to go abroad? No way! Most people barely knew where The US embassy was, not to talk of where the British High Commission etc was. Then the dollar was a little over 65 kobo to the naira while most travellers went abroad for education in famous institutions like Harvard or Cambridge. The UK could be visited for holidays and you needn’t have a visa for that. I remember clearly my grandma sending money overseas for my uncle’s upkeep in Middlesbrough polytechnic from the proceeds of her sale of fruits and traditional soap in Benin City. Growing up was far better those days for most people who didn’t own cars than for many of those who own jeeps these days.

Suffice it to say then that the generation of Nigerians born and bred between 1963 and 1983 are the biggest witnesses and partakers of change ever in Nigeria’s history. They experienced the change from Pounds, Shillings and Pence, to Naira and kobo; Driving on the left to driving on the right of the road; old national anthem to a new one and a brand new National Pledge that was non-existent before 1977. The generation also saw or experienced the civil war, even as toddlers and saw virtually all the military coups in Nigeria till date. They saw also the change of administration of Nigeria from 3 or 4 regions to 12 states, 19, 21, and now 36 states.

But how are things today? I do not honestly think I should write about that: the contrast is glaring.

2 comments

  1. Painting the picture of the “good old days”. I think the twenty years period is too wide. If we put it from 1963 – 1973, most of the children of this period grew up with educated parent and they enjoyed the “luxury” you painted, which were well known to us. The children of an average Nigerian family born from 1979 – 1989 grew up to realise that when they were babies and not too conscious of their environment, these basic neccessities of life were readily available. As they gradually became adult, the decadence in Nigeria started manifesting and we are still in the downward trend up till now, which is becoming seriously manifest.

    In this same period, we have to realise that there are generation of children of Nigeria super rich, that school abroad holiday in Nigeria or Dubai / Private Universities childre in Nigeria, that holiday abroad. These children along with their counterparts that are extremely poor, with no education or very little, constitute another future of Nigerian generation after the 1963 -1973 generation.

    The generation of 1963 – 1973, when they start assuming the leadership of Nigeria, should strive to make Nigeria great, this is to avoid the strife that will come after their generation. The spirit of Nigerian children of 1979 to date that are being raised united two extreme condition of excessive affluence and excessive poverty will strive and the country will not know peace.

    We should not also forget the pampered generation of Nigerian elites before independence. They went to school on schorlaship, jobs were already waiting for them before graduation and they are still in the commanding heights of rulership in Nigeria till today. What they have done with the country that the money nurtures them to a level of monstrosity is a discussion for other time.

  2. I am particularly touched by these articles especially the first. My parents both schooled in England, they hurriedly returned to Nigeria because of good prospect. I remember the first gen set purchase my parents made in 1980, it was a honda, it did not last so immidiately it was replaced by a Yamaha. I remember our first VW beetle and Peugot 305 brand!!! I had a chopper cycle or spot cycle as an award for performance in school. My friends eat my snack cos I was full from home and will return home to too much to eat. It was royalty, milk in cartons, tin tomatoes cartons, geisha cartons, sardine same, cornbeef…. We got dewormed periodically, the General hospitals and health centres were functional. Then you had the mid term break shoppings, easter shoppings, childrens day shoppings, independence day shoppings, xmas…. It was Bata or Lennards shoes for school children. The fun of inter-house sports in secondary couldn’t be compared to any thing. Then the bigger one which was the sports festival came along. Discipline in school OMG! I cant remember seeing a child with a maths set or tee-square these days. This story has no end it is really melancholic to see whats going on today.

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