Rosemary A. Ajayi is the founder of The 419Positive Project, an interactive documentary project which seeks out positive attributes of Nigeria and Nigerians. After we connected on Twitter I met Rosemary in London earlier this year, and as we chatted it was clear that she is passionate about challenging negative stereotypes of Nigeria both at home and in the rest of the world.
In this interview she shares her own perspectives, the motivation behind the project and some resources for anyone who wants to know more about Nigeria. As the country prepares to celebrate 50 years of independence tomorrow, it’s a good time to learn more.
You’ve spent many years in both the UK and Nigeria. Do you identify more with one country or the other? Do you feel British or Nigerian, or both?
Like many Nigerian families, my parents came to England to study and ended up setting up home here for over twenty years. I spent my formative years in Nigeria and despite having lived in London for more than half of my life, my heart is in Nigeria. I feel drawn to Nigeria like there’s some unseen force drawing me to Nigeria, seducing me.
Regardless of what passport I own, the essence of who I am is neither British nor Nigerian. I’m caught somewhere in between with so many aspects of both cultures yet to be understood or explored. And I look forward to embracing the best and the worst of both worlds.
What made you start The 419Positive Project? Where does the name come from?
If you google 419, it brings up stories relating to Nigeria, all referring to internet fraud and email scams attributed to Nigerians across the world. It would be ludicrous to suggest that it’s not true that there are hundreds of thousands of Nigerians engaged in these crimes but it is unfair that these stories have come to represent 150 million Nigerians.
419, pronounced four-one-nine, is derived from section 419 of the Nigerian Criminal Code relating to fraud. Nigerians have unconsciously absorbed the expression, 419, into everyday language. For instance, you might say that a scammer was a ‘419’ or a ‘419er’, or that a victim had been ‘419ed’.
The 419Positive Project started out as a postgraduate research project to complement the Nigerian Government’s nation branding initiative – the Heart of Africa project. The original plan was to collate four hundred and nineteen (419) positive attributes of Nigerians and Nigeria in video format, broadcast them to Nigerian audiences and measure the impact, if any, the positive information had on their sense of national pride.
It has since grown into an umbrella for a series of arts, media and culture projects all built around the participation of Nigerians and friends of Nigeria. And the flagship project involves a road trip across Nigeria in search of 419 positive attributes to be documented in words, pictures and sounds.
It seems absurd to take such a negative association and try to put a positive spin on it but I see it as a challenge. There is one benefit as the name immediately makes people stop and ask what the project is all about. I like that it grabs attention.
I really like your idea of celebrating the positive things about Nigeria. Do you think that having lived outside Nigeria helps you to see the positive more easily?
I wouldn’t say that being on the outside looking in helps me see the positives more easily. There are many who have left Nigeria who have cut themselves off from all things Nigerian. I think that for the most part, being outside of Nigeria and experiencing progress that so many other countries have made makes one wonder why Nigeria isn’t doing the same.
However, I do think that for me, being outside of Nigeria and being a creative, makes me yearn for an outlet to express my ‘Nigerian-ness’. When one is in Nigeria, there is no need to shout about your roots, there’s no one to prove yourself to because everyone is just like you but being in cosmopolitan London makes one eager to show off one’s heritage, to engage in conversations that challenge the Nigerian stereotypes. I make a deliberate attempt to seek out positive stories to contribute to these conversations.
Where would you like to see The 419Positive Project in five years time?
In five years, I would like The 419Positive Project to have grown into an internationally recognised platform that not only curates positive Nigerian and African narratives but also provides training as well as funding and other support to empower new talents.
The formula for The 419Positive Project is pretty straightforward and it would be interesting to see other African countries adopt and make it their own.
Would you like to see more interaction between Nigerians and the rest of the world? Or, do you think Nigeria should focus more on changing from within?
There is already much interaction between Nigeria and Asia, North America and Europe with Nigeria being treated as the little sister. At present, the Nigerian Government is looking very much to China for solutions and as we celebrate fifty years of independence from Britain, many wonder if we might be entering a new phase of voluntary colonialism. I think what myself and many other Nigerians would like to see is a shift in the nature of these international relationships such that Nigeria might begin to position herself as an equal partner. I agree that there much work to be done to be afforded this privilege and for that I think Nigeria should be looking within. Nigeria’s greatest asset is her people, many of which are in the Diaspora. I’d like to see the Government put in place structures and systems that empower Nigerians to engage in nation building and gradually wean the country off of dependence on external sources.
Can you recommend some resources for PocketCultures readers who want to learn more about Nigeria?
Here are a few resources to get readers started on Nigeria 101. This list is by no means a comprehensive list.
Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gives a TED Talk on the danger of a single story in which she challenges people of all races and backgrounds to look beyond stereotypes. This is the same philosophy which guides The 419Positive Project.
One of my favourite blogs is Jeremy Weate’s Naijablog which covers a range of Nigeria (Naija) related information, including his experiences as an Englishman in Nigeria. Jeremy also wrote the Nigeria section of The Rough Guide to West Africa.
Nigerian Curiosity is a socio-political blog run by a Nigerian lawyer under the pseudonym Solomon Sydelle.
There’s also Bella Naija, a blog which morphed into a entertainment, lifestyle and fashion website recently featured on CNN and Oprah
What’s your favourite thing about Nigeria? What’s your favourite thing about the UK?
I miss authentic Nigerian food like pounded yam or the smell of Suya (seasoned grilled meat). I am yet to find any restaurants outside of Nigeria that meet my stringent standards.
My favourite thing about the UK is being able to take to London and go for extra long walks. I particularly love London’s South Bank. I can often be found walking along the entire length, along the River Thames, just taking in the sights and watching people go past.
Rosemary A. Ajayi is the founder and Project Director of The 419Positive Project. We’re delighted that Rosemary has joined PocketCultures as regional contributor for Nigeria, so she will be providing us with many more opportunties to discover the real Nigeria through her articles.
About the authorLucy