On their way from the airport, the prevalent deserted road and barren land stared back at them. The school bus cruised through the dry Savannah and scrubs majestically. Outside, a heat shimmer could be seen escaping the overheated roadway, with each passing breeze lifting dust from the bare land. Inside, the new students who had just landed on the Island sat with faces transfixed onto the windows trying to understand their new world.
The bus driver and his assistants shared pieces of bread among the new students. On receiving his piece, Charles Obi hungrily sunk his teeth into the bread, cutting a big chunk into his mouth. He quickly regretted this act. It tasted like a piece of sponge. Unlike the sweet and soft bread, he was used to in Nigeria, this one was tasteless and a bit dry for his liking. Soon, he realized things were way different than he had imagined.
For starters, in his naïve mind, he did not expect Cyprus to be a tiny underdeveloped Island. At the dorm, Charles was paired with a Sri Lankan roommate. In the first few days, the new friend supported Charles by introducing him to Sri Lankan food as well as helped in settling down on the Island. Being that his roommate was a Buddhist and he, a Christian, they quickly learned to observe respectful boundaries. By respecting each other’s space, the new friendship was fast growing. They started exploring the new culture, interacting with different people and trying out the very wide variety of local delicacies that they were unfamiliar with.
The tale of the rotten egg
Come Summer, Charles and a couple of other Nigerian students moved out into an apartment within the city, something he later came to regret. While he thought he had found a ‘family’ in his Nigerian brothers, one particular student made his life in the apartment difficult. Charles’ friend, lets call him ‘Steph’ bullied and harassed the housemates and more so Charles as he was the youngest among them. With time, however, he and the rest of the group were able to deal with him, but not without internal and sometimes physical struggles.
Nonetheless, Charles is quick to note that while there was one bad experience, he met and became ‘family’ with many other friends some of whom moved back to their home countries or elsewhere to follow their dreams.
Today, I am seated at Gloria Jeans, a few kilometres from Kyrenia, a touristic seaside city on this side of Cyprus, waiting for Charles. I check my phone for the umpteenth time and I realise it’s just two minutes after I last checked. Weather in October is fairly good with warm days and cool evenings, which is good for revellers following several months of dry and humid Summer. I order a coffee latte and occupy a table facing the entrance so as to see my interviewee when he shows up. It’s just a few minutes past seven in the evening. In the horizon, the sun is still setting.
Charles is tall, lean and athletic. As he makes his way through the door, I can’t stop but question myself if I am a little overdressed. In the cool early Fall breeze, Charles, is still in his summer shorts and light sleeveless white t-shirt. His brown caramel skin pops under the light in the coffee shop as he makes his way to my table. As he kisses me on each of my cheeks, I make a mental note of how ‘Turkish’ he has since become.
We settle down; me with my latte, him with a cold bottled water. “I must be an alien,” I think as I sip into my now warm drink and as he drinks from his bottle. He is here to narrate his experiences in North Cyprus over the past ten plus years. This was back in 2019.
Back to the story. In 2007, when Charles first came to the Island, there was just but a handful Africans. As such, he mostly received stares and indifferent treatment from the local Turkish-Cypriot community as well as other lighter-skinned foreigners. A few others were kind to him and other Africans and that made their life more bearable.
A walk on the road invited photo sessions from ignorant and exited people. Sometimes, he accepted but other times he declined requests to be photographed. Out of pity, some locals approached and offered to support him as they felt he was a needy African. He came to learn this was due to the negative images portrayed by the media about Africa and Africans. He often found himself trying to demystify the misrepresentations and helping change the narrative. Other times, however, he got tired of explaining and just let them think whatever they wanted.
“Being fair skinned in a way made me less conspicuous. In fact, many people did not take me as an African but thought I was mixed race,” observes Charles adding that this made him receive less discrimination compared to other Africans with a darker complexion.
However, once in a while, there were some instances that made him feel like a lesser human being.
At one time, he recalls how a school bus driver left them at the bus stop even after seeing a group of African students running towards the bus stop, just a few steps away. It was a subtle act, yet as he reached for his water bottle again, I could see the pain it left in his eyes, ten years on. By now, the coffee shop was crowded with students and young couples whispering sweet nothings to each other.
What really stuck with him and changed him completely, was an experience shared by a friend. Apparently, his friends were walking from a market when a driver hit them from behind and then sped off. While they were treated for the injuries, this experience made many Africans feel unsafe and started walking in groups for safety reasons.
When he finally got his first job working in a cold room, he got a good taste of indecent treatment from his employer. Charles was expected to work harder and even longer hours than the locals. In addition to the poor treatment, his salary was still lower than that of other employees. Poor pay and indecent treatment forced him to quit few months in. When he did so, his boss failed to pay him all his dues. A few weeks later, they reached out to him promising to make changes and better pay package, but Charles had already moved on.
Best advice ever
While struggling to fit into the socio-culturally closed minded society, Charles was falling into depression. He wanted to go home: back to what he was used to. However, his father’s advice ensured that he remain focused. Although he had friends, he rarely confided in them. He felt like an outsider in the new environment, and called home every so often to share his frustrations with his family.
“Go out son, make friends, travel and experience the local culture,” his father said one day after they had a lengthy conversation about his challenges. “Be open minded,” he added and suggested that they should cut down every-day calls to twice a week, and instead, Charles was encouraged to make more friends. This seemed to work and with time, they only called once in a while, or when need be. By so doing, Charles was able to connect, share and learn from his friends and the locals as well.
Charles’ brother’s advice also made him change his perspective. In spite of the poor treatment and unmet expectations, his bother asked him to seize the opportunity to travel, and network with as many people as possible. This changed how Charles reacted and acted henceforth.
By now, he had come to realise that there were two parts of Cyprus: The republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, a nation only recognised by Turkey. Although the agency back in Nigeria had given him information about the political situation in Cyprus, prior to his journey he was hopeful that despite the situation on the ground, he would be able to make the best out of it. He decided to go back to the drawing board and learn from his current situation.
Following this new foresight and support from his family, Charles applied and got an opportunity to work at his university’s library offering support to both students and the teaching staff. With his renewed spirit, he later got an opportunity and was moved to work in the admissions office. By this time, he had since completed his bachelor degree and was pursuing a Master degree. Moreover, he had managed to get job at yet another university which opened for him doors to travel abroad for marketing.
At the time of our interview, he was preparing to move to another country to start the next part of his journey. Although, he was not certain about his final destination, he was sure that he was done with the Island for the time being. After 12 years, two degrees and holding different positions in a couple of companies on the Island, it was time to move on.
But before he does, he tells me that he has witnessed a good number of students who came to the Island with good intentions only to be mixed with the wrong crowd and lose themselves. Peer pressure, is one thing that many have succumbed to.
Learn from your environment
One has to remain focused and utilise their time effectively. Summer is the best time to try out jobs or travel within or outside the country.
“If you can, travel,” Charles advises young students. “Get a job if you wish and save money towards your travel or other endeavours.” By so doing, Charles observes that one is able to see a different world and how societies and other people are progressing. This he says can have a positive impact on an individual’s aspirations. Over the years, Charles has travelled to several countries in Africa, Europe and America including Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Zambia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, UK, Germany, Italy, Holland, France, Russia, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Turkey, and America.
He cautions young students against being enticed into a world of making ‘fast’ money as in the case of ‘Yahoo Boys’ who enjoy swindling innocent people off their hard earned money through online scams.
“Keep away from trouble and trouble will keep away from you,” Charles says smiling knowingly. In our conversation Charles mentions that he joins other Christians on Sundays at an old local Church that fills with Catholic faithful and is served by a priest from the other side of Cyprus. In a land that predominantly follows Islamic beliefs, most churches are attended and led by foreigners.
Speaking about adopting to new cultures, he says that the first things that a traveller or immigrant ought to do is to observe and learn what makes up the new culture.
“Learn their language, if you can.” It will make your acculturation process faster and easier. He cautions about criticising other people’s religion or culture. Instead, he advises that one tries to accept them the way they are provided it does not affect one’s life negatively.
“Be open to learn from people and the environment around you. Above all, seek guidance and comfort in your creator.”
“I try not to do things because everyone is doing them,” Charles says.
“I would rather be late but arrive safe and sound,” he concludes.
As we say our goodbyes at the bus stop, I remember his story about the bus driver and it resonates with my own experiences a year back. It makes me wonder, what one gains by treating other people badly. If only we could all treat each other with a little kindness! What a wonderful world that would be!
Charles promises to write me from his next destination.
A few months ago, we reconnected. He is currently residing in the US.