The Politics of “Birikwe”

George and Chimamanda“Birikwe.”

It’s how one greets an Igbo chief. May you live long, it means. To begin conversation, you must greet a chief three times, and be acknowledged three times.

“Birikwe.” Yeah, I see you. “O birikwe.” Mmm hmm. Hello back, buddy. “O birikwe.” Okay, okay. Whadayawant?

At least, that how it was explained to me by my uncle Eze, the last time I was visiting my uncle Edwin Njoku in California. I greeted Edwin thus on his doorstep, a supplicant, hands on my knees. He took one look at me and laughed like hell. So did I. I looked ridiculous. I’m entirely too American.

When I moved to Atlanta, I managed to luck into buying a house close to one of the larger clusters of Nigerian immigration, near Stone Mountain. Roughly 30,000 Nigerians live in metro Atlanta, about half of which are naturalized citizens, as are uncounted numbers of their American-born children, like me.

At the risk of generalizing, I find the Nigerian community in Georgia to be politically astute and well informed. In a sane world, I might expect them to be a fat political target for Republicans. Nigerian-Americans are economically similar to Korean immigrants, only more religiously conservative and with a greater degree of distrust for centralized government. On the other hand, Democrats actually elected the child of an African immigrant to high office, and aren’t reflexively hostile to immigration or discrimination issues.

No matter. Like many immigrant groups in Georgia, I also find Nigerians here to be politically silent. This need not be so.

The caricature many Americans hold of Nigerians, of scammers ready to go chop your dollar with a badly written 419 email fraud, has almost nothing to do with any Nigerian actually in America, but there’s no Nigerian-American equivalent to the ADL or the Hibernian League to help shape image.

An irony – the image the Nigerian immigrant community holds of itself may be part of the reason that it can’t fight these external stereotypes more effectively.

Here’s the problem: everybody wants to be a chief.  

Don’t get me wrong. Amy Chua’s facile ethnic stereotypes aside, the mania for recognition seems to have led to real achievement in the Nigerian-American community. Nigerians are four times more likely to hold a doctorate than the American public at large, and are overall the most highly-educated ethnic subgroup in America. Nigerians tend to be over-represented in the medical profession and in scientific disciplines. Dr. Andy Agwunobi’s service as Grady Hospital’s CEO in 2003 comes to mind.

I have a master’s degree. My family wonders when I’ll start a doctoral program. I’m 41. They don’t care.

The road to formal recognition as a chief requires a combination of education, character and grand deeds done back in Nigeria – a school built, a well drilled, a medical clinic opened – substantial, tangible resources traded for a title and honor. The standards for education and personal integrity have been slipping, I’m told, but there’s still a committee of evaluation. Think of it like earning a black belt, or perhaps a knighthood. It’s surprisingly egalitarian.

But when everyone wants to be a chief, no one wants to be a villager. Political self-organization and advocacy in the Nigerian-American community has to overcome internal suspicion, not necessarily of fraud but of charity advancing personal ambitions. An allergy to rent-seeking, self-serving corruption drove many expatriate Nigerians to America in the first place.

Perhaps this is why the Alliance of Nigerian Organizations in Georgia is a riot of about 50 small family foundations, village support clubs and other groups. And, perhaps, this is why Georgia can have double the national rate of immigration over the last 15 years without producing political leadership to match. Authority is suspect.

That lack of organization makes it hard for leaders of either party to connect. There’s no door to knock on.

I’m thinking about all of this because a couple of weeks ago I had a chance encounter at a forum in Decatur with Nigeria’s literary rising star, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her novel Americanah – #6 on the New York Times best-seller list today – is a meditation on race and culture from the perspective of an African in America.

I asked her a question about what it might take for me to write about Nigeria the way she writes about America. The analogy isn’t quite the same, she replied in an awkward, goofy exchange. Though I might call myself an American, Nigerians would still think of me as one of their own.

Afterward I suddenly became “that guy I saw at the Chimamanda reading.” Nigerian-Americans I’ve never met have approached me while I’ve been out and about to show me Facebook photos they took of me at the microphone. I’ve found myself receiving dinner invitations. It’s a little surreal, but it’s also very Nigerian.

At a mixer of young Nigerian professionals Friday at Metro Fuẍon in Atlanta, a local businessman stood up to ask what our goals might be as a group. “We are all professionals,” he told the gathering of doctors and lawyers and engineers, “but the question is, what do we do with that?” If we expect adults to invest resources, there has to be a reason, he said.

That’s not the point, replied our outing’s organizer, Iruka Ndubuizu (contact her here). There are literally dozens of local groups looking to do charitable work in Nigeria. It’s hard enough getting people in the same room, she said. We want to be powerful, but first we need to build trust. Better, for the moment, not to have people wondering when they’ll have to start saying o birikwe at the club.


  1. greencracker says:

    So “Chidi” is not Italian?

    But seriously, a nice piece. You see Nigerians in charge of a lot of stuff, but why not any politics besides Pine Lake?

    Or for that matter, you might ask the same of any more-recent immigrant group. When I started working at the Capitol, I was stunned at how everybody was U.S.-born and somewhere on the black-to-white spectrum, and not hardly anyone from any other country or spectrum. Just seems odd.

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