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Nigerians See a Window of Opportunity and Cut it Down So It Becomes a Door

27 Jul 2013

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Gereda at the Epe Fish Market in Lagos

Shumani Gereda, general manager in charge of regulatory and legal affairs at MultiChoice Nigeria’s office in Abuja speaks with Damilola Oyedele on adapting to life in Nigeria


What part of South Africa are you from?
I am from Limpopo in South Africa. Limpopo has about three ethnic groups, Pedi, Shangaan and Venda. I am from the Venda ethnic group, which is in the far north next to the Zimbabwean border. It is also one of the smallest ethnic groups in South Africa. I was born in South Africa, schooled and also had my undergraduate studies in Limpopo and I went to Johannesburg for postgraduate. I graduated in 1999 from Limpopo and then Witwatersrand in 2002. I also studied law in Toronto in Canada in 2004.

When did you arrive in Nigeria?
Initially I worked for MultiChoice Africa doing regulatory affairs for the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa, 2006 and 2007, and I used to come to Nigeria often as a visitor on projects. I travelled around Nigeria a lot then. I left MultiChoice Africa after two years and when I rejoined in 2010, I was posted to Nigeria. I had enjoyed my visits to Nigeria, so I welcomed the new assignment.

Did you enjoy Nigeria before you moved here in 2010?
Then I was much younger, not yet married and I enjoyed the entertainment life especially the nightlife, clubbing in Lagos. But when I was assigned here full time now in 2010, I saw it as an opportunity to learn, over and above the entertainment part. I was already married anyway. And now it is not about the entertainment, but the wealth of knowledge, growth and development. Nigeria is full of possibilities.

Now that you live in Abuja, how would you compare it to Lagos?
It is like Pretoria and Johannesburg, Toronto and Ottawa, New York and Washington; they are completely different. One can have a lot of fun in Lagos, but working there is stressful, but in Abuja when you want to have fun, you leave your house and you know where to go. Some people would describe Abuja as boring, but it is fun once you know where to go. It is not as noisy as Lagos, but to a large extent, it does have what Lagos has to offer in a more subtle form though.

So what do you do here when you are not working?
The first two years, I used to go clubbing; Cubana, Aqua, Terminal 5 and another one. Now I get too busy with work. I watch soccer a lot during the season, I follow Chelsea and Barcelona, then Orlando Pirates for South Africa. There is also a park that I frequent after work called JD’s Leisure Centre. We also have a lot of DSTV branding there.

How many languages do you speak?
In Nigeria? just one.

Which one is that?
Just English (laughing) and of course I understand some pidgin.

And in South Africa?
My home language, Tshivenda, I can speak Northern Sotho, Tswana, Shangaan and a little of Zulu. Then I can read and understand Afrikaans, but I cannot speak it.

How many cities or states have you visited in Nigeria aside fom Lagos and Abuja?
I have been to Kwara, Bauchi, Kaduna, Ikom, Uyo, I have been to Calabar. I love Obudu Cattle Ranch; it is beautiful, the climate there is like South Africa. I have been to Jos, Lokoja and a number of other cities which do not come to mind now.

What similarities or differences have you noticed between Nigerians and South Africans?
Nigerians are more enterprising, they see a window of opportunity, they cut it down, it becomes a door, they just walk through and do what they can do. South Africans, maybe because of our history, we are waiting for somebody to give us something, because we believe we deserve it, somebody owes us. That is a challenge. I think we have more unhappy people in South Africa than Nigeria. Nigerians are happier people, I think. Of course people complain. You ask, ‘how are you doing?’ They reply, ‘we are trying’.

If we are so different, how easy was it for you to adapt to life?
Well, because they are happier people, they are approachable and very respectful. However you have to be able to tell the difference between genuine respect and the kind of respect where somebody calls you ‘chairman’ because they expect you to give them something. Most are genuinely respectful so it was easy to settle in. I am sure there is crime here but violent crime here does not appear to be as bad as what is reported in South Africa. It is higher considering that we have a lot of gated communities over there, whilst they are just coming up in Nigeria. You’ll see European expats walk here or exercise even at midnight without worries.  So it was easier to adapt to life here.

Have you attended a Nigerian party - wedding, christening, funeral?
Oh, yes. I have been to weddings, sallah celebrations and two funerals. The first funeral I attended was of a Hausa person, so it was low key and quick. The other was in Cross River and I have never seen something like that before and I am not sure I will ever again; the person was very important and influential in the community. The soldiers and police officers providing security were so many that  even they could have had a big party of their own. But when I read about the late old man, he deserved such a send off. And the wedding I attended was also low key, but I see the big ones on TV.

What was your growing up like?
I grew up in a village, herding cattle and goats. So I learnt about apartheid and even racism at a late stage, I was about 13 years old already. I went to Jo’burg and started to see a lot of white people for the first time. Of course, there were black people too, but they were living in what you call BQs in Nigeria. It did not register then until I was about 15 when Mandela was released. And then the musings: “Oh, this was segregation, someone claims someone stole their land, this is probably why we are  poor, or live in the village, this is why my father is probably doing what he does. Okay, how do I become part of this? Mandela was a lawyer, but he did mathematics as well, but I do not like mathematics, and mathematics had nothing to do with where he is. How about being a lawyer? If this injustice is redressed, maybe there would be other injustices to redress in the future, law would help, I have nothing to lose, let me register to study law. ” I decided if law does not work, I can do a lot of other things with a law degree. Everything involves the law. So I got lost in law and I am still in it.

So you were inspired by Nelson Mandela?
The struggle inspired me because it did not make sense that some people who sold out were rich, and he (Mandela) instead of selling out and be rich like the rest, he chose to go and break rocks in prison, damaged his lungs and now he is hospitalised for it. He is still not even rich. So there must be meaning to what he did. When I started practicing in 2000, I worked for the Legal Resources Centre.  It’s a social justice law firm which depends on donor funding (like an NGO). This is where it all started.

What other profession ever caught your fancy?
I thought I could be a broadcaster, maybe a radio or TV presenter but along the way I saw them as talking heads. I did not know that they read scripts, so when I realized that they read scripts, I said no.

What about politics?
I have never been a big fan of politics. While in university, we had the very popular student political movement, the South African Students Congress (SASCO), an ANC affiliate and we had another that was opposed to it. Our SASCO was becoming complacent, so with a few friends we assisted the opposing party to topple SASCO through some elaborate strategic thinking. We were a group of six or seven and were all law students, and we had one guy who was in another political arm who wanted to be the SRC president and we were successful. He became the SRC president. I thought politics would not work for me because one way or the other, you have to promise something that you know you may not be able to deliver.

Tags: Life and Style, Epe Fish Market, Shumani Gereda

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