Darcy Zotter

Darcy Zotter, a foreign service officer and the outgoing Public Affairs Officer at the United States consulate in Lagos, in this interview with Bayo Akinloye, talks about her fascination with Nigerians and frustration about Nigeria

Time seems to fly.

It certainly does. My two years (in Nigeria) here have gone really quickly.

What memories will you leave with when you go back to the United States?

There will be many memories. The positive memories are going to include just having a good time with the people I work with because we have already been entertaining ourselves – having lively debates about politics and then, just like the Nigerians like yourself that I meet in the course of my job – like the alumni that I’ve met and the creative people that I have met. I like those people’s energy.

What will you say are your negative memories about Nigeria?

The biggest negatives for me – or, let me put it this way: there are two things that I find very frustrating. One is Nigerians’ sense of time. The second aggravation is when the power goes off. I have learnt to sit there in the dark and keep acting like everything is normal.

When you return to the US what will you like to tell Americans about Nigeria?

I will tell Americans about Nigeria: First of all, I will tell them that Nigeria isn’t just a monolith. For instance, the North is different from the South; the South-west is different from the South-east. So, if you talk about these problems when many Americans think about Nigeria they think about Boko Haram. I will want people to know – is there a problem? There is a problem. But it’s largely relegated to one area of the country. So down in Lagos, you can move freely about; lots of things are going on. It’s just a big city where people go about their daily life. That will be one thing – it’s not a monolith. Two, the other thing I will like people to know is how deeply religious Nigerians are. That actually took me aback. You know what I mean? I mean it’s kind of funny: I remember I went for something at a public school. The principal stood up and she began to talk about Jesus. I’m like, ‘This is a public school!’ because in the United States we don’t do that. And so I think many Americans don’t realise how deeply religious Nigerians are. Then, the third thing I will want Americans to know about Nigeria is that there is a significant cohort of Nigerians who are committed to improving Nigeria. And that you see those people in American universities – they went there to study and they’re committed to going back. You see different people like that and I will encourage Americans to sort of become more familiar with Nigeria. I do think there are a lot of ways that Americans can support Nigeria.

I will give you an example: sickle cell. Sickle cell in the United States was something we talked about in the 1970s and 1980s. But we don’t really talk about it too much anymore. Now, I am in Nigeria and I become more aware of sickle cell again. So, I have met with different doctors here and different people who focus on sickle cell. And I have learnt that, in fact, there is a lot of research and development that we’ve done with different treatments, different drugs that, in fact, could be used here in Nigeria if the people are aware of them and have the money to get them. So, it’s those kinds of things that Americans can support what Nigerians are doing. Nigerians are working on this issue but for various reasons, they may be hindered in their efforts. So, that is an example. There are other examples like that whether you want to support Nigeria to a church or to a non-governmental organisation, or something like that – that’s what I will do; those three things.

You seem to be in love with African attire.

I love ankara. So, I am thinking about what I’m going to do when I retire; running around trying to figure out, OK. So, how could I have like a department store in Pittsburgh? I’ll tell you a story: In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, many years ago, there were very few Africans and probably 12 Nigerians – I don’t really know. They held a pop-up fashion show of ankara. Now, we do not have a large African population. But regular Americans – Pittsburgh is kind of midwest city – liked it so much the fashion show sold out the first day. They had to open up the second day that people had to pay to come.     

Can you tell us about your experience in Nigeria as regards the country’s fashion, art, culture, food, language and entertainment?

In terms of fashion, because I actually spent a lot of time getting to know the different designers – one of the ways I have is through the pages of your newspapers THISDAY Style especially on Sundays. You guys have a style section – you should do more of this. This is how I found this dress (points at the dress she’s wearing). I go online looking for the designer and the address and then I go find them. So, that’s been a way for me to find out about fashion. In terms of art, I appreciate some African arts but I have to be frank in saying I could have done more. I could have done more on the visual arts. Recently, I was in Osogbo (in Osun State) and I was privileged to go see Chief Buraimoh and I love his paints. Luckily, the public affairs staff (of the US Lagos consulate) got together and gave me one of his paintings – I love it. I look at it every day. It’s just so beautiful. I must be honest; I have learnt none of the Nigerian languages. I’m language-shy. About four years ago, I began the Afghan language training in preparation for going to Afghanistan. That was one of the worst experiences of my entire adult life: the teacher would look at me blah-blah-blah…she would say it five thousand times and then she turned around and said, ‘How do you say turn off the light?’ ‘I don’t know. I don’t remember.’ I wanted to come to Nigeria because people speak English. I hear Yoruba and I hear Ibo but I can’t speak them. I blame it on my age – I’m just too old.  

If you have to live in Nigeria where will it be?

Good question because I think about this. I go around and I meet at these universities and OK I’m like I remember this face when I retire I’ll come back here. I’m not sure – my favourite place used to be OAU in Ile Ife. That was my favourite. Then, I went to Ilorin (in Kwara State). The drive between Osogbo and Ilorin – that area is very, very nice. And then when I got to Ilorin, I was like maybe this is where I want to come back.

Are you actually thinking of coming back to Nigeria when you retire?

Absolutely; what I will like to do is I’ll like to come back and teach in a Nigerian university for one semester – about four months and then I’ll spend the rest of the time in the US. If I spend the whole time here my family will be very upset. It’s time for me to go back but I’ll like to come here for four months.

How will you describe Nigerian women when it comes to entrepreneurship and their relentless efforts at breaking the glass ceiling?

Good question because I gave a couple of talks and women in Nigeria, and I’ve met many women in Nigeria. Nigerian women in a way interest me: because on the one hand, they’re dynamic and they’re out there and they’re doing all kinds of things in the business space and the academic world. And then, on the other hand, they kind of hold on to this traditional values, very traditional roles – you know, a lot of Nigerian women still feel like ‘OK, we’ve got to have kids; we’ve got to do this….’ I feel kind of bad for Nigerian women in the sense that they’re trying to do all. I think in the United States, I’d say my generation, we tried to do it all but we couldn’t. So, I’d say the generation that’s come after us – I think of my daughter and I think of my daughter-in-law – they’re like, ‘Hey, we can’t just do it all!’ So, if you choose to get married, your spouse or whatever got to step up and help more. Therefore, generally speaking, Nigerian women are very, very dynamic, but also kind of traditional.

Do you think it’s something they should hold on to?

Speaking as an American, I just don’t think – I know this is controversial – you can’t do it all. I think it’s extremely difficult. I think women get worn out and I think they have to talk to their partners and their kids and realise that ‘hey, we’re all in this together’. Speaking for myself, I taught my son how to cook. Now my son is married; my son and his wife they share the cooking responsibilities. He’s much more involved.