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Nigerian culture shock often precedes one’s departure. There is no doubt that Nigeria has a fearsome reputation for kidnappings, corruption and political unrest, all reported as common occurrences. It's only natural that expats may be concerned for their welfare before arriving in the country.
Nigeria's largest cities, Lagos and Abuja, are congested, chaotic metropolises that can incite considerable culture shock, even in seasoned expats. Nigerian drivers have a reputation for being aggressive and reckless, which can leave expats feel frustrated on the roads. Electricity supply is not always reliable. Laws also differ from those in many other countries, and those in the LGBT community face additional challenges.
Despite roadblocks and barriers, many expats who move to Nigeria have successfully created their own insular bubble in the bustling city that surrounds them. Westerners generally live in gated compounds and accommodation that recreates a familiar world quite apart from the maelstrom of Nigerian city life outside its electrified perimeters. Within these boundaries, expat life is a familiar blend of socialising, sports and entertainment.
Still, it is worth learning about local culture and customs, and the more expats venture out from their bubble, the greater their experience abroad will be. Nigerian culture is diverse and rich, and each event, such as weddings and parties, has its own vibrant character.
The reality of living and working in Nigeria can be a welcome surprise; people are friendly, good weather is guaranteed and the food is delicious. Although it is not without its struggles, if expats take the relevant precautions, brush up on the dos and don’ts of the different areas and remember at all times that Nigeria is a developing country, then they will have a worthwhile and enriching experience.
Meeting and greeting in Nigeria
Respect for elders is important in Nigeria; indeed, it is possibly the central tenet of life throughout the country. While an entrepreneurial spirit is encouraged across all generations, generally one will find that people in positions of power are likely to be a lot older than those in the Western world.
When greeting an older male, a safe and traditional greeting is to bow one’s head very slightly. This is seen as respectful and is an acceptable greeting across all religions and ethnicities throughout Nigeria. With an older Nigerian woman or one who holds greater rank and seniority, it is advisable to rise and then curtsy slightly before her. It's best to ask Nigerian colleagues or friends for advice on how to approach and greet someone in the given context.
It is appropriate when greeting Nigerians to take time and not rush through this process. For all greetings, it is necessary to be standing up, for both men and women. Men will generally shake hands on first greeting. Nigeria has a large Muslim population, so many men refrain from shaking hands with women. When shaking hands or exchanging something, always use the right hand – using the left hand could be interpreted as disrespectful.
Socialising in Nigeria
Both Nigerian men and women are known for their friendliness and are open to meeting new people, so expats who take the time to get to know the locals will be richly rewarded. Within Abuja and Lagos, there are bars, clubs, shopping malls and cinemas showing all the big-name Hollywood releases. Outside of these two cities, manufactured entertainment is rare. There will still be bars which serve food and alcohol, but cinemas will be more scarce and the major shopping mall will be replaced by markets in the centre of town.
Dancing is a popular pastime in Nigeria, which is understandable as Nigerians do it very well. Nightclubs are usually full of people who do just go to dance and have a good time. When out socialising, Nigerians may drink a lot less than is consumed in many Western countries. Drinking until drunk is incomprehensible to many Nigerians and could be frowned upon.
Language in Nigeria
Not only is Nigeria said to be home to over 500 languages, but Nigerians also incorporate a lot of slang into their speech. Learning key phrases in one of the major languages, including Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo, can go a long way, while understanding slang, body language and eye contact is an important part of cultural integration in Nigeria.
Though many Nigerian's speak English fluently and there may not be major language barriers, learning key words and slang can be fun and interesting, as well as beneficial to an expat's daily life.
When talking with Nigerians, queries should be made after the person’s health and also the health of their immediate family. Nigerians naturally talk in short, abrupt sentences, such as when they are inquiring after someone’s well-being, they use the term ‘what of.’ So the question, “How is your sister’s health?” would be “What of your sister?” Expats can also adapt their speech to ask questions in the same manner.
Religion in Nigeria
Religion is an important part of Nigerian life, and most of the population are Muslim or Christian. Other religions are also practised in the country, and all should be respected and understood. As Islam and Christianity are dominant, there are mosques and churches throughout towns and cities, and expats who practise these religions can easily find a community group for them to make friends and settle in.
Ablutions in Nigeria
The availability of public toilets may not be an expected element of culture shock, but it's important to note that these facilities are scarce. Even in Abuja and Lagos, the country's most developed cities, a good public toilet with a lock, toilet paper and a bin is hard to find. It's not unusual for expats in Nigeria to take their own toilet paper with them on many occasions. Bathrooms in upscale malls provide decent facilities.
Additionally, expat women should note that outside of major shops and big cities, tampons are not as easy to come by as sanitary towels and pads. Menstruation may be considered taboo and navigating this can be an added element of culture shock for women.
►For more on the working culture and business etiquette, see Doing Business in Nigeria
"My advice would be just get out there and start chatting; you will be amazed at how many people you will meet. Join a club and you will find people with similar interests. I avoid sticking with expats as I wanted to immerse myself in the culture; my whole point of coming here was to learn a new culture and experience it." Read more in our interview with Ann.
"Nigeria is a very religious country and Sunday is for church. I believe that Nigerians enjoy their leisure time as they work so hard." For more on an expat's experience in the Giant of Africa, read this interview with Susan Cooke.
Are you an expat living in Nigeria?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Nigeria. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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