Nollywood Is Rebranding the Country

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By Ekerete Udoh

Last summer, in the course of visiting three countries that are very popular with tourists, I discovered an eternal truth - a realization which on several levels made a very proud Nigerian. For the first time in my adult life (apologies to Michelle Obama) I walked taller, and shimmered brightly with warmth and affectation.

In place of being looked at with suspicion, being supremely scrutinized as if everything about me screamed filth and criminal intent, I was warmly received by my fellow tourists. I was amazed at the level of curiosity that they had developed about Nigeria, its culture and its people.

For years, Nigerians all over the world were seen and regarded as merchants of deceit, of fraud, as purveyors of quick get rich schemes. It didn't matter that the same Nigerian could be seen at the top of some of the most intellectually rigorous professions in the world. It didn't matter that the same Nigerian community accounts for a great percentage of the manpower that powers the American health care process.

It didn't matter that that the vast majority of Nigerians are hardworking, proud and law abiding citizens who hates any governmental social safety nets or welfare because such, is alien to our DNA of self-reliance and sufficiency. The problem why we were and to a some degree still so stigmatized or defined by certain blocs in the Western world is because of the activities of a tiny percentage of our nationals who have elected to seek the easy path to wealth and affluence by engaging in morally and ethically reprehensible means.

I recalled travelling to France in 2003 in the company of my American friend and the experience was a traumatic one. My American friend was warmly received at Charles De Gaulle Airport and processed expeditiously while I was treated with disdain and contempt. I was asked to wait by the counter while the immigration officials cross-checked my passport to certify it was duly issued. For 15 minutes, I stood there steaming but helpless. My American friend was shocked and equally angry at the treatment that was meted out to me. Twenty minutes later, I was given the green-light to enter Paris, after they had adjudged my document to be properly issued. My friend wanted to know why I was singled out for such treatment while nationals from other countries who were not Americans were given fair and decent treatment by the immigration. I told her, it was a case of wrong perception-that in the eye of certain Western law enforcement officials, the Nigerian is adjudged first to be a criminal and the onus is on the person so accused to prove that he or she is not.

Treatment such as the one I described above has been the lot of Nigerians who regularly travelled out to other countries-it doesn't matter whether you travelled out of New York or London or Los Angeles, as long as you thrust the green passport towards the immigration desk at the ports of entry, you would automatically be treated with disdain and contempt.

But this condition appears to have changed profoundly in the last couple of years. There appears to have been a new sense of perception of the Nigerian-one that is warm-almost effusive and I want to report here that this new wind is a strong one, one that our leaders should tap into and milk to the hilt. I was a witness to this new development and we have our emerging pop culture-our Nollywood, to thank for.

As I stated in the opening line of this piece, in the summer that just passed, I visited Cancun, Mexico, Ochio-Rios in Jamaica and Nassau, in The Bahamas. In all these countries that I visited, the majesty of the Nigerian pop culture was evident-from the man on the street of Run- Away Bay, Montego Bay to the woman in Cable Beach, Nassau, or the Mexican in Chit Itzen-Itza- in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, I was bombarded with questions about Nollywood and its star actors and actresses. I was held and treated like a rock star because I was a Nigerian and had told them the bulk of the Nollywood stars they were fixated and adored are my friends. I was amazed at the extent and reach of Nollywood and what it has done to rebrand and changed deeply held and internalized prior perceptions about the Nigerian man or woman, and I began to wonder what could happen if government were to tap into this groundswell of goodwill and use it to weave a national narrative as other countries such as America once did.

My vacation had started in Cancun, Mexico and the first indication that it is a new dawn for Nigeria happened at the check-in counter at Oasis Cancun Hotel where I had a reservation. The concierge had asked where I came from originally, and I told her Nigeria, and her eyes lit up. "Oh my God, I love Nollywood. I love the colorful attires your actresses wear and I am so addicted that sometimes, I stay up late watching those movies. I have over four hundred of those movies at home" the lady, who gave her name as Maria, had told me. I was pleasantly amazed and I felt proud. I was no longer seen as a potential criminal, but one whose country was now adding value to our common existence.

If what I had experienced at Oasis Cancun was a big surprise, what awaited me later that evening completely blew my mind. We had been scheduled for a dinner that was tagged 'Dinner on the Sea' by the agency that had organized it. There were close to 200 tourists drawn from all corners of the earth and as we filed into the ship that was the very replica of what the early explorers-the Conquistadors-those early Spanish explorers had used to conquer the Indian lands and 'civilize' the 'savages' for Spain, the ambience spoke of a great evening ahead and it didn't disappoint! About fifteen minutes after we had set off to the seas, the ship berthed and right there in the middle of Atlantic Ocean, the revelries started, with the band playing music from all the countries whose nationalities were on board the ship. As we introduced ourselves and where we came from, I was greeted with standing ovation when I mentioned I was a Nigerian. Almost 90 percent of the tourists on that ship had seen Nollywood movies, and again, I was the cynosure of all eyes and I became a walking encyclopedia on Nollywood. I was peppered with questions and I was stunned. Nollywood has become a global phenomenon and my country meanwhile is not appropriating this public relations windfall I wondered to myself.

The next day, as we explored the ruins of the ancient Mayan civilization at Chit-Itzen-Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula - a journey of about three hours from Cancun Mexico, I was again asked numerous questions by the people on the giant tour bus that had been arranged to take us to the place.

My next port of call was Jamaica and my destination was Ochio Riois- the birth place of the late reggae legend-Bob Marley. As we disembarked from the beautiful airport in Montage go-Bay and took the tour bus from there to Ochio-Rios, having already known that Nollywood is considered a religion by the Caribbean community in the U.S. I knew I would also be bombarded with questions and that's exactly what had happened. We had scheduled a tour of one of the most highly recommended places to visit as a tourist in Jamaica-the Dunns Rivers Falls and inside the bus, I found myself thoroughly excited about the interest that foreigners have shown towards Nigeria because of the power of our pop culture.

Most people I encountered at both the Dunns River Falls and other key tourists' spots-the Pottery Farm, were regaling me with stories about Nollywood and how it has helped change the way the previously looked at Nigeria and its people.

I saw people who told me they wish to visit Nigeria because what they had seen had reassured them of what possibilities that exist in the country. In Jamaica, I was told over 90 percent of the population is hooked on Nollywood and that it is almost a religion, and I can testify to that. My newspaper-The Diasporan Star which has a huge dose of Nollywood content has thousands of readers from the Island of Jamaica.

My last port of call was Nassau-the capital of the tourist haven-The Bahamas. As I went to the casino at the hotel I stayed in Cable Beach section of the city, most people I encountered, spoke glowingly about Nigeria and the power of its pop culture, especially Nollywood.

I was also shocked when the Deejay played several Nigerian songs such as Tuface' "African Queen," P-Square, D'Banj and the newest sensation-Iyanya. I was thrilled to my bones to see that my country's pop culture has taken off and is being embraced by the world's mainstream population and I promised right there and then that I am going to lead the campaign for our country to seize this moment and rebrand our country.

My happiness was further extended by the realization that the publisher of this newspaper- my good brother and senior colleague-Nduka Obiagbena is equally invested in promoting the emerging Nigerian pop culture.

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