What An Expat In Germany Learned From 3 Months In Nigeria
I recently returned from a 3 month work assignment in Lagos, Nigeria: Africa’s most populous country at around 185 million people and rising fast. That’s the population of the UK, Germany and Spain combined.
Lagos is Africa’s largest city by most estimations. A smoggy, humid metropolis of around 20 million people, built on swampy ground and land reclaimed from the sea. Constant and rapid rural to urban migration, porous borders and census data being unreliable for significant chunks of the population means that the population count is essentially a best estimate. This is my story of what I learned from the experience and how I related it to my life as an expat in Germany.
Lagos was somewhere I had little or no interest in visiting. What I found was that much of what is reported in the mainstream press around the security situation are at best half-truths, at least for south-western Nigeria. Most of my colleagues in Germany thought I was crazy accepting the assignment. But hey, it was only for 3 months, I was working for an international company with corporate security policies, and I got to escape the tail end of the German winter. I was also promised that the hotel had a good swimming pool, so off I went.
This may seem like a strange post but it’s time to tell a personal story around how we sometimes think and act and take things for granted as Europeans. Travel and being outside of your comfort zone is good for reflecting on and evaluating your mindset and beliefs, and how this impacts my thoughts on life and work as an expat in Germany.
Live Work Germany also has quite a few African followers on Twitter and I frequently receive emails asking me for help with immigration and job search, so I am hopeful this post may find some resonance here too.
Possibly the most important takeaway I want to drive home from the whole experience is this:
Some of your skills as a foreigner are very marketable and unique to potential German employers, even if you may not have considered this. Just because you come from a different country does not mean that Germany knows and does everything better than your homeland. Different, yes. Almost certainly more structured. But not necessarily BETTER in every way.
Soft skills, thinking outside of the box, a customer focussed mindset, positive attitude and being able to take calculated risks and bold decisions, are all extremely marketable qualities in today’s employment market. Highlight these as a positive trait in your applications and interviews.
What follows is not an endorsement for any type of policy or ideology. It’s merely my observations of how life and the workplace functions in a country where a different set of circumstances are in play.
Nigeria has many structural and economic problems: A huge dependency on oil exports, a wobbly currency which suffered devaluation last year, Islamist extremism in the north-east of the country, anti-government oil pipeline saboteurs in the Niger Delta, a huge reliance on imports for most manufactured & consumer goods and high levels of corruption everywhere. Nonetheless, here are some of the positives which I took away from this, and how this can be applied when looking to succeed as an expat in Germany.
Don’t blindly believe what you read in the press. The first thing I learnt is that Lagos, for the most part, is relatively safe if you are careful and don’t walk around on your own at night in less desirable neighbourhoods or make obvious displays of your wealth. The business district of Victoria Island and the upmarket residential district of Ikoyi are pretty safe if you take the usual precautions and you have a driver to take you places.
OK, so robbery is fairly common. This is a consequence of there being a lot of grinding poverty together with poorly qualified, underfunded and corrupt law enforcement. However, getting attacked or beaten up in a bar or on the street, unprovoked and for no apparent reason, is much rarer.
Mindless thuggery and vandalism pretty much don’t exist.
“Can Do” Attitude
Nigerians for the most part are a proud nation and will stop at nothing to achieve and accomplish. Instead of giving up at the first attempt when the going gets tough, or quitting something before completion, they have genuine drive and determination. They are used to dealing with adversity and tend to see the glass half full rather than half empty.
Returning to Germany, to a country with first world infrastructure and public services, with competent law enforcement, relatively little corruption and a small black economy, it made me angry to listen to people moan and complain and be so negative about problems which are pretty simple to fix.
If I was hiring someone, selling themselves as a “can-do” person with a generous spoonful of resilience would be one of the first character traits I would look for. Nobody wants to employ an unmotivated person who whines and complains, and has a glass half-empty mindset.
School is massively important to Nigerians. Getting an education is seen as a key which opens the door to opportunities and a better life to what the children’s parents had. What encouraged me more than anything though for the future of the nation was that this seems to be even more the case amongst poorer and less educated families. They will stop at nothing to ensure that their kids get to go to school. Kids from dirt poor neighbourhoods can be seen immaculately dressed and proud wearing their uniforms on their way to school.
Public education is poor in Nigeria and anyone who has the financial means to do so sends their kids to a private school. If that means working 3 jobs or skipping meals, or the eldest sibling who is already working helping to fund the younger ones to go to school, then they do it. It disheartens me when fooling around in school is sometimes seen as “cool” and there is pressure, especially among boys in certain peer groups, to underachieve and drop out.
Free, universal education really is a gift we should be grateful for.
In Nigeria, getting something done, or getting something to work, is much more important than getting something done perfectly first time. We often strive for perfection when really we just need to get something, or ourselves, out there.
If a Lagos minibus taxi is broken down, getting it fixed and running again by whatever means is priority number 1. Failure to do this can mean the difference between the driver being able to pay his rent, loan for the vehicle, or buy food for his family. You see these 20 year old VW minibuses, seemingly tied together with string and sticky tape and wonder how they still run. African improvisation vs. German perfectionism in action!
People rely on them as essential public transportation to get to work. This drives the economy…productive assets generate revenue for businesses and receipts for the government from taxation. Idle ones don’t. Does the task / project have to be flawless, with every eventuality and risk considered and mitigated? Or could a piece of equipment be installed satisfactorily 3 months sooner, in order to gain an advantage on a competitor, and then iron out the imperfections post-installation?
“It’s not my job”
I didn’t hear this phrase once while I was there.
There are massive gaps in Nigeria in terms of employee capabilities when compared to Germany, or Europe in general. It is a rapidly developing country and the available pool of good, capable candidates for open positions is not growing as fast as the economy itself. I definitely found that being qualified doesn’t necessarily mean being capable. I had to show a colleague who had studied accounting how to do pivot tables and formulas in Excel!
Accountability in the workplace though was a pleasure to witness. If someone didn’t know what to do, they would find out. If I asked somebody for something and it wasn’t their role, they either did it or found out who I needed to speak to or what steps I needed to take in order to complete the task. The level of enthusiasm which I observed from most people in their jobs was fantastic.
Nigerians want to make their guests happy and they go out of their way to ensure that people return home with a good feeling. They can’t do much about the lousy infrastructure and deeply ingrained corruption in their country which may negatively impact your experience. What they can do is dazzle you with their service and willingness to help.
Service employees in restaurants and hotels were not always highly competent, but pretty much every time they were polite, friendly and very eager to please.
Kids are raised to be street smart
Children in Nigeria are not nannied with rules and regulations. Parenting is often stricter and more traditional, but kids are encouraged to think and act for themselves. Nigerian kids are not told to wait for the green man just because the law says so. Kids are seen outside playing football or basketball all the time.
It could plausibly be argued that this freedom drives creativity and independent thinking.
Togetherness, and Learning through Failure
Often the best way to succeed is through learning from your mistakes. Fail quickly and learn from where you went wrong. This applies even more so in the workplace. Nigeria is a developing country and many processes in the workplace I found to be rudimentary. Sending expatriates like me on assignment can put the building blocks and foundations in place. But working together across departments, without a narrowly defined job function and roles & responsibilities, was definitely a beneficial ethos I observed in the plant I worked in.
Rather than just being told to follow rules and processes, if employees here were given more discretion and were encouraged to be creative, along with a flatter, less hierarchical organisational structure, think how this could generate customer satisfaction and how it could fuel innovation.
Having your own business is seen as a mark of success in Nigeria.
Even people who are extremely poor are out on the street, selling snacks to people in their cars stuck in traffic. Given the length and frequency of Lagos’s chronic traffic jams, this presents plenty of opportunity to create a subsistence income in a country which has virtually no social security system.
If you want some kind of consumer good or food item, I can guarantee there is some enterprising soul who is importing it from Europe, China, the US or wherever. Nigerians are born to do business. Great negotiators, unbelievable hustlers who are not scared to go after what they want to achieve.
An Individual’s Responsibility
There is not the feeling of entitlement in Nigeria that is so pervasive across most European countries. It is inconceivable for a whole household to be not working or earning any income. There is no welfare dependency because there is, essentially, no welfare system. I only ever saw the disabled forced to beg. Anyone seemingly fit enough to work was working, even if it was just hawking goods to people stuck in traffic jams or guarding parked cars.
Society in Nigeria is extremely divided between the very rich and the very poor, with a relatively small, but rapidly expanding middle class in between. I’m not suggesting for one minute that this is a good thing or that it is fair, or that in Germany or Europe we should aspire to replicate this. What I am saying is that Nigerians tend to live by the motto of “you get out of life what you are willing to put into it”.
Rather than sit complaining about something being unjust or unfair, they channel that energy into successfully getting themselves out of that situation.
What does all of this mean?
Well, first of all, I actually enjoyed my time in Nigeria. It is somewhere I would never otherwise have gone to but am now very glad that I have. I would have no issue returning there again. Within 3 months, I established a bond there with my work colleagues that I personally find much more difficult to replicate here in Germany.
By far the biggest takeaway for me was in terms of a mindset change and how one can apply this in the form of personal development.
Would I want to live there? No. It’s hot and humid, the traffic drove me crazy and I missed good cheese, cherry tomatoes, German beer and wine, and not being able to go for a morning run in the forest. Mango and papaya for breakfast though was kind of nice!
The yin of the Nigerian culture of chaos, resourcefulness and improvisation has to be balanced against the yang of orderly, structured, process-driven Germany. To take the positives from both is something I am striving for since my return. Click To Tweet
Nonetheless, there are aspects of the Nigerian working culture and mindset of the people which I took to my heart. Anyone considering relocating to Germany from an economically less developed country, thinking how best to sell themselves, should focus on some of the perhaps unwitting strengths of their home culture, and how these can be seen in a positive light.
Germany is not the land of milk and honey, with endless opportunity and jobs for everyone who turns up and wants to work.
What Germany does have, however, is an acute skills shortage in many industries, which can only be filled in the long-term through large scale immigration.
There are boundless opportunities for those who apply themselves, approach a job application process strategically and evaluate what they need to do to get ahead of the competition, and adapt themselves to the environment they are in.
Adaptability, thinking outside of the box, looking where others are not, and knowing what your unique selling point or unfair advantage is, are the keys to success.
Even though taken out of context, these two quotes from fashion designer Coco Chanel sum this up perfectly:
Don’t spend time beating on a wall, hoping to turn it into a door
In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different