An Ethical Dilemma of a Returnee Youth: A review of Chinyere Chukwudi-Okeh’s “International Sisi Eko” — Oluwaseun Abimbola, PhD
“International Sisi Eko” is from the collection of Lagos Stories edited by Karen King-Aribisala and Hope Eghagha. The story was made the title of the entire collection, which is made up of stories written by students and lecturers of the University of Lagos. You have notable authors like Prof Hope Eghagha, Prof Chris Anyoku, Karen King-Aribisala, Lola Akande and others.
“International Sisi Eko” tells the story of Oluyemisi, a Nigerian who returns from the United States to serve in the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). She initially harbours dreams of making a positive impact in Nigeria and eventually becoming the first female President. However, her idealism is quickly challenged as she grapples with the realities of life in Lagos, including the chaos of Lagos traffic, the necessity of rushing and shunting queues, and the corruption she encounters when reserving bus seats. The story concludes with Oluyemisi grappling with the ethical compromises she has made during her service year.
In his review of Teju Cole’s Every Day Is for the Thief, Helon Habila argues that the book’s entire scope is characterised “with a jeremiad against the corruption and sense of hopelessness in which Nigerian society wallows and which it seems incapable of escaping.” If Habila’s statements were an indictment of the Nigerian society as a trapped entity in its own systemic rut, Chinyere Chukwudi-Okeh’s “International Sisi Eko” seems to echo a similar sentiment that Nigerians in the Nigerian society are stuck in a whirlwind of corruption and hopelessness which they are incapable of escaping.
Like the narrator in Cole’s book who returns to Lagos after 15 years of absence, Oluyemisi, the protagonist in “International Sisi Eko,” is equally returning to Nigeria, her father’s birthplace, with a nationalistic dream and a desire to make a positive impact. This she does by choosing to serve the country through NYSC. It should be noted that the story is primarily set in Lagos, known for its bustling streets, chaotic traffic, and the challenges that come with living in a densely populated urban environment. Lagos serves as a backdrop for Oluyemisi’s experiences and struggles. Soon, she is nicknamed “Sisi Eko” by her next-door neighbour due to her “carriage, poise and mannerism”. But what exactly is in a name? It can be argued that the nickname “Sisi Eko” encapsulates Oluyemisi’s transformation and assimilation into the culture and lifestyle of Lagos. Initially, she is an observer, standing apart from the fast-paced Lagos lifestyle.
However, as she starts to embrace her new environment, the moniker “Sisi Eko” becomes a representation of her evolution from a mere observer to an active participant in Lagosian life. Oluyemisi’s return to Nigeria is a poignant exploration of the complexities of cultural identity and the performative transition of returning migrants when coming back to their homeland after living abroad. Her experiences in the United States, her education, and her aspirations clash with the vivid and sometimes challenging realities of Lagos.
Initially, Oluyemisi arrives with high hopes and a strong connection to her Nigerian heritage. She proudly wears the Nigerian flag, carrying what is a symbolic nationalistic dream close to her heart. However, she soon finds herself grappling with the stark contrast between her American experiences and her deep-seated Nigerian identity. This internal struggle serves as a central conflict in the story.
Throughout the story, every narrative detail unfurls the various layers of Oluyemisi’s ethical dilemmas and the compromises she reluctantly makes to navigate life in Lagos. Her desire to uphold her principles often clashes with the practical challenges of surviving in the city. At some point Oluyemisi’s idealism and excitement shine through. She criticises Lagosians’ behaviours, viewing their rush and hustle as uncivilised. Yet, as the story progresses, she is compelled to adapt to the harsh realities of Lagos, where she too must rush for buses and contend with the daily challenges of life in the city. This transition from idealism to pragmatism is accompanied by a notable shift in tone. Oluyemisi’s initial enthusiasm gives way to a more sombre and reflective tone as she grapples with the ethical compromises and cultural adjustments necessary for her survival.
This analysis does not attempt a comparison with Teju Cole’s Every Day Is for the Thief, but it’s almost impossible to not draw critical and interesting parallels. For example, while Teju Cole’s work provides a critical perspective on the corruption and hopelessness that pervades the country, “International Sisi Eko” presents a more personal account of the challenges faced by Nigerian youth in a corrupt and complex environment, illustrating the clash between ideals and practical challenges. This somewhat highlights on a broader scale the struggles faced by young Nigerians returning from abroad with big dreams of making a positive impact in their home country. They often however quickly realise that navigating the complex and often corrupt system poses a significant challenge.
In the story, however, there are noticeable gaps in the narrative that leave aspects of the story unexplored or unexplained. One significant gap is the absence of a clear backstory for Oluyemisi’s decision to return to Nigeria. While it is mentioned that she had nursed a nationalistic dream and aspired to become Nigeria’s first female president, there is little insight into what triggered this desire or what inspired her sense of patriotism. Understanding the motivations behind her return would have added depth to her character and a more comprehensive understanding of her journey.
Another gap lies in the limited exploration of Oluyemisi’s experiences during her time in the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). The story briefly mentions her encounter with the challenges of Lagos, including navigating the city’s complexities and adapting to its customs. However, the narrative only scratches the surface of her NYSC experiences, leaving room for a more in-depth exploration of the personal and societal transformations she undergoes during this period. A more comprehensive account of her time in the NYSC could provide a richer context for her character development and the story’s overarching themes of identity, adjustment, and ethical compromises.
Nonetheless, the narrative effectively captures the complexities of cultural identity, ethical dilemmas, and the adjustments one must make when returning to Nigeria after living abroad. Oluyemisi’s story serves as a microcosm of the broader challenges that many young Nigerians face when they seek to drive change in their home country, navigating a complex and often corrupt system. It is a tale of aspiration and adaptation, reflecting the multifaceted reality of life in a dynamic urban environment like Lagos.