Hello Nigeria! is actually the first in a series of programmes that I am doing where I attempt to dissect another culture through examining their celebrity magazines. The series is called Hello World!, but it was seeing the Nigerian society magazine Ovation that gave me the idea for the series in the first place.
Launched in the mid 90s, after the magazine’s charismatic publisher Dele Momodu was forced to flee Nigeria under the military dictatorship of Sani Abacha, Ovation magazine sells not only in Nigeria and all over Africa but also the USA and Britain and now in the Caribbean. It has a monthly circulation of around 100,000.
When I first saw Ovation, I was bowled over by its glossiness and its brightness. It also looked exactly like the British celebrity magazine, Hello!, but when I flicked through Ovation’s pages, I became aware of how very different it was from the British version. For example, Britain is obsessed with its royal family, soap stars, models, movie actors and American celebrities. In the Nigerian Hello! equivalent called Ovation, doctors appear more frequently than actors or even footballers. Ovation doesn’t think twice about including a ‘Jet Set pastor’ or man of the cloth displaying his mansion in it and funerals are presented as a glamorous society event. One of the mottos of Ovation, according to its charismatic publisher Dele Momodu, is that “in Nigeria everybody is a star”, so we see a lot of very ordinary people featured in their pages appearing to be celebrities. This is because they pay to be in the magazine, which is how Ovation is funded – and not all of these people are particularly wealthy. You could say that Ovation has a bit of Ebony magazine about it. This may be true, but it is telling that there really aren’t so many “superstars” in Nigeria, therefore so-called “ordinary people” and their achievements are held up as worthy of celebration. It’s actually quite refreshing. And in this day and age where definitions of celebrity are being challenged with reality TV shows spewing out new ‘celebrities’ everyday, it’s been enlightening to hear about another approach to celebrity.
The idiosyncracies and value systems of any given society are apparent in these magazines and the people who are featured in these magazines also reveal certain truths about their national culture. Hello World! is a series about identity, pride and aspirations. And in my opinion, there’s a lot to be learned when you examine people’s aspirations. Forget the folk traditions and rural ways! I want to contest this underlying assumption that the repository for cultural authenticity automatically lies in a culture’s poorer citizens. This assumption, I believe, has its roots in anthropology where the tradition was to ‘study down’ i.e. to study those at the bottom rung of the social pyramid when visiting another culture. The philosophy of anthropology has since moved on, but there is actually nothing new in the idea that rurality, and to some extent poverty, signifies cultural authenticity. It is an idea espoused by the European Romantics amongst others. Coupled with the universal truth that bad news is more sensational and therefore more sellable, then it’s hardly surprising that it is the bad news from Africa that dominates the Western media.
But this sort of publicity is not without after effects. Therefore, in Hello Nigeria! I have attempted to explore how a negative global image affects those that are from that society. After all, you hear very little about Nigeria or Africa that does not relate to poverty, disease and suffering. All these things exist in Africa, but there are many other African stereotypes that don’t seem to emerge either. The colourful way Nigerians dress and celebrate themselves comes to mind. Indeed this self-celebration is not only cultural but, in fact, a necessity in a world where African success is often seen as an anomaly and not an ordinary or natural occurrence.
It was a real education making the film. Due to a lack of funding, I have been unable to actually travel to Nigeria, so this film focuses slightly more on the Nigerian community in Britain. But as the magazine was started in England and the publisher lives in England, it seems an appropriate place to start. Having grown up here in the UK, I’ve felt somewhat isolated from the Nigerian community (even the Nigerian community in England) but through this magazine and through making the film, I have met an awful lot of Nigerians and even made a few friends. I’ve become aware how little we all know about the towns and cities we live in. We know nothing of the characters, the ambition, the frustration, the courage that exists everywhere. I have been able to meet Nigerians from all walks of life from footballers and actresses to shopkeepers and priests and it’s been an enormous privilege as well as an education.
About the director:
Zina Saro-Wiwa is a 27-year-old filmmaker and broadcast journalist. Born in Nigeria but brought up in England, Zina has worked for the BBC as a programme-maker and has written for a number of broadsheets and magazines in London including the Sunday Times and Marie Claire.