Hustle Home: Chibundu Onuzo on making it in entrepreneurial Nigeria : Rough Translation Nigerian novelist Chibundu Onuzo dreams of returning to Lagos, but she worries she'll struggle to adapt in the city of her birth, where the word "oppressor" is often used as a compliment. In this episode, she seeks advice from her "big boss" older brother.

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CHIBUNDU ONUZO: Lagos is a city of travelers, hoping to either find their luck or make it from scratch.


You're listening to ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: Every few years, I grow discontent with my staid, predictable life in London. I wonder if I should move back to Lagos, where all the action seems to be happening.

WARNER: This is from an essay called "Frontier Town" we encountered in the Travel Quarterly Strangers Guide. The writer, Chibundu Onuzo, thinks longingly of the city of her birth, Lagos in Nigeria. But she's also wary of who she might become if she left London and moved back home. We asked her to read this excerpt.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: (Reading) Lagos is the only place I know where the noun oppressor is used as a compliment. For most people, the change creeps up on you without you even noticing. The more successful you become in Lagos, the more deference you get. The more deference you get, the more likely you are to end up an oppressor unless you deliberately swim against the tide of cultural expectations. Would I become an oppressor if I moved to Lagos? I don't know. My instincts are egalitarian, but life is a lot easier in Lagos when people perceive you have money. The police talk to you with respect. You don't wait for hours in the bank. I notice this about myself when I'm in Lagos. I start caring more about my clothes, my shoes, what Lagosians would call my packaging.

WARNER: Lagos feels like home to her. But would Lagos change her? Would it chip away at the version of herself that she wanted to be? In the essay, Chibundu talks about one person from whom she might seek advice on this question - her older brother, Chinaza Onuzo, 10 years her senior.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: We met properly when I was a young adult, and he was taking his first steps into a career in private equity. By this time, I was in boarding school in England, and he had returned to Lagos to become a full-time hustler - or so it seemed to me.

WARNER: Her brother Chinaza's side hustle, as she calls it, is trying to transform the landscape of Nigerian cinema to make Nigerian films for export. He produced "The Wedding Party," which is one of the highest-grossing Nigerian films, and he's had films on Netflix and Amazon Prime. If anyone had some advice for her about the price of making it in Lagos, he might.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: In Lagos, everything is heightened. But can I live at that feverish pitch for longer than a three-week holiday? What does Chinaza think? I want to know.

WARNER: Chibundu is the author of three novels, the first of which won the Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. She's also a frequent contributor to The Guardian and other outlets where she often writes about Nigeria. But there was much she did not know about her own brother's story - how exactly he'd risen up in Lagos and what he had to confront about himself.

CHINAZA ONUZO: Hey, Chibs. How are you?

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: Chinaza, why's your camera not on?

CHINAZA ONUZO: 'Cause I can see your stack of books, and I was like, it's a very big stack of books.

WARNER: This is ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. If you've ever thought to yourself that you need to be hustling more but worry that hustling might turn you into a hustler or something that you're not, that's exactly how Chibundu felt going into this conversation with her brother. Their conversation was so thoughtful and wide-ranging, we're going to play an extended excerpt of it here mixed in with Chibundu's own writings. And then we're going to check back in with Chibundu about how this conversation changed her. It's ourselves at work on ROUGH TRANSLATION, back after this break.


WARNER: We are back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. Chibundu had lots of questions for her older brother about the person he had become in Lagos. But she started the conversation at the beginning. Who was he when he first left Nigeria at age 15?

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: So you moved to England when you were 15 to go to boarding school...


CHIBUNDU ONUZO: ...In Winchester. And what was that like?

CHINAZA ONUZO: When I was at Winchester, I was from Nigeria. So basically, I had a completely different experience than pretty much everybody else at school.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: And obviously, we know you - like, your siblings know you as Chinaza. But everybody in the industry and most of your friends now call you Naz. And if I - again, I might be making this up, but I feel like the name Naz came from Winchester College. Is this true?

CHINAZA ONUZO: So basically, there was this thing that they did when we were in Winchester where they used to give the Black kids nicknames of actors. It was weird. Don't ask me why. So they basically said, oh, we should call you, Will. And I'm like, no, I don't look anything like Will Smith. That's so random. And then they were like, oh, but we cannot pronounce your name. Chinaza is too difficult. I'm like, OK, fine. You can call me Naza. I'm like, Naza, that's weird. That's also hard. And I was like, fine, call me Naz. Like, literally - like the rapper? And then, like, yes, but with a Z. So that's literally how it stuck.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: OK. I'm just saying, your friends at your boarding school wanted to call you Will Smith because you are Black. But this is not - I think - and this is also, like, a generational thing. I'm, like, definitely a much younger millennial than you, so I'm shouting microaggression from the rooftops. But - OK.

CHINAZA ONUZO: So, I mean, I suppose it was...

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: But anyways, OK...

CHINAZA ONUZO: That's fair. That's fair. I will now re-examine my life. Oh, woe is me.


CHIBUNDU ONUZO: OK. Right. First, you've gone to one of the oldest boarding schools in the world. Then you go to Duke. Then you get your master's. Did you - was that another culture shock for you? Or had you sort of become acclimatized to this very privileged, very white sort of species by going to Winchester first?



CHINAZA ONUZO: Very privileged, very white - really?

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

CHINAZA ONUZO: OK. So - but that's the thing, though. So actually, let me put it differently. So one of the things that Winchester does is that it expects you to conquer the - like, conquer the world. Like, it basically says you are a member - so this is going to sound a certain way - but that you are a member of the elite.


CHINAZA ONUZO: And so if you do the work, you can achieve anything you put your mind to, right? I then applied for jobs. It's not two or three interviews. It's 10, right? You name it. I interviewed - Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan, Credit Suisse, Citibank, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, et cetera, et cetera. But no - no offers, like, literally.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: My brother moved back to Nigeria after graduating with an economics degree from an American university and a master's from a British university. He knew what he had to offer. And if you failed to hire him, that was your loss, not his. This extreme confidence is typical of Lagosians.


CHIBUNDU ONUZO: Sometimes I find my own self-confidence eroded by living in London, where I am an ethnic minority. I need some of that Lagos mentality. A microaggression is somebody else's problem, not mine. I know who I am. I know what I'm capable of. If you don't recognize it, get out of here.


CHINAZA ONUZO: So that is the - you know, they say it like, you always have a next goal. So the next goal for us over the next five to 10 years is to basically build out a global creator from Nigeria. So that's our goal, right? So like how the Koreans have done, the British have done, the Indians have done, we want to basically build global creators from Nigeria. It doesn't even have to be us. We just want to enable the creation of that.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: So this is also, like, my whole thing that I find fascinating about you because I didn't think, as an outsider, you would have been able to break into the Hollywood film industry or the film industry in the U.K. I can't think of many Black producers in the U.K. that would have a string of films or televisions. Like, you didn't go to film school. You don't know this person. You know - you don't know that person. Like, you just said, oh, I want to make films. So yeah, I guess it's two questions in one. How did you break into the Lagos film industry?

CHINAZA ONUZO: So one of the things about - in film industries in general, like, the more structured it is, the harder it is to break in, right? In general - because the barriers to entry are higher just by the nature of it. In the U.S. and U.K., it's like, oh, those entrepreneurs over there are special. But in Nigeria, everybody's an entrepreneur - you get what I mean? - because we believe that that is the culture. It's just that, like, Nigeria rewards entrepreneurship. But paradoxically, Nigeria also punishes failure a lot. The risk of success are high. The risk of failure are also high. So people are like, I cannot fail, and I must succeed.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: So part of the reason why I wanted to have this conversation with you is, sporadically, every two or three years, I think, what life would be like if I moved back to Nigeria? Was there any incident that made you think, gosh, I wish I hadn't moved back to Nigeria?

CHINAZA ONUZO: No. Well, I mean - OK, I take that back. So when I moved back, the car that was available for me to drive was this old - so my uncle, Uncle Frank, lent me his old Maxima or something that's an old car. So we were coming home on Third Mainland Bridge, and there was a broken-down truck on the side of the road - no hazard lights, no caution, no nothing. He was just parked in the middle of the road. And then I saw it. And then I tried to change lanes. The bus next to me did not let me in. It literally was like, I'm not letting you overtake me.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: You will not overtake me. I'm going to win.

CHINAZA ONUZO: The bus sped up. So literally, there was - I was literally about to crash because the bus driver next to me was refusing to let me in. So literally, I had to speed up and swerve around it - missed it by inches, right? And so that was Nigerian culture in a nutshell. Maybe that was, like, two months after I was back in Nigeria.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: OK. Well, my question for you is, why didn't you slow down (laughter)?

CHINAZA ONUZO: No, because I couldn't slow...

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: You went into the head-to-head...

CHINAZA ONUZO: So I couldn't slow down.


CHINAZA ONUZO: No, no, no, no, no. So I was - because it wouldn't have worked because there were two - there was a car behind him. I wouldn't have been able to - like, in the split-second assessment, slowing down would have been worse.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: OK. It sounds like you'd acclimatized pretty well in those two months. You're like, we - I will speed up with you.


CHIBUNDU ONUZO: And I will risk my life, but I'm going to win.

CHINAZA ONUZO: No. I mean, I clearly looked at this knowing that option, I think. But, like, the decision was like, yes. So, I mean, there are few times where you almost got robbed, et cetera, like - but stuff like that. I mean, thankfully, I haven't been robbed in traffic. I mean, they've knocked on my window a couple of times, those types of things. I was at a bar when robbers were outside.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: I guess this is the Wild West thing that sort of does make me apprehensive about moving back to somewhere like Lagos. Like, you're just saying casually in conversation, yeah, I was in a bar, and there were robbers outside. And yes, it's not that - yeah, but it's - I'm like, perhaps, I don't know if I'm ready to just accept that that would be just a part of the background.

In the Wild West, at least that of Hollywood's imagining, a man could walk into a saloon for a drink and end up shot dead by an outlaw. In Lagos, a person can drive to work one day and end up robbed in traffic at gunpoint. There's a certain badge of honor to almost dying and then carrying on as if nothing has happened. Lagosians don't just have a stiff upper lip. Their upper lips are made of concrete. But at what cost?


CHIBUNDU ONUZO: I feel, actually, we've had a couple of conversations where you've basically called me a slacker.



CHINAZA ONUZO: So I wouldn't use the word slacker because I am not Ferris Bueller's dad. So what I have said is that you should go for the things that you want. That is what I've said because you always choose - when the thing that you want feels like there's conflict, you shy away from the conflict. And so my general point is that you shouldn't run away from conflict if it's part of the thing that you want. Let's go there and figure it out one way or another.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: So basically, I need to step on the accelerator when the van is next to me instead of pressing the brakes, basically. I need to get more of that - no, I'm going to accelerate past you. OK, yeah.

CHINAZA ONUZO: No. So I wouldn't say that. See, that's the thing. There are different types of entrepreneurs. An entrepreneur is somebody who feels so passionate about a problem that they think they are the only one who can solve it. It is actually divorced from whether they are aggressive, whether they are whatever. What you have is belief.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: And that's it. I don't know. I mean, there are many things I believe, you know? I believe that, OK, like, the U.K. government is - their policy towards young people is faulty. There are many - there are things they should be doing to make sure that young people in this country have more opportunities. I believe it, but am I going to believe it enough to actually go and stand for government in this country? I don't know. Would I be more likely to enter politics in Nigeria? I think I would.

CHINAZA ONUZO: No, but let me ask you a question. This is a simple question based on what you just said.


CHINAZA ONUZO: If you went to - what's your council? - your local government. So if you went there, and you walked up to them and said, I want to do X, Y, Z - here's a proposal - and I want to do an after-school thing for this, that and the other, would they say no?

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: No, they wouldn't say no, actually. No, they wouldn't say no. They wouldn't say no. You're right, actually. Mmm hmm.

CHINAZA ONUZO: And then, after you started that thing, as a celebrity author, you say, oh, can you give me X amount of pounds? Have them pilot it in X. Can we take it citywide? Can we take it countywide? Can we take it nationwide? If you really believe that that was what you should do, you have - you can do it. You just don't believe it enough.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: But you see, you've already brought your Lagos mentality to my throw-away idea. See, that's my point. Like, I'm already tired. Like, I just wanted to do something small. You're like, let's take it council-wide. Let's take it England-wide. Let's take it nationwide. Let's go for world domination. I'm like, oh, my - I need a nap. I need a nap (laughter).

WARNER: ROUGH TRANSLATION also needs a break - just a short one. We'll be right back.


WARNER: We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. When Chibundu told her brother that she'd be more likely to enter politics if she lived in Nigeria, that's a trend that she's seen before.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: There's a long history of writers getting involved in politics in Nigeria - not because they want to, but just because they feel compelled to.


WARNER: She points out the Nigerian writer, Wole Soyinka, was imprisoned during the Nigerian Civil War. Chinua Achebe campaigned internationally for Biafran independence.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: And it happens often, actually. Soyinka and Achebe are just two very prominent examples, but there are others. Because of the prominence your writing gives you, you can't stand on the sidelines when push comes to shove. Whereas, in this context, I don't think people expect you to write a - you know, even if you do write about politics in London, for example, I don't think anyone then expects you to then go on and become a politician, etc., etc.


WARNER: In the Stranger's Guide essay that introduced us to Chibundu, she worried that Lagos would chip away at her moral stance, turn her slowly into an oppressor, flashing the outward signs of success in exchange for access. But this was the flip side of that fear - that she'd feel obligated in Lagos to become a reformer - something that she doesn't feel quite ready for, in Nigeria or in England. Just a few hours before this call with her brother, she'd actually gone to her local youth center in London and volunteered to organize a mentorship program for the summer.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: I literally - after I had the meeting, and I go home, I was like, what have I gotten myself into? What have I taken on? Have I taken on too much? I'm doing so much this year. And then I left, and I was like, have I just overpromised (laughter)?

WARNER: So you felt self-doubt as soon as you put action to your belief?

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: Hundred percent.

WARNER: And then immediately, you're thinking, oh, my God, I...


WARNER: And so what was that doubt around? Was it...

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: I didn't like feeling overwhelmed, and I didn't like feeling that I had taken on too much.

WARNER: Which is why she worried about moving to Nigeria, where it seemed that all her friends and family were taking on as much as possible.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: It's funny. People talk about how, like, oh, you don't have to turn every hobby into a job - that that's capitalism - that makes you feel like everything you enjoy doing, you have to monetize it. And people talk about that in the Western world. But, like, in Lagos, this is to the - like, times 10. So, you know, you enjoy eating ice cream, so now you're going to have a blog about eating ice cream and sell advertising about it. It's like, I just wanted to have vanilla ice cream. But - you know, but now it's turned into, like, a side hustle. And, like, Lagos is, like, the city of side hustles. Everyone is doing something on the weekends, doing something.

WARNER: And Chibundu wondered, did she have the energy to live in a place where everyone's finding their hustle - everyone's pressing their advantage?

CHINAZA ONUZO: So there's a Nigerian phrase called shine your eye. So what is effectively means is that everybody's out there to take advantage of you - right? - so you have to live your life accordingly. But that was - one of the earliest decisions that I made was to not do that.

WARNER: Chinaza tells her this story about when he first moved to Nigeria, in his early 20s. And he hired a motorbike driver - an okada driver - to take him a fairly long distance. The ride took almost an hour. But before they set out, they settled on a price - a hundred naira - which, back then, was worth about $1.

CHINAZA ONUZO: And so once he drops me, he's like (non-English language spoken) - so that was boss - it's very, very far. Please add something for me - just 50 naira. And I said, no, we agreed 100 naira. We agreed 100 naira. And I walked away. That 50 naira would have made no difference to me, but the idea in my head was that I had told you this was the price, and I had overshot what was reasonable based on that price. But since we had agreed, it was more important for me to be like, you cannot convince me. And I walked away. And I was like, but Naz, that 50 naira would have made all the difference in his life. But for you, you just didn't give him that extra 50 naira to win an argument. So - and I always remember that because that is the consequence of always winning. You end up in these weird zero-sum games that don't have to be. So that's - I always use that example to remind myself about, there have to be - that this need to win at all costs is - there's limits.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: I think that's interesting, like, how there's value in - that sometimes you might lose because someone might take advantage of you. But what you lose by being hard all the time is even greater.

CHINAZA ONUZO: So the question is always, what do you believe in? What do you believe to be true that no one else does, right? That is the thing, right? And that is what makes an entrepreneur. And that is not a Lagos thing. So the question that I always tell me is, like, what do you believe in?


CHIBUNDU ONUZO: I think it's been actually really good to hear what you're saying about belief. I think I do have more self-doubt than you. Or maybe you do have self-doubts and you don't present it as much. I think I do eventually sort of psych myself into going after what I want, but I think I do with a lot more handwringing and, like, oh, is this the right decision, or should I do it? Or should I not - I don't know.

CHINAZA ONUZO: People always look down on belief or conviction because in this hour, it is like conviction is a fool's errand. Can you really be sure? Can you really know? You cannot know. But what do you believe? And what are you willing to do to make your belief happen? Because you see, the truth of your belief is, how much are you willing to do for it to be tested?

WARNER: Chibundu, I want to ask you about this last part of your conversation with your brother about belief, because when I listen back I think a second or third time, I started hearing you guys discussing belief in a bigger way, something, like, about belief that wasn't just about success or making it.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: I think we're talking about how do you do something you say you believe in? So he's not talking about making money or writing books or whatever. It's just if you have something you say or think you want to do, how does this thing move from an idea into action? I think that's what we're talking about.

WARNER: Chibundu came into this conversation with her brother doubting that she had the energy to hack it in a place as entrepreneurial as Lagos. But talking to her brother, she remembered how she feels whenever she goes back home.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: I sort of feel more confident. And it's funny, actually. I went to the airport, and the guy who was checking our passports when I landed in Lagos, he wasn't wearing a uniform. And I told him off, and I was like, why aren't you wearing a uniform? You should be wearing a uniform. And I didn't think I would dare do that at immigration in London. But then I just have a sort of confidence. It's like, I'm home. You know, nobody can tell me anything. This is my country. And that was my energy in Lagos, this big, Chibundu energy. So I just moved through the world very confidently. And I am trying to import some of that energy here as well, actually.

WARNER: Here to London, she means. That's her plan now. She's still not quite ready to move to Lagos, but she's going to try to import that confidence and that energy to make a small difference in her adopted country. Chibundu told our producer, Justine Yan, that despite her doubts, she is going ahead this summer with the mentorship program at the youth center.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: Like, the amount of effort you put into it shows how much belief you have. And yeah - and he's right. That's not a Lagos thing. That's not a U.K. thing. That's just like - it has to be inside. It's about what's inside you. And yeah, we're going to do it this summer. It's going to be good. And I think actually, again - my brother has infected me.

JUSTINE YAN, BYLINE: So this is your side hustle.

CHIBUNDU ONUZO: (Laughter) I think side hustle is - side hustle is strong. But this is (laughter) this is my side project, my side - passion project.


WARNER: On our next episode of @Work, how do you drive an 18-wheel truck while at the same time homeschooling your kid?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You know, we've had dry-erase markers where she's just writing down the side of the window a math problem that she's struggling with. And so we're walking through it together.

WARNER: Women truckers tell their stories of freedom and loneliness in the long haul. That's next week on ROUGH TRANSLATION.


CHIBUNDU ONUZO: (Singing) So when are you coming home? I know I missed it, but I'm healing, and I'm learning all the time. When are you coming, coming home? If you walk away...

WARNER: This episode was produced by Justine Yan, Pablo Arguelles and our lead producer Adelina Lancianese, edited by Bruce Auster, who is our senior supervising producer. The ROUGH TRANSLATION team also includes Luis Trelles, Tessa Paoli, Nic M. Neves and Bhaskar Choudhary. Editorial insight from Sana Krasikov.


CHIBUNDU ONUZO: (Singing) It's what I deserve.

WARNER: Chibundu Onuzo is not only a writer. She's also a singer. In fact, this is one of her tracks called "Coming Home."


CHIBUNDU ONUZO: (Singing) Maybe I said I'm sorry. I treated you like a fool.

WARNER: Big thanks to the magazine Strangers Guide, where we Chibundu’s essay. If you don't know Strangers Guide, we're big fans of it here at ROUGH TRANSLATION. They devote each issue to a single place, and then they commission local writers and journalists to talk about that place. It's very thoughtful, beautiful photos. Check it out.


CHIBUNDU ONUZO: (Singing) I'm learning all the time.

WARNER: John Ellis composed our theme music. Additional music by FirstCom Music and Blue Dot Sessions, mastering by Josh Newell, fact-checking by Ayda Pourasad, legal guidance from Micah Ratner and Eduardo Miceli. NPR's standards editor is Tony Cavin. Emily Bogle is our visuals editor. Our supervising producer is Liana Simstrom. Our senior vice president for programming is Anya Grundman. I'm Gregory Warner, back next week with more @Work from ROUGH TRANSLATION.


CHIBUNDU ONUZO: (Singing) When are you coming, coming home?

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