Awkward Advances

Nigerian Culture Clash

News | Anna Claessen | March 2007

A woman is walking through the U-Bahn station at Alser Strasse when an African man approaches her. He stops to chat.  She doesn’t want to offend him so she answers his questions politely until she gets fed up. She says goodbye and walks away. But the man persists, asking for her phone number. No, no, and again no. She finally swerves around him and runs away, as he yells "racist," at her. He could have simply said goodbye.

This seems to happen to many women in Vienna, especially along the U6 line. If they ask the persistent strangers where are they from, the answer is often the same: "From Nigeria."

An informal survey of ten women students of different nationalities and from different universities revealed that all had been approached by Nigerian men at some point. But why?

Dapo Martins, a poised, gentle Nigerian man who sells the weekly newspaper Augustin at Kaisermühlen’s U-Bahn station, says it’s a matter of culture. "Most of the times we call on girls just to make casual friend or have some fun. But it often sends out a wrong impression," said Martins, "It is normal for us, because that is the way we do it at home."

But a woman from Ghana who has been harassed many times doesn’t think it is all that normal.

"I don’t think its considered appropriate approach in Nigeria, either. But they do it here; they are naturally aggressive and sometimes just plain rude," said Herta Boakye Yiadom. Women are irritated by these approaches by Nigerian men, not only because they are being harassed but also because of the image it gives to Africans in general.

"Their approaches and behavior makes other Africans looks bad, since most Austrians can’t tell the difference between them," said Joyce Zemanek, a Kenya-born Austrian woman.

Of course, not all Nigerians are this way, but the deeds of some may be affecting the whole.  "It is very hard to make friends," said Nigerian Okoye Chidi in an interview with Ether online magazine.  "I do not want to associate with any of the black drug dealers, because they embarrass me."

Zemanek thinks their forwardness is in part a response to frustration from unfulfilled hopes of the European Dream. "There is a common belief in Africa that money grows on trees in Europe," said Zemanek.  Thinking they will make their fortune, many Africans take loans to travel here.

But they face enormous problems once they try to build up a life. They can’t get a job unless they know German, which few of them do. So many work illegally to survive, putting them at odds with the law. They are also under pressure to pay for the loans they got back home, so the lenders won’t harass their families, or worse, hurt them. For women this can lead to prostitution and for men, to selling drugs.

"African men are often very proud," Zemanek continued, "Nigerian males think that they are the greatest of all."

In the recent revision (2005) to the Foreigners’ Law [see Foreigners’ Law Page 1] Austrian government has included provisions tightening the rules for work permits and the requirements for marriages between Africans and Austrians.

"When we got married four years ago then there was no problem," Zemanek said, "but today the government interviews you regularly." But she says the government is playing the game wrong by only setting stricter rules rather than creating opportunities for them.

"The government has to give them work permits, at first with no [permanent residency] status. Then they will have to learn German," she said. "Try hard or fail."

But unfortunately, current rules often leave African men in Austria lonely and frustrated.

"Somebody has to put the word out in Africa that [emigrating to Europe] is hard, so they don’t end up getting into something they don’t want," says Zemanek.

For those who do make it, though, the misunderstandings may simply require better integration through counseling or coaching.

"I wish there was somebody who would tell them what behavior is acceptable and what is not," said Austrian student Cornelia Eder.  But she suggested that it was not only the Nigerians who need to change, but also the people they are approaching.

"Someone should tell us how to handle [the approaches] in a way that they would not attribute our rejections to them as individuals." In Austria, when women say "no," it means "no," and a man should then leave them alone.

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