Nigerian Hustle



That word! It takes a more aggressive meaning in its Nigerian usage. It conveys an untamable and somewhat wayward exertion of burden that should embarrass its original English definition. This usage dates back or attained mainstream adoption — believe my etymology — when speakers of Waffi, in connivance with pidgin comedians, started to entertain us with deadpan jokes and pronunciation.

Still by comparison, the pidgin version of the word conveys a stronger sense of striving, of grittiness, of making it against unfathomable odds. The closest English word to our Waffarian corruption is, perhaps, ‘Industrious’ — but it sounds safe. It lacks the energy of hustle. Industrious is diligent. It feels like a tamed consciousness to excel and it expects applause at the end. It’s a point-A-to-point-B. But hustle. The proudly Nigerian hustle? It exists strictly in a commercial sense. And it isn’t cool. It’s a point-A-rough-through-point-B-and-all-the-way. It’s raw, hungry, and certainly insatiable where success is concerned.

Hustle is what foreigners admire when they express their curiosity about the entrepreneurial restlessness of the Nigerian. They use nice and weightless words to describe it: industrious, enterprising, business-minded, etc. etc. But damn, it’s hustle!

This is not some silly lack of patriotic zealousness. What I wish to acknowledge is how the hustle concept manifests itself throughout the Nigerian character, in all its mischievous possibilities. These mischiefs — there’s no other term for it, constitute a series of unwritten codes that are only familiar to the entrepreneur. She understands them as part of the terrain. She knows she has to adhere to them, rather subconsciously, to guarantee her personal and business survival.

A friend had returned from abroad, armed with post-graduate degrees, impressive foreign work experience, and a British accent. She set up a consulting business. She called me and expressed disgust about what she termed ‘crass mediocrity’ in the ways of running businesses in Nigeria. It was easy to know the extent of her anger. When Nigerian English blends with British accent and is spoken with anger, especially when the angry person also aims to impress, the result is flaming, like corns popping and escaping from a fire chamber. It’s tingly to the listener’s ears. For an untrained ear, comprehension is a trouble. But it’s anger so no one needs the details. My friend had been riled up when her business associate informed her that she was making a big mistake by not including honorific titles to address a client. That drove her crazy. The associate, apparently well-schooled in the Nigerian hustle, had insisted that such titles were necessary to get fast approval and to get cheques signed quickly. It felt like horror to an MBA graduate who must have wondered if she skipped the class lecture on Fundamental Principles of Nigerian Hustle or read the wrong textbooks.

Then I regaled her with my experiences. The truth is, I carry my hustle badge with pride. That’s what you do with whatever is earned the hard way. And one doesn’t stop experiencing this thing in Nigeria. Daily survival in the Nigerian business terrain, I emphasized to her, is a constant test in deciphering between the ideal and the realistic, and having the knack to ensure both don’t clash.

She suffered the most shock when I shared a particular experience. I had been scheduled to make a presentation to a client and my client contact, on seeing only me, looked surprised and asked, ‘Did you come alone?’ I said yes. He added that it would have been a good idea to bring a good-looking female along which, by his estimation, was guaranteed to make my meeting smooth. I was aghast. He suspected that his statement embarrassed me so he added, rather politely, that he was not in doubt of the quality of my presentation or my capability to present. But, his words: ‘You know how this thing is in Naija na… Let’s do anything to move fast on this project.’ I remained aghast.

Depending on where one falls in the hustler categories, whether as a budding entrepreneur, or an established one, or as a faithless one eking a living as a political sycophant, one is confronted with these embarrassing situations daily. It’s a default shuffle between moral indignation and laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. It’s easier to say — again, believe me — that managing these situations marks the difference between a successful and unsuccessful hustler. It’s a sad truth. I still struggle to draw the line.

/Huzzle/, from a genuine Waffi tongue, is stressed in a peculiar way. Its second syllable is given a type of musical exertion as though words must hint at their import. It impresses only in a way that a Waffarian tongue can guarantee. It’s the trick of the Nigeria trade. It calls for a kind of dexterity (not taught in school, of course) but innately exhibited or granted through experience.

While one should tread carefully before making generalizations, these unwritten hustle codes are what keep the Nigerian economy going. I doubt if any other African country, or say any country in the world, comes close but Nigeria holds a title here.

Nigeria is tough for purists.

Published in Thenetng