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  • Writer's pictureMercy Item

LONELINESS: ALL MY NIGERIAN FRIENDS LIVING ABROAD HAVE EXPERIENCED IT

By Mercy Item


I was laying in bed after a comforting bath when I noticed a missed call on my cell phone. I tilted slightly to the edge of the gray headboard and reached for the device. It was still plugged in and charging in the wall socket next to the bed. I curled my lips into a smile when I saw who the caller was. It was Nnenna. Today was my dear friend’s birthday. I didn’t want to wake her, so I sent a birthday text instead at 12:03 a.m. The text had read:


Happy birthday girl! Today, I celebrate another year of your wonderful life and the many joyous moments that you have brought to our lives. You are such an amazing

person, and I feel honored to call you my friend. Thank you for being there for me.

Your kindness, generosity, and unwavering support are just a few of the many reasons why you are so special to me. I hope your birthday is filled with love, laughter, and all the things that make you happy. May this year be even more

amazing than the last, and may all your dreams and aspirations come true.

Today is your day, so let's make it memorable!


Although we were two worlds apart – me in Nigeria and Nnenna, over three thousand miles away in the UK – we managed to somehow still keep the communication flowing occasionally.


When I returned her missed call, she wasted no time in answering. But as soon as I heard her voice, I sensed that something was off.


“I’m not feeling myself this morning. I’m really tired. This birthday will be so boring, babe,” she said.

“Since Nnenna moved to the UK some months ago,

I noticed her mood swings.

Sometimes she’d be mirthfully bursting with energy,

and then suddenly she would slump into a state of melancholy.”


It was the first time she’d be celebrating her birthday alone. During our short conversation, her sad tone seeped through the phone like water through a leaking roof, soaking me up as well. Since Nnenna moved to the UK some months ago, I noticed her mood swings. Sometimes she’d be mirthfully bursting with energy, and then suddenly she would slump into a state of melancholy.


As much as this had saddened me greatly, I chose not to express it, for the fear of weighing her down even further. I knew I had to be strong for her. Within 12 minutes of our conversation, she had said, ‘I’m just really tired’ more times than I could count. Although I’ve heard such expressions of frustration and exhaustion repeatedly in our previous conversations during the past months, something was heart-wrenching about hearing her say it over and over again this time. Today of all days – her birthday! It was a piercing reminder of that which I already knew because she had never failed to share with me the depressing details of her daily struggles with loneliness in a foreign land. I inquired about her plans for the day.


“You need a treat today. Will you go out after work?” I had asked.


“Where? With who? Babe, I’m just tired. I’ve got no plans,” She quickly retorted.


It was just another day of her exhausting routine, from class to work and vice versa. She works as a casual care assistant at a healthcare center in Bradford, West Yorkshire. I knew she loved her job but sometimes it got physically and emotionally overwhelming. I remember telling her in the most hopeful tone that all would be fine. But as the words came out, even I knew she wasn’t buying it. I honestly wished I could do more.


“Before she moved, we talked about the

scourge of loneliness that Nigerians living abroad often speak of.

I had hoped Nnenna wouldn’t fall victim to its snare.”


After I settled into the office, ready to begin my own day’s activities, my mind wandered to thinking about Nnenna. She first went to the UK in August 2022 for her graduate studies. Studying abroad was her dream come true. And so with lofty expectations, she left our home country Nigeria to the UK. Her first few days were a blur; she hardly had time for me. When she finally settled in, she showed me her living space via video call.



It was a lovely accommodation space with a window overlooking a street. Her bed was small but just enough for her. Hanging on the opposite wall was a brown wooden bookshelf that housed her books. The white walls were always illuminated brightly each time she opened her brown curtain. She’d often sit by the window of her room and gaze at people leisurely walking or hurriedly scuttling somewhere. I remember thinking on those occasions how lucky she was to have such a serene view to wake up to every day. You see, in Nigeria, for safety, people preferred fencing off their houses with cement bricks and barbed wires. Hence, my deep appreciation for Nnenna’s fenceless accommodation. But her newfound exhilaration soon gave way to a new struggle. Making friends was not as easy as she had hoped. I think it was her early days in the UK that made her realize that solitude could easily become a burden without the balance of social relationships. Being alone is one thing, but being lonely surely is something else entirely.


The last thing I thought would ever be a challenge to Nnenna was blending in. Before she moved, we talked about the scourge of loneliness that Nigerians living abroad often speak of. I had hoped Nnenna wouldn’t fall victim to its snare. After all, she had sparked the flame of our friendship. Nnenna is lively, personable and charismatic. It’s those endearing qualities that I know people love about her. Undoubtedly, these were the qualities I found in her that created the warmth with which our friendship began to thrive. We met during the first year of our bachelor's program in the admissions office of Godfrey Okoye University, Nigeria. I had walked into the heavily clustered and stuffy admissions building, which smelt of both dusty old files and concrete. It had smelt exactly how it looked. Unfamiliar with the office, I had walked headfirst into her just as she had been exiting the secretary’s office. She had been very apologetic about the accident even though it was my fault and had offered to help me with my registration process for the rest of the day. I was more than thankful for a friend like her and I have been her friend ever since.


“My brows had furrowed deeply with unease at the thought of

Nnenna struggling with what this man had described. She had no friends or relatives abroad.”


When she first told me of her plans to move to the UK for further studies, I knew things would change greatly but I was elated for her nonetheless. This was because she had dreamed of this for so long and it was finally happening. Her happiness was my happiness. Her family had pulled the funds together to make it happen, so it was a big deal not for her alone, but for everyone.


When her exit plans to the UK had nearly matured, I came across an article by a Nigerian man who had shared different culture shocks he faced when he moved to the UK. What stood out to me was his warning to Nigerians planning to make the “big move” to get prepared to experience the disenchantment of loneliness. Especially for those who had no friends or relatives living in the UK. My brows had furrowed deeply with unease at the thought of Nnenna struggling with what this man had described. She had no friends or relatives abroad. The next day we met at an outdoor spot in the heart of town, and I raised the topic over a nice warm spicy meal. Although the meal was to provide a distraction from the way I was feeling concerning the story I had read the previous day, it hadn’t done much to suppress my worries. It only successfully suppressed my acute hunger. I eventually told her of this story and my concerns for her integration into this unfamiliar territory. Another reason for my anxiousness was that I had heard similar stories of friends who endured lengthy periods of friendlessness as immigrants in a foreign country. It worried me greatly that Nnenna may be confronted with this reality.


A secondary school classmate, named Felix who had moved to the UK in 2019, narrated his sad ordeal. I knew Felix to be a jovial and even-tempered extrovert but in his early days in the UK, he had very much felt like a square peg in a round hole. He told me he felt like most of the conversations he struck with the people in school were artificial and lacked any depth. Things started to look up for him when he met another Nigerian who had been living there for a while. That had sort of provided the soft landing he needed to integrate.


“Growing up in Nigeria is truly a vitalizing experience and I sometimes feel that with such cultural geniality found within the shores of my country, Nigerians who newly migrate may have it tough indeed.”

Similarly, I had recently reconnected on Instagram with an old-time friend, who told me that as an international student in Ukraine during the Covid-19 outbreak, she experienced an exacerbated level of loneliness. With an already feeble social life, the lockdown only made things worse. She was confined to her room with nowhere to go. The streets were empty and people were afraid to interact. She longed for the succor that classroom interactions had afforded her.


I wondered if the statistics of Nigerians feeling lonely in the UK were the same for other immigrants. So I did a little digging. I found out that according to Campaign to End Loneliness, more than 58 percent of immigrants in the UK described loneliness and isolation as their biggest challenge living in London. Some causative factors were cultural differences, language barriers, lack of family, lack of friends and lack of social networks. Others confronted identity crisis, job woes, discrimination and social stigma.



“I knew Felix to be a jovial and even-tempered extrovert

but in his early days in the UK, he had very much felt like a square peg in a round hole.”


In retrospect, I wonder if the same could be said about foreign nationals living in my country, Nigeria. Do they struggle with the travails my fellow countrymen and women in their country contend with, whenever they come to Nigeria? I guess it’s a question only they can answer.


I think Nigerian culture is so affable. An average Nigerian is neighborly and communal. We love our greetings. We love our small talk and family meetings. We love our Sunday rice. In Nigeria, it’s a familiar practice to visit family and friends occasionally but those Sunday visits always hit differently. Some Nigerian homes have replaced the regular rice and tomato stew with jollof rice but the tradition in itself is not dying anytime soon. Nigeria comprises different ethnic and religious groups but the meals on those Ramadan and Christmas holidays are shared and eaten regardless of a neighbor’s religious leaning. And because we believe it takes a village to raise a child, every parent feels an obligation to correct another parent’s erring child. We love our owambe, a popular Yoruba term used to describe parties, the Nigerian style. Growing up in Nigeria is truly a vitalizing experience and I sometimes feel that with such cultural geniality found within the shores of my country, Nigerians who newly migrate may have it tough indeed.


Thinking about Nnenna again while setting up my workstation for the day made me realize that it is not easy anywhere. Whether it is in Nigeria, the UK, America, India, or Canada, we all still have our daily struggles. But as we deal with them, it helps to have a friend to talk to along the way. Nonetheless, I know Nnenna would be fine. After the birthday phone call, we had spoken a few more times and it seemed she had met a companion. A study buddy Nnenna had called her. I now worry less about her these days as I’m confident she’ll be alright eventually.


I know that if she still has trouble along the way, I’ll always be here to pick up her phone call.



Mercy Item is a Nigerian broadcast journalist and radio news anchor based in Enugu, Nigeria. When she’s not on the air, she loves to read and travel. She is also an editorial assistant for DIASPORA.




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Invitado
08 jun 2023
Obtuvo 5 de 5 estrellas.

I wish more people were aware of the reality of loneliness abroad, especially Africans who believe its always greener on the other side.

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Invitado
03 jun 2023

It's really not easy to move to a new country. I almost returned to Naija 2 months after my arrival for studies in France.

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