Meet the Lebanese Nigerians
Multiple generations of Lebanese have made their home in Nigeria. Some are the descendants of migrants who arrived in West Africa as early as the 19th century, leaving behind their small Middle Eastern nation in search of opportunities elsewhere.
Members of this Lebanese diaspora – from fourth-generation Nigerian nationals to recent arrivals – share their experiences of life in Africa’s most populous nation.
Tatiana Mousalli Nouri, 38, is fourth-generation Lebanese, raised in Nigeria. She is the deputy group managing director for Aim Group, a family-run conglomerate with offices across the country, which includes broadcasters Cool FM and Wazobia FM.
She also heads Wazobia TV, which is the only Nigerian channel to broadcast exclusively in pidgin English. Tatiana is married with three children.
I was born in London, in the UK, but was conceived and raised in Nigeria. I have been here all of my life because my mum’s family has been in Nigeria for a very long time, since 1886. My great grandfather, Michael Lelias, left Lebanon in 1886 on his way to Brazil.
The boat stopped by Nigeria before heading to Brazil. Back then I think it was fashionable to go to Brazil.
The story goes that he did not have enough money to make the trip to Brazil, so he basically stopped in Nigeria and made it home. He worked for many years as a cattle trader. Then he went back to Lebanon, got married and brought back his wife. That’s how my grandfather was born here.
My grandmother on my mother’s side of the family was born in the Republic of Benin, in Porto-Novo. My mother grew up here when she was a child as well, left for secondary school and then came back.
My father always says that we are civilised nomads because of his and my mother’s heritage. We’ve always been nomads, going from one place to another.
I’m Lebanese maybe by blood, if I can use that word. When people ask me, “Where are you from?” I will say Nigerian, because this is what I know, this is where I grew up, this is where my memories are.
We are not “real” Nigerians, according to some people. When people tell me, “No, you are not Nigerian,” I can defend my Nigerian roots more than everyone. But we’re usually embraced.
In Nigeria there is a code that says all media owners must be Nigerian. We are Nigerian, meaning my parents are Nigerian, my sister and I are Nigerian. My brother-in-law is Nigerian – he was born and raised in Kano, a city in the north of the country. We feel very much Nigerian. However, the colour of our skin is very different.
When we launched Wazobia FM, in 2007, and it was in pidgin English, no presenter out there wanted to audition to be a pidgin English presenter, because it was not done in Nigeria. We used cleaners and cooks from our cafe, Chocolat Royal. We said, “Just go and talk.”
We still have some of the cleaners that have grown with the station. It’s gone further than we expected.
Everybody has embraced it. Even though we still get some criticism, by a small amount of people that tell us that we are teaching pidgin English to the future generations. If you want to be educated, put your kids in school. Wazobia is really a medium; it’s just a language that we use to communicate a message.
Nigeria has this vibe, this thing that when you come here there is something that hooks you to the country. I don’t know what it is.
A lot of my friends that live here feel the same way. The potential that there is in this country, there is nowhere else. There is this dynamism, and there is hope. There is a very bright future for the generations ahead.
Loubna Fakhri-Baker, 32, is the executive chef of the Lagos-based restaurant Craft Gourmet, which she co-founded with her husband, Tarek Baker. Loubna was born and raised in Senegal but moved to Nigeria in 2008. She has a daughter.
In 1939 my grandfather moved to Senegal along with a big community of Lebanese people. My father told me that they were supposed to go to South America, but the boat stopped in Senegal and they started doing business there and stayed. Senegal is a very nice country to live in and the population there is very welcoming.
I was born and raised in Dakar. We consider ourselves Senegalese. Every Friday or Saturday the family would sit around a thiebou jen (a spicy stuffed fish served with rice), which is the national dish. We cook yassa (a spicy chicken or fish dish) every day. We speak Senegalese, we eat Senegalese, I travel with the Senegalese passport, and we bury our dead in Senegal. We became Senegalese.
French is my mother tongue. I also speak English, Wolof, and Spanish. I don’t speak Arabic well. When I go to Lebanon and I open my mouth and say “Bonjour” or “Marhaba”, people say, “Oh, she’s from Africa” because of my accent.
I want to go back to Lebanon to live – go back to my roots. Whether it’s a good or bad experience I don’t care. I want to understand where I’m from.
I’m Lebanese by blood but I sometimes feel closer to my Senegalese friends than my Lebanese friends from around the world. However, there’s still something that doesn’t make me feel completely Senegalese. I had a complex about it. When I talk to Lebanese people I’m not Lebanese, but when I talk to Senegalese, I’m not quite Senegalese for them. I’m still “the white girl” in their country.
I met my husband in Lebanon when I went there for holidays. He was living in Lagos and then he moved to Abuja. When he moved to Abuja we got married and I followed him. After I got pregnant, Boko Haram attacks started to happen in Abuja so when I wanted to deliver we went back to Senegal. We stayed a bit, but we were missing the energy of Nigeria.
When we first came to Lagos my husband was working as a financial controller and I was thinking about what I wanted to do in the food industry because I have a diploma from Ecole hoteliere de Lausanne (a Swiss hospitality management school). I knew that I wanted to work in that field.
Craft Gourmet was a concept made by me, but then I felt it was too hard to do it alone and my husband decided to quit his job to join me. He takes care of purchasing and financial control and I’m the executive chef.
It’s not easy to live in Nigeria. You are outside your comfort zone every day, fighting and struggling. What I love the most about Nigeria is that I became an adult in Nigeria. In Senegal I was not. Life was too easy. Here I’ve been challenged. Everyone is hustling here.
Here, if you don’t do something, you feel like a loser. For me there’s this energy of feeling alive, of getting something fixed every day.
Eddie Bahnam, 41, works in supply chain management and business development at Beamco Nigeria, an engineering services company with interests across oil and gas services, construction and commodity trading. He moved to Nigeria 15 years ago and lives in Lagos with his wife and two children. He is currently applying for Nigerian citizenship.
I was born and raised in Lebanon. I practically lived there all my life except during the civil war when we had to go to Paris for three years because we couldn’t even go to school in Lebanon. After that I returned to Beirut.
After my Masters in Business Administration in Lebanon I was on my way to a job in Switzerland but coincidence led me to my future boss in Nigeria. I thought to hell with Europe. I didn’t want to work for a big corporation. I wanted a much more flexible structure where you can make an impact.
I didn’t know anyone in Nigeria. I remember vividly, from the airport all the way to Apapa (a neighbourhood in Lagos) I saw people walking. Whether on a bridge, or on a street or on a major road, you had a lot of people everywhere.
I never had the intention to stay. I said, “Let me come here for three years.” Then, it was very difficult for me to leave because at that time Nigeria was booming. Then I met my wife who was also working on a project in Lagos and here I am 15 years later. Three years became 15. I don’t regret that decision.
In the beginning there was a lot of frustration because you’re not used to taking care of your own power supply, providing your own water. When I first came there were absolutely no malls or cinemas. There were probably three or four major clubs that people would go to and the roads were tiny. Now, there’s an abundance of malls everywhere. Shoprite (a supermarket chain) is everywhere, in every mall there’s a movie theatre and there’s a list of restaurants popping up every month.
There are cliches. Nigeria has the tag of being corrupt or unsafe but this is just because of mass media. I feel much safer here than in Paris after 10 o’clock at night. I don’t care how foreigners or the media depicts Nigeria or generally West Africa. People are super-friendly.
The sense of community is much stronger here. You will get help if you encounter trouble on the street, whereas in Europe nobody will care. Corruption – I think it’s blown out of proportion.
I would say I sometimes look at how I lived my childhood and I compare it to what my children are going through. Nigeria is a great place to raise children; however, the most basic things are lacking. I remember when I was four years old, I could go with my friends down the street and maybe go buy a chocolate or walk to my neighbour’s house. These are the things you can’t do here. Any time you want to step out of the gates of the compound, you have to be escorted.
I’ve managed to integrate into the social fabric of at least Lagos. I have a lot of Nigerian friends and that might make me different from others within the Lebanese community. Some Lebanese choose to stay within the Lebanese community but these are a minority.
Most Lebanese are well integrated into Nigerian society. I feel I’m welcome in every house, in every party, in every event.