Death Of The “Uncle” Figure In Nigeria

Nigeria Youths

A lot of people are familiar with the term “uncle” within the typical Nigerian setting. The term in this context does not necessarily refer to one’s biological uncle (a person’s parent).

The coinage usually is an endeared terminology used to address a mature youth mostly in his 20s or early 30s.

Usually, an upwardly mobile dude; a student of a higher institution, a graduate or young starter in life; and in some cases already has a job. In a more general term, an “uncle” is simply a young bachelor free of the proclivities of paternal or family responsibilities.

To little children or young adolescents, an “uncle” is an ideal figure; someone held in high regard; that they hope to attain when they “grow up.”

The idea of an “uncle” is usually woven around a range of personality types and the role for which one plays in the lives of younger kids who are fond of them.

There are “uncles” who live on streets where kids grow up, there are “uncles” who teach in schools and there are “uncles” in more informal congregations.

To not be completely unequivocal that “uncles” are not one’s biological relative, many still form an integral part of the typical Nigerian extended family setting: either by blood or by kinship.

However, for the past decade or so, this sacred figure appears to have died down a notch or is simply losing its stance in the larger society and its effect leave not much in the wake.

Lanre News quest for answers took this correspondent to the Lagos State University (LASU) Campus where we talked with two Master’s students.

Mike Adeniran and Femi Ogunfile who amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, still come into the school to work on their Master’s thesis had a lot to say about the issue.

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“Well, I lived in a house full of uncles and aunties. We were living in Bariga then, and we had a boys-quarter at the back of the main house.

“Two of my mom’s brothers used to stay in one of the rooms. It was fun growing up with them back in the 90s,” Mike said.

Sometimes they would take us during the weekends and buy us ice-cream and biscuits which used to be a huge deal for us…..

“I remember then too we used to look out for them when they brought their girlfriends into the house so my mom would not know;” he concluded with a chuckle.

Femi responded on enquiry, “Oh yes! We had uncle figures growing up, we had a few of them on our street then, they would send us on errands and we used to be very happy to go.”

I remember many times, they will let us into their rooms to watch home videos. I had one who used to smoke a lot.

He also worked in a bank, and my mom will always warn me and my elder brother not to be too close to him, but we didn’t listen because he was really a cool dude and taught us a lot of things.

He dashed us money and his used clothes. I was in secondary school then”

We asked if any of them now have any young kids they mentor or who look up to them as “uncle” figure.

Mike who turns 32 by November retorts “Hmm, well not really. My elder sister’s kids are still little and I rarely see them.

“I don’t even have enough time on my hands these days. Times are rough, so between running my Masters program and managing my business, I don’t really see or talk to kids that much”

“Kids these days are very disrespectful in my opinion, loyalty no dey streets again” Femi adds.

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“A lot of these young teens don’t have street OT, they don’t even greet older people anymore.

“These kids are doing more than their age these days. I am 31 years. I remember growing up; we used to respect older guys in the street then.

“We greeted them with respect. I had this “uncle” then who used to toast girls a lot in the area.

“He would send me to help him call a girl for him because then there were no phones. This was like 2000 or 2001.

“He was a goofy, funny guy but nonetheless we still respected him, because he was our seniors. It was just the rule.

“But now you see these young Marlian boys with dreadlocks; no respect. They will even be stretching their hand to shake you.

“I remember one time like that; this kid who just left secondary school had the nerve to ask me “bro how far.” I had to give him a stern look and immediately he coupled himself.”

“A lot has gone wrong, and we just have to adjust to the new age I guess.” He concludes

We tried to make a sense of what they thought could be the cause of the new development and why “uncles” were no longer regarded or relevant.

Femi says, “Well, all these kids born in the late 90s and 2000 are indomie generation. Dem no get sense.

“We were raised on the street. Everything we learnt today came from the streets.”

Samuel Atere, 38, is the owner of a popular grill and barbeque hangout in a highbrow area of Surulere.

He offered some deep insight on the issue after struggling for some time to understand our question.

“Oh well, I think I know what you mean. Uhmm…you need to understand that a lot has changed.

“The world we lived in the 80s and 90s and even part of the early 00s is no more. So naturally behaviours and lifestyles certainly will change in accordance.

As for “uncle” figure thing, yes, we don’t have that so-called uncle thing anymore. Even myself, I don’t really think I was nor am a role model to anyone.

“Maybe I could, who knows. Samuel says with glee.

“It feels weird even if someone calls me “uncle.” Because it’s too personal and I feel like I owe some form of reciprocation.

“So generally I really shy away from the responsibility. Country hard my brother and these kids’ eyes are too open. Sometimes they expect too much from you in way of hands out and such.

“When a kid starts being over loyal, it gets suspicious. I think it’s the nature of the country, a lot of corruption and evil going on.

“A lot don spoil. So you just tend to focus on the basics and leave sentiments out the equation. I have two kids now and load of responsibilities, so?”

We asked Samuel if he had any “uncle” figure he looked up to while growing up.

“Sure thing, I had quite a number of them. My dad’s brother stayed with us for a while from 1996 to 1998 I think after he graduated from school.”

“I attended King’s college, so anytime we were on holidays, there was this computer club we used to go to back in the day to learn how to use computers.

“Back then computers were almost alien and it was a big deal if you knew how to use one.

“So there were these young guys from UNILAG who used to come to take us computer lessons.

“They were the coolest dudes I knew then. I just loved the way they spoke and dressed. It was fun sha,” Samuel remembers in nostalgia.

“Generally, “uncles” where the guys you looked up to for inspiration, I mean, who else would teach you some things anyway? Like how to toast babe, or dress well. These sorts of things” he says chuckling. 

We interviewed Dr Adebisi Olubanjo, a senior lecturer in the Lagos State University Department of Sociology. Dr Olubanjo is also a consultant who has written papers on the effects of gentrification on society.

He gave one of the most compelling arguments concerning the issue.

“There are many ways to look at the issue,” Dr Olubanjo began.

“First, the traditional extended family system where you had relatives living the house is almost dead……

“It wasn’t like in our time. I grew up in Ibadan. I had older cousins who lived with us. Even my paternal grandmother used to visit us frequently and stayed for long extended periods. But all that has reduced drastically over the past two decades…

“This of course brings me to my second point.”

“Gentrification has a lot to do with it. We don’t have a lot of people moving from the village to the city as it was 20+ years ago and earlier.

“So it is no longer the case where your first port of call when coming to a big city is starting out from your uncle or elder brother’s house or what have you…

“You can add here that the economic situation can hardly accommodate these extra anyway”

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When asked if he thought the loss of “uncle” figure was a problem, Mr Olubanjo adds “Definitely! It is. We have a major crisis at hand”

“Still speaking on gentrification, you see, I’ve written a ton of papers concerning this issue.

“Take for instance Lagos. Lagos used to be a large cosmopolitan city.

“Some places still are anyway. But with the expansion and rapid urbanization that has since places over the last 10, 15 years.

“It kills traditional systems that was sort of guiding compass and sets up new one. Psychologically, it takes a toll on a younger demographic that now grow up in a new set of people becoming a lot more gentrified and becoming uppity in a sense.

“See what is happening in Lagos Island for instance…..Just imagine raising a child in Lekki.  What is that child going to really know about life?…You get the idea?”

So what really was the tipping point, we inquired from Dr Adebisi Olubanjo.

“Now, who are the so-called “uncles” for the teenagers and pre-teens. It’s still the same millennial generation who are now in their early 30s and late 20s who were also raised in these highly gentrified systems.

“They had the opportunity to have an “uncle” figure when they grew up, but unfortunately, time and chance didn’t permit them to pass on the torch like the heroes before them,” Dr Olubanjo said.

“I have had to deal with a lot of young millennials over the course of my career and there seems to be the same underlying thread for most of them with personality disorders.

“You find that a lot of them, well into the late 20s are really children; sort of like extended adolescents.

“They haven’t really transitioned to adulthood. The economic situation plays a huge role too. There is massive unemployment, and many of them; well in their 30s still stay with their parents.

“So how can such a person psychologically assume the “uncle” role when he himself is still dependant? Do you see it? It’s a generational problem”

As we understand this issue a lot better from all our correspondences, it appears, “uncles” bridged the gap between young children and their parents—a novel accomplice who indulged them in youth mischief that their own parents would not ordinarily abide.

“Uncles,” for the most part used to be key figures in the lives of young kids and teenagers who looked up them for advice, and a guiding mercenary that eased their transition to adulthood.

Now that this influential figurehead is fast eroding, we wonder if there is a silver lining for society.

Will it come back again or are we seeing the last of what used to be a beacon for the pre-youth generation?

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John Okhan

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