My Nigerian brother-in-law can't hack it in Germany. How do I help him?
September 30, 2010 3:48 PM   Subscribe

I live in Germany, and my German girlfriend's brother-in-law is originally from Nigeria. He is having trouble integrating. He's lived in the country (on and off) for 10 years, but continues to struggle with the language. To make matters worse, cultural differences are getting in the way of him establishing himself. What can I do to help him?

I am asking you to suspend your typical judgement here until you have read through my story and given it some thought. There is no "holy shit" thought you could have that I haven't. What I am looking for is a solution, or even a hint at a solution. There is a child in the mix here: I would like to give her a fighting chance at a life, and I would like to help a troubled human being find his way.

Let's take our subject. Call him "Dumaka."

Dumaka recently turned thirty. He is Nigerian, quite dark-skinned. He has been married to my girlfriend's sister for about four years, and has a nearly two-year-old daughter. That's our kid.

Dumaka's wife, let's call her "Elke", is an ethnic German, born and raised in Germany.

Dumaka is, for the most part, unemployed. His ability to get long-term employment has been, until now, hampered by his lack of long-term resident status. He currently has a short-term, part-time gig in a tire warehouse, which will be until December. He expects to get his long-term resident status by January.

Unemployed or not, Dumaka is rarely at home. I am sometimes at their house to visit; he is almost never there. When he is there, he avoids contact with other family members. What contact he does have is perfunctory, functional, and very brief. If he spends any appreciable length of time there, it is in front of the television.

The relationship between Dumaka and Elke is strained, by Dumaka's repeated absence, by his unemployment, his aloofness and not least by his tendency to mumble. He is difficult to understand in *any* language -- though I cannot speak his tribal language, both his English and German require great effort of the listener, and this difficulty in comprehension comes not simply from a use of "ebonics", but from the way he carries himself, talks through a closed mouth, and avoids direct eye-contact with the speaker.

I should add that he is not what I would call a small man -- he is slightly taller than I am, and I'm about 1.77 m. Not huge, but not the sort of person you'd expect to be averting his eyes in conversation. One gets the impression, when speaking with him, that he is struggling internally with the question of where he fits into a hierarchy with you. Sometimes he'll look at you, but his face will be tilted slightly upward, in a way that suggests, "I respect you, but I am trying to hold my own here", a deep pride, and which betrays his insecurity.

Pride is going to prove important here, I think. In fact, I think misplaced pride is a major factor getting in the way of him improving his life.

The family is only able to survive because Elke has a full-time job, and because they are getting financial support from Elke's father. And this is not good. She is trying to raise their daughter, which is especially difficult when Dumaka is hardly ever there. She's a single mother in everything but name.

So -- first problem: employment. Apart from the work permit situation, and apart from a latent racism in German society (you'd better believe it, it's there), Dumaka has had difficulty keeping jobs, either because he clashed with employers (who he says were racist and treated him poorly, something I, knowing German society as I do, am inclined to believe) and lost his temper (there's the pride thing again) or because language difficulties got in the way of him doing his job.

We need to fix the language problem, right? To do that, he needs to take some language courses. He's already managed to get his vocational school diploma ("Hauptschulabschluss" -- the lowest diploma on the ladder), but the language remains an issue and he needs to take additional language courses. Those cost money, but he doesn't have any money, because he's unemployed. Elke's father (who is a good-hearted man) offers to pay for the language courses for him, but Dumaka won't take the money without strings, and promises to pay the money back. The courses cost more than Dumaka makes (when he is working) in two months.

But Dumaka is proud, and on the hierarchy ladder, his wife's father is waaay above his wife, so what happens? Not having the money, but determined to save face, he pressures Elke into giving him the money to pay her father back for the first language course, which puts the family in a financial tight-spot. That's the end of the most recent attempt at improving language skill, and we're back where we started.

Strangely enough, the "respect" he grants his father-in-law seems very rote, very procedural. He's confessed that, in truth, he doesn't like the man. And yet, in his presence, he can be almost comically deferential. Dumaka left Nigeria at 20 due to friction with his father. My father left Germany at the same age for the same reason, but that was after having tried to reason with him. In Dumaka's case, I sense that he left in order to avoid having to confront his father.

At this point I should mention that Dumaka and Elke live in an apartment that is in a house owned by her father, and have not had to pay rent.

Dumaka dresses in what I call "gangster garb" -- baggy sportswear you might expect to see on teenagers in East Baltimore, and this is emblematic. He looks and behaves younger than a man his age.

Thus we have two main problems, which combine to create a human train wreck: we have a society which does not welcome visible minorities, and we have a member of a visible minority who lacks the self-confidence, maturity and chutzpah necessary to get beyond the obstacles society puts in his path. This makes it very hard for the people who care about him to help him.

For all that, I don't think he's a dummy. But I think the constellation of an unfortunate upbringing, the particulars of his tribal culture, and being in Germany are enough to make many of the people around him think that. And though I hate to say this, he sure seems to be working hard to reinforce the stereotype of the African man: he is absent so often that I think he would have left already if it weren't for the fact that he is completely dependent on his wife and father-in-law to survive.

Okay. Now you know the story. Here is what I need help with:

How do I tell him, "Dude, you mumble! You can do better than that, and you need to fix this."? (When he makes an effort, he is capable of speaking clearly.)

I want to talk to him, in English, since he knows it better. I want to tell him, among other things, that he needs to do something about the mumbling and about his language skills in general. That he needs to get over his pride and grow up, accept complete responsibility for his daughter, for his family, for his life and his choices. He needs to swallow his pride to do the things he has to do to improve his situation, and if he can do that, he will have something he can really be proud of.

My original thought, which was "why did these two get married and have a child in the first place" does nothing to fix the situation. I am not interested in proving that I am right and he is a fuck-up. I am interested in motivating him so that something actually changes for the better. I am interested in really connecting with him. And I have to admit, I know so little about his culture (meaning, nothing) that I am not confident I can communicate with him. I wonder whether this upbringing he had was an anomaly, or whether it's typical of where he comes from. Elke has said that he often yells at their daughter, and that she has observed this oscillation between apparent apathy and yelling and corporal punishment in the other Nigerian families she knows. On one occasion he even left her unattended to go get something at the grocery store. To me, it sounds like this is typical of a certain socioeconomic status, and has little to do with culture -- but I am starting to doubt myself.

I want to properly communicate with him, because honestly, I don't think anybody has really tried so far -- and I can understand that, because he is difficult to understand, and Germans are a classically impatient lot. And I want to give him some hope, a sense that things can be better if only he can find it in himself to change these ingrained behaviours.

What do I say to him so that I reach him, shake him up, encourage him, without making him close up or become defensive? How do I get past this stubbornness, this almost pathological pride? Is there some insight into Nigerian culture that might help me here? African MFers or MFers with African friends or family: Does any of this sound familiar?
posted by rhombus to Human Relations (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I really don't think this is your place, at all. Your girlfriend can talk to her sister about talking to her husband, but you're very far from related to this guy, and clearly you're not friends with him. Why in the world would he listen to you? Do you think the thoughts "oh hey, if I had a job, I could have more money" or "other people don't understand me very well" or "i don't spend a lot of time with my family" have really never crossed his mind, and all it would take is you to say them and suddenly he would snap out of i? It really feels like this is none of your business.
posted by brainmouse at 4:07 PM on September 30, 2010 [4 favorites]


How do I tell him, "Dude, you mumble! You can do better than that, and you need to fix this."? (When he makes an effort, he is capable of speaking clearly.)

I don't know what typical insurance in Germany covers, but is there any chance he can afford to see a speech therapist? It may be easier to broach the subject if you can say "You understand German pretty well, but sometimes people have a hard time understanding the way you speak. Unlike German lessons, this is affordable because it's covered by insurance, and it will help you with all languages, not just German."

MFers

Kind of a derail, but I think MeFite or just 'MetaFilter member' is the preferred term. MFer has a different, impolite meaning in most contexts.
posted by jedicus at 4:11 PM on September 30, 2010


Maybe to follow up to brainmouse, you could, instead, try to befriend him before you have this talk. You could couch it in terms of informal language tutoring where you get to speak some English with him and he speaks some German with you - maybe over beers or something. Then you could ask about his culture, find out more about what Does motivate him, and maybe what could motivate him to be more helpful to his family.
posted by ldthomps at 4:52 PM on September 30, 2010


Seconding that you are not close enough to this guy to step in and sort out his behaviours. I can't imagine it being welcome to him. It sounds like a lot of different stuff is going on, most of which is probably "just how this guy is" and some of which sounds like mind-reading.
Having said that, if/once you are in a position to suggest to him resources that might be open to him, there are the Integrationskurse which he might be able or be obliged to take part in once he gets his residence permit:
http://www.bamf.de/nn_566316/DE/Integration/Integrationskurse/integrationskurse-inhalt.html__nnn=true
and also if there is a Volkshochschule in the area the language courses there are really cheap, start from zero, and are often tailored to people from specific backgrounds.

Finally, I think it's easy to underestimate just how much it sucks to be a visible minority in Germany - society is still deeply zenophobic here, even when people really don't mean to be, and integration is supposed to be all the migrants' job while only "tolerance" is requested from "real" Germans. (rant over) The best and most effective thing you can do for this guy is to be friendly to him, show genuine interest and acceptance, show respect for what he can do and his way of doing things, and do your bit to make him feel normal and accepted and thus a part of the family. You're both non-Germans in Germany. You have plenty in common to bond over!
posted by runincircles at 5:38 PM on September 30, 2010


I think your brother-in-law needs some contact with another Nigerian born German immigrant. If not Nigerian then perhaps African. You are right about the cultural connection problem and although I think you can bridge that gap, it will definitely take some work before he will trust you enough to make any major changes in social interactions or dress.

Does Germany have any African Associations where you are? In the US, we have groups that specifically work with immigrants on language and cultural norms. They are a place for immigrants to meet each other and also ask questions about how they are presenting themselves to others. I would suggest looking in this area for help.
posted by aetg at 6:23 PM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


How much contact does he have with other Nigerian expats?
posted by Omnomnom at 10:17 PM on September 30, 2010


Okay, I have limited experience with Nigerian immigrants, but I just remembered one occasion that might help illustrate the mindset you're dealing with.

One day, I had the opportunity to meet four immigrants and ask them questions. Three of them were from African countries, one was, I think, Armenian. All of them were academics - doctors, journalists and the like - none of them had papers to prove it, which of course was a significant stumbling block in the immigration process.

The three people from Africa unanimously agreed that
- They never meant to come here - they were aiming for cool countries like England, Sweden etc. and instead they ended up in this hell hole
- The language courses they get sent to are full of analphabets, so they never learn anything useful
- Companies won't let them get a foot in the door, one major reason being racism. Their kids get beaten up constantly because of racism. Integration is not working because of racism. (I tend to believe this.)

The person from Armenia said
- He chose this country carefully and decided on it because of its excellent social security system
- He and his wife spent a lot of time in the public library, children's book section, reading every "A = Apple, B = Banana" book. Within one year, his wife had inscribed at a university language class and came up top in her class
- He volunteered during one of the flood catastrophes and offered his technical skills, getting a lot of contacts that way
- He has now gotten jobs by the employment agency, tutoring other immigrants. His business cards are in print and as soon as he can he is starting his own consulting business
- He always tells the judge when the subject of his immigration turns up: "I'm not just here to send money home to relatives. I want to be one of you. I want to live, here, work here and pay my taxes here - and get lots of children."

Now obviously, he was selling himself well. But in a way, that's the point. He had decided he wanted to live here and he was doing everything he could to make it successfully.

I think that in the African immigrant community there is a "fuck that" mood. They deal with a lot of racism on a day to day basis, and they feel pissed off and victimised. There's a lot of "them vs. us" going on and it's a very negative vibe.

Another thing that may or may not be obvious is: From what I've heard, not looking people in the eye is a sign of respect in Nigeria. This repeatedly leads to conflict with the police here (who are very willing to suspect and beati up Africans in the first place).

I don't know if any of that was in any way useful to you. But I think that you are limited in what you can do, in any case. Giving unsolicited advice is always a difficult thing. If you don't know the social mores in Nigeria, and you are acting from a position of perceived inequality (you representing the people on top, vs this guy), this becomes a minefield. The most you can do is get to know him better, hang out with him, learn more about him.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:52 AM on October 1, 2010 [5 favorites]


You could potentially help him, since my feel is that you and he are at the same hierarchical order in his eyes.

Talking to him about abstract cultural differences (gotta get over the pride, be there for your daughter, etc.) are difficult to convey. However, you can try action items instead. More like you need to do x, y, and z with/for your daughter. You need to do a, b, and c to get and keep a job.

For German classes and pronunciation coaching, look into your local Arbeiterkammer. They often have highly subsidized language courses, and coaching. They also provide support for finding employment.

But yeah, this may turn into a long term frustrating situation, and what you can do is quite limited. It may be more productive for you and your girlfriend to be prepared to support her sister well.
posted by copperbleu at 2:04 AM on October 1, 2010


First of all, thanks for all the responses.

@brainmouse, ldthumps:

Dumaka respects me enormously (probably because we're in positions that are at least somewhat similar) and I've been pulled into his "circle of homeys", so to speak. The only thing that's been getting in the way of me knowing him better is that I don't see him enough. When I do see him, I want to make it count: hence this Ask.

Honestly, though, the response, "this is none of my business" is part of the problem, here. It's Germany. He already gets plenty of that, and it just makes him feel more isolated. It's my business to the extent that it affects my relationship with my own girlfriend, who suffers with her sister and tells me about all these things; I also see things that they don't, because I'm a cultural outsider, too (e.g., the extent to which a prejudice about visible minorities subconsciously impacts the way people interact with him -- it's amazing to see how unaware people are of their baseless presuppositions).

And finally, I feel for him and I like him, which is why I want to help him.

@runincircles,

Thanks for the Integrationskurs tip! And the VHS stuff. I don't know where he's been so far, but it would surprise me if he's done the Integrationskurs.

Finally, I think it's easy to underestimate just how much it sucks to be a visible minority in Germany - society is still deeply zenophobic here, even when people really don't mean to be, and integration is supposed to be all the migrants' job while only "tolerance" is requested from "real" Germans. (rant over) The best and most effective thing you can do for this guy is to be friendly to him, show genuine interest and acceptance, show respect for what he can do and his way of doing things, and do your bit to make him feel normal and accepted and thus a part of the family. You're both non-Germans in Germany. You have plenty in common to bond over!


How do I persuade/convince/encourage him to hang out more with us? Or do I need to more things just with him alone in the beginning?

@aetg

I think your brother-in-law needs some contact with another Nigerian born German immigrant. If not Nigerian then perhaps African. You are right about the cultural connection problem and although I think you can bridge that gap, it will definitely take some work before he will trust you enough to make any major changes in social interactions or dress.


He spends all his free time with his Nigerian friends, all of whom are in similar circumstances, so I suspect this is not helping him very much. That approach works if he is surrounded by people who have successfully integrated into society and can set a good example, but Germany has a problem with this in general.

@Omnomnom

The three people from Africa unanimously agreed that
- They never meant to come here - they were aiming for cool countries like England, Sweden etc. and instead they ended up in this hell hole
- The language courses they get sent to are full of analphabets, so they never learn anything useful
- Companies won't let them get a foot in the door, one major reason being racism. Their kids get beaten up constantly because of racism. Integration is not working because of racism. (I tend to believe this.)

I think that in the African immigrant community there is a "fuck that" mood. They deal with a lot of racism on a day to day basis, and they feel pissed off and victimised. There's a lot of "them vs. us" going on and it's a very negative vibe.


This. This this this!

I believe that is exactly what we're dealing with here. He once said to me -- at the time I thought it rather cryptic, but in the context of what you wrote here it makes complete sense -- "I have a big dream, this is not where I thought I would be, where I wanted to be..."

That makes total sense to me, and it's heartbreaking. But he's here now and has a family, and this thinking is getting in the way of him making something of it. I don't want to deny the obstacles are big, but I've gotta believe that he can make a go of it if he makes an effort. Because I have met Africans in Germany who are managing it.

The gist is pretty clear. If I can build him up at all, it will be by talking with him, getting to know him, showing him respect, encouraging him... and above all, being patient with him where others have failed to be. I will make a bigger effort on that front.

@copperbleu

The Arbeiterkammer only exists in Austria, unfortunately.
posted by rhombus at 3:55 AM on October 1, 2010


I don't know if getting in contact with black german organizations could help you, like asking your question on the ISD forum(it seems to be not very busy at the moment) or ask a lokal group in your area or relaying your question to der braune mob. I think getting to know some better connected, "integrated" black germans could help here.
posted by ts;dr at 4:20 AM on October 1, 2010


This is a big leap, and of course it wouldn’t immediately solve their problems, but what about moving to a more neutral place like Canada? It sounds like succeeding in Germany is a long, uphill battle, and the cards are unfairly stacked against him. Perhaps a fresh start in a place with much less racism and a larger immigrant community would help him. Canada has tons of social services for new immigrants and Dumaka would probably feel a lot more supported there, not to mention less pressure from Elke’s family. Could you talk to your girlfriend or her sister about this?
posted by yawper at 1:11 PM on October 1, 2010


I know several Nigerian trainees I deal with regularly here in the UK and I ran this by one of them.
A huge amount depends on where exactly he is from and the kind of status he had back home but it is completely acceptable for a Nigerian male to spend most of his waking hours with his male friends/acquaintances or working. House and childcare is very much a female thing and particularly the extended female family would normally be there to step in and help.
For example in the supermarket leaving his daughter, his automatic assumption is that most of the other females in the vicinity would look out for her. Have a look a this paper on notions of masculinity among Nigerian youths.
The kind of interactions between men and women so automatically a part of the western mindset(but darling, do tell me how you're day went) is quite alien and he probably has no idea what to actually say to his wife or her family in the interactions they take for granted making him supremely uncomfortable. IHave a look at the way some Nigerians view men who marry White.
Iit's almost a form of cultural Asperger's, he needs to learn more of the kinds of things that are normal. If he could model some of these social situations after someone he repects.....It is so comfortable for you that it's difficult to see how you can actually help him with this, so intergrationskurs sounds like it might help. Can you go along with him even though you don't appear to need it for support? Knowing Germany like I do there is probably some very good reason that is forbidden but you can try!
I think Elke needs help with lowering her expectations of the kind of Western male/female interactions she's expecting and I assume she wouldn't be with him or have a baby without some element of that already. She has never been back with him I assume due to his immigration status so she hasn't participated in any of the ceremonies that a Nigerian wife would do to establish herself in the new family. If his immigration status changes, will that be possible? It might help her understand a lot more and help him see her in a different light.

There may even be some element of depression. The expectation of the Nigerian family back home when a member establishes himself in a European country is that they send back money and regularly contribute to large family events like wedding, funerals, ceremonial celebrations of one kind or another. To not be able to do that is an enormous source of shame and engenders feelings of failure. To force Elke to use family money to pay back her Father is one of the only things he could do to offset the shame of not contributing.
With regard to her Father, he is the nominal Head of the Household deserving of respect, again in terms of a much more extended family mindset, it really doesn't matter whether he likes him or not. Don't spend too much time worrying about that aspect.

Maybe read through the Nigeriansinamerica webpages, you may find some help there.

well done you for trying.
posted by Wilder at 4:31 AM on October 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


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