Learn Some Nigerian Words & Phrases

If you’re a foreigner you know the quickest way to soften up a local is to learn a few phrases in their language. During our Christmas holiday in Kenya I startled the bartender when I greeted him in Maasai, instead of Swahili. “I appreciate that,” he said. But it was way better when we flew back to Lagos and a security guard approached us while we waited for our driver to pick us up. I always feel nervous when a uniformed Nigerian — a cop, Customs or Immigration officer — wants to talk to us, and so I tend to not say much. Then I thought of my experience in Maasai Mara, which reminded me of our German friend Marc, who lived for over 20 years in Lagos before moving back to Germany for good. We’ve seen Marc breaking into Pidgin or Yoruba or Igbo and how the Nigerians around us would crack up. So I asked the security guard if the New Year holiday in Lagos was peaceful or if there was any wahala. His eyes got all round and big. The next thing I know we were discussing where he lives, and how other employees of the airport commute to work, etc. It was cool, I thought, to stand there with our own armed bodyguard chatting in a friendly way because no one else bothered us. Usually when you are at the airport official and non-official porters will try to grab your luggage, or tag along all the way to your vehicle and expect a generous tip even if all they did was hold your door.

Here are a few words and phrases that you can start mixing in your daily conversations:

  1. Naija – slang for Nigeria. Also written as 9ja
  2. Oga/Ma – sir/madam; Oga is Yoruba for chief or big boss. Oftentimes Madam is shortened to “Ma” and I’m still not used to having Nigerians older than me saying, “yes, Ma,”
  3. Go slow – traffic jam
  4. Okada – motorcycle for hire, bane among Lagos motorists but usually the best way to get through the go-slow
  5. Wahala – originally a Hausa word now commonly used for “trouble” or “problem”
  6. Dash – bribe or tip; has negative and neutral connotation, i.e. “I saw the driver dash the policeman,” and “Let’s give the waiter a big dash”
  7. No Shakin – slang for “no problem”
  8. Wetin dey – term used in place of “what’s up” or “what’s there.” Essentially wetin means “what” while “dey” means are, i.e. Where them dey go means “where are they going”
  9. Chop – to eat, i.e. “You wan chop?”
  10. Oyibo – originally Youruba word for “foreigner,” more specifically fair-skinned people; sometimes also applied to light-skinned Nigerians
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