Out of the autumn cold, John Abraham Godson walks into a Cafe in Warsaw, the capital of Poland, the country he now calls home, for our meeting. He looks like a Nigerian and sounds very much like one. But today he is a member of the Polish parliament, the first African to be so elected. For the next hour or so, he opened up about his life in Poland, how he became a politician and the challenges he had faced since his migration. Here, I share our full conversation
Having lived in this country for long and being a member of the parliament, do you consider yourself first as a Nigerian or as a Pole?
I consider myself a Pole of Nigerian origin. I have lived here for 20 years so most of my adult life has been lived here. But that doesn’t mean I do not have any sentiments for Africa or for Nigeria. That’s why we started the African Institute that is promoting partnership between Africa and Poland and in the parliament; I am the head of the Parliamentary team on Africa and Chairman of the Polish/Nigeria group. And as you know, in April our Prime Minister visited Nigeria and that was because I convinced him to. So we are doing a lot to get involved in Africa but if you ask me where my primary place of assignment is, I think I would say it’s Poland.
Have you been to Nigeria lately?
Well, in the 20 years that I have spent here, I have been to Nigeria five times and three of those times were this year (laughs) I was there in March with a delegation of business people, then in April with the Prime Minister and a delegation of government officials and business people and then I was there in August to speak at a conference.
So what are your impressions of Nigeria?
Nigeria is changing but in my opinion it’s changing too slowly. I think in Nigeria we have all the resources and everything that is needed to make Nigeria a first world nation. It is the largest oil exporter in Africa, Nigerians love to learn, they are willing to pay for education, they are very industrious, very creative but I think our problem so far has been poor leadership. In terms of personal gains, in terms of enriching yourself, you have very good leaders, but in terms of thinking of Nigeria as a nation, in terms of national pride and patriotism, I think we are very poor at that. Our social capital is very, very poor. I mean, when I visited Nigeria I saw a lot of beautiful cars, wonderful mansions but all existing in surroundings and environments that are dilapidated and destroyed, so that tells you something, that people as individuals, they take care of themselves, their families, but in terms of society, it’s not reaching the entire populace.
Do you think that is the fundamental difference between Poland and Nigeria?
That is only one of the differences. As in most European countries, I think first of all, this is a longer democracy in the sense that people here are proud of being Polish. You find out that Nigerians have that feeling of being Nigerians only when they leave Nigeria. Most of the people who are in Nigeria, the feeling they have is the feeling of being Igbo or Hausa or Yoruba and so on. I think we need to work in that area of making people really feel proud that they are Nigerians and not just as a word of mouth but actually investing in the development of social institutions. It is a shame that someone goes to the university for a course that’s supposed to last four years and is finishing after seven years. That’s a shame. And when people lose trust in the social institutions and government institutions, that’s very problematic. So there is that need to instil trust in the government and leaders but leaders have to start by leading by their own examples. Most of the leaders are business people actually; they are in politics to enrich themselves. There is nothing wrong in enriching yourself but remember who has chosen you and why you are there.
So what brought you to Poland?
Well, I came to Poland as a missionary with an organisation called IFES (International Fellowship of Evangelical Students), in Nigeria it’s called NIFES and to work with students. That’s on the one hand; on the other hand, I received a contract after my graduation to lecture in a technical university. So I came to Poland as a missionary and as a university lecturer. I graduated in 1992 and worked very briefly in Ibadan at the IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture) and worked there as research supervisor. Then I arrived here in 1993 and lectured in the technical university for four years and then University of Poznan for one year and all this time serving as a lay missionary. For 10 years I was a pastor. I pastored a local church before I got involved in politics.
What made you fall in love with Poland that you decided to become Polish?
It’s two sided, I would say. On the one hand, I think there is the God aspect of it that I feel Poland is blessed and God has called me to be here. I mean when I came to Poland it was a very poor country. As a senior lecturer I was earning 2.5 million zloty, old zloty, which is the equivalent of 250 zloty now and then it was the equivalent of 120 dollars and I remember I was earning more in Nigeria than I was earning in Poland when I came. And it was just after the fall of communism and people in Nigeria were saying, why to Poland, why don’t you go to Holland or to UK, or to US? But I felt Poland was blessed and God has called me to be here. And I get to travel a lot. I have been to more than 35 countries in five continents but there is no place that I felt at home as in Poland so, on the transcendental side, on the God side, I think it is God that has called me. On the physical or human side, there are lots of things that I love about Poland. I love the people. They have their weaknesses, you know, they like to complain and are rarely happy. If you meet a Pole and ask him how he is doing, the best answer he will give you is, well, it’s ok, it could be better. You hardly find a Pole who will tell you, fantastic! It’s wonderful. But basically, Poles are very friendly, very emotional, attached to the family, very hospitable. Secondly, I like the scenery, the landscape. They have very beautiful landscape and the environmental protection laws are very good, not like what we have back in Nigeria because I remember about 30 years ago, I travelled from the East to Lagos and on the road you will see those huge, huge trees but now they are no more. In Poland if you cut down one tree, you are obliged to plant 10 trees. So that preserves the environments. Polish people are very hardworking especially the young ones, they are very enterprising. The Poles are very much like the Igbos, they are rebellious. We have a saying that where there are two Poles, there are three opinions (laughs). They have their stands on things. One of the things the Poles are known for is what we call in Polish powstanie, uprising.
Unsuccessful ones, I think?
Successful ones. The fall of communism started in Poland. It’s not only the unsuccessful ones I am talking about. They have that warrior attitude. The problem is they are good at starting it but to sustain it is the issue.
At what point did you decide to cross over from being a citizen to a politician?
It’s been a process, a process of going in and going out. And I do not consider myself a politician. I consider myself a social activist who is using politics to serve the people, who is using politics as a means to achieve a goal, not a goal in itself. It all started in the late 90s and early 2000s when my wife and I were involved in a number of social projects. We opened our home to the poor. We were earning a lot of money from our language school and we were using that to help the poor, give out scholarships and so when people around us saw what we are doing, they were the ones that encouraged me to go and represent them. In 2005 I got elected as a district councillor and my city has a population of 750, 000 and is divided into 35 districts and in one of the districts I ran for and was elected with the highest number of votes and served as deputy chairman of the District Council. So that was how it started, from the district councilor and later on to the city council and now this is my second time in the parliament.
Are you aspiring higher?
Like I said, it’s not really important where I am. I consider only where I am as an instrument to achieve a goal. So it’s not really important whether I am an MP or a mayor or a member of the European parliament or a minister. I have goals I am achieving and these are only means to an end, not an end in itself.
In Nigeria, I can’t go to Enugu for instance and contest for a political office as a Nigerian. Did you encounter challenges like that here, people saying for instance you were not even born in Poland?
Well, yes, it’s not like in Nigeria. In Nigeria, that tribalism is even institutionalized. If you want to run as a governor of a state, you need to be from that state. It’s not like that here. But those issues were here. It’s not racism in anyway. I think it’s because Polish people have not been used to a foreigner running for office here. When I ran for the lower levels, even though it was a sensation, or when I became the first black member of the city council, the first in the history of Poland at that level also, it was sensational, there were people who said someone who isn’t born in Poland shouldn’t be an MP but it was never really an issue. I mean, the fact that 30, 000 people voted for me when there were people who had 2,000, 3,000 and they were MPs, I got 10 times more votes than they got, it shows you that for my electorates, colour is not an issue. What is important is, is this person delivering on his promises?
How difficult was it for you when you first came?
Like in any culture, you know, you go through the romance stage where you are fascinated and then you go through the culture shock phase and you are disappointed by various things, you are struggling, and then you adapt. I went through those stages as well. For me one of the greatest issues was the language. It is the most difficult language in the world. I have been here for 20 years and I still make mistakes. This is due to the fact that I never had formal training in the language like most people who come here and go to language school. I learnt the language from my students in the university, from my wife.
The weather was a problem for me at the beginning. Before I came, I was petrified and apprehensive. I was wondering what it would be like to live in a huge refrigerator or freezer. But when I saw my first snow on the 14th of November, 1993 at about 4 o’ clock, I was excited. Now I love winter.
The other aspects I had to grapple with are that Poles have a different mentality from Africans. Where I come from, we speak our mind, we are very direct. Poles don’t want to hurt you. You ask someone for his opinion and he says, yeah, it’s ok but in reality it’s not like that. But it is part of the Slavic culture. One time I was really hurt because one of my students invited me to come to a party and I went. I mean, there was nothing wrong but it was only then I realized that the invitation was out of courtesy. So you find people inviting you to dinner, don’t take it like that. (Laughs)
Have your children been to Nigeria?
My two daughters . . . I have four children. Two boys and two girls. My eldest daughter is 18 and has just started university. My second daughter, Deborah, is 16 just started senior secondary. Isaac is 11 and Daniel is 8 and a half.
That is a bit unusual here, isn’t it, for people to have that number of children?
Yes, it is. Poland has one of the lowest birth-rates in the world. It’s in the 212th place out of 224 countries and it has the second least in Europe, only higher than Romania. The birth-rate here is 1.28 unlike in Nigeria where we have 5.5.
So this is one of the good things Nigeria brings to Poland
(Laughs) Yes, and I am encouraging the Poles to go to their bedrooms and work because if they don’t do it, according to statistics, retirement age in most of Europe will be 75 years and if they don’t do it, they will need 107.5 million immigrants by 2050 because of the falling birth rate and the ageing population. So I am encouraging them to go to work (laughs).
What has been the most significant moment for you here?
I think every moment has been significant, from the time I was the youngest senior lecturer in Poland at the age of 23, to the moment I was the first black pastor in Poland. Many times I have been the first: first councillor, first black MP. I feel my stay here is pioneering, very inspiring.
Are you very much involved with the Nigerian community here?
Not only the Nigerian community, the African community because we don’t have that many Africans here, only about 5, 000 and about 2, 000 of them are Nigerians. Through the African institute and when they have problems, that’s I see them, that’s when they come to me (laughs). Also I also have a very good contact with the Nigerian ambassador here. The last three ambassadors that have been posted here, I have been the one who helped them settle in.
Finally, what would you say is the perception of Nigerians here?
Nigerians here are known for many reasons. They are known as good footballers. One of our best footballers here is Emmanuel Olisadebe and of course myself who is in politics. There are those known for petty trading, one of them was killed in 2010 in May. They came and started trading and the police wanted to round them up and there was a riot and accidentally he was shot. It led to a huge protest here among the foreign community. When you don’t have a huge number of people in a place you don’t have those kind of issues. I think Nigeria is having a better image than it used to have.