Peer supporter’s blog post: Finding a Sense of Belonging: Reflections on Growing Up in Nigeria and Living Many Years in Finland

04/12/2023 8:00 am

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it means to find a sense of belonging. Permit me to say it has been a real struggle for my mental and psychological well-being. I researched to understand what it means to find a sense of belonging. The more I dug into the subject, the more it made me question my identity, what does it mean for someone to truly feel like you belong somewhere? Is it about having the right people around you? Is there something more to it? I thought finding the answers would be straightforward, but they only added to my struggle for belonging. Let me explain why!

I have lived in Finland for 18 years. I have also lived in a few other countries, but I have spent a significant part of my life in Nigeria and Finland. Growing up in Nigeria, I always felt like I belonged to my community, and that sense of belonging shaped my identity. But when I moved abroad to study, I realized how much of a struggle this getting a sense of belonging would be. Leaving Nigeria to study abroad was an easy decision, as every young aspiring teenager dreamt of living abroad. When I got admission to study in the University abroad, I felt very privileged. It was my first time leaving my home country, and I had a mix of emotions, including excitement, apprehension, and uncertainty. The pieces of advice I got from relatives kept ringing in my mind, “Remember where you are from! Know who you are representing.” Those counseling built the desire, the determination, and grit needed to succeed in Finland. I was hungry when I came to Finland. The hunger for success, and desire to contribute, and to feel a sense of belonging to the Finnish society.

The initial years were challenging as I adapted to the climate, system, and language. I struggled to make friends, as anyone in Finland would tell you, this is a project on its own. The cultural differences made it difficult to connect with people, especially when learning the Finnish language seems to be an overwhelming task. However, as time passed, I started to appreciate the lessons I had learned in Nigeria, which helped me build resilience and determination.

It’s no secret that humans have an innate desire to belong. Belonging is a fundamental need that humans desire. We want to belong to a community or to be a part of something. It’s not just about fitting in; it is about feeling like you contribute something of value to that group, a sense of worth is felt. Research has shown that having a sense of belonging is crucial for our psychological and emotional well-being. Roy Baumeister and Mark R. Leary, in their study, “The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation,” found that a lack of attachments can lead to many negative effects on our health, adjustment, and overall well-being. “Belongingness appears to have multiple and strong effects on emotional patterns and cognitive processes. Lack of attachments can be linked to various ill effects on health, adjustment, and well-being.” We want to contribute our community by feeling associated with a course or people. The unintended benefit of this is mental stability. When it is clear where one fits in, they tend to contribute positively to their society. It can make individuals more innovative. People who feel a sense of belonging have higher self-esteem, better mental health, and are more likely to engage in positive behaviors.

The experience of living abroad has taught me the importance of appreciating my heritage. Despite being far from home, my roots have given me a unique perspective on life that I can leverage to enrich my experiences and those around me. The experience of growing up in Nigeria and building resilience has taught me the value of perseverance, determination, and adaptability. One of the most significant challenges I faced was adjusting to Finland was that it was vastly different from what I was used to in Nigeria. The Finnish system is cold, self-directed learning, and independent thinking. The process of adjusting took time, eventually I learned to adapt in this new environment.

The lessons I learned, the challenges I faced, and the experiences I gained have shaped me to want to impact my community positively. It is an important part of feeling a sense of belonging. I am starting to appreciate growing up in Nigeria, and I am proud of my heritage for the resilience it built in me. This has become an invaluable tool in my personal and professional life. Furthermore, I learned that no matter where life takes me, my heritage will always be a part of who I am, and it is up to me to use it to my advantage. In Finland, I often find myself sharing my experiences and culture with my Finnish friends, and it has been a great way to connect with them and show them a different side of the world. My experience is some individuals who have experienced significant cultural transitions, such as moving to a new country, can experience a sense of identity loss and social disconnection.

The sense of belonging is beyond a physical space. It can be the sense of identity you create for yourself, that stays with you no matter where you live. In retrospect, my life in Nigeria gave me a sense of belonging I did not appreciate growing up there. The sense of belonging to my community, which has essentially shaped my identity. However, I realized that this feeling of belonging was not exclusive to Nigeria but also developed through shared experiences, values, and identities. The combination of those factors could create a sense of belonging.

In conclusion, the ability to adapt to new situations and challenges is a critical skill in finding a sense of belonging while living abroad.

Growing up in Nigeria provided me the foundation I needed to thrive in different environments. The research I have conducted about finding a sense of belonging in Finland shows about 79.8 % of immigrants in Finland still struggle to get a sense of belonging to Finnish society, irrespective of how long they have lived in Finland. The study also found that individuals who feel a strong sense of belonging are likely to engage in prosocial behaviors, such as volunteering, investing, and helping others. Overall, the research supports that a sense of belonging is a fundamental human need which is critical for our development and well-being. To find a sense of belonging requires keeping  connection to your heritage, while adapting to a new environment.

By Osita Ifezue

Founder, Njiko Storytelling