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Birthing the American

Yemisi Aribisala explores, with mixed emotions, the enduring opportunism of a Nigerian elite that ensures that generations of children claim US birthright. Despite the assumed status that goes with being born “abroad”, the American dream, she argues, is in fact only a Nigerian backup plan.

One Saturday afternoon, I visited a friend who was babysitting some relatives’ children. During the course of the visit, the children began to fight. One very offended little boy had been called Nigerian. The children had been discussing where they were born, and which country that made them the citizen of. The compelling aspect of the discussion was how the children, all under 10 years of age, had brought with them from their different homes a proficiency in the amorphous rules of citizenship; remarkable for their ages. They understood, beyond the rote knowledge, something of the shade and light of the issues: they knew that American was the most desirable thing to be, British was second best, and Nigerian completely unpalatable. They understood that there was something very much at stake where it concerned their parents’ self-esteem and feelings of powerlessness. Then the boy’s older sister, who was standing there looking both sheepish and sorry, mentioned that she was American, he Nigerian. Her intention had clearly been to show off the superiority of her own birth status; she had not bargained on how intense the whole thing would become. When we finally came to settle the quarrel, the boy was clasping another child’s shirt, threatening to beat up anyone who dared to call him…

The boy was about three or four years old, his sister was a year or so older. I was five months pregnant with my first child, and watched the drama amused, but also a little disturbed. The profundity of what I was witnessing would only became clear to me over time, in the course of other related events. In the meantime, the fight was finally resolved, but only by consoling the boy that it was all an unfortunate misunderstanding: “…of course you are not Nigerian!” To read the rest, subscribe below abeg.

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If I had taken this encounter to heart at all, I might never have travelled to Houston, Texas, to have my baby, a few weeks later… The truth is, even if I had allowed myself a resolute opinion about leaving my country to have a baby in North America, it would have made little difference. My family had made the decision that I was to have this baby in the US, that it was the best thing for me and my child, for both a successful birth experience and the baby’s future. My family knew me well enough to predict that my opinion would go against the grain, so the opinion, whatever it was, was preemptively vetoed. This authoritarian handling of me, an adult married female, by my spouse and family, was informed by one part cultural prescription and three parts necessity of helping an opinionated, socially awkward Nigerian woman make appropriate social responses. This decision, like many of the others, was well meaning and based on evidence that you could never ever rationally downplay.

In 2000, Karl Maier, a US journalist and London Independent correspondent, published a book titled This House has Fallen: Nigeria in Crisis. Like those children acknowledging the presence of phantoms in the room, Maier conjured up many of the active suspicions deeply rooted in the Nigerian subconscious. Nigerians will credit his book with integrity. They might do so grudgingly. But the book is a genuine attempt to engage a complex situation, unlike any other in the world. Maier is not talking over our voices. We can’t even resent him for the title, because the words were borrowed from Chinua Achebe. “…an example of a country that has fallen down; it has collapsed. This house has fallen.” Maier’s book spent a few years on the Lagos bookseller Glendora’s bestselling list. It is probably the most respected foreign viewpoint on Nigeria in two decades’ worth of dire viewpoints with some shamelessly emotive labels.

We have endured every kind of foreign and contracted narrative. Every interested party has put down its two cents for the purchase of the chronicling of our troubles, our traumas, our freak-show day-to-day living, and our inevitable ruin at the end: the story never ends well.

There is the retired foreign service officer, John Campbell, who declares Nigeria on the Brink; the Jamaican academic, Patrick Wilmot, deported by the Nigerian government, who wrote Nigeria: The Nightmare Scenario; half a decade’s worth of self-aggrandising reportage by Jeff Koignange, the incredibly arrogant Kenyan and CNN African correspondent; tailor-made sections of misery in Martin Meredith’s The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence; and George Alagaiah’s Passage to Africa.

There are the Dark Oil chronicles faithfully recounting the Niger Delta atrocities: Rowell, Marriott and Stockman’s The Next Gulf; Peter Maass’s Crude World; Keith Richards’s Outsider Inside. Accounts of the daily exasperation of foreigners in corporate Nigeria abound – reams of words confidently demonstrating that our dear country, Nigeria, which we consider a ramshackle building, is in fact hopelessly dilapidated. Not that we particularly needed help with the bleak narrative. Nigerians are the most accomplished whiners in the world. Nothing works, and we are incapable of making it work. The situation is irremediable, and so, finances permitting, we must flee abroad.

In Nigerian lingo, the word “abroad” means those countries which, to our minds, are figuratively north of the global North–South divide. This might be because the genuine etymology of our abroad is “ilu oyinbo” or “obodo oyinbo”. The definition is black-and-white to the extent that the Congo, Kenya and Egypt are not abroad, nor are Ghana, Malabo, Romania, Siberia or some backwater in the Ukraine, not even the island of Madagascar. Running away to any of these would make one a laughing stock among the elite. To our minds, abroad means, take or leave it, America (Canada and the USA are as a target one entity; South America doesn’t count), the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Switzerland, Australasia, very reluctantly China or India – countries attractive as designer holiday destinations for those with disposable incomes. The white man’s lands. It would be hilarious to have a baby in a country where the residents were also looking for a way out. Dual citizenship of two countries, one Nigerian and the other “Paris club”, is regarded as one of the best investments that parents can make on behalf of their children, a way of solidly keeping one’s options and ones children’s options open.

I cannot ever remember fighting other children about whether I was Nigerian. It was simply not an issue. Some of my well-to-do cousins dropped words like “British Caledonia” or “Madame Tussauds” but it didn’t make them particularly special. Yet it was also clear at the time that “travelling abroad” was a status symbol, in aspirational proximity to eating Kellogg’s Cornflakes and wearing Dr Scholls’s shoes. My generation could have been accurately named the Kellogg’s Cornflakes generation: we were the authentic oil boomers, the children on whose behalf huge reserves of foreign exchange were spent buying British brands to satisfy our every craving. Our parents’ mentality was that their children should lack no good thing, because there were no advantages to adversity, no need for it and all the things they’d known in their lives that smelled of it. They had found oil, and we could all henceforth, and for generations to come, live it up. Theirs was a generation that knew how to throw a good party: teenagers in the independence years. Nigeria of the autonomous black African was their entitlement, but one for which they had not paid a drop of sweat or blood. Education was expensive, but a determined man could make himself. He would more than likely be judged on merit, would have access to scholarships for study, and would be able to save up to buy a new car or a house. He would be able to live in a community of other Nigerians who believed that Nigeria was the best place to be, Nigerian the best thing. You didn’t want to go and live in somebody else’s country and be looked down upon. Nigerians were always unsuccessfully colonised, even if the symptoms of colonisation were present.

The generation in question grew up not a little disdainful of the rest of the world. The arrogant loud man standing at international airports demanding if the authorities know who he is, that man was probably born around 1945, a Nigerian. His teachers were from Ondo or Obubra. They taught, in agreement with his parents, that Nigeria had the best prospects by far. Until today, it is common knowledge that the Nigerian is unique in his brand of self-confidence. It isn’t well thought out, but it is functional and heady. In contrast, our grandparents were reserved and philosophical, kept level-headed by living in hard-working agrarian societies before the independence years, grounded in lives where assets took time to grow out of the ground, a world where modern ostentation was ridiculous and pointless. Their children might have been seen as comparatively dynamic, their brashness and superficial confidence indulged as an experimental satellite suspended in the skies over the new world, even possibly as a way of getting back at white men who came to Nigeria and decided that black schoolboys should not be allowed to have pockets or shoes.

As early as eight years old, I knew the conversion rate of the naira to the pound sterling. I remember that it was a thing of pride in the early 80s that we could buy one dollar with one naira. Before 1973, we could buy one pound with one naira, or more accurately, the pound sterling was our very own legal tender. These comparisons were really just a way of declaring our equivalent status with a currency that might be considered better than ours, just because it belonged to colonisers. The significant difference between us and Nigerian children now is that we were daily engaging with a Nigeria that people still believed in, invested hope in. Our nationalistic songs were genuine:

Festac 77
77 we hail thee!
The year of hope,
The year of faith,
The year of education
1977 we hail thee
1977 we hail thee!

If our parents had babies abroad it was incidental, or maybe an expression of individual ostentation – definitely not through panic or recognition of a collective conviction of defeat. If they allowed themselves shopping sprees in London, it was because they believed, in keeping with the nationalistic mood, that it was a time to celebrate, and spend, and show off.

In the year that I was born, 1973, a rise in oil prices caused an increase in Nigeria’s balance of trade and payment figures. Crude oil came to account for an exceptionally large portion of the federal revenues, at the expense of the agro-allied industries and the manufacturing and service sectors. Thus, the familiar story of how we gradually abandoned cocoa, cotton, palm oil, groundnuts and other agricultural products to embrace the new, the euphoria of oil that carried us dancing and drumming to the doors of the International Monetary Fund. Three years before that, our principal foreign exchange earner was already petroleum; the euphoria was well in the groove before my generation came along.

Aside from that enduring high regard for all things imported – which may be behind the naming a child born overseas Adetokunbo – having a baby in a foreign country did not point to anything that suggested our self-esteem was irreparably damaged. My mother even cites examples of women who, sensing they were about to deliver, travelled back from the UK or the US to have their babies at home. Some of those women among my mother’s friends, those knocking on 70 years of age, say that if they had understood that things were going to become as they are, they would have had us all “abroad” and raised us to plunder the figurative entity called the global North. And the plundering would have had a sense of justice to it. All we would be doing would be taking advantage of what we consider naïve institutions in countries more economically advantaged than our own. An informal type of “reparations” defined thus: “You came to Nigeria and took my land and resources, reparate me by allowing me to return the honour.”

As I was getting ready to go to Houston, five other couples, close friends of the family, were also making plans to travel to have their “American” babies. I was the only one asking questions. Was this really expedient? Would the US remain a superpower until our children were adults? Was it not wiser to invest the money we would spend on this trip in a trust fund for the children? Was it not foolish to only be thinking of our children? Was it not a better investment to work at our own country? What if the US in the future changed its laws and repealed all the birthright citizenship status it had hitherto granted to children not resident there?

After I got a few replies of “You have come again o!” I gave up asking. The time-worn advantages of having a baby abroad were reiterated for my benefit, as one would recap instructions to children. The child became a national of the richest country in the world, gained access to the best education, access to health care and so forth. Other advantages mentioned were that one gets to stand in the “other nationals” queue when travelling from the Murtala Mohammed airport, and avoid queuing with other Nigerian riff-raff. One doesn’t have to bother sending one’s passport to the US consulate for a visa to enter that country, or to any other foreign consulate for that matter.

And just in case Nigeria finally goes the way we expect, one’s children can apply for a US passport when they are 18. The bottom line is that one gets to be something other than Nigerian; one has the option to live some place other than Nigeria. The US is the popular choice not only because American nationalism is so contagious (at least in Nigeria it still is), but also because most other countries, in efforts to ensure that their economic plans or welfare systems are not compromised by a mass of emigrating poor, have closed their borders or are creaking them closed. Britain eliminated birthright citizenship in 1981, because Nigerians and other foreign nationals from countries defined as Third World were having, with increased frequency, “anchor babies” in Britain. An anchor baby is originally an American term for a child born in the US to an undocumented foreign national. The baby is an anchor for its mother and other relatives who may eventually come to live in the US.

On 11 June 2004, the Irish people voted to amend their constitution in respect of Irish citizenship. They voted birthright citizenship out of existence in a landslide referendum (79.2 per cent in favour). The referendum was a follow-up to the Irish Supreme Court ruling in January 2003 that immigrant parents of an Irish-born child could be deported. Mary Harney, the deputy prime minister at the time, said that the Supreme Court ruling would “prevent others from coming to Ireland to abuse our asylum process on the basis that they are pregnant”.

Pregnant Nigerians were said to be the majority of political asylum-seekers arriving in Ireland. The country was the last of the 15 European Union states to close the anchor baby chapter. And so the US’s popularity as Nigerians’ prime birthing spot has since been uncontested. Meanwhile the US debate on keeping the foreigners out rages. Liberals believe the soul of America will be destroyed by keeping immigrants out of an essentially immigrant country. Everything the US is today is rooted in multiculturalism and a vibrant, skilled labour market. The US closes its door to outsiders every few decades, having legislated against the Chinese and Japanese and then all Asians (except Filipinos) in 1875, 1907 and 1917 respectively. Conservative thinkers denounce the other side as foolish romantics, showcasing disquieting statistics on the effect of neighbouring Mexico’s emigrating poor: the millions of Mexicans living in the US as undocumented persons; the number of anchor babies born in the US every year; the cost of educating illegal alien children; and the cost to hospitals delivering babies for free without reimbursements from the government.

But Nigerian women like myself who give birth in the US cannot be the main subject of the conservative US citizen’s fears. We cannot be the main focus of US immigration policies because we have somehow eluded a concrete legal definition. We are not poor, undocumented, political refugees, or technically even mothers of anchor babies, because the mother of an anchor baby is presumed to be in the country illegally in the first place. Nigerians do not tend to be undocumented, though we have no qualms about acquiring documentation “by any means necessary”.

The Nigerian mother of the American baby has some very enviable options. She is able to pay for a plane ticket which, depending on the time of year, can cost in excess of US$3,000. Even if she pretends to be poor enough to qualify for Medicaid or if she escapes through the hospital kitchen, baby in tow, she still needs to eat and buy clothes for her child. Many Nigerians pay for accommodation, heating and electricity, while others are able to depend on the generosity of already established friends and family. Nigerians are rarely sighted at airports with modest luggage, which might lead to the conclusion that there must be some spending money for mother as well as baby.

I estimate the average cost to the Nigerian to give birth in the US to be in the range of $15,000 – and this is a modest figure. Often, father must come to see his newborn child. He, of necessity, will also eat and buy a few new shirts. Sometimes, mother-in-law comes to affirm her relevance. Many times, the child has older siblings. If all bills are paid, the figure is closer to between $30,000 and $40,000. Assuming that the couple having the child have had to deny themselves significant luxuries to afford the trip, $30,000 is still money that is beyond the means of any class of refugee. Some Nigerian families have four children born in the US. Furthermore, the Nigerian mother of an American baby is not necessarily interested in living in the US, nor are her children going to live there without her. She would rather stay near friends and family, among people who look like her, speak her language and like her food. The US only really serves as a backup plan in case the situation in Nigeria takes an extreme turn for the worse.

The distinctions between Nigerians having babies in foreign countries and political refugees are important, even if they eventually become blurred in the day-to-day context of living in the West. For the average American or European, foreigners are foreigners whether they are legal or illegal. The average Western man in the street can only really afford an elementary perspective on immigration, refugees and how they affect his environment. In November 2013 in Goa, after a clash between 200 Nigerians and locals and police, every Nigerian became, for the purpose of calming the situation, an undocumented illegal immigrant.

In the citizen’s mind, the foreigner is also the immigrant, the dishevelled, desperate refugee fleeing persecution or hunger; the foreigner is inhuman, arriving curled up in the bottom of a crate of shellfish or clinging to the landing gear of a Boeing 747. The distinguishing characteristic of a foreigner is his desperation or fanaticism. He will either end up bombing the World Trade Centre or living parasitically off the system. And on sunny weekends, he and his family will sit outside on their lawn, producing pungent smells from cooking amaranth and fermented locust beans, playing loud music, threatening to turn a beautiful country into a ghetto. The immigrant is also a carrier of malaria, tuberculosis, or HIV/Aids.

Nigerians know very well what it means to worry about foreigners as a burden on the economy. We showed 700,000 Ghanaians the six-hour road trip home in 1983. Nigerians might not be breaking the laws of the land by having babies in the US, but we are annoying the hell out of the West by always finding one immigration loophole or the other to slip through. We are still a significant percentage of those using the US welfare system, case in point being the welfare programme known as Medicaid. We regard US immigration laws as so stuck in the reform limbo that they are quite literally calling out, “Please come and take advantage of us!”

The West has every right to be disgusted. What does it mean that the Nigerian ideal is to be American? Not much, when it is clear that the American dream is nothing more than our Nigerian backup plan. Being American demands an emotional investment that Nigerians are not willing to make. Most Nigerian immigrants are not going to sing the US’s patriotic songs with tears in our eyes, or hang flags from our windows in honour of purple mountain majesties and fruited plains, no matter how significant the Nigerian population in that country. We might be doing all that is in our power to have American babies, but not many of us have left our mark by dying in Iraq or putting out fires in burning US buildings. For most Nigerians, in comparison to the West Indian, or the Asian Indian, home is Nigeria. Outsiders might consider all these factors and rightly conclude that we have no business having babies abroad.

As far as Nigeria is concerned, I have always wanted to be a fly on the wall in the room where immigration policies are being fashioned for us. How does one keep this rock-ribbed Nigerian out? In mid-2005, some of our family friends who had travelled to give birth in the US reported being denied return visas because they had had their babies there. A few refusals later, it was clear that a probable reason for the prohibition on travel was a failure to pay the accrued hospital bills. Admittedly, most of the testimonies making the rounds in Lagos were rumours, because many Nigerians would not come out and admit that they had been refused visas. A certain fact could not be disputed: the US consulate finally got its head around the fact that the majority of Nigerians having their babies on American soil for the citizenship status were legal holders of visas issued by the US consulates in Nigeria. They were not political refugees. They were the elite, boarding planes, travelling in style to the US and being processed through immigration there.

Some of these women kept a low profile until they went into labour, neither registering with hospitals, nor attending ante-natal classes. When they arrived in the emergency unit of the local hospital, they received free treatment, delivered their babies for free and then returned to Nigeria with their American baby. It was really that simple. So, without disclosing that it had enforced a policy change, the consulate in Lagos began to ask randomly if visa applicants had previously given birth in the US; if hospital bills had been paid for said births; if the applicant had travelled to the US for the purpose giving birth there; if the applicant had a visiting or a medical visa to enter the US. On one of my visits to the US consulate, I saw first-hand this undeclared policy in action, a consular officer shouting at a prospective woman traveller, “Did you have a baby in the United States? Please answer the question. That is not what I asked you. No, no! That is a lie! Answer the question. If you continue to evade the question… What were you doing in the United States for three months? I promise you, you will never ever see the United States of America again!” Some Nigerian women who had perhaps foreseen being asked these sorts of questions had acquired a passport for the baby in the US, instead of having the baby travel on the mother’s passport. In these cases, they could tell the blatant lie that they had not delivered a baby in the US because there was no documentation to suggest otherwise.

If foreign consular officials in Nigeria are as stupid as Nigerians like to believe, they cannot have come up with such an effective form of humiliation for Nigerians. We the elite have very high opinions of ourselves, regardless of the squalor, poverty and haphazardness of our environment. We conveniently forget this. Many Nigerians who complain about the treatment they get at foreign consulates eventually resort to sulky, self-pitying arguments about how human beings should not be treated in such and such a manner. They forget that they have the option not to “travel abroad”, or that they have just encountered foreigners who, by the very fact of being foreigners, see Nigerians more objectively than we see ourselves. They can ask, “How can human beings live in such chaos, and then travel abroad to spend large amounts of money shopping at Macys? How can people be so degraded in their thinking, so ignorant of the rises and falls of so-called world empires, so parochial that they would imagine that the solution to all their problems is to go to a supposedly ‘First World’ country and have a baby there? Is the best treatment for such people not demonstrable disdain?”

The Nigerian adage “thief na who dem catch” is appropriate for describing how elite Nigerians view the situation. Nobody really asks if you paid your bills when you went to have your baby in the US. The possible stigma only attaches if it is known that you were denied a visa, and in that case many Nigerians try to keep this information to themselves. If the truth gets out, it is then left to others to speculate as to why the person was denied a visa. Having said this, many Nigerians don’t really mind being disdained as long as the end justifies the means. Proof of this is the long, winding queues embroidering the front and sides of high commissions in Lagos, no matter the supposed “inhuman treatment” by wild animals disguised as consular officers and the shrugging indifference of Nigeria’s Ministry of External Affairs, which refuses to police consular excesses despite its responsibility to do so.

Karl Maier’s This House Has Fallen focuses on Nigeria’s hopelessness, showcasing some major aspects of our lives and concluding that the entirety of Nigeria is unpredictable, precarious, that our lives are tragic and senseless. It is apparent that one does not easily, with all the necessary introspection and information, condemn one’s home and declare it a fallen house. Elizabeth Hardwick, in Meeting V.S. Naipaul, asks him, “What is the future, in Africa?” V.S. Naipaul answers, “Africa has no future.” The absolute monstrosity of the answer is not as shocking as it is familiar. The Nigerian has the interesting ability to agree with Western narratives even as we shout for respect. No doubt, the mess stinks, but what is the conclusion?

Perhaps it is a testament to Nigerian strength of character that we stay proud despite our acute awareness of our shortcomings. The Nigerian is a problematic immigrant because despite his country’s hardships, his arrogance and pride will not allow him to successfully become anything other than Nigerian – even if he seeks foreign citizenship as a means of alleviating the stresses on his life. It is also ironic that it is this same self-confidence and impudent autonomy that are the foundation of the American identity.

Birthing my daughter in the US was an eye-opener for me. I was given the rare opportunity to question everything I had been told about the US and Nigeria. My own conclusion was that I didn’t really want my child to be American. There is nothing about being American that I hold as signifying a higher state of existence. Of course, the US must be given its due; how could one not admire any country that, in contrast to Nigeria, has a vision and ideals that have shaped its existence for more than 200 years. That those ideals still inform the fabric of American communities, leadership and way of life, that the American’s ancestors had such astute foresight and such concern for their progeny, such dedication to the entity that they pioneered, is amazing.

In Nigeria’s case, Chinua Achebe’s comment on “the absolute power of narrative” in his essay “My Home under Imperial Fire”, which suggests that “those who secure this privilege for themselves can arrange stories about others pretty much where and as they like”, is razor-sharp in its recognition that unlike American identities, our Nigerian identities and powers of self-definition, self-awareness and all those other necessary qualities are bound up in stories and narratives that are not fully our own – not yet fully our own. We have not written our own constitution. We have not committed ourselves to defining who we really are, and so the Nigerian child, with his prodigious head, must navigate his own way. He must decide who he is in a hostile and contradictory landscape mined with negativity and old wives’ tales, bearing a title not fully defined. We have hardly begun to write our own stories. The dilemma is that the suspension of Nigerian ideals can only mean one thing, that being American is the next best option.

My daughter’s friend, a four-year-old, came over to play. They were standing in the doorway to the kitchen when her friend suddenly asked, “Where were you born?”

I saw where the question was headed and quickly answered on my daughter’s behalf, “In Nigeria” – a lie. My daughter stood there, looking bewildered. We had never discussed this with her. She has no idea where she was born.

“So if you were born in Nigeria, how come you are so fair,” the friend persisted.

“Where were you born?” I asked, interrupting the friend again. I could see my three-year-old’s brain working on why I was suddenly so interested in their conversation.

“In America,” the friend answered proudly.

“So why are you so dark?” I asked provocatively.

“I am not dark,” she pouted. “I am a little bit fair.”

“No you are not,” I said. “And your complexion has absolutely nothing to do with where you are born. And by the way, your skin is very beautiful.”

I turned to continue what I was doing, hoping I had put an end to the conversation, wounds reopening at the realisation that someone had taught the child that it was preferable to have light-complexioned skin, and to be born in America, and that the two were somehow connected.[/ppw]

This text by Ybirthingemisi Ogbe features in the December 2013 edition of the Chronic as part of a series of stories exploring Atlantic Crossings.

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Yemisi Ogbe is a writer and a lover of good food. Her first book, Longthroat Memoirs, a slow cooked casserole of food and words will be published in 2015 by Cassava Republic Press. Exercising her subversive middle-aged prerogative of naming herself and naming the casserole, her book will be published under the moniker Yemisi Aribisala.

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