The Element of Surprise

4 Oct

Nigeria is constantly keeping my on the tips of my toes and the edge of my seat. Not a day goes by where something completely unexpected and surprising doesn’t happen at least once. Last Friday was Nigeria’s 50th anniversary of succession from Great Britain. Due to the unrelenting pride that Nigerians take in their country, this day was not a minute occurrence. As an expat, I was merely looking forward to the possibility of being able to sleep past 8 (which I haven’t done since I arrived over three weeks ago), and the possibility of watching an American movie, exercising, and attending to other personal, independent, and self-centered activities I no longer have much of an opportunity to partake in. At 5:45 AM, my younger host brother kicked my door open and came to wake me up. “I want to sleep, no class today!” I muttered in half Yoruba and half English. He respectfully left, only to return 3 more times within the next 10 minutes. “O yá ó yá, oúnje ti délé oooo!” (hurry up, breakfast is ready). “I don’t want to eat, I’ll wait ’till lunch, please go away,” I repeated in Yoruba. After a half hour of this nonsense, I swallowed my pride and decided that a warm cup of coffee was more realistic than getting anymore sleep amongst the roosters, dogs, cats, goats, blaring TV’s, car engines, generator noise, and unrelenting greetings by my brother. After a breakfast of yam and eggs, my mom sat down and explained that I woke up early because they were taking me to the market to buy me traditional Yorùbá clothing to wear on my birthday (this coming Friday)! My groggy and irritable 6AM demeanor quickly faded into a delighted, humble, and excited state. My family hopped in our V-Boot Mercedes Benz and we were off to Gbagi, a huge outdoor textile market in Ibadan.

Gbagi market is like any other in Ibadan-extremely congested, lots of feeble shanty’s, hundreds of sellers approaching you and grabbing you to entice you into buying fabric.

Gbagi Clothing Market

My mom wouldn’t let any of these people get near me though, as she was on a mission. We weaved our way through the seemingly logic-less infrastructure of Gbagi, until we reached a small hut that was locked up. My family’s usual cloth seller had not yet arrived. The sellers in the surrounding huts quickly approached me when they heard me speaking Yoruba, and brought me everything from water satchels to Jolof Rice. Nigerians are so accommodating to visitors! I didn’t partake though, partly because I had a yam-baby in my stomach, and partly because the sanitation of dishwashing I observed in the surrounding areas didn’t exactly tantalize my palate. Finally, the cloth seller arrived. I was instantly instructed to sit on a big and comfy lazy boy style chair while the cloth seller and her workers quickly scurried a plethora of cloth options past me. I finally settled on two types of fabric.

My dad and my family's tailor

Not only did my mom insist on paying for them, she bought enough fabric for our entire family to have matching outfits (this is a huge deal in Yoruba culture, for families to wear matching outfits to special occasions)! After we left the market, we wove through the dusty and congested streets of Ibadan in the V-boot until we reached the house of my family’s tailor. When you buy traditional clothing in Nigeria, you must first buy the fabric, then take it to a tailor to have clothing made. By the time the tailor completed my measurements, a horde of the cutest Nigerian kids had congregated outside the shop, as they saw me get out of the car earlier. I hung out with them and played with them for a while, which brought me a lot of joy. Nigerian kids are so mature, funny, and well behaved.

On the way home, we spent a considerable amount of time stuck in traffic on a divided-highway style expressway. Suddenly, there appeared to be a lot of commotion outside-people screaming, running, and women taking off their geles (head ties) and swatting themselves. Mere seconds after comprehending this observation, our car was filled with wasps as we slowly creeped into a black cloud that engulfed the entire road. The chaos spread to the car-stinging, yelling, swatting, and preying (typical Yorùbá reactions to adverse situations). After a minute or so, my dad broke into english (typical of him when he is angry), “This is bullshit!” Within seconds, the V-boot was cutting hard left straight across the muddy, grassy, and litter-infested median. Feelings similar to those I usually experience on the first drop on a roller coaster overtook me, but the stakes were a little higher this time. We were driving down a two-lane expressway going the wrong way on the wrong side! My mom was preying out loud in the front seat, my dad was calmly driving with his arm out the window to wave the on-coming highway traffic aside, my younger host brother was busy swatting wasps, and I was freaking out. Of course, as soon as we crossed the median, nearly every other car in the wasp-cloud followed, so now there was a caravan of cars driving the wrong way on the wrong side of the road. This was another one of those unexpected events where all I could think was “this would NEVER happen in America.” A mere six minutes later, the commotion subsided as we finally re-crossed the median and impatiently budged our way back into the gridlock traffic. I can’t help but to wonder what a typical “behind-the-wheel” session in driving school is like here.

The third significant unexpected event this weekend occurred outside of a church on Saturday. I went to the church for a rehearsal for their music group, as I am in the process of learning to play the traditional Yorùbá talking drum (ìlú omelet àti ìlú gángan) and will play in their band after I have achieved a little competency. I was standing outside of the church talking to some of the fellow band members, while in the meantime, a wedding reception was happening in an adjacent building (that was also part of the church). Suddenly, a circular glob of about nine people busted out of the main entrance yelling and screaming. The 50 or so people in the parking lot who were leaving the ceremony instantly set their eyes on this mass of people. When my eyes finally focused on these people, I realized this mass of people was actually eight guys-against one in a brawl. Four people were holding the poor man in the middle still, while four different men were wailing on the helpless victim. Punches, slaps, spitting, you name it, this group angry wedding attendees was showing no mercy. After about 30 seconds (this was very difficult to watch), one of the men kicked the victim in the crotch so that he was completely incapacitated. Another man swiftly kicked his legs out from under him so he fell to the ground. Meanwhile, people were running out of the church and the reception room, yelling “Stop it for christ’s sake this is a church! What are you thinking!?” as they approached the fight. I turned to my fellow bandmates and asked “what is going on?” They casually replied, “ah, he must be a thief,” and then quickly resumed conversation amongst themselves. Although it was hard to watch, I couldn’t look away. The semi-unconscious man/thief, now on the ground, was humbly accepting kicks to the ribs and heel-stomps to his face. Finally, the group of men dragged him into a car. “They’re going to the police station,” one of my bandmates calmly remarked me. I couldn’t get this scenario out of my head for the rest of the day. When I returned home, I explained what happened to my family with urgency, worry, and surprise. My mom’s reaction led me to believe this is something very common here-“ah, a thief,” after I was only one-third of the way through my explanation. While the communal society attitude towards thief’s here is comforting in some ways (if you yell thief and point at someone in the market, it is like a death sentence for that person), it is still hard to witness this unique version of “citizen’s arrest.” This experience is yet another that sticks to me like fly paper, yet locals brush off their shoulders. Thus is Nigeria. I guess the moral of the story is if you’re going to crash a wedding in Nigeria, don’t steal anyone’s cell phone.

more kids at the tailor's place and my younger brother Azeez (right)

cute kids!

My family's fabric dealer

Gbagi Market

All of us at Prof. Olateju's House for an Independence Day Party

kids at the tailor's


Familiy's new compound

From the balcony of my family's compound

My family outside of their new compound

happy birthday Nigeria!

me, my mom, dad, and younger brother


4 Responses to “The Element of Surprise”

  1. Lisa Durocher October 5, 2010 at 1:20 PM #

    WOW!!! What a car ride. Sounds like each day something exciting is happening. It is disturbing about the beating of the thief. Instant punishment.

    Take care and keeping the updates coming I find them fascinating!


  2. rachel Schwab October 9, 2010 at 3:43 AM #

    Wow! this is an incredible story — and what a humbling experience to have special clothes for your birthday. I am so proud of what you are doing and always remember to be humble in these places, as you are the guest. After travelling and living in places where I or my family was the minority in all aspects, you really learn a lot about yourself and what you are capable of being and doing and later becoming. I love that you are learning to play the talking drum and immersing yourself. Best to you and happy birthday!

  3. Ibukun November 20, 2010 at 10:06 AM #

    I couldn’t help but find your “wedding thief” experience funny. I stumbled upon your blog and I am fascinated and glad that you get to have the original Nigerian experience. I am from Nigeria but I am a junior at Pepperdine University. Yes, the “junge justice” or citizen’s arrest as you call it is very common and as much as I hate to admit it, you’ll get the hang of it…or not, most people tend to look away.
    This is super cool though. omo-ile ni mi so if you have any questions about the yoruba culture, i will be happy to respond.

    O da o. Se jeje

  4. YETUNDE July 28, 2011 at 12:03 AM #

    Great job on your mastering the language. So proud of you.
    Yetunde, USA

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