After not seeing my family for nearly four months, I was delighted to finally see their glowing white faces stick out of the endless sea of dark skinned Nigerians frantically milling around outside Lagos’s Murtala Muhhomad Airport the night they arrived. They showed up a day late due to the massive blizzard that struck most of northern Europe the week before Christmas. Although my mind was racing trying to figure out how to squeeze the already to long list of things I wanted to do with them into a short 7.5 days, I also felt a sense of relaxation to see some of the most important people in my life-people who automatically relate to me, understand me, and hold me close to their hearts. Although I have made some amazing friends since I arrived in early September, I am still generally a stranger to this society, its customs, and its cultural norms. There is nothing like a taste of home and familiarity.
Taking my parents around Ibadan and Lagos helped me remember the true shock and awe I experienced when I first arrived in Nigeria.I’m sure now they will actually understand what I’m talking about when I say going to Nigeria is literally like warping or teleporting into another world-the culture, the language, the infrastructure, the government, the weather, the food, the risks, and the enjoyments all contribute to an experience that is truly impossible to describe with words, pictures, and even videos. The sights, sounds, smells, feelings, and realizations you experience here all combine to form your perception. Without actually being here and feeling this place, it is near impossible to truly relay the experience in words, especially from a purely American perspective. Yet, I regress and make an attempt.
Instead of a moment-by-moment itinerary of what I did with my parents and younger brother, I want to use this opportunity to explain one of the reasons the Yoruba culture is so deep, rich, and enjoyable: “àpónlé.” Àpónlé means a combination of hospitality, appreciation, love, and sharing. I hesitate to use just one word to translate àpónlé as its implications reach much deeper than a meager one word definition.Nigerians, particularly Yorubas are some of the most caring and hospitable people I have ever encountered or heard about, even towards complete strangers. Somewhat amazingly, there is a uniform sense of care and hospitality these people exemplify that I believe is difficult to match anywhere else in the world. Although I expected some degree of Nigerian hospitality, I told my family to prepare to stay in hotels and pay for a lot of meals before they came. I tried to paint a rather uncomfortable picture of their to be experience as I didn’t want inconveniences that have become a part of my daily routine such as a lack of running water, constant power outages, cockroaches, spicy and often fish-stanched foods, the constant haze and smell of trash fire smoke, and relentless obnoxiously loud noises everywhere. Many of these preparations turned out to be unnecessary and useless (excluding the noise, cockroaches, power outages, and trash fire smoke which are nearly inescapable here). Even though I have been here for four months, I was still shocked and impressed by the degree of generosity, love, kindness, and graciousness shown towards my family during their time here. Nigerians, and particularly Yorubas take visitors in as their own without the slightest bit of hesitation.
One example of the àpónlé phenomenon is my family’s first day at the University of Ibadan. I intended on introducing them to a few of my teachers and my resident director. My host family was out running errands and therefore we had no opportunity to see them that day, so I calculated the visit wouldn’t last more than an hour or two and we would have the afternoon to explore greater Ibadan.As soon as Moses, my resident director met my family, he began making preparations for a royal welcome-we were brought to the four most senior university officers’ offices and received with nothing but warmth, kindness, and a touch of humor, even though our arrival was more or less unannounced. Nearly everyone we visited from the Vice Chancellor (the highest ranking university officer, as the Chancellor of every Federal Government university in Nigeria is the president of Nigeria) to the Dean of students invited us to their personal homes for Christmas. There were lots of photos taken, and everyone we met was so happy to see that my parents and brother came all the way to Nigeria. The Vice Chancellor even offered to pay for our hotel rooms and meals for our stay in Ibadan! We were then taken to a wedding engagement ceremony on campus-an overwhelming experience if you’ve never been to a Nigerian style party-countless women in matching lace fabric dresses and large geles (head wraps), copious amounts of noise from a band, and gratuitous amounts of food and beverages. No later than five minutes after our arrival, the MC recognized us in front of the entire party (probably close to 400 people) as “the groom’s friends from America.” None of us had any idea who the groom was. After what I originally intended to be a quick hour or two long visit, my family and I returned to our hotel as we were exhausted from all of the unexpected visits.
One of the coolest things I have ever experienced was facilitating the introduction of my real family to my host family. It was heart-warming to see the mother that gave birth to me meet the mother that has been taking care of me like a child of her own (which is no small task in Yoruba culture).Just as my family from America brought gifts for my Yoruba family, my Yoruba family showered my parents with new outfits made of African Cloth. In addition to driving us around town, my mom and older host brother took us to a cloth market so my American family could buy traditional fabric. That day was a public holiday (the day after Christmas) making it difficult to track down my family’s tailor to turn the fabric into outfits. Due to what I have previously written about customer loyalty, finding another tailor was not an option as my family has been using the same tailor for nearly 40 years. Unfortunately his phone was switched off for the two days before we tried to go find him (we found out later that he was at church for three straight days, the quintessentially Nigerian way of spending the Christmas holiday). Of course, after we went to his shop and couldn’t find him, some neighborhood kids told us he was at church. After a full search of the church by my host mom, she emerged from the gate of the outdoor church (several tin roofs with a loud, static-filled, and archaic looking sound system amplifying the endless hours of bloviating and proselytizing by the preacher) with the tailor. Of course, the tailor was armed with his tape measure and a tiny razor, so he took the measurements in the parking lot, accepted the cloth and a meager 5,000 Naira ($35USD) with a promise to complete the work in less than 24 hours even though its a holiday. Now that’s service!
In addition to the àpónlé’s I described above, a local government chairman (the equivalent to a mayor) in Ibadan had us over for breakfast and gave my family his private SUV to use for the day. Nigerians are obsessed with cars, and image is very important here. Thus, all politicians have “official” vehicles, usually dark SUV’s with tinted windows (the most common model is the Toyta Land Cruiser Prado made in Dubai) and a tiny Nigerian flag hanging in the windshield. I felt strange cruising around the crowded streets of Ibadan in his car as people began to prostrate, bow down, and greet us as we drove by, thinking we were Honerable Olaywola himself (not seeing us behind the tinted windows).
One of my favorite new phrases to use in everyday speech has quickly become “…and then Nigeria happened.” “And then Nigeria happened” quickly became a reoccurring theme of my family’s visit. This phrase is incredibly versatile, as it can help to quickly and effortlessly explain the plethora of reasons that things didn’t go as planned, didn’t happen on time, or never materialized in the first place in this country. Perhaps the quintessential example of “Nigeria happening” is when my parents and I returned to Lagos to spend a few days there prior to their departure back to the United States. A friend had recommended a good hotel for us, and he talked to his brothers who lived nearby who also confirmed that the hotel would be a good and safe fit for my family and I. I trusted the recommendation and paid a driver to take us there. When we got to the hotel, we found it had gone out of business permanently, and our “back up plan,” a hotel next door, was way over priced, had no running water, and had no car services (which were crucial to make sure my parents could get back to the airport). In other words, we were going to go to this hotel, “but then Nigeria happened.”
I was starting to feel slightly stressed as our driver needed to leave immediately to get back to Ibadan (he had prior engagements, but I was beginning to think he may have to go back late as “Nigeria was about to happen” to him also). I started phoning friends I knew in Lagos and my friend Dami coincidentally happened to be a short ten minute drive away from us (very short in Lagos terms). Dami quickly came to our rescue, and “Nigeria happened again”, this time in the form of a blessing.He insisted we stay at his sister’s house in Ikoyi (one of the nicest residential areas in Lagos, and perhaps the most expensive in the entire country). We pleaded and explained that we didn’t want to barge in, and that we had prepared to stay in hotels. Even after being here for four months, I still find it hard to completely shake my American tendencies and my parents presence and influence only encouraged my instant apologizing and insisting that we go to a hotel. Once again, àpónlé stepped in and we had no option. “Nigeria happened again” on our way from Lekki (a peninsula in the Lagos Lagoon CHECK) to Ikoyi (the neighborhood north of Victoria Island where Dami’s sister Tope lives), which should theoretically be a fifteen minute drive without traffic. Lekki is a newly developing area, so there was insane gridlock traffic all the way back as they are still building and expanding the main road. Dami proclaimed in his always jolly voice that this is just the reason why he drives an SUV. He took a hard left and headed straight for the beach! Within five minutes, we were cruising in the sand along the Atlantic Ocean to avoid traffic! In other words, we were going to drive on the road and wait in traffic like most Lagotians, but then “Nigeria happened” and we decided to drive on the beach. This is yet another example of how when things don’t go your way in this country, you do literally whatever the hell you want to satisfy yourself. I was getting a kick out of the Nigerian beach-there were surprisingly few people-just white sand and a vast, endless ocean. As we approached a cluster of lean-tos and huts, we began to hear Nigerian hip-hop blasting and we saw people dancing. All of a sudden, the Land Cruiser got stuck in the sand and every attempt Dami made to drive it out just sank us further down. We spent nearly 45 minutes trying to get the car out, and fell victim to “area boys,” the Lagos term for local thugs (people without work who cleverly cheat and deceive innocent civilians to make a few bucks) who we paid 5,000Naira ($35USD) to help dig us out. It was ironic because the area boys are probably the ones who dug the hole we fell into. As a “nice gesture,” they lowered their original asking price or $120USD after I had a brief conversation with them in Yoruba and they started claiming “tiwantiwa ni yii o!” (he is one of us!). In other words, we thought the beach would be a better alternative to waiting in traffic, but “Nigeria happened” and we ended up spending 45 minutes hanging out with some area boys.
Everyone in the Bamiro family was so overwhelmingly gracious to us, throwing more àpónlé’s our way than we could handle. Dami’s sister Tope had just moved back to Nigeria from the Netherlands (nearly a week before our visit), and still was awaiting her shipping crate with all of her belongings.Therefore, her family’s house was sparsely decorated with rented temporary furniture. Again, I felt like we were imposing, but then Nigeria happened and all of the àpónlés their family showed us made me forget. Dami gave us his driver and his car for the remainder of my family’s stay in addition to wining and dining us. I was glad my parents got to see the contrast between very different Nigerian class lifestyles, even though both were a cornucopia of the the warm, caring, and unavoidable àpónlé element of Yoruba culture. Yoruba people are so easy to get to know, relate to, and laugh with because they are so open and willing to share everything.
The entire time my family was here, we were all recalling the struggle we went through to try and persuade UW-Madison to look at my abroad program from a fair and non-politicized perspective. I distinctly remember the director of International Academic Programs at UW-Madison saying, “I would never go to Nigeria, and I would certainly not send my kids there,” during a meeting with my family and the Chancellor of UW-Madison last spring. Replaying this scenario in my mind literally makes me laugh out loud now, especially seeing the treatment my parents (complete and total strangers here who don’t know the language or culture) received throughout the entirety of their visit. UW-Madison spent countless hours and a great deal of effort trying to convince my family and I how dangerous Nigeria is and how it was unfit for a UW student to pursue academic interests there under the university’s name. We knew in our hearts there were obviously a great deal of political and opinionated topics being brought into the issue that had nothing to do with me or the other students. Anyway, I’m no longer a registered student at any college in the United States, but at least my family and I can have a good laugh over it.
I will be here for five more months if anyone else wants to come visit and experience this completely crazy and different world I call Nigeria for themselves!