A Royal Naija Visit….”and then Nigeria happened”

3 Jan

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.

Ibadan

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.

A wedding engagement ceremony-we quickly became one with the crowd

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.

BBQ Snail-a delicacy here

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.

My family and resident director with the Dean of Students, Vice Chancellor, and Registrar of the University of 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).

Two families became one

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.

at the cloth market

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.

Dami and his wife Tosin

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.

stuck in the sand

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.

Our gracious hosts-the Edun's

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!

My two moms

my parents and younger brother in their new native wear

The Government Chairman who gave us his car

Meat in Nigeria is rarely refrigerated and sold on the street where it is susceptible to diesel and trash fire soot, flies, and whatever else nature throws its way-all part of the experience (and initial shock)

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Omolúwàbi…E se! A dúpé!

31 Dec

Prior to coming to Nigeria, many people (particularly at UW-Madison) tried to paint the worst picture possible about this country. I was told about the intense and ever-present dangers of armed robbery, kidnapping, financial scamming, and other potentially life-threatening situations such as disease that I would surely fall victim to should I come to Nigeria. Obviously many of these adversities are unfortunately a part of everyday life in Nigeria, but they are also in America (just not at the same magnitude). In Ibadan, one of the more peaceful cities in Nigeria (that is if you don’t count traffic craziness, noise, and pollution), I have never felt unsafe. Most of what gives Nigeria a bad wrap happens in the Niger Delta (the oil rich region where oil companies have been uprooting native citizens for years, who have thus turned restless and began fighting) and parts of the north. Obviously these parts of the country are more dangerous, but it is not as if it is impossible or a bad idea to visit these places. I am constantly thinking about how I had to withdraw as a student from UW-Madison because of the so called “dangers” and “risks” in this program, and how the school absolutely could not be a part of something so dangerous. UW often quoted a former ambassador to Nigeria in their attempts to persuade me not to go, who like most of the staff I have met at the American Consulate in Lagos, holds a fearful stance toward this country, mostly because of fear of the unknown. This former ambassador was quoted to say things about Ibadan such as “the University of Ibadan’s educational facilities are sub-par and dilapidated.” True, the University of Ibadan does not physically resemble UW-Madison, but within the context of Nigeria it is a very nice place and achieves a great deal academically. I did not come here expecting to have the exact experience I had at UW Madison. Had I wanted the same type of experience, I would have gone somewhere in the western more-developed world, or perhaps chosen one of these programs-http://www.theonion.com/articles/report-more-colleges-offering-dickaround-abroad-pr,18092/. One of the reasons Nigeria is appealing to me is how different it is from America, and how little the general American population knows about this place (even some so-called experts working for the State Department here seem very out of place and out of the loop). Not to say these people are not educated, but as someone who has taken it upon himself to actually get to know the language, the people, and the culture here, you have a lot less to fear when you have built relationships with people and actually know how to read situations through their own cultural lenses. Coming to understand a place so incredibly different from where I came from is what has been the most rewarding, beneficial, and is what has really changed my view of the world and of people forever.

A fine example of a situation completely contradictory to the rumors people tried to scare me with happened to me about two weeks ago. I was in a danfo (“bush taxi” or public transportation van) in Ibadan going out to lunch with Keegan and Lauren, two of the other American students in my program. After I had paid the danfo fare, I put my wallet in my lap, thinking I would transfer it back to my pocket in a second. Suddenly, a motorcycle driver drove in front of us perpendicular to our direction of travel when we were traveling nearly 25 miles per hour. The danfo driver swerved, slammed on the brakes, and the driver began the usual shower of insults at the okada/motorcycle (O ti yà wèrè! Eranko! Ori e ti darú!), all of which are very common to hear on the wild roads of Ibadan. Somehow in this chaos, my wallet fell off my lap, on to the ground, and completely off my radar. I got off the danfo at Dugbe, the “downtown” area of Ibadan so to speak, and we proceeded towards the Koko Dome, our lunch destination. Totally parched, soaking wet from sweat, and very hungry, I was relived to finally arrive after the half an hour long van ride followed by a 20 minute walk in the hot sun. The smell of Lebanese mezzo, beer, and the sight of the cool clean Koko dome pool made me forget about the layer of soot from trash fire smoke and diesel exhaust covering my skin. I began to feel like I was in a 1960’s James Bond movie. I began to instinctively pat my pocket to make sure I had my wallet. I panicked when it wasn’t there, then remembered my stupid move of not returning the wallet to my pocket in the chaos of the okada cutting us off. I quickly ran back to where we got off the danfo, weaving my way between cars, market women, men pushing wheelbarrows, and the other usual obstacles of the crowded Dugbe market. Trying to find a specific danfo in Ibadan is literally like looking for a needle in a haystack. All of the haggard, old, loud, rusting late-model Toyota vans look the same, and all the drivers and conductors resemble each other. I remembered the danfo we were in had an unusually “nice” ceiling (a cheap peace of plastic taped to the ceiling that looked like wood grain), so I ran half bent over trying to look inside at the ceiling of each danfo I passed. So many people were yelling, “Oyinbo, kí ló n wá? Níbo ló n lo? Kí lo n se? Kí ló n se e?” Which means, white man where are you going? What are you doing? What are you looking for? What’s wrong with you? I didn’t care, I just wanted to find my wallet. After an inevitable lack of success, I reluctantly returned to the restaurant, feeling better that at least I had tried. I only had 300 Naira (2USD) in my wallet. Slightly more importantly, my debit card and University of Ibadan ID card were there, but I could replace them with time. I relaxed and ate a Lebanese chicken kabob and drank a cold Heineken, forgetting about my issues.

The next morning I woke up extremely early to get to the bank to cancel my debit card. On the way, Moses, my resident director called me saying someone had called him to let him know they found my wallet and were going to return it! I remembered that I had an “in case of emergency call this number” card with Moses’s number in my wallet. I quickly met Moses and we ran to Sango, a neighborhood in Ibadan to meet the man and collect my wallet. Unfortunately, this again was like looking for a needle in a haystack, as the man didn’t have a phone of his own and had called us from a call center. He gave us no specific place to meet him. Moses had to go meet someone else for a meeting so he gave me his phone and I waited for nearly an hour. Then, I began walking around Sango thinking that the man knew I was white (due to the picture on my ID card) and that he would recognize me (I was literally the only white man in Sango at the time, or at least that I saw). After another half hour of no luck, the man finally called me and after a few broken conversations we found each other! Everything in my wallet was there! He had taken a little money out to use to call me but obviously I was fine with it. I took him back to UI so I could give him more money to compensate him for the incredibly nice deed he had just done for me, and so Moses could thank him in person.

Although there are bad people in Nigeria, there are bad people all over the world. Unfortunately the bad people in Nigeria make it to the news more often than the good, even though it is strikingly obvious that the good outnumber the bad by far. As in any place as a foreigner, you must be careful. At the same time, Nigerians are so nice and so incredibly, overwhelmingly hospitable to visitors, I would almost (emphasis on almost) expect someone to return my wallet to me. I certainly did not expect it was beyond flattered that this nice guy had spent nearly 24 hours trying to locate me in a city of five million people. This man is a true Yoruba “Omoluwabi” (translation-child of god we gave birth to, the ideally perfect Yoruba child who exemplifies amazing character traits). This situation really made me think hard about the horrendous picture that was painted of Nigeria before I came, and my own mental picture I hold now. Although NIgeria isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing place (especially in Ibadan), there are some amazing people here. I will also think twice about leaving my wallet out of my pocket for any amount of time and probably be overly anal about making sure it is in my pocket.

Child Naming Ceremony-“Isomolorúko”

14 Dec

As promised two entries ago, I will now explain the Yorùbá tradition of the child naming ceremony. When a child is born in America, the name is often times chosen days, months, or even years before the actual birth. Although there are exceptions to the rule, a child born in Yorubaland doesn’t receive its names until about a week after the birth. Once the mother has had a bit of time to rest, the Yorubas hold a child naming ceremony to officially welcome the child into the world, give it praises and prayers to see it has a successful life, and most importantly: name it.

The new baby with her parents and grandparents

The child naming ceremony resembles a typical Yorùbá party type of gathering in that it usually takes place outside under a tent, involves a gratuitous amount of praying, and is full of celebration. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to help my older host sister Mutiat and her husband Taoreed (CHECK) welcome their new baby girl into the world. The event was held at their house in Ile-Ife Nigeria, considered to be the religious and physical origin of the Yoruba people.

In the week before the ceremony, my parents (who had recently become first time grandparents) were ecstatic and frantically preparing for the child naming ceremony from the moment my older brother came sprinting into our flat one morning (from the room he lives in down the road) to deliver the message that Mutiat finally had her baby. It was both joyous and emotional to see my parents go through such a life changing event. The day of the ceremony, guests started arriving at my house at 7:30AM to assemble the convoy that would soon depart for Ile-Ife.

getting ready to depart for Ile-Ife

My parents had rented dishes and made a lot of food to bring to the party. As is customary in Yoruba culture, everyone who saw my parents said special prayers and greetings for them about the new child and their new roles as grandparents, and my parents said traditional prayers and greetings back. Some examples of prayers (translated to English) include “God will watch over the baby,” “greetings for a hand in water (to wash the baby, from times before diapers),” “Joy will go all around for everyone,” and “others will soon see this day of their own.” I can say these prayers and greetings in my sleep now, as every single day between when the baby was born and the child naming ceremony, I woke up between 6 and 6:30AM to a new set of visitors in our living room who had come to congratulate my parents. I was beginning to feel like our house was the office of some sort of important business man given the volume of daily visitors.

About an hour and a half late (Africa time again), we finally departed for Ile-Ife. When we arrived at my sister’s house, we joined mostly family and close friends who were eating a meal inside. After waiting around and talking to people for a few hours, the ceremony under the tent began.

The Ceremony

My family is Muslim, so they followed Islamic traditions with the naming ceremony. Verses from the Koran were read, and Muslim prayers were recited in unison. I can’t speak Arabic, but after this day I can say a few things such as “Thanks be to Allah,” and “Allah willing” due to the gratuitous amounts of time I heard these phrases.

Naira!

The parents and grandparents sat at the front of the tent and passed the baby around as it was given prayers and praises. Money was also collected four or five times for various reasons: care of the baby, care of the mother, general donations, etc. Large silver platters were passed around and each person put a few Naira (or a lot of Naira if you were one of the grandparents) on the platter. After not giving money the first round, Abike and I were guilt-tripped into quickly giving a crisp 500 Naira bill when the MC called us out, “Oyinbo, how much have you given!?!?” when it was our turn. Finally, each of the grandparents gave the baby a name they thought would be fitting. Money was again given by the audience for each of the names that was called. Finally, a slip of paper was handed out with all of the baby’s new names-ten in all.

It is common for a baby to receive at least ten names at a child naming ceremony. Each friend and family member can offer a name. Over the first few months of the child’s life, the names that people call the child by the most are the ones that stick (obviously the parents also have a large influence on this). However, if an elderly person gives a special name to a child at a naming ceremony, he/she may call the child by that name for the rest of its life, even though no one elses refers to the child by that name.

Lots of names!

Names are an extremely significant part of Yoruba culture, and I am genuinely embarrassed to tell people I don’t really know the meaning of my english name. Names in Yoruba are like a sentence-they all have a deep meaning, usually having something to do with wealth, the crown (royalty), joy, or God. Numerous categories of names exist-there are praise names, names that describe the circumstances of the birth of the child (time, place, breached birth, etc.), special names for twins (the Yoruba people have a higher incidence of twin births than any other cultural group in the world), and many more. Names are believed to help predict the future of a child’s life, as well as giving the child an expectation and code to live its life by.

After the ceremony (which lasted about an hour) finished, every kind of Yoruba food you could imagine was available to eat. Various friends and extended family members popped in and out to greet the new parents, get a bite to eat, and socialize all afternoon. I brought my talking drum with me and entertained some of the guests. I met a lot of interesting people and overall it was a cool experience.

Socializing with Friends

My mom (right), a happy new grandmother

Guests during the ceremony

Inside of the compound where the ceremony took place

Èkó ò ní bàjé oooooo!

9 Dec

As some of you know, our group of students was planning on taking a trip to Ghana through Togo and Benin over the last two weeks. Unfortunately, the “Nigerian factor/mentality,” as our teachers call it (people lying to us, cheating us, taking our money, refusing to begin any work on time, seeing white people as an endless source of money to exploit, etc.), we were unable to accept visas or find any success in going on the trip despite the fact that we spent nearly four weeks working hard to get everything in place. Despite the frustration, a few of us were graciously hosted by a friend in Lagos, Africa’s most populous city. I had an amazing time to say the least.

Lagos is one of the most interesting places I have ever visited and I think I can say it is one of my favorite cities. While following typical paradoxes that hold true through out this country (i.e. everything is possible and impossible at the same time), I found it to be one of the most vibrant and charismatic places I have ever visited. As one of Africa’s most populous city, Lagos is often dubbed as one of the world’s most dangerous cities. It is also on the United Nations’ list of “mega cities” along with places such as Mumbai, India. Lagos’ population is estimated to be between 14 and 18 million people. Therefore, typical side effects of rampant and rapid urban sprawl are impossible to ignore-absolutely horrendous traffic, noise, complete congestion in every sense of the world, and a plethora of less than pleasant aromas. That being said, Lagos has a lot to offer that is extremely difficult if not impossible to find throughout Nigeria and much of West Africa. I have been to Lagos twice prior to this visit, but only very briefly (you can see my impressions in my earlier entries). Although it is an impossible task to try and put my entire experience over ten days into a tiny blog post, I’ll try and pick a few highlights.

Nigeria is very much a split class society-it is a unique country as there is virtually no middle class (by the American definition). Most of the country is slapped with uncontrollable unemployment, a lack of basic infrastructure that is sufficient enough to support the entire population, and a horribly corrupt government that hurls all of these difficulties into a self-fulfilling cycle that is extremely deeply rooted in society and nearly impossible to break. That being said, there is a smaller percentage of the population with such an excess of wealth, they can’t spend their Naira quick enough to keep up with the supply. Most of these people are given seeds to plant money trees because they are oil company executives or politicians. (Interesting fact-much of Nigeria, especially Oyo state where I live has no personal income tax or sales tax. Only businesses pay any sort of tax, which helps explain why social amenities are often lacking and the rich can get filthy rich with ease). There are two Yoruba slang terms to describe the two classes above- “Ajepákí” (literally those who eat cassava), and “Ajebótà” (those who eat butter). The Ajébótàs are often dubbed as elitist, exclusive, extremely condescending, and apathetic to their inferiors (the Ajepakis). Although the majority of Lagos is populated by the lower class of Ajepakis, but there is an extremely high concentration of Ajebotas, perhaps the highest in the country (approached by Abuja, the nation’s capital). The influence and quantity of Ajebotas, as well as the least corrupt and most respected state government in Nigeria (two thumbs up for Babatunde Raaji Fasola, the Lagos State Governor) has led to the creation of a very posh (or “tush” in Nigerian slang) area of Lagos. Although it is hard for one to look at this type of excess gluttony after living in a city like Ibadan, it was a great escape for an American to feel like he was on vacation. The brick paved roads, brand new Mercedes Benz’ and Land Rovers, humongous mansions, fancy restaurants, hip nightclubs, and finely dressed Lagotians swaggering left and right made me genuinely forget I was in Nigeria at times (that is until the power went out or someone approached the car window trying to sell a completely random product). It was also freeing to see other foreigners, as in some neighborhoods they seemed almost common. This was evidenced by the fact that I wasn’t continually hissed at, yelled at, asked intrusive questions from across the street (“White man! What’s your number? Where are you going? Give me money! etc.) like I am subjected to literally everywhere and all the time in Ibadan. It was nice to feel like I was no longer the center of attention for once, as not as many people were staring at me, yelling at me, or approaching me to touch me.

Espresso and Gelatto...was this a dream?

Some of the things I enjoyed the most in Lagos were going to a modern movie theater with all the new American movie releases,eating amazing food (Indian, Italian, Thai), drinking espresso (in a country where you are condemned to NesCafe, similar to drinking turpentine, if you look to real coffee for your daily caffeine fix), visiting one of the coolest jazz record stores I’ve seen in the whole world (in a country most people don’t know what jazz is),

Thai Food

attending an outdoor concert with close to one million people that went from dusk to dawn (I arrived around 3am and left at 5), walking through the most crowded and congested place I’ve ever set foot in my life (the market) to buy insanely cheap jeans and Prada shoes, and as anywhere else in Nigeria, being accepted by our amazing hosts as their own children.

 

Although we spent ten days in Lagos, I feel like there is a lot I still have not yet explored. Even though Lagos also sucked the liveliness out of my bank account (most things are extremely expensive, especially compared to the rest of the country), I feel a magnetic attraction pulling me back to the city. My parents are coming to visit me from America in slightly less than two weeks. Although I’m a little nervous about their visit (it can be quite intimidating and difficult to come to this country as a foreigner knowing little about it and not understanding any of the languages here), I’m also excited for them to see how I have been living and what I’ve been doing for the last three months. I definitely plan on taking them to this wonderful charismatic city that the Yorubas refer to as “Èkó,” so they too can get a taste of it. Èkó ò ní bàjé ooooo!

The group with our friend Afo (left), his mom (middle), and his grandfather who took us in as their own children

A Close Call/Flirting with Disaster

20 Nov

There is a Yoruba proverb that states, “Jàkùnmò kìí rìn dé òsan, eniabíire kìí rìn ní orú,” which means, “thugs don’t walk outside during the day and good people don’t walk outside late in the night.” This proverb describes not only the danger of going out at night in Nigeria, but also the traditional Yoruba belief in spirits, witches, and wizards among other hazards one can encounter by going out in the dark. Even though I live in a city of five million people, it is often pitch black at night out in the city. Due to almost constant loss of power and poor infrastructure (no streetlights, etc.), candles, kerosene lanterns, and lights on motorcycles (when they are working) are the only sources of light at night. It is pretty crazy and overwhelming walking around in complete congestion-body to body and car to car, at night in Ibadan as it is very difficult to see anything. It also gets dark around 7PM every night and has since my arrival two and a half months ago. (Interesting fact-daylight savings does not exist six degrees away from the equator). The culture of not going out at night has been odd for me to adjust to, as most college students in America are just starting to make plans for their Friday and Saturday nights when 8PM rolls around.

Last night, I had first hand experience with the dangers of being out at night. Yesterday, my family and I traveled to Ile-Ife, a town about an hour and a half to the east of Ibadan for a child naming ceremony. My older host sister gave birth to a baby girl a week ago, so following Yoruba tradition, all of her fiends and extended family came to her house to help name the child (I’ll explain this tradition in a later post). The road between Ile-Ife and Ibadan is horrendous to say the least, even during the day. There are frequent pot holes/obstructions int he road the come up without any warning whatsoever. These can range from three-foot deep holes to treacherously rough patches with no asphalt lasting for 20 yards or more. Extremely thick and tall foliage grows right up to and sometimes over the road, so it is impossible to see upcoming curves and dangers in the road. Furthermore, based on my observations for the last two and a half months, the rules of driving on Nigerian roads are as follows: 1.) Be as selfish as possible. 2.) You own the road and have the right away no matter what. 3.) Beep your horn all the time. 4.) Make a lot of close calls, dangerous moves, and flirt with the possibility of having an accident as much as possible. Therefore, it is impossible to relax while on a Nigerian expressway. Treacherous bumps, jostling from sudden hard breaking, painfully loud semi horns, and back-and-forth wobbling of the car from the lack of grade in the road make the experience far from peaceful.

Come nightfall, all of these difficulties are exponentiated. Last night on the way home, the beautiful sunset over the vast jungle of palm trees and other tropical foliage suddenly gave way to an ulcer-causing experience in the back seat of my family’s Nissan Pathfinder. My older brother Ibrahim was driving and my mom was in the front seat. I was in the back with Lauren (another American student) and a family friend who is also our age. The sky became pitch black. Although the expressway is a divided highway, a steady stream of cars was coming at us the wrong way due to dangerous conditions on the other side of the road. Therefore, the expressway had become a two lane highway. The implications of this diverted traffic pattern were less than calming, as rough patches in the road leave room for only a single file line of cars once every mile or so. Furthermore, many of the vehicles in the oncoming traffic were huge oil tankers. Many cars in Nigeria don’t have working lights, so it is extremely difficult to see them. Those that do have lights (especially the semis) have extremely bright high beams that are completely blinding.

Suddenly, there was a break in the oncoming traffic and the cars in front of us cut into the left lane, most likely to avoid an obstacle. Ibrahim, my older host brother slowed down suddenly, but not too much as he expected the cars in front to quickly speed up after passing the obstacle. Instead of continuing, the car in front of us swerved off the road to the left and stopped almost completely. We were now less than 30 feet behind, so my brother quickly swerved to the right to attempt to pass. As soon as we could see to the right, we realized that three massive logs were sitting the road making it impossible to overtake the car to the right. My mom screamed and my brother slammed on the brakes. Nonetheless, it was way too close of a call and we slammed into the car in front of us going about 35mph. Thankfully, the Pathfinder we were in has a huge metal ram bar on the front that prevented the airbags from going off, and also prevented too much damage to our car. The car in front of us, however, lost its trunk as it was completely smashed into the back seat.

Now I was really freaking out, as there was only a 6 foot window to pass between the bush growing over the left side of the road and the logs in the road. A huge oil tanker was quickly gaining behind us showing no signs of slowing down, its ear-piercing horn and painfully bright high beams blinding all of us. My brother pushed forward a little further and the truck whizzed passed us missing our car by less than six inches. The car shook as the truck brushed past us. Had that oil truck been where our car was, the truck and the car in front of us would have become one of the several burnt skeleton remnants that line Nigerian expressways.

We inched forward a little more following the car we had just hit, and conveniently placed about ten feet in front of the logs were four Nigerian policeman on foot with AK-47s dressed in the typical garb of a helmet and an all black uniform. They were talking to the car in front of us and directed us off the road down a gravel path cut into the median between the bush. My brother and mom were yelling in Yoruba “Why were they in front of the obstacle, what good does that do!?” As they were directing us off the road, the seeming coincidence of the placement of the gravel path, the policeman on foot, and the logs seemed all too fishy to me. My mind flashed back to meetings with State Department security officials both in Washington and the Lagos Consulate about how Nigerian police (many times robbers dressed as police) put obstructions in the road at night to get cars to stop, then harass them for money and steal things. There was no way of knowing whether these police were real or not. They ordered my mom and brother out of the car. A fifteen minute yelling match insured where the four cops, my mom, my brother, and the husband and wife in the car we hit were all screaming and flailing arms at each other and the damaged cars. The three of us in the back seat were in the car hoping the police couldn’t see our white skin through the tinted backseat windows and that we would all make it home okay. My brother then stepped to one side of the car and called my dad. I heard him say in Yoruba, “The poise caused it wasn’t my fault! They put the logs in the road to take advantage of us!” The girl in the car yelled, “Is he crazy!?” My mom also started yelling at him. After about twenty-five minutes of arguing, the other car finally agreed to leave, as there is a general consensus to avoid police at all costs in Nigeria-especially considering it was pitch black out and we were in a fishy situation. The police let us drive away, but all parties involved had to agree not to file any report and not to let the insurance companies know. This is a way for the police to ensure they were “punishing” us for not using their services. Had we filed a report, they would have asked for a large sum of bribe money. Since both parties involved were Muslim (this provided a sense of brotherhood/sisterhood) and it was strikingly obvious that the police had put the logs in the road to cause problems, we agreed to go and settle it the next day amongst ourselves. We exchanged numbers and drove away.

For the rest of the drive home, I was freaking out as this was the closest to a near-death experience I’ve ever had in my life. Images of that oil tanker just scraping by our car, and the angry police yelling at my mom and brother with their AK-47s were burned into my retinas. After several more scares with sketchy road conditions and other erratic drivers on the way home, I made a vow to myself to avoid highways at night at all costs from now on. I also kept thinking about how unfortunate it was that my family, and more so the car we hit got completely screwed over when we fell victim to the corrupt police officers’ scheme to collect bribe money. My brother kept muttering, “Had I only been able to see his number. The officers covered up their ID numbers so we couldn’t see. Had I seen it, I would have put it in my phone and immediately reported them to the Osun state police commission.” I asked, “Why can’t you just ask for their number?” My mom and brother immediately and authoritatively answered, “Hey-ah! They would have instantly shot all of us and made it look like an accident!” I could’ believe what I was hearing. I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for Nigerian citizens, as they are subject to this type of harassment every day. Due to the fact that we all agreed not to get insurance companies involved, we took on the cost of the accident ourselves, in order to avoid further police harassment and excessive bribe collection. This whole experience is such an injustice but it is a good experience to highlight how distant the theory and practice of government are so distant in Nigeria. Roadways, TV’s and radios are filled with propaganda and praise for various politicians about how they will fix this and that, do this and that, and how they have accomplished this and that. When traveling on the road and having first hand experience with corrupt Nigerian police officers, however, it is not hard to see that while many of these politicians and government officials have their hearts in the right places, a large majority of this is complete bullshit as the practice is so out of line with the theory.

Recent adventures in drumming

16 Nov

One of my biggest personal goals in coming to Nigeria, especially as a percussionist, is to immerse myself in traditional music and drumming.

My teacher Musibau and his wife at their home in Yemetu

Thankfully, I’m off to a pretty good start. Since the first month I’ve arrived, I’ve been learning the talking drum from my friend Emmanuel. Recently, I’ve also begun learning bata drums from a teacher I met at the Oyo State Cultural Center named Taiwo Musiaubata. Musibata (his shortened name) has travelled all over the world (Cuba, Brazil, Venezuela, Spain, England, France, and India) to teach bata drumming. His father and grandfather were both bata drummers. Traditionally, in Yoruba culture, children inherit work from their parents and start an apprenticeship with them when they are in their early teen years.

After taking drum lessons for close to ten years in America, the differences in the music, learning, and teaching styles have been really intriguing to me.

Plaing Iyalu for the king of old Oyo empire

Days when culture shock is getting the better of me and I’m feeling down, practicing my drum makes me feel completely rejuvenated. The fact that music is truly a universal language that the entire world understands (some more so and in different ways than others) has been extremely powerful and uplifting since my arrival.

I’ll quickly explain the two main families of Yoruba drums: the talking drums and bata drums. Each family is comprised of a set of three drums. My goal is to have a good understanding of all six before I leave, and be able to play somewhat competently. Talking drums are made out of a special type of tree (I only know the Yoruba word, sorry). The skin is made from cow or horse skin.

me playing an "iyalu" talking drum outside the King of Oyo's palace

Cow skin is also used to make the strings that run up and down the side. The drum is played with a stick/beater called an “òpá” and the pitch of the drum is constantly changed by squeezing the strings on the side of the drum, thus tightening the tension of the head. The talking drum and Yoruba language are inseparable. Due to the fact that Yoruba is a tonal language, the drum is literally used to speak. Prayers and proverbs are so well-known that whenever I play for a Yoruba person, they repeat the sentence I’m using the drum to say using words, even though the drum uses tones instead of words. The talking drum is a whole other medium of communication. It is impossible to learn the talking drum without an extensive background in Yoruba language The talking drum is made up of three distinct drums: the omele, the gángan, ati the ìyálù (translation-mother drum), in order from smallest to largest.

the various talking drums

The omele drum usually plays a repetitive pattern to keep time (similar to a cascara pattern in Cuban Rumba music). The gángan and ìyálu drums are used to literally speak over the omele pattern in a traditional ensemble. The gángan is played by squeezing your entire arm around the drum. The ìyálu, which is very large, is only played with your hands. One hand beats the drum and the other grabs usually four strings to change the tension. Ìyálu drums also traditionally have sets of bells on the front and back. The bata family resembles the talking drum family in the sense that there are three drums: omele bàtá, omelet LOOK UP, and the ìyálu (sometimes called bàbálu, or father drum), in order from smallest to largest. Omele bata drums (the smallest, group of three) are usually beat with flimsy sticks made of dried cow skin. The larger drums are beat with one stick on the small head and beat with a hand on the larger head. The video below explains in more details.

So far I’ve had the opportunity to buy an omelet bata drum and a gangan drum.

Jiroma, who made my talking drum

Both drums were custom-made by hand.They sound great and I’m really happy with them so far. I also have been fortunate enough to have two great teachers. Hopefully within due time I’ll become a true “àyàn” (drummer). I taped my first bata lesson and made a video (see below). Hope you enjoy!

STEEEEERRRRRIIIIKE #2!

10 Nov

Although today is a Wednesday, it is more like a Saturday for much of Nigeria. Tomorrow and Friday will also resemble Saturdays. Starting today, every employee of the Federal Government of Nigeria will go on strike for at least three days, possibly more. The demonstration has to do with immense frustrations over a promise the government made early in the year to institute a new minimum wage. They said it would begin in July. After seeing no change in salaries, workers threatened to strike, but the government promised a salary increase to the new minimum wage by October. Surprise, surprise, the workers have yet to see the increase. Workers are prepared to strike for longer than three days should they not see the intended result they are hoping for. In a country that is incurably religious (mostly Christian and Muslim, scary to me at times how intense people are about religion here), this has severe implications for the upcoming Muslim Festival (Eleya). Last night on the news, a prominent mosque leader from Abuja, the nation’s capital, warned that this strike has implications to ruin the entire holiday, as many Muslims around the country are preparing to leave for Mecca (the pinnacle of the Islamic religion). With a nation-wide strike in place, these people’s plans could be destroyed. Other Muslims making preparations for the upcoming festival could also be severely hindered.

This is the first time federal government employees have gone on strike this year. Teachers working under the state government of Oyo (the state I am living in), however, have already gone on strike this year from June to July, also over minimum wage and salary disputes for teachers of the state. My mom falls under this category, as she is a teacher at a public school here in Ibadan. This morning, we had a long talk about the labor strikes as she was making me breakfast (normally I make breakfast for myself on weekdays because she is at school). When I initially asked her how many times she has been on strike this year, she just started laughing.

Furthermore, all university employees at every single university in Nigeria have begun a strike today that could potentially last for over two weeks. Since May, universities in the eastern part of Nigeria have been on strike over salary grievances, particularly a minimum wage adjustment. Due to the fact that state governments in the east and the federal government have yet to do ANYTHING about their dispute, universities all over Nigeria are joining them in their strike beginning today, to help support their argument and to show that all universities are in this together. How does this effect me? It’s too early to tell, but it’s possible that I won’t be starting classes until January. Although I am supposed to start classes on November 29th, registration for non-freshman doesn’t begin until December 7th. Classes begin anytime from around December 9th-14th. Therefore, with the Christmas and New Years holidays, it is very feasible that I won’t be taking any classes until January. Welcome to Nigeria!

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