Category Archives: Nigeria

Things you find in a Prince’s bathroom

Lagos, Nigeria — July 6th

I was stunned by the heat and humidity on the tarmac in Lagos. I had been barely awake on the 08:00 flight from Abuja (which left unapologetically at 9:15), bearly registering the sunrise over the hills or the outlying slums and satellite towns we passed on the road out of the city. Those are where many of the people who work in Abuja live — the farther inside the city you go, the richer people get. I should know, living in Maitama, which has been colonized by diplomats.

I was quite out of it, although upon arriving at the airport my gutter-mind was awake enough to make me laugh at Virgin Nigeria’s two, somewhat contradictory, slogans: “Very Nigeria. Very Virgin” and “Touching the right spots.” We stood long at the empty check-in counter until Victor — the James Bond of expeditors — sauntered into some back office and flirted a female attendant into action.

This was only a one-night trip, tagging along while my dad Had Meetings, but after everything I’d heard about Lagos it wasn’t one I was going to miss. A cultural center and former capital, Lagos trails Bamako as Africa’s second most populous city. If Nigeria is truly Africa’s “heart“, you’ll find Lagos at the edge of its armpit. The city clings low to the mainland as far as the eye can see, then spills out, with clusters of skyscrapers, onto numerous islands along a lagoon and in the South Atlantic. Shanty towns blanketed in smog, houses on stilts, and wooden fishing boats line the shores.

Lagos is the L.A., New York, Houston, and Chicagos of Nigeria all rolled into one — and feels like it has as many people. It has the water culture of Venice (minus the grandeur and tourist bent), Miami’s tropical-coast atmosphere, London’s night life, Mumbai’s art scene, and Johannesburg’s soaring crime rate. Above all, it is a place Nigerians both long for and can’t get out of fast enough.
Like many Abuja residents, Ngozi and Abimbola (friends from work) were raised in Lagos, moving North from a city that was overflowing. They both laughed when I asked what it was like. The whole place floods when it rains, they said. The traffic is so bad it can take hours to drive a couple of miles. Ike recalled visiting Lagosian friends who taught him to jump into moving Danfos (share taxis) because the ones there never pull over. They all gestured emphatically and used words like “crazy”.  It reminded me of how movie characters talk about the pace of NYC. The verdict seemed to be that I would definitely find it, if not enjoyable, then at least “interesting.”
       “Lagos, it’s great to visit but not a very nice place to stay,” Ngozi said. But she was smiling and staring whistfully out the window when she said it.

So yes, walking into what felt like a sauna woke me right up. The traffic really was as bad as everyone had said, but that just gave me more time to stare at the throngs of people.  Dad had been to Lagos many times and had gotten into the habit of playing “Go-Slow Bingo” — listing what people were selling in between the stopped cars (rat poison, TV aerials, puppies . . .).

We stayed with D., an old Nairobi colleague of Dad’s now stationed at the U.S. Consulate. Her nephew, Jeff, was friends with my sister but they had mostly lost touch and I had no idea what had become of him.
D.’s house was like some converted colonial B&B. Not even “like” — it probably was. It had once housed ambassadors. Luxurious decor and enthusiastic air conditioning made it an island within the island. Palm trees sheltered the lawn, which backed onto the lagoon. (Fact: Most Americans skip the bridge traffic by commuting on speedboats!)
I got a Jeff update at lunch, where D. served sandwiches that a visiting friend had hand-delivered direct from New Orleans the day before. Oh, the things expats do for comfort food! (There’s nothing we won’t stuff in our hand-luggage, buy in tins, or ship in quantities that will make even the people at CostCo suspicious. My mom once brought my dad a frozen steak in her suitcase.)
D. was in Lagos in the 80s when, she said, “the public power used to work. Now everyone runs off of generators.” There are more people and cars these days, but less stability. I asked if the government had andoned the public works in Lagos for those in Abuja. She shrugged.
“No,” she replied, “they abandoned them all over so they could sell generators. As always in Nigeria, somebody’s making a profit.”

“DO NOT URINATE HERE
Offender will be prosecuted
Post no bills”
— Lagosian sign

Some of the Consulate staff hired a boat to show Dad and me around. They lamented their lack of freedom — they have heavy restrictions on walking outside the compounds and driving after dark. Surprisingly, though, the Americans here seem to be more upbeat than the ones in Abuja. I put it down to the salt air and a constant need to cure their sea legs with margaritas from the community bar. (They drive to work in speedboats! I’m never letting that go.)
My favorite part of the ride was when we passed a huge Chinese ship. The crew, huddled around a fire eating lunch, grinned and waved their chopsticks at us.

 

Two of the many half-sunk boats that have been left to rust in the harbor.

Two of the many half-sunk boats that have been left to rust in the harbor.

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Lagos — July 7th

Woke to a thunderstorm. I hadn’t quite believed the “when it rains, it floods” stories so it was exciting to see every insane detail proven before my eyes. However, although no street was spared, everything just shifted into Flood Mode and ambled along as usual. The Lagosians didn’t bat an eye. One by one I watched those in the street roll their trousers up above their knees, pick up their shoes, and walk on. Apparently some people make money by “guiding” you through deeply flooded areas — and then making you pay for assistance when you get stuck.

 

 
I spent my day with Atim, our neighbor who was also visiting Lagos and staying with D. She is too amazing for words.
Atim’s job is to maintain cultural ties and foster a friendly atmosphere between the U.S. and Nigeria. While most of her colleagues deal with corruption, Atim is out exploring the spectrum of the African spirit and bringing it home. In her six years in this country she’s connected with intellectuals, artists, writers, singers, teachers, religious figures, and tribal leaders. Her deep love and respect for Nigerian heritage is infectious. As if her grace didn’t command respect already, the Oni of Ife made her a chief — a responsibility she takes very seriously. If you want to understand Nigeria’s true beauty you talk to Atim.
Today, she told me, we would be visiting the home of an acquaintance — Prince Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon, an engineering tycoon, founder of an art foundation, and owner of the largest private collection of West African art. She said this very matter-of-factly, as if we were going on a hike.

What would a real Nigerian prince be like? Was he one of those arrogant oga-types, obsessed with spectacle and looking down on others? “Oga” culture is a huge factor in Nigerian society. In rural areas the title may just a symbol of respect, but the common perspective is that anyone wealthy enough to command the title in the city probably didn’t get that way honestly. It’s ogas who hire police to move people out of their way. Oga mansions on Abuja’s “Minister’s Hill” lord their wealth over those below (metaphorically and geographically) in what a senior diplomat once called “an exercise in Vegas-style barbarism.” The wealthiest Nigerian I had met was the landlord of one of our compounds, who’s condescending attitude had contrasted sharply with the sweet people I worked with. I didn’t want to stereotype, but I can’t deny I was wary.

The driveway seemed to confirm my fears. It was lined with sculptures of all kinds, encircling a lawn on which yet more sculptures were arranged — stone, iron, brass, wood; animals, people, spiritual entities; traditional and modern, realistic and surreal. Peacocks and Crown Cranes wandered freely among them. We passed a catfish pond, a cage of huge snails, and pens for geese, doves, water birds, and tortoises.
We were ushered into the Prince’s office, where he was shouting at someone.
He was tall and well-fed, wearing sneaker-sandals that clashed with his tailored white pants and shirt. He wore a gold watch and beamed over gold-rimmed spectacles as he rushed over to shake our hands. This room, too, was packed with art, which he talked about while Benny — a woman from our group — and I used the bathroom.
It was a workin’ man’s bathroom. The tiny space housed a filing cabinet, a shelf of Nigerian Law books, a stack of small paintings, and several award placards from the Society of Nigerian Artists. I began to suspect I had judged Prince Shyllon unfairly, something he proved over the next few hours.

While we toured room after room filled floor to ceiling with one-of-a-kind pieces, some antiquities, it became apparent that here was a man who loved and respected art. He had traveled around the world and to 42 U.S. states trying to stem the total exodus of African art to other parts of the world, while encouraging foreigners to give it the attention it deserves. He also organizes exhibitions of his collection because, “the interesting thing about art is that if you just have it, it’s useless — no one sees it. You buy art to share. The sharing is the joy of it all!”
Bouncing around with a mix of regal pride and friendliness (at one point joking with Benny, who kept calling him “chief” by accident, “I am a prince. If I wanted I could have you prostrated before me, eh?”), I felt him a bit odd but increasingly nice. He and his wife, Funmilayo (the art foundation’s VP, also dressed with a subtle gold theme), shared their mission to “reflect the dignity and creativity of our people throughout the world” and make African art a tool for preserving the indiginous heritage that is being lost in the face of globalization and modernization. Something for Africans to take pride in — not just for foreigners to look at in museums.
“They are tired of the Van Goghs of this world,” he said. “I’m sure the world is waiting for Africa to show its own pieces!”

You can check out his foundation at http://www.oyasaf.org

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Floral arranging, and other uses for razor wire

There is SO much razor wire in Abuja! It’s so much a part of daily life that people dry their clothes on it. Nigerians, foreigners, rich, middle class, compounds, markets, everyone hangs it everywhere. Like mistletoe at a Christmas party (dangerous, metallic mistletoe).

From Monday
“There’s a lot of noise outside the gate.
“Must be some big Oga arriving,” Dad says. “If you’re really a big deal here you’ve got a motorcade and policemen to go in before you and clear all the ‘rif-raf’ out of the way.” I shrug off my uneasiness at the class-system for a moment to smile at the portraits of Barack and Hillary in the embassy lobby — right where the ones of Bush and Condy used to be. :)

Driving around with Housing supervisors Lance and Ngozi is a welcome chance to get out of the office. They and I spent many afternoons like this last summer, and they still have a photo of us at the entrance to their cubicle. On my return, they claimed me as their intern (back off, Travel section!) and I gave them more duty-free chocolate than everyone else.
I’m sweating, having dressed for the over-air-conditioned office not the mid-day sun, and relieved when we pull over at a kiosk not far from my house. It’s almost unnoticeable, stuffed into a hole in the wall and overhung by trees. A customer sips Mirinda — the local Fanta equivalent — on a bench out front. Our driver, Emmanuel, rolls down the window and he and Lance call back and forth with the proprietress. It’s a little like being at a drive-thru except you have to find out what’s in stock today before you order.
“Whatever’s cold,” Lance says. She has nothing cold in cans or plastic but eventually hands us glass bottles of coke, which we promise to return on our way back. She will turn them in to the bottling factory for a reimbursement. I chug mine gladly, despite having given soda up years ago. West Africa, East Africa, southern Africa — it makes no difference. No matter where or how far from everything else you go, there’s always someone sitting hopefully with a crate of coca-colas and a bottle opener. And the cost of these refreshing treasures? 40 cents.

While waiting for the others to finish an inspection, Emmanuel and I turn on the AC and talk. I ask him about the violence in Delta state. He nods knowingly and embarks on a long explanation of all things Nigerian. Touching on everything from the benefits of undocumented Ghanaian workers to government mistakes (with George Bush analogies), he concludes that “anyone who says to you that they know how this Delta thing began . . . they are not telling you the truth. Truly? No one knows.”
Traffic delays us on our way to an appointment. Nigerian roads are a major hazard, thanks to potholes and a combination of self-righteous laziness and anger, resulting in the absence of any kind of driving etiquette. (My dad has stopped signaling when he changes lanes, otherwise he’d get Carpel Tunnel or crash.) As our friend Bob said the other day,
“Sometimes the light works, sometimes not. Sometimes you have a policeman, sometimes you don’t. You constantly have to be on red alert.”

The windshield of a trundling Danfo (share-taxi) proclaims “God is My Safety,” which is good because those things don’t have seat-belts. Stretched out on one of the van’s bench-seats, camera off, I listen to the insistent honking and Ngozi’s funny stories about her nephew. On the way home I see a man bust a headlight on the car in front — the traffic moves forward and no one seems surprised.
In all this I find a strange, and persistent, peace.
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Photo Extra

The militant Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has warned participants of the upcoming Under-17 World Cup that they plan to broaden their attacks. The New York Times quoted them as saying that they take this opportunity to advise FIFA to have a rethink about Nigeria hosting the Under-17 World Cup tournament at this time, as the safety of international players and visitors cannot be guaranteed due to current unrest.”

The militant Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has warned participants of the upcoming Under-17 World Cup that they plan to broaden their attacks. The New York Times quoted them as saying that they "take this opportunity to advise FIFA to have a rethink about Nigeria hosting the Under-17 World Cup tournament at this time, as the safety of international players and visitors cannot be guaranteed due to current unrest.”

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You Are Welcome to Abuja (Again)

U.S. Embassy, Abuja, Nigeria

 

Aso Rock overlooks Abuja

Aso Rock overlooks Abuja

 

There was another heavy rain last night, almost as heavy as the mist around Aso Rock this morning. Neither the damp nor the fact that it’s just gone 7am have stopped a line forming from the top of Diplomatic Drive all the way to the gate by the Consular section — men in suits or the local Agbada, women in bright patterned dresses with expansive hats to match. I hope none of these people have faked documents for their visas, as is common enough to be a running joke in the embassy (and a cause of frustration for law-abiding Nigerians everywhere). Some wear hijabs or headscarves. Nigeria is historically both Christian and Muslim, and it’s a relief (coming from years in the States) to see somewhere where the two religions are flourishing together. It might be a strange place to live if you’re not a monotheist (or find it weird when colleagues sing hymns in the ladies toilets), but otherwise everyone gets along fine.

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We flash our badges as we drive through another gate, past guards who are running security checks on a shuttle bus. The embassy looks like everything else in Abuja — pale and unrefined. We are lucky it is, at least, finished — the half-built annex looks little different than it did a year ago, and a planned British site nearby has not changed at all. Half the buildings in Abuja seem to be under construction, and many of those completed give off a sense of premature decay. Cranes and scaffolding strew the skyline. Shades of grey and tan are in vogue. In keeping with the country’s religious heritage, the National Mosque and National Cathedral, decked-out in matching gold and white, face each other amiably from a distance. The upscale mansions of “Minster’s Hill” overlook the scene, while Federal Government buildings sit not only finished but embellished ad nauseum, their gratuitous columns and garish statues designed to inspire — or intimidate. The whole thing feels like a badly planned suburb rising from between the hills and palm trees of an otherwise heavenly West African landscape.

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The same government with the fancy architecture, which also pays women to sweep the streets with twig brushes, can’t seem to pull itself together enough to right half of its own wrongs. Nigeria is full of contradictions, mostly because the people in power tend to be hypocrites. As someone once told my dad,

“Nigeria is the Texas of Africa — everything’s bigger. And weirder.”

It’s certainly one of the most surreal places I’ve been. For one thing, they haven’t discovered the concept of tourism yet, and “customer service” is just as alien. Now, I’m no fan of exploitation or most brands of tourist, but I’m also used to third world countries that make a large part of their money from those things. It’s a relief to not see everyone sucking up to foreigners. However, the Nigerian authorities have ways untouched by the common sense other governments have had the time and money to develop.  They’ll arrest you for walking on the same side of the street as a military installation or for taking photos anywhere downtown (because you’re obviously spying on federal offices), which puts a damper on my hobby (photography, not spying). And let’s not forget that traffic police regularly pull people over to ask for bribes — “the shake-down,” I heard an American call it as we drove by one afternoon, apparently too wealthy, or white, or official-looking, to be stopped ourselves.

“They look for people who look just rich enough to pay a bribe, but not wealthy enough to cause trouble,” he said. 

“Sometimes I hear their captain shouting at them when they don’t collect enough money,” his companion replied. “It happens right outside my window.”

 Nigeria has a pretty bad reputation both in the global community and among its neighbors. A lot of its money comes from oil mining in the Niger Delta, an area fraught with militants and lacking in basics like healthcare and education (guess where the money really went?). As Alena T. says, Nigeria’s rep is bad enough to earn you street cred with other Africans for just having been there. A recent rebranding campaign (government-sponsored, of course) declared Nigeria “The Heart of Africa.” I’ve heard natives and expats call it “the real africa,” a throwing concept from someone who thought she’d grown up in the real Africa. We’ll see.

I’m getting used to the cultural differences again. I see billboards reminding people to reduce their risk of getting HIV/AIDS by staying abstinent while their spouses are away. (Philandering is an issue everywhere, but in the States we pretend it doesn’t exist. Decency or cowardice?)  Craig David is still popular on the radio. Those Nigerian “princes” from the internet? Yeah, they exist and they really live here. When it comes to social niceties, Nigerians have a reputation similar to the French (not that it’s always fitting, although I have noticed a common uneasiness towards others).

 

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 Although the U.S. Mission in Nigeria is important, there are few comforts for expats here. Shopping is limited and unpredictable. The one cinema is much more trouble than it’s worth. There are good restaurants if you are willing to search them out through much trial and error (and if you want decent service you’d better know the owner). Travel outside the Federal Capitol Territory is expensive and often unsafe, as I was reminded by the armed escort that followed us home from the airport. There are concerns in Abuja too — last week, an attempted armed robbery of an American compound ended with the shooting death of Daniel Onateh, a guard (prayers to his family).
To sum up, I’m sure you can tell it’s a bit of a Traveler’s Challenge. I have to say, however, that if you spend enough time here and make an effort it grows on you. I definitely can’t complain (which I had been expecting to do a lot of). Despite the fact that I wasn’t impressed last time, and didn’t want to come this time, I’ve had a lot of fun this week. Looking back, I can’t deny that Nigeria has been good to me. I’ve made friends and received a lot of guidance. Besides — I’m in WEST AFRICA. Nigeria’s definitely got its own thing going on, but I should be grateful to get to explore more of this region. How else will I know if it really is the “real Africa”? Silly Sarah, always complaining and never seeing the awesomeness before her. I should have remembered that age-old saying,

“Never judge a place until you’ve been there twice, preferrably against your will.”

It’ll be a saying someday. Trust me.


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