Archive for December, 2010

A hodgepodge

E ma binu. Please don’t be mad. I apologize for the small hiatus from posting. Not posting for a week after Christmas was not intentional, I have not had Internet, water, or light for that matter for the past week. My brother said this is the longest they have gone without water in the pipes since living in UI.We are all much more conscious about how we use water these days. So I have focused my attention on chores like fetching water, sweeping, hand-washing dishes and general tidying rather than writing posts. I have some experiences to catch up on in this post then.

Christmas morning passed just like any other morning. The weather was hazy that morning, a serene fog descended on UI so the vivid green of my surroundings had a grayish tint. Not exactly a white Christmas. I entered the parlor to find my younger brother, sister and their three little boy cousins in the same place I said goodnight the night before: transfixed in front of the T.V. playing Grand Theft Auto 4.

Mom and I on Christmas day

The artificial Christmas tree against the wall looked forlorn, no presents neatly wrapped underneath to complete the picturesque Christmas scene I had in my mind. Some Nigerian families do presents under the tree but it is not the norm. I followed my nose to the smell of thyme emanating from the kitchen to find my mom and aunty cooking the largest kitchen pot of jollof rice I have ever seen and a cauldron full of turkey. Christmas dinner. Between the three little boys up to no good, the constant stream of visitors and all the photographs, excitement and a certain laid back feeling that permeates Nigerian culture marked the holiday. We were all very thankful that NEPA supplied light for most of the day.

Water is another story. Something happened and someone somewhere is not pumping water so everyone in UI is experiencing a drought. Our big water tank in the back of the house is totally dry. I use sachet water to wash my hands and teeth. I am learning to wash a full sink of dishes with one bucket of water, a worthy skill.

I have taken up a new hobby in the past week: beading. My mom runs an organization that teaches women and youth vocational skills such as beading, tie and dye, cooking, baking etc. She wants to put a catalog together of jewelry and has commissioned me to help her bead.

One of my favorites that I made. I photographed all the necklaces on this terra cotta pot. They look so beautiful

So I am now a beading machine, stringing necklace after necklace. It’s a lot of fun, it brings me back to the days when all I did was arts and crafts. I will hopefully make a few nice things for myself and my friends/family at home too.

So today is New Years Eve, usually an extremely anticipated event for people in the U.S. Without all the party planning, outfit arranging and new year’s decorations, I don’t feel as much pressure to celebrate the new year. Don’t get me wrong, I am looking forward to 2011, but the way I enter 12:01 a.m. on January 1 doesn’t concern me as much this time. This year, I have decided to spend the cross over into the new decade like everyone else in Nigeria, praying. Nigerians go to church or mosque on New Year’s Eve and pray their way into the new year. I had the option of partying with our students and a few new Canadian friends we met but I figure I can get drunk with friends or strangers any day of the year at home. It is not every year I have the chance to see what New Years Eve church is like in Nigeria. Last year I welcomed 2010 at a raging Benny Benassi concert. The year before that I was walking the streets of Jerusalem. So tonight, the last day of year 2010, I am going to church. See you on the other side. May all of you have joyful beginnings to 2011.

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This is a correct song. I got a great laugh out of it. Wishing you all a Merry Christmas. Christmas in Ibadan is pretty boring. I was not able to go to Lagos where the big parties are happening. Hopefully I will still have some fun though. I’m told New Years Eve is the real party here. As my host mom put it, church turns into a Disco hall. I’ll believe that when I see it.

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Alarm clocks are useless to me in Nigeria. Every morning around 6:30 a.m., whether I want to wake up or not, the piercing caws of chickens wake me from my slumber. If you have never heard a cock crow before, it is not as pleasant as the fairy tale version cock-a-doodle-doo. It is alarmingly loud and obnoxious, especially when the cock is sitting directly under my open window. On the UI campus, neighborhoods in Ibadan and every city I have visited in Yorubaland, chickens (adie) roam free.

Chickens being chickens.

I have even spotted some brave ones dodging car, bus and okada traffic in Lagos. In the more peaceful cities, chickens mingle with foot traffic on the roads, scurry around peoples homes, bobbing their long necks as they walk. Usually you see them in groups of two or more, occasionally a pack of chicks trails behind trying to keep up.

Chickens are not the only non-humans I encounter on a daily basis. Goats are just as present, trotting around sniffing for food while leaving little pellet droppings everywhere. They come in all colors and sizes.

A goat and a chicken on the roadside inside the UI campus.

The baby ones are my favorite. Even though I have been here for four months and have become totally accustomed to sharing my surroundings with these friendly mammals, I still stop in my tracks whenever I see a baby goat to say “awwwww.” Goats are street smart. They are good at avoiding cars and okadas so you never see dead ones on the side of the road.

The chickens and goats we see all over town, which eventually make it into our soups and stews are actually someone’s property. Rather than caging them, the owners let them roam free during the day and when night falls they all return to their respective homes to sleep. When the time comes to sell or kill the animal, the owners go out and wrangle it up. Their ability to discern their black goat with white spots from all the rest baffles me, but I guess when you own a goat, you know it well.

The last creature that I see all over campus besides the standard mosquitos, flies, ants and cockroaches is lizards. Lizards–big ones with bright orange and black bodies–are everywhere! On average they are about 9 inches (23 cm) long. They dash all over walls and the ground. Smaller geckos even scamper on the walls in my house. These reptiles are harmless and petrified of humans, they just add to the whole experience.

I just thank God that I can manage to fall back asleep after the first cock crow in the morning. The ear plugs I specifically asked my mom to send from America help a lot too.

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Nigeria lives, breaths and depends on cell phones. From Bower’s Tower, the tallest point in Ibadan, you see reception towers covered in satellite dishes soaring above the sea of tin roofs. Landlines are not common, in fact very rare. In Nigeria, it is expected, almost compulsory, to have multiple cell phone numbers–a different one for each of the networks you use. The U.S. is fast approaching this level of cell-phone reliance that has been present in Nigeria for years. The wireless communication system here is so extensive and cell phone protocol so fascinating (to a foreigner at least) that I think it deserves an in-depth explanation on North of Lagos.

A table with a umbrella, a string of used charge cards and a chalkboard with available cards, in other words a place to buy cell phone credit. This one is in Agbowo, right in front of the UI gate.

Let me paint a picture of one of my experiences to introduce cell phone culture. Imagine a conference room with four American students seated at a table surrounded on either side by eight University of Ibadan professors. In the space occupied by the Americans, the table is clear. In front of each professor lays between two and four cell phones or a man purse which probably contains the cell phones. The department head is talking, welcoming the Americans to campus and suddenly the familiar Nokia ring tone sounds. The department head continues talking, as if unaware of the loud melody and vibrations. The professors immediately reach for their phones, each placing a hand atop his collection of phones to see if he is the culprit and if so which phone is actually buzzing. The guilty one is soon identified. He lifts up his phone, scrutinizes the number and picks up, all while the meeting is very much happening. He talks for less than a minute and places the phone back to its resting place, in between the Blackberry and other Nokia model. This continues to happen and has happened at every meeting I have attended here. Even the person conducting the meeting will pick up and no one seems to mind. Of course, this is not absolute, exceptions of polite behavior exist sha.

There is no place a Nigerian won’t answer a cell phone. A movie theater, a live play, an important meeting, a classroom. The only place I have not noticed cell phones is in church, but maybe I am just going to the wrong church. Rejecting calls is futile because the caller will keep calling that number and then move on to your next number. Not answering one of your cell phones is a serious matter in Nigeria. To add to matters, the caller cannot leave a voice message because voice mail is, like landlines, extremely rare. Only one cell phone number, in over 75 numbers I have called had an option to leave a voice message. This speaks to the fact that Nigerians favor face-to-face communication. Our words are in our eyes, as a Yoruba proverb says.

Nigeria uses six cell phone networks. The most commonly used are MTN, Glo and AirTel (previously Zain). Etisalat, Starcomms and Visafone are the others. Starcomms and Visafone are the cheapest to call the U.S. Depending on which network you use, the first four numbers in your phone number will differ. MTN will always start with 0803, 0806 or 0703.

  • Glo: 0805, 0807 or 0705.
  • Zain: 0802, 0808 or 0708.
  • Etisalat: 0809
  • Visafone: 0704, 07025 or 07206
  • A credit selling table near the stadium inside UI.

    Nigerian cell phones networks mostly work on a pay-as-you-go system. You do not go to the network store and sign up for a 2-year contract like you do in the U.S. Prepaid monthly plans do exist too but are not as ubiquitous as pay as you go. Here, you buy any phone you like from one of the hundreds of retailers around, decide which network you want to use, buy a SIM card from one of the many sellers on the street and bam, you’re connected. But not so fast, you need to purchase credit, what is known in the U.S. as minutes, before you can make any call. Running out of credit, buying more credit, cutting calls to save credit are all part of everyday life for a Nigerian. Buying credit is easy though. Virtually every other stall you see on the road side sells it and you always see people standing in traffic or outside busy places selling it. Credit comes in denominations of 100’s. You can buy a card for N100, N200, N300, N400, N500 and N1000. Each credit card has scratch code you dial into your phone and call in order to recharge your account.

    A credit seller who usually hangs around the UI gate everyday holding his stack of credit.

    Credit is a coveted thing. Calling within networks costs around N20 per minute. Cross networks calls are a bit more expensive. A in-network text message at any time costs N5. After midnight, calls are free. Remember, N150 is equal to $1. The costs vary for every network and for the purposes of this entry I don’t want to explain all of it in detail. It might seem like this plan is less expensive than the system we have in the U.S. but money spent on credit adds up quickly. Before I know it, my N500 card is kaput and I am hearing the Glo automated voice telling me to “recharge your account.”

    An example of a used Glo N200 charge card.

    To circumvent spending thousands of Naira on credit, Nigerians resort to flashing people. No, women don’t go around lifting up their shirts to everyone they want to call. Flashing means dialing a number and hanging up right when it starts to ring. It is a message to whoever you are calling that I don’t have credit, or I don’t want to use my credit so call me back!!! It is annoying. Some people are chronic flashers. You see phone numbers posted on walls around Ibadan with the words “no flashing” underneath.

    Nigerians are just as addicted to their phones as Americans. Everyone wants a Blackberry or a phone that can at least browse the Internet and play music. iPhones are rare here. Blackberry and Nokia dominate. You can even buy a bootleg Blackberry in the market that performs well (for a little while at least) for N6,500 or about $43. People call them Chinko Blackberry’s because they are made in China.

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    After extensive online research and going to the embassies in person, I have discovered that it is extremely difficult (I don’t want to say impossible, because nothing is impossible in Nigeria) for a non-Nigerian resident to obtain a Ghanaian visa in Nigeria. If you have a resident visa it is possible, but those of us without resident visas cannot obtain a Ghana visa from the Ghana High Commission in Nigeria. You have to apply for a visa online and pick it up at the point of entry to Ghana. If you do that, you should absolutely fly to Ghana from Nigeria. I would advise against any non-Nigerian person in Nigeria from traveling to Ghana by road because 1) the transit visas you need for Togo and Benin will cost N 17,000 (about $130) total (N 7,000 for Togo and N 10,000 per two entries in Benin) and 2) for all of the hold-up and wahala (problems) you will face at each border. Even my Nigerian host family said the border patrol gives them a hard time.

    One of my friends said he, a Nigerian, and his white girlfriend tried to go by road and were forced to turn back because of the constant questioning and hold up they met at each police check point. He said they could spend up to 45 minutes at each one waiting while the Togolese officers scrutinized his girlfriends passport and travel documents. It’s either you stand your ground and wait out the questions or give in and pay an unknown amount, he warned. The latter could get expensive and they still might not let you pass. Speaking fluent French would be to your great advantage. So if you are a white person coming to Nigeria and plan to travel to Ghana while you are here, make sure to obtain the visa in your home country to avoid all of this disappointment that I have experienced.

    One option for foreign travelers getting around West Africa is finding someone with connections (which is not hard) to help you get an ECOWAS passport. The Economic Community of West African States is a group of 15 West African countries that works to build joint economic development in the region. ECOWAS passport holders can travel to any of the participating countries without a visa. Ghana and Nigeria are ECOWAS countries. From what my local sources have told me, all you need is about N 20,000 ($133), passport photos and pam, you have a golden ticket to West Africa. The passport would be legitimate and approved. As afore mentioned, anything is possible in Naija. As for the questioning you would get as a white person holding a Nigerian passport at the border, I am unsure, but at least you have the documentation.

    One thing is for sure, this holiday season, I am staying in Nigeria.

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    I couldn’t believe my eyes. Walking around The Palms Shoprite, a ritzy shopping mall in Lekki (an area of Lagos), I felt like the sparkling marble floor between glass window store fronts was a runway and I was the most poorly dressed model of them all. My Citizens of Humanity boot cut jeans, sunflower yellow blouse, red gladiator sandals and simple black stud earrings couldn’t hold a candle to the posh attire of almost everyone else shopping that Thursday afternoon. Young girls in skinny jeans with sparkly butt pockets, clean tops, beautiful beaded sandals and shiny woven hair. Men in sport coats, fine pressed button down shirts and wide black rimmed non-prescription glasses. The extent to which some women, not just in Lagos, but in Ibadan too, coordinate matching colors deserves a medal of honor. In the mall I saw a girl wearing a white t-shirt and jeans, a big red belt, red pumps, red jewel earrings and to top it all off, even red eye shadow. I struggled to keep my gaze in front, not staring. Maybe it was because I had been riding all around Lagos on okadas all morning trying to obtain a visa to Ghana, but I felt shabby compared to the young girls standing in the cue to buy movie tickets (I saw Tangled, which I highly recommend.)

    One of my Nigerian friends and I were aimlessly strolling around the mall that day after seeing two movies. We found ourselves between the all too familiar red and white sign of a KFC and a 12-foot tall Christmas tree where kiddies could get the satisfaction of sitting on Santa’s lap for some outrageous price. I noticed one guy in a group of young men walking past us who hung back while his friends continued down past the Converse store. This guy waited, and hesitatingly approached me and my friend. Excuse me, are you Titi? (He spoke English.) Yes, I said. I saw your videos online, I’m so happy to meet you in person. I, smiling ear to ear at this situation, kindly said thank you so much. Bye, he said, have a great day. Bye!

    This is the first time in Nigeria, and in my life that a complete stranger has approached me like that to ask if I am the girl he had seen on the Internet speaking Yoruba. It surprised me so because of the setting, the mall in Lekki. Similar occurrences happen almost daily in Ibadan. One step off campus into Agbowo (the name of the area directly in front of the UI gate) and people are calling Titilayo, Abike, Sarah, (the other two names are my Oyinbo friends on campus) left and right. The news has spread that Yoruba-speaking Oyinbo women are on campus so they have a 1 in 3 chance of getting our names right. I don’t know most of them, I usually don’t look to see where the call is coming from anyway because if I did I would never get to where I need to go. It is true, I am quite well known around Ibadan, popular even. In certain neighborhoods, like where my hairdresser and tailor live, everyone knows my name. To use a Yoruba phrase, mo ti di gbajugbaja. Once UI classes start on January 3rd, I anticipate the recognition will grow exponentially. Did you see that Oyinbo in your Modern Yoruba Drama class? You mean Abike? No, Abike is the one with blond hair. This one has brown hair. Okay, that’s Titilayo. Yup, that’s me!

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    Amala and abula

    Pounding a big bowl of amala on the right, ready to serve into bowls. The orangy liquid is gbegiri and the green is called ewedu. Together they make the delicious combination of abula.

    Do you take amala? is one of the first questions any Nigerian person asks me when they meet me for the first time. When I respond “Of course, I love to eat amala and abula,” they erupt into a fit of laughter and tell any Yoruba person in the near vicinity that this Oyinbo just said she likes to eat amala and abula. Amala, or oka (if you are using really deep Yoruba) is one of the fundamental Yoruba foods. Amala is made from mixing yam flour with boiling water and stirring it very fast (ro amala) on fire. Slicing a yam, drying the skin and grinding it makes yam flour. In the picture above, the amala is already made but the woman selling continuously mixes it to keep it soft.

    A bowl of amala and abula on the left and gbegiri and amala on the right, ready to be filled with your meat of choice.

    A bowl of amala and abula on the left and gbegiri and amala on the right, ready to be filled with your meat of choice.While we were in Oyo, another city within Yorubaland, we went to a typical amala joint. An amala joint could be a few bowls on a table under a wood stall, a road side shack or a more formal restaurant. You cue in line for your amala tell them which soup you want on top then move down the line to select your meat. The meat selection process is quite intense. You stand in front of a massive bowl filled with different shaped meat pieces in a reddish orange pepper sauce and point to the pieces you want. Nigerians like to pick and choose their food. The server calls out the price of each piece as he drops them into your bowl. You can choose from goat meat, cow meat, sometimes chicken or other types of strange meats I have not tried. Then you have the different parts of each different animal. It was an overwhelming process for me, so I just stuck with no meat. You take the bowl back to your plastic table covered with decals for one type of beer or another and wash your right hand with the jug of water provided. Then you dig in, literally, to the steaming heap of amala surrounded by the pastel orange and green mixture of ewedu and gbegiri that we call abula.

    The amala joint is a unique and delicious food experience. I would love to see Anthony Bourdain critique one.

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    Facebook Love

    I heard this song this evening on 101.1 Diamond FM, University of Ibadan’s radio station. It made me laugh so hard. Even though there is very little Yoruba in it (Nibo lo lo? Nigba wo lo maa pada bo?), I thought I would share it with you all.

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    Meeting Mama Cass

    Last Sunday, the first day of our Lagos Vacation, we attended the best church party I have seen yet–an Ikeja church’s harvest party. Following the longest thanksgiving service I have experienced (and that’s not very many), the church goers convened under the shade of a massive tent where caterers in black and white outfits squeezed between tables serving heaping plates of rice, dodo, fake pounded yam and steaming hot amala.

    Abike and Kayode smiling with new friends among the squalor of the harvest party.

    After we had eaten our fill for the meantime, our friend informed us we would be staying for three more hours, so we decided to make friends. Everyone wants to know the only white people speaking Yoruba at the party so finding people to talk to at these events takes no effort at all–they are hooked at “E ku igbadun,” greetings for enjoying yourself. I made it to the outskirts of the tent where a group of important looking men sat around small tables with Heinekens in hand, slowly chipping away at bottles of Black Label and champagne on the table. Obviously I went straight to this table, greeted the baba’s and the one woman, held out my Chapman (a special non-alcoholic Nigerian fruit drink that is delicious) and asked them to top it off with Black Label. Elated at hearing my Yoruba, they readily obliged. The woman at the table took special interest in me. She gave me her business card and told me to please call her. The white and green shiny card said “Mama Cass” along the top. I didn’t think anything of it except that I liked the design.

    Chopping away at the small cow to roast it over fire and provide small chops for the party.

    I put it in my bag, picked up my spiked Chapman and merrily trotted over to see the dead cow slowly roasting on a stick.

    When I remembered to mention that I got Mama Cass’s card to my Lagotian friend he shrieked with excitement. I came to find out later, while sitting in Mama Cass’s office, that she, Mrs. Charis Onabowale founded Mama Cass, a popular fast food restaurant in Nigeria years ago when the concept of fast food hit Nigeria. Mama Cass stands among the ranks of other Nigerian fast food joints like Tantalizers, Mr. Biggs, Chicken Republic and Sweet Sensation. McDonald’s does not exist in Nigeria…yet (but I did see a KFC in Lagos). Mama Cass is a successful, powerful businesswoman and also a loving mother with a kind heart. She insisted on us coming swimming at her house and fed us the best jollof rice I have ever tasted.

    Tejiri, Abike, Mama Cass, Me and Kayode

    She is a Nigerian woman who was born in the UK and said she loves meeting non-Nigerians who come to Nigeria to live or study. Two young women, one from Peru and the other from Russia were living with her for a few days while on a yearlong internship with ISEC. I also speak Spanish quite well and through talking with the Peruvian girl realized how much immersed my mind is in Yoruba. I still was pretty proud of myself for sitting at a table and switching seamlessly between Spanish, Yoruba and English. We didn’t get to eat at any of her restaurants in Lagos and unfortunately none have reached Ibadan yet. But I plan on keeping in good contact with her through my time here and beyond.

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    As Banky W appropriately said, “Ain’t no party like a Lagos party.” He could have sang something like, “Ain’t no traffic like Lagos traffic,” but I doubt that track would sell thousands of copies and receive plentiful airtime. You can fill in the blanks with almost anything and it will make sense. “Ain’t no blank like a Lagos blank.” The possibilities are endless because as I experienced from a week long vacation there last week, ain’t no city like Lagos.

    It is impossible to see all of Lagos (pronounced Lay-gos, not Lah-gose like the one in Portugal, although the Portuguese did give the city known as Èkó, a new name of Lagos when they landed there in 1472) in a week–just like it takes months to really understand Manhattan, Chicago or London. I think it would even take years to master Lagos, the second largest city in Africa (behind Cairo) because of it’s ever growing density and pure madness. Driving around downtown VI, I felt like I was in New York City because of the wide streets, tall, not so sparkling buildings and people everywhere. People on the street in Lagos though are different than people on the street in NYC, Chicago or Rome (some of the big cities I’ve been to.) In the latter, the vast majority of people are 1) walking and 2) walking with a purpose. Plenty of people walk with a purpose in Lagos but a lot of other people are sitting or standing around the street selling things. Almost every street within the city is lined with women sitting on a small wooden stool with their market neatly stacked up in front of them waiting for someone to sell to. I cannot imagine what would happen if the city started requiring sellers to have vending licenses. The four of us who went, (three of us Oyinbos studying Yoruba and one Nigerian friend) were lucky enough to have our friend, a Lagotian, take us around the sprawling metropolis of islands from the comfort of the back seat of his Camry. (Lagos would not be an easy place to live without a car.) If we didn’t have him we would have been nose deep in our Nigeria travel book the whole time looking like dumb tourists.

    Traffic in Lagos.

    A main concern for us Americans while in Lagos was finding good food. The three of us who went, Abike, Kayode and I are serious foodies so eating non-Nigerian food that is hard to find in Ibadan was of utmost importance. We started at the Indian hotel on VI for overpriced Indian food that was satisfying, but not worth it overall. We had drinks at Bungalow’s on VI. I had a glass of cranberry juice for 800 Naira ($5.30), Abike had a bloody mary for 1,300 Naira ($9) and if we weren’t so full from whatever we ate earlier that day I would have gone nuts over the menu. They have sushi, pizza, hamburgers, nachos, sandwiches and calamari. As it goes in Lagos, everything was more than $10 a plate, but for the chic ambiance, (except for the 20-top of Indian people in the corner celebrating something and cheering every 5 minutes) comfortable chairs and AC, it would be worth it to splurge. If you are looking for delicious Thai food in Lagos, you must go to Bangkok on VI. Prices are reasonable for Lagos; each curry dish is about 2,200 Naira ($15). Rice is another 700 Naira. The service is good (they do proper wine service) and they have a nice wine list. We saw more American/European/Indian/Chinese/Lebanese people at all of these restaurants than Nigerians. On the whole, Nigerians do not like to eat out, especially at Indian restaurants.

    As the week progressed, more and more Christmas decorations appeared all over city structures. The pillars supporting the different bridges connecting the mainland to Lagos Island and Victoria Island looked like candy canes by the time week was up. The Zenith Bank building looked like a rectangle X-Mas tree, covered top to bottom in string lights. I feel bad for the people working near the windows in that building. The Palms shopping mall in Lekki, an upper-class neighborhood on the eastern side of VI that is rapidly expanding, blasted Christmas tunes throughout the mall while shoppers robotically sang along.

    View of the third mainland bridge from the University of Lagos lagoon.

    We made it to the University of Lagos, a truly amazing bookstore called Jazz Hole, the Galleria mall, Balogun market (one of the most intense experiences I have ever had walking through a crowd) and last but not least we saw the new Harry Potter at the Palms. I am already planning my next trip back to Lagos.

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