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Archive for the ‘The Little Things’ Category

A big event happened when I was in Nigeria– I became an aunt.

Me and my 6-month old nephew.

When I finally met the lil’ guy last week I was initially overcome with mixed feelings of love and disgust; that, after much thought, have transitioned into pure love. It was pretty much love at first sight when I saw my nephew. He is so well tempered and too cute for his own good, but he came with so much equipment! A play pen, fancy carrying devices, bags full of baby supplies, the list goes on. All of that stuff upset me and made me think about the difference between a baby’s life in Nigeria and America.

Walking into the parents’ house was like entering a friendly plastic jungle. Arranged on the floor of their Chicago condo was an array of bouncing contraptions, swinging devices, soft rugs below small canopies adorned with miniature, brightly colored toucans, snakes and butterflies. Everything is suckable, child-proof and might break into song if you touch it the right way.

The jungle gym living room, a baby's dream.

When I first got back, noticing the amount of unnecessary baby accessories in the United States made me uncomfortable.

A baby strapped to it's mother's back outside a church in Nigeria.

I compared the fancy strollers in America to the colorful cloths most African women use to carry their little ones on their backs and thought, why do we need all this stuff?

Babies in Nigeria and America play with many of the same little plastic toys, blocks, dolls, Barbies (a lot of Nigerian parents bring toys back from the UK). It’s not like Nigerian babies are living a deprived life with nothing but clay and sticks to play with. Babies, a documentary that follows the everyday life of four infants in four different countries,is a testament to the fact that babies will find anything to entertain themselves whether its a $100 contraption with sounds and twirly things or a spool of thread. In Nigeria,

Me and Mercy, my host-mom's friends gorgeous little girl.

I noticed babies have toy cars, rubber animals to suck on while they teethe, diapers and bottles, they just use fewer of them. So when I re-entered the U.S., it was a shock to me to see how many seemingly unnecessary items American parents surround their children with.

I pondered in the materialistic-ness of America’s babies for a while, then my good friend helped me realize something. The fact that some families spend lots of money on mother care and smother thier children with toys and things that will hopefully keep them from crying and stimulate their brain, doesn’t mean they are better or happier than the mother who ties the baby to her back and feeds the baby breast milk instead of organic creamed carrots. More stuff doesn’t make someone happier than another person, or one baby better than another. Both babies will probably not remember the toys they played with when they were 7 months old anyway…

There is no where a Nigerian mother cannot go with a baby strapped on her back. Some are even daring enough to ride 'okadas'.

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I turned on to my street the other night and noticed something was different. Even after being away for 10 months, I could still detect it. The normal eerie orange glow from street lamps towering above my little street were out. A certain tasteful illumination of plants in the garden, tall trees and spots on my house was missing. I walked into the house, flipped up the light switch (not down like Nigeria) and sure enough, the power was out.

In Nigeria when we suddenly find ourselves in the pitch black, we say “they have taken light.” The “they” usually refers to NEPA, the Nigerian Electric Power Authority which is actually now called PHCN, the Power Holding Company of Nigeria. Saying “they took the light” is an ambiguous statement because we don’t really know who “they” is. It could be one man that got paid a handsome sum to switch off power in one neighborhood and turn it on in another. Whenever I pondered this statement–that is so ubiquitous in Nigeria–I tried to visualize the mysterious identity of this “they” millions of Nigerians blame to every time the electricity goes out.

When I used this term this morning in my Chicago-area abode, my family questioned me, “They took the light? What does that mean?” Applying blame to “they,” doesn’t make sense in America. When the electricity does not work and the lights don’t turn on, we say, “the power is out.” We don’t assign the fact that the electricity doesn’t work to any person or group (“they”); the usual thing to blame when the power goes out in the U.S. is mother nature.

I can not help but think of how serendipitous it is that two days after I return to the U.S., the electricity goes out for two days (as of now, we have not had light for 40 hours). The culprit is a bad thunderstorm that ripped through the Chicago area, destroying trees, power lines and electricity for some 400,000 Chicago-land residents. It’s a meaningful coincidence that I experienced power outages so frequently in Nigeria and now I am in the U.S. to help lighten the mood of my frustrated family and friends. We experience black outs so infrequently in the U.S. that people don’t know how to handle them. They can be a novel experience; families light as many candles as possible, curl up together and tell stories. For those who live in such a mechanized world, they can be quite a nuisance. A family friend shared his woes with me, “This black out is terrible! I couldn’t sleep last night because I couldn’t get my electric curtains closed!”

Serves us right.

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Naira notes.

Nigeria is a cash economy. If you want to buy a meal, you pay cash. If you want to buy a car, you pay cash. If you want to buy a cow (which is a very common item to purchase), you use cash. Finally, if you want to buy a house, you whip out a massive wad (you might need a Ghana-must-go bag) of cash. You don’t hear any Nigerians talking about payment plans, mortgage rates or credit card debt. When you buy something you pay for it in full, end of story. While credit cards do exist, they are used by the tiny upper class and only accepted at expensive hotels and restaurants. I’ve never heard a typical Nigerian (I’m excluding the upper upper class here) talk about how their stocks are doing, but I do see little stalls selling lotto tickets all around, although I’m not sure how that works yet.

Nigerian currency is called Naira. It comes in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1,000 Naira notes. They also have coins called kobobut no one uses them anymore. I’ve been here for 9 months and not once have I seen a kobo. The current exchange rate from Naira to U.S. dollars is about 153 Naira for $1. So 1000 Naira is about $6.50. If you are buying a car for $12,000 dollars, you will pay about 1.8 million Naira. Imagine what the amount of cash would look like. Checks are more common than credit cards but they are still scarce. So as a tip for travelers, bring cash, not travelers checks or credit cards to Nigeria.

The vast majority of Nigerians do not have a bank account. An article stated that out of the 150 million or so people who live in Nigeria, only 22.5 million bank accounts exist. Many people cannot use banks because they are illiterate. If you can’t read, you cannot maintain a bank account. Many people do not want to deal with the wahala and stress of opening a bank account. When I went to open mine, I filled out my form, handed over my wad of cash then had to wait two whole weeks before I received my bank account number and my ATM card. When I returned a week later to see how far, the bankers said my money was in “ibi kan ti won n toju dada (one place they are taking care of it well).” Two weeks with no word about the whereabouts of my money? It’s no wonder many Nigerians distrust the banks and therefore choose to keep their money in a box under the bed rather than a bank account.

A recent report from the World Bank said $6 million worth of transactions takes place on the streets of Nigeria everyday. These are hand to hand exchanges of pure hard cash, no swipe of the plastic included. This probably explains why a lot of the Naira notes I get are totally brown and hardly discernible. But the Central Bank of Nigeria–the bank that prints all the Naira– wants to move away from the dependence on cash. They recently announced a plan to limit the amount of cash an individual can withdraw to N150,000 per day. That’s about $1,000 per day. The new policy aims to start June 1, 2012. While this is still highernthan the limits on ATM withdrawal in the U.S. of $200, $400 or $600 depending on the ATM, it might impact Nigerians who pay for everything, even their homes in cash.

I come from a country that covets the credit card, we even have key chain credit cards now. Many people don’t even carry cash anymore in the U.S. Living in a society that is entirely cash dependent is refreshing because I am never worried about paying my bills on time or my credit score. I still have my credit card here, tucked away in a safe place (I haven’t used it once). I don’t know if any other country is as cash dependent as Nigeria or what will happen to Nigeria as banks start limiting cash withdrawals and issuing credit cards. In the mean time we will watch with wallets open.

This is an interesting article on this topic.

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If you ever find yourself conversing in Yoruba and don’t understand something the other person says, you can always answer with “amin” because it will probably make sense at least 50 percent of the time. Amin means amen in Yoruba. Nigerians are very religious people for the most part and you can be sure that in any conversation you have in Yoruba, one person will say a prayer. For example, I have been talking about my upcoming exams with my Yoruba friends lately. Whenever I mention studying for an exam, everyone says “e máa se aseyori / you will pass,” and the response to that is “amen / amin”. Or if I tell someone I am returning to the U.S. at the end of May, they say “aá de layò / you will arrive in happiness,” or “Olorun yóo sin e lo / God will be with you on your journey”. Once again, the only response to this is “amin or ashé / amen.”

Nigeria is an extremely religious country. Massive billboards that just say “JESUS” in bold letters span over highways. You pass a church or a mosque every few kilometers. Every party, meeting and event almost always starts and ends with prayers. Inserting “Olorun / God” into any sentence automatically makes that point important. For example, if you say “Mo fi Olorun be / I am using God to beg you” you will certainly get that thing you want. When my mom landed at the airport in Lagos, I used phrases like “E joo, fun mi laye lati wole nitori Olorun / Please let me in because of God” and the security man escorted me through the door that is usually off limits to people receiving travelers. “Lagbara Olorun / By the grace-power of God,” is another ubiquitous phrase. People say things like “I will be in my office to attend to you tomorrow at 3 lagbara Olorun.

The 180 million people who make up Nigeria are either Christian or Muslim. Most Christians are either Baptist, Catholic or Anglican. Churches are some of the richest establishments here because they do not have to pay taxes, one of the reasons there are more churches here than schools. You see pastors riding around in the nicest cars and wearing the finest cloth. Religion is overwhelmingly divided on geographical lines. Most of the north is Muslim and the south is Christian. Politics must take this dichotomy to heart by ensuring that any president/vice-president ticket is Christian/Muslim. A Muslim/Muslim or Christian/Christian ticket will never pass. I have had so many experiences with administrators or business people here saying “Lagbara Olorun a máa pari ise yen lola / By the grace of God we will have that work finished by tomorrow,” and I am thinking You either do it and finish it by tomorrow or you don’t, God is unnecessary in this circumstance.

Nigerians also love asking me about religion. Any time I am out of my house on a Sunday, people always ask me if I went to church and or which church I go to. Questions like this, which we consider private matters and off limits for casual conversation in the U.S., are questions people ask without even knowing you here. Politics is a more sensitive subject here than religion.

I am an open minded person; I accept believers of any religion and all peaceful displays of religion. Religion is a strong part about who Nigerians are and a part of identity. I think some people are too religious in Nigeria and leave things up to God to a debilitating extent. People also use the veil of religion to validate their criminal actions, like thieves or money launderers praying that their crimes go well. The way some people practice religion here undermines critical thinking and self-empowerment. Praying can only take you so far and after a while a person needs to take matters into his or her own hands. Many Nigerians are religious but not Godly and use “lagbara Olorun” as an excuse for actually doing work. I hope extreme believers can use their minds more and not leave as much for God to work out. When this happens everyone will benefit, even God.

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An assortment of party favors you can expect to get at any big celebration 'ìnàwó" in Nigeria.

In the U.S. you go to your friends house for a dinner party, you bring a bouquet of flowers or a bottle of wine to show your appreciation. In Nigeria it is the opposite- the guests are the honorees. After a dinner party here, guests are the ones who walk away with bottles of wine. But a “dinner party” is not a realistic example for Nigeria because it is rare families have their friends over for a intimate three course meal. Fill a large room with plastic tables and chairs, hang some colorful decorations from the ceiling, hire a company to hand out glass bottles of Coke and Fanta and dole out heaping plates of jollof rice and amala and bam, you have yourself a true Nigerian party. At a true Nigerian party you will also always see the guests leaving with some type of personalized, pragmatic gift for domestic chores or living. What use is a t-shirt printed with the newlyweds’ picture when you could have a bucket with their picture printed on it to do all sorts of things? When I attended my first wedding here, I found it odd to be walking away from the chapel hall with a ceramic bowl, especially since the bowl had a sticker with the bride and grooms faces, date of marriage and a mention of who paid for the gift. After more and more parties, I am used to receiving a cup, a food cooler and a notebook all covered in stickers commemorating the celebrants and inside a personalized cloth bag.

Why do Nigerians do this? Kíló dé? What is the impetus for the brides parents to spend thousands of Naira making personalized clock radios, and the groom’s parents printing stickers to put on plastic fans all to give hundreds of guests at the wedding? Some people say Nigerians just love spending money. One of the names for celebrations like weddings, funerals, naming ceremonies is “ìnàwó” which literally means “money spending” in Yoruba. Others say everyone does it because everyone else does it, nítorí náà ó tí di baraku fun gbogbo omo Naijiriya lati na owó katikati fun àwon ebùn yìí. Maybe it’s because Nigerians go to so many parties in their life times that they need something useful, something they can use everyday for fetching water or writing notes to remind them of that wonderful “ìnàwó” they attended years back. If you are lucky enough to be be among the guests at a party where the celebrants are very wealthy, to lowó bajebaje, you might even get a Blackberry complete with the a picture of the newly wed’s faces on the back.

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Nigerians are particular about food. They prefer to eat at home and hardly eat out at restaurants. They like food that is plenty, has lots of pepper and is piping hot. If they eat outside the house, they like to eat something familiar, food they know is good quality and satisfying. Hence the success of the Nigerian fast food restaurants that serve pounded yam and traditional soups like egusi and efo riro. So when a Nigerian finds him or herself in traffic in Lagos, or running around all day without time for a real meal, he needs something portable, dependable and filling. The answer: the packaged beef roll.

Beef rolls. Gala, Meaty, Chopsy and Bigi


Beef rolls are the most popular, practical snack for the hungry Nigerian. Take ground beef, add a little pink food coloring, wrap it in a doughy, salty, pastry-like bread,

A sausage roll display.

throw it in a plastic wrapper and bam, you have a snack sold on virtually every street corner in Lagos, every traffic jam, and expanding to markets all around the country. Galas roll off the conveyor belts in the factory in Lagos by the thousands everyday and wind up in boxes on top of young boys’ heads selling them in the middle of bumper to bumper traffic. Unlike other snacks on the highway packaged by someone sitting in a market, Gala is a snack Nigerians know they can trust.

Step 1. Grab the roll. Step 2. Slam it against your knee like shown to open it. Step 3. Consume.


The beef roll phenomenon started with Gala, the first brand of packaged beef rolls. Gala was the one on the market and was sold exclusively in Lagos until the 2000’s. My friends in Ibadan tell me that whenever their parents went to Lagos, they always looked forward to the parents bringing back Galas.

Before biting. Notice the different colors and shapes.

In the last six or so years, my friends say the beef roll market has greatly expanded, and Gala is sold in other cities besides Lagos. You see young boys in Ibadan hawking Galas from boxes on their heads in the middle of traffic or the side of the road. Women stack them like Lincoln Logs at their stalls. There is not one place you don’t see Gala or it’s imitations, Meaty, Bigi, Chopsy, etc. I think the consensus is that Gala is still the best, the original beef roll. All my friends detest Bigi, claiming it’s way too hard and the meat is bright pink.

After the taste test.

When I first tried a beef roll, sitting in absurd traffic in Lagos on the way to the U.S. Embassy, I was very apprehensive. The thought of pink ground beef that just does not look natural, wrapped in a thick pastry shell didn’t sound too appealing to me. We Oyinbos threw it around the back of the van like a hot potato. After six months of Nigeria-fication, I accept the beef roll when I am hungry and cant get my hands on other real food. I even enjoy it.

I hear the best combination is Gala and SuperYogo (yet another Nigerian treat). People say La Casera or Fanta with Gala is delicious too. Next time I’m in traffic, I know what I’m eating.

Me conducting the taste test.

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Nigeria is suffering from an epidemic that it doesn’t have a vaccine. To date, no known researchers are trying to find a cure, but the outbreak is rampant and unavoidable. Surprisingly, the ailment has a comprehensive Wikipedia page, legitimizing it as an acknowledged phenomenon. The case is known as African Time or more specifically, Nigerian Time. No one has reported any deaths resulting directly from African Time, but thousands of people report headaches, delays, missed opportunities and schedule changes daily.

African Time is the tendency to a relaxed, indifferent attitude towards time and starting events or arriving at meetings/classes/parties at their scheduled times. It is the acceptance that nothing will start at the absolute time indicated on the schedule. It is holding a University class for 10 a.m. and the professor repeatedly showing up at 10:15. It is going to see a play at the theater that says 7 p.m. on the ticket, and characters take the stage at 7:30. You will never see an event in Nigeria that starts at 9:15 or 5:45, none of those odd number times. Events are scheduled on the hour because it is simply understood that the chance of people arriving exactly 15 minutes past nine is miniscule. People indicate start times on posters or invitations a full hour before they intend to really start anticipating people will be that late. You frequently see “6 p.m. prompt” on invitations- a valiant effort to curb the tardiness. Ironically, Nigerians love watches. Boys are always walking through traffic selling sleek knock-off watches, but apparently the time pieces don’t serve such a practical purpose. Not every institution or person runs on this leisurely clock, but it is clearly visible everyday and sometimes inevitable because of society here.

Africans are not always to blame for showing up 30 minutes late to the group meeting. Sometimes there are good excuses out of a person’s control: public transportation is one of them. The chaotic route of mini-busses (danfos) and motorbikes (okadas) that constitutes public transportation does not operate on a schedule. You cannot go to http://www.Danfo.com and see a to-the-minute schedule of when a certain danfo will be arriving at a given bus stop. You go to the bus stop, or the side of the road and wait until you see one of those dilapidated white busses zip by. (For the speed racer way the bus, taxi and okada drivers drive you should think Nigerians would be on time for everything. One of the ironies of African Time.) Traffic poses another problem. Unexpected stand still traffic jams caused by trucks that break down in the middle of the road are frequent. I have learned that the term ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival) does not work here because anything could happen on the way and we don’t have the luxury of continual traffic updates to keep us privy to road blocks. Then there is the problem of constantly losing electricity that puts a damper on plans overall.

In the U.S. and many other countries, we live our lives by the hands on the clock. They tell us when we are busy and when we are free, when we need to be somewhere and when we can leave. In Nigeria, time adapts to the situation. If Yoruba class is scheduled for 3 p.m. and there is a massive rain fall at 2:50 p.m., you can be sure no students will show up on time. The tricky thing about African Time is you know it will be late, but you don’t know exactly how late. 10 minutes? 20? 40? It can be a very problematic guessing game sometimes.

The U.S. has it’s mini-version of African Time, we call it being “fashionably late,” but it applies strictly to parties. It’s common knowledge that it is not cool to be the first one at a party. But if you showed up to a meeting at your workplace 20 minutes after it stared and said, “I am just running fashionably late,” your co-workers would look at you like a crazy person. In Nigeria, if you arrive at the meeting 20 minutes after the scheduled start time, it is likely it still won’t have started.

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