It was a Sunday morning. The alarming chime of the telephone rudely woke me up. It was my step-dad telling me to get out of bed and come to the Botanic Gardens near my house. “I am with a Nigerian guy and he has seen your videos! He wants to meet you,” he told me excitedly. Of course I scurried out of the house, hopped on my bike to see the anonymous Nigerian who had befriended my parents. I made my way through the crowds of suburbanites enjoying a beautiful Sunday until I spotted them. With his staggering height and black skin he stood out pretty well in the homogenous crowd. He introduced himself as Nnamdi Okonkwo (like the famous character in Things Fall Apart) and told me he was so excited to meet me after reading an article about us in The Punch and reading my blog. He is Igbo and came to the U.S. in 1989. The Chicago Botanic Gardens in Glencoe is the last place I would think to run into a Nigerian artist. This encounter just proves that there are no limits to the places a Nigerian might go. Such a genuine and talented artist, my parents loved his sculptures of plump women so much they bought one.
A big event happened when I was in Nigeria– I became an aunt.
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.
When I first got back, noticing the amount of unnecessary baby accessories in the United States made me uncomfortable.
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,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…
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.
North of Lagos has been a powerful communication tool connecting me to interesting Nigerians world wide. Ijeoma Emenanjo is one of those people. Working towards his masters at Harvard, he also is the founder of a media organization called Verity Africa. He found me on my blog and told me about his interest in working with me as part of it. The purpose of Verity Africa is to tell deep, investigative stories about interesting, news-making Africans. He tells them in the form of 30-minute documentary videos. He picks people who are unique, challenging and different. I guess I fit those characteristics as a white girl speaking Yoruba. He met me in Nigeria and we went to a market in Lekki, then a small town not too far from Ibadan. Check out the page on Facebook and watch the latest video of me in Igbo Ora famous for the highest twin birth rate in the world.
As the fateful day the Oyinbo’s will leave Nigeria draws nearer and nearer, the number of send forth parties gets higher and higher. Our Yoruba Flagship Center hosted a party for us on Wednesday. The party was a typical Yoruba function with a high table with distinguished guests, lots of prayers and people who spoke on forever about the importance of speaking Yoruba. Kayode and I gave short speeches in Yoruba and the five of us even sang a song that went :
O digba, O dabo
Ki Olorin sho pade o
Ka rira pe layo
Ka maa ma sunkun ara wa
An incredible cultural troupe from Ibadan performed astonishing bata dances and Kayode joined in with his own Yoruba drums.
People told us a local television station broadcast the party on TV but unfortunately-like all of my prior television appearances here- I never catch them.
The send forth parties still continue in a non-formal setting with us and our Nigerian friends. Saying goodbye is a long process here because I am bombarded with questions from random people such as: Will you take me back to your country with you? When are you coming back? The prior question I get almost everyday. I have started giving responses like “No, because I am not a customs official and cannot give you a visa,” or “I can take you if you can fit in my luggage.” And to the latter question, I simply say “Mi i ni pe/I will not be long.”