Posts Tagged ‘going with the flow’

In the past two hours the electricity has gone off and come back on three times. The first time I was in the middle of eating dinner, the second time I was reading the paper, the third I was washing dishes. Luckily I only had one plate fatality in the process. Each time it went, my living room turned into a vacuum of total darkness and I just sat there, without any light in hand, wondering if I should get up, grope my way to my room to get my torch or just stay put and hope for subtle flickering of light that indicates light is back. Sitting in the dark gets worrisome after a while because there is no telling when they will bring light back.

Black outs are daily occurrences in Nigeria. Sometimes they last for two hours, sometimes two days. These are not weather induced black outs. They happen because that’s just the way the government run electricity company works here. The power sector of the government is called the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), or more commonly known as Please Have Candle Nearby. People still refer to it as NEPA (National Electric Power Authority or more popularly, Never Expect Power Again) because it sounds sweeter saying “NEPA oooh!!!” when they take light than “PCHN!!” I’ve read articles about Nigeria’s electricity problems. Some say the problem is that Nigeria–Africa’s largest oil producer–does not have the capacity to produce enough power for the entire country. The article said Nigeria–a country with a population of roughly 150 million people–was producing 3,500 Megawatts of electricity in 2008. Madison, Wisconsin, a city populated by about 200,000 people produces about 700 Megawatts–that’s one fifth of what this country produces. I’m pretty sure no one in this country thinks ability is what is keeping the government from providing light 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

I am told that the light situation has not always been this bad, with random daily black outs and days without light. Not so long ago, over 12 years, my friends and teachers say that the papers and news networks would announce the specific times the light was going to go out. So at least there was some organization to the darkness and you would know to avoid doing tasks that required light (like washing dishes) at certain times.

I have become accustomed to the fragility of light. You know you’re used to it when you are in the middle of a sentence when the light goes out, leaving you in pitch blackness, and you keep on talking without any hesitation. Still, I cannot help but wonder who or what decides which areas of the country get light at which times. Is there some big boss man sitting behind a massive switch board flipping switches as he pleases?

At least some people benefit from the instability; the companies who produce generators and rechargeable flashlights are making a killing. My torch light miner’s headband might be the most valuable thing I brought from home. Shoot, they just took light again….

…wait, it’s back again….

This is getting confusing. NEPA make up your mind, abeg.

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A tortuous trip to Lagos and back in one day resulted in every transportation company informing us that is impossible for us to enter Ghana. Under our time constraints we could not acquire Ghanaian visas. No one had a concrete answer for us about whether we needed one visa, two visas, zero visas. The whole trip ti jasipabo (has fell apart/been ruined). So we are depressed and back in Ibadan. If you are an American traveling around west Africa, I advise you acquire your visas ahead of time or travel alone or in small groups. From what we’ve been told, it is impossible for us to get Ghana visas in Nigeria because we are not Nigerian. I don’t think it would be hard to travel throughout this area if you were alone however. Much of the problem, I think, lies in the fact that we are five whites traveling together. Some of the companies said that if we were one or two the driver could sort out the necessary payments at each border, but five people is just too many. Hopefully I will get to Ghana someday but I have no idea how or when. For now, we will resort to Plan B: traveling around Yorubaland, which has potential to be equally as fun holiday as Ghana. It’s a plus that we already speak the language anyway. After all, mama agba (my grandmother) said to me this morning, “In every disappointment lies a blessing.” I like to look at life from this perspective.

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Food–how we eat it, how we prepare it and who we enjoy it with is a window into every culture. Yorùbá culture surrounding food is quite different than the that in the United States and everywhere else I’ve been. The Yorùbás follow a certain set of customs when eating. While they are widely practiced, they are not mandatory.

1. The invitation to eat
Whenever you are eating in front of someone who is not, it is customary to invite that person to join you. The person without food could be a complete stranger but you will still ask them to come eat. You will say come eat, or “wa jeun.” That person can actually start eating your food if they are really hungry, or they will say may it go down well, or “A gba bi re.”

2. No drinking while eating
Many Yorùbá people wait until after they are completely finished eating the meal to drink. Not everyone does this but most older people I have shared a table with at the cafeteria do. They will shovel down their food and chug down a Fanta or Maltina (non-alcoholic malt beverage that is extremely popular here) in a couple gulps.

3. Eat with your hands
In order to explain why eating with your hands makes more sense than eating with a fork and knife it is necessary to understand the type of food Yorùbá people eat. A typical Yorùbá dish is something like a soft but stiff pounded porridge made from cassava or some type of yam (when I say yam yam, I don’t mean sweet potato). This porridge could be called amala, iyan, semofita, fufu, or eba. They are each pretty tasteless but each one definitely tastes and feels different. So you use this mashed potato like food to eat one of the many types of stews. This you do with your right hand, not the left. You take little bits of the porridge thing and mop up bits of soup, put it in your mouth and swallow it, chewing is not necessary. When you see Yorùbá people eating, it is almost always with their hands, unless they are eating rice. All the cafeterias have big jugs of water on the table to wash your hands with before and after the meal.

Amala (left) and Egusi with pepper soup (right). I wasn't up to the hand challenge that day.

4. Spoon not fork
If you do not feel like dirtying your hands, or you are not up to the challenge of eating with them, you can use a spoon. Spoon is the eating utensil of choice. Forks are rare.

5. No walking while eating
Eating or drinking while walking is taboo. You never see someone walking down the street munching on peanuts or peeling bananas (the most popular snacks here). Even drinking water while walking is not typical. It is considered bad manners to do this. People who were brought up well are expected to sit down when they eat.

6. Women only
Cooking is a woman’s job in Yorùbáland. Traditionally men planted the yams and did the back breaking work while a woman’s job was to cook for her husband. It is still the same today. I have never seen a man in a kitchen here. Women are the cooks.

7. Cole slaw pretends to be salad
The Yorùbá equivalent to salad is grated cabbage, carrots and cream, a.k.a cole slaw. So if someone asks you if you want salad, it will not be tomatoes, cucumbers and other veggies on a bed of lettuce, it will surely be cole slaw.

The list could probably go on, and over the next 8 months I’m sure I will discover more idiosyncrasies with food culture here. These are just some of the few I’ve picked up on so far. I’m just glad I’m slowly improving on taking the right amount of stew with each scoop of amala so I run out of both at the same time.

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Finally, Money!

Opening a bank account was one of our first priorities upon landing in Nigeria. We went to the bank the first week in Ibadan, filled out the forms, counted our Naira and left with the understanding that sometime in unknown future we would have a bank account number and ATM card. Four weeks later, that day is finally here. Today, for the first time in a month I withdrew my own money from an ATM. I have been borrowing money from my teachers, my mom and the fellow students for the past month. I have serious debts to pay back (well not so serious because food–the bulk of my purchases– is incredibly cheap here).

Maybe we should have been scared when we visited the bank multiple times to find out our money was “in a certain place” and couldn’t be retrieved. But we all exercised extreme patience and alas, a month later, we can access our money. The bank seemed pretty legitimate-to enter each person must stand in a metal detector vestibule one at a time, the place is air conditioned and is usually packed with people waiting in line. The most stimulating part of each visit was watching every head turn at the moment we stepped through the entrance capsule. We made fast friends with the bankers and didn’t have to wait one minute before one approached us, ushered us to sit down and help us with our business.

Now we all have the pleasure of listening to the ATM machine play Hakuna Matata instrumentals while we insert our shiny cards that display our first name, middle name and last initial (don’t ask me why) to receive our hard earned Naira.

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Church on Sunday

Like the vast majority of people on the University of Ibadan campus, on Sunday morning I went to religious services. My family is Christian and attends the Chapel of the Resurrection. The chapel is not far from our house – about a 10 minute walk. I put on an outfit I considered Church-appropriate, a blue t-shirt and a flowery skirt, and by 10:30 a.m. Wura (my 6-year-old sister) and I found seats in the crowded pews.

The church was packed tight, each pew completely full with little children, teenagers, adults and elderly, quite a departure from the emptiness of the churches I’ve been to in the States. Easily 400 people dressed in all sorts of bright outfits filled the church that morning. It shocked me how involved young adults were in each part of the service. When the band and 3-person vocal group came on and started singing religious songs in a mix of Yoruba and English, everyone danced – and not just the sway side to side dull dance. These people were into it, butts shaking, arms up in the air, full body movement. I finally let loose, shook it a bit and even mumbled Hallelujah a few times.

After the songs, the pastors spoke a bit, we sang a few hymns (all in English) then they asked the newcomers to the church to raise their hands. Of course I put my hand up. The pastors beckoned me to come to the front to receive a special praise. On my way up I shook hands with everyone I passed, all of them kindly telling me “You are welcome.” To my surprise I met Kevin, a student on my program, also a first-timer at the church, at the front, and with a middle-aged Nigerian man. Our special treat was to sit in the first pew to enjoy the service. Kevin and I entertained ourselves by playing with pew of kids across from us who laughed every time we even glanced at them.

When the service ended, a woman led us Kevin, Kayode and I to a “welcoming room.” She handed us each a form to fill out with the basics: Our name, residence, phone number and reason for attending church today. It said to check one of four boxes for our purpose in attending church. 1) I want to commit my life to Christ. 2) I want to be baptized. 3) I want to be confirmed. 4) I want to recommit myself to Christ. These options posed a problem for me seeing that I am Jewish and have no intention of converting. I sat there for a while weighing the options and finally wrote in my own answer reading “I want to observe the church services,” checked it and handed in my form. Then I respectfully explained to the women welcoming us in Yoruba that I am a Jooo and wish to attend services but not any other religious groups. She said OK and proceeded to lead us in prayer for five minutes. My plan is to buy a bible written in Yoruba so I can learn the language and pretend I’m seriously following the church service.

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