50 Observations on 50 years of Nigeria, part 1By Uche Ogbuji
October 17, 2010
Nigeria’s 50th birthday was a fortnight ago. On October 1, 1960, the British officially turned over sovereignty of the country to the Speaker of the newly independent Nigerian Parliament, Jaja Wachuku, in the form of the Freedom Charter. The new nation nearly convulsed apart within ten years, and in many ways, it’s amazing such an entity has survived intact, an agglomeration of hundreds of ethnic groups (and indigenous languages), many of which were so recently colonized by Britannia that they were not very warm to the idea of sharing political commonwealth with a bunch of circumstantial peers.
The holiday got me thinking of what it means to me to be a Nigerian, born in Nigeria, educated in Nigeria and abroad, living (and naturalized) in the USA, but with a very strong sense of rootedness off the Bight of Bonny. Nigeria is enormous. I’ve read estimates that a quarter of all black people in the world are of recent Nigerian origin. Among such multitudes there is so much to say that I’ve just begged off to a series of vignettes in a number that suits the occasion, and I’ve broken the expansive result into three parts. Please do join me in this sampler from our enormous platter.
1. Nigerians are everywhere. I’ve lost track of the number of cities I’ve visited where the third language I’ve heard, after the local tongue, and maybe English, was a Nigerian language, or Pidgin. They’re arriving with you at the airport; arguing with customs about the crayfish or bitterleaf they’ve packed in their luggage; driving your cabs while loudly playing gospel, pop, or gbedu music (contemporary Nigerian hip-hop fusion); selling wares in the city center; treating patients in the district hospital; holding meetings for the local enterprise. And unless you have a good spam filter, proposing rather more suspicious business directly to you. You’re pretty guaranteed to run into Nigerians wherever you go. Reverse colonization, perhaps?
2. A Nigerian is always a little bit hungry until he’s had fufu. Fufu, the staple meal across Nigeria is one of several starchy pastes dipped in an oily, rich vegetable stew, with varying degree of seafood flavoring and other meats. It’s probably an acquired taste, but once acquired, you’re doomed. I always chuckle at my parents who go to a party and eat the fancy food, and pop a plate of fufu into the microwave as soon as they get home. I laugh, but I know the feeling. Nothing really hits the spot the same way. Especially (for me) pounded yam with egusi soup. Bah! I’m suddenly starving…
3. Wielding a machete is a life skill. Grass and other vegetation in the rain forest doesn’t mess about, and a considerable amount of national calories goes to beating back foliage. Sometimes this expenditure of calories is rather involuntary. When I first went to boarding school in 1981 one of the things on the provisions list that all students were to bring was a cutlass or machete, as we term variants of the eponymous instrument of the recent Mexploitation flick. I soon figured out why we were asked to bring these, because I was always on punishment, and punishment often meant hours of cropping fields by machete. When you piss off prefects regularly enough to be assigned to cut a half acre at a time, you quickly toughen up so your hand stops blistering, and you learn enough efficiency to put the hero of the aforementioned film to shame. A right pain, but it does have its benefits. For one thing, now that I live in little-box suburbia, I find myself perplexed at the garden tools section of the DIY store. Lawn mowers, garden shears, weed whackers, edgers, long- and short-handled croppers. All for these milquetoast temperate climate lawns? I don’t want to pass a college course to figure out what to use for what. Just give me one tool. Just give me a machete, and with its familiar heft in my hands, I’ve got it all covered in record time. And oh by the way, since I can’t always be arsed to keep a Disney grade lawn, it’s good for the neighbors to see me striding about expertly shredding shit with a machete, since it probably reduces their inclination to complain about my patch.
4. Strict and lax parents can both create punks and paragons. Nigerians are certainly are not alone in our culture of strict and sometimes aloof parenting. This style is common in other African and Asian countries, and when I find my hair standing on end at the continuing practice among some cultures of honor killings, I realize Nigerians in general are probably nowhere near the extremes¹ (though now that Taliban-like movements are creeping into the Muslim North of the country, I dread that such nonsense as filicidal honor might come along for the ride). My own personal experience, however, is of friends and relatives showing an extraordinary complex continuum of harsh and distant with indulgent and nurturing parents. Very personal indeed as my parents generally sent me to spend a month or so each summer under care of a relative or close family friend, as is customary in Nigeria. There are a variety of reasons for this custom, from bonding families to giving kids a some variety in their discipline. As it happened, in my case, all my hosts turned out to be more indulgent of me than my parents ever were.
I do carry some prejudice that a harsh parent will produce a virtuous child, but when thinking of people I know, it’s not hard to admit the poverty of any such actual correlation. Yet style of parenting is one of those cherished cultural artifacts, and I do enjoy while in Nigeria hearing the crisp “yes sirs” and “yes madams;” I do very often find myself thinking of other children in the US: “what that pestilential brat needs is a good backhand across the mouth,” and by extension I mutter, like Russell Peters, “Come on, white people, beat your kids!” I do miss the chaos of communal parenting, though the latter might not be as attractive if I lived next to the likes of the cruel father of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant but harrowing novel Purple Hibiscus. To be fair, I found him an entirely alien character, far more terrible than anything in my own experience, and he was inspired to monstrosity by Catholic fanaticism rather than traditional Igbo values.
5. There is no green like rainy season green. This one will be short, because words are a vanity in explaining just how green it gets during the Nigerian monsoon. You find yourself checking your skin now and then for your reassuring brown, and feeling your hair for sprouting vines as upon the dada windseeker heroine of Nnedi Okorafor’sHarmattan wind, originating in the Sahara desert, symbolizes the north.. The rain comes in sheets, as if giants are standing on the clouds and tipping buckets of water on your head, and in response the canopy comes alive with its many verdant shades and boldly imposes itself upon everything. Untended surfaces sometimes get taken over by green creepers and even algal muck. Of course this represents about half the country, which stretches from rain forest in the south to dry savannah in the north. If the assault of green symbolizes my ancestral homeland in the south, the dry
6. Malaria is such a pain in the arse you forget to be grateful it hasn’t killed you. When I emigrated from Nigeria to the US in 1990, I brought with me a malaria infection. No big deal, right? I went to see a doctor at the New Jersey hospital and told him it felt like malaria, and remarked in passing I’d arrived from Nigeria a week prior, fully expecting him to rummage in a drawer and hand me some blister-packs of Chloroquine, as seemed normal. Instead he blanched, and before I knew It I was ushered through the hospital corridors to a special room with an ominously thick door, where I was left alone for a bit, and after a while someone came in saying he was from the Centers for Disease Control. I looked at him: “I think all I have is a bit of malaria.” After the initial drama, they did in the end just fill out a ton of paperwork and sent me home with some fancy Malaria drug (not Chloroquine). But that was my first inkling that something I’d pretty much taken for granted most of my life was treated as an apocalyptic affliction in some quarters.
Eventually I learned this was with good reason. The female anopheles mosquito spares no one, and you can burn mosquito coils and huddle under mosquito nets all you like, but malaria is eventually going to get you. For those who have not had the pleasure, think of the worst flu you’ve ever had. The headaches and whole body aches, the weakness, the chills, the nausea and lack of appetite, etc. Two or three days of agony. But almost universally in Nigeria drugs such as Chloroquine and Fansidar could be had at any roadside kiosk, and you swallow them in fufu, deal with the annoying side effects (e.g. a nasty metallic taste in the mouth and sometimes a nasty, deep-seated itch for a day or so in the case of Chloroquine), you wait for the fever to break, and you enjoy the 6 months or (if you’re lucky) year until the next affliction. This availability of drugs is not the case in the poorest parts of Nigeria, nor in many other countries. It was a bit of an eye-opener for me to learn just how pervasive a peril the disease is, and its worldwide mortality rate. I left Nigeria before drug-resistant strains became very established, and now I accept universal prevention and treatment of Malaria as perhaps the most humane cause on earth. It does put a strange gloss on the almost nostalgic glow of my erstwhile, regular encounters with the damned parasite.
7. Forget clothes. Dance fashion is the real deal. Four out of five of my years boarding in secondary school, uniforms were required. One pair of shirt/short patterns for the school day, and another for all other times. When I went on to university, I was staggered at the new vibrancy of fashion in clothing, but really, the basic designs didn’t change so often (I read about high school fashion waves here on TNB with some puzzlement). As long as you could get by respectably attired (which I couldn’t always manage for a variety of reasons) it was generally socially safe to neglect the threads, as long as you could put down the latest dance on the floor. If the chart-topper of the day switched from Bobby Brown to Teddy Riley, you’d better not be caught still doing that Bobby Brown dance. Dance fashion was ruthless but exhilarating. I look at that Evolution of Dance video thinking “hmm, that looks like about one summer’s worth of step changes to me. And BTW dude, you need an urgent transfusion of panache.”
8. Military coups are a fascinating shade of suck. You hear whispered rumors the day before, and then one morning you wake up and all the radio stations are broadcasting a maniacal sequence of martial music, and just when you’re thinking “will someone turn off that John Sousa shit!” the rasping voice of some Lt. Colonel comes on declaring a change of government, in the name of the great people of Nigeria (yeah, right!) and the imposition of a dusk till dawn curfew. Just great! Another junta of scallywags positioned to take their turn siphoning from the national treasury. Maybe there’s been bloodshed. Maybe not. For a week there is tension everywhere you go in the streets. Soldiers have taken over from police at the ubiquitous highway checkpoints. Their red eyes suggest they’ve been chewing and smoking things that might exacerbate the already itchy trigger fingers on their submachine guns. Over time, things seep back to normal, and you’re just glad no one has had to make any headlines about you. I was a school boy in Nigeria through three military coups, including one which deposed the beneficiaries (from President Shehu Shagari on down) of one of the most blatantly corrupt elections you’ll ever see, just to see him replaced by a succession of even more corrupt military dictators (starting with Buhari) following each other in tit-for-tat coups. There were also a few abortive coups mixed in, which generally led to the same few weeks of tensions. You can still catch me musing ruefully over that sordid timeline.
9. Fela Anikulapo Kuti. ‘Nuff said. We’ve always known he’s the man. Nice to see the world catch up. Probably the two most enduring jump-offs at any Nigerian party (or any African party at all) are Prince Nico’s Sweet mother and Fela’s “Lady”. The following embed is audio only, so go ahead and play it while you read on.
10. Peace to the gulf and the bayou, but we’re losing Eden itself by pollution of the Niger delta. All the rightful anxiety over the BP gulf spill helps put into perspective the slower catastrophe in the River Niger delta. I’ll have to say more about the curse of mineral so-called wealth before I’m done with this series, but I start by remembering the several boat trips through the tidal waterways and mangrove forest south of Port Harcourt (at whose university my father lectured for a few years) and Calabar (the city of my birth). These far south regions are a veritable paradise of plant and marine life diversity, the utter maximum of the prodigious green I remarked earlier. There is enough force of Mother Nature there to cover up a lot of foul waste, but the petroleum industry and Nigerian Governments have conspired to push their carelessness and neglect beyond any conceivable capacity. To be fair to the media I did catch a few examples of attention derived from the BP disaster wake-up call. “Nigeria’s agony dwarfs the Gulf oil spill. The US and Europe ignore it.” (The Guardian. A headline I find rather obtuse about the fact that primary responsibility lies with Nigeria.) “Oil Spills Occur Almost Weekly In Nigeria.” (NPR audio).
11. Queueing up for fresh water by the bucket sure helps you appreciate the stuff. Nigeria has two great rivers, the Niger and the Benue, and a profusion of smaller waterways and lakes. We have an extensive system of aquifers that spider up from the coast. We’re blessed with plenty of fresh water. Not so much with integrated systems of municipal pipes. Most businesses and many houses do take advantage of the aquifers to establish running water on site from boreholes, but this is not universal, so not long after you arrive in the country, a favorite sound becomes the rumble of a coming water tanker. You queue up with a few buckets and jerry cans, and apply all your ingenuity into schlepping as much water as you can to the domicile, for a bucket bath, for cooking, for a nice, fresh, crisp drink. It sounds like a pain in the arse, but I cherish the strange magic of the experience. There is also an unexpected downside. In the early 90s, it became popular to sell water in small plastic bags, “pure wata,” as the roadside hawkers called it. the resulting layers of discarded water bags became a serious environmental problem throughout the country. Calabar set an example earlier this decade by banning “pure wata” bags, and the difference was spectacular. I can only hope more cities have followed suit.
12. “Ghana must go” was a rather shameful incident. I was talking about fashion earlier. One of the most confounding moments I’ve ever had observing haute couture was a few years ago when a friend sent me a photo from the Louis Vuitton runway show. No caption was required. “Is that a fucking Ghana Must Go Bag?!” Just about every West African knows about the luggage/tote bag style with the hilarious name and the even more hilarious stories in everyday use. Vuitton, eh? I’m more used to seeing the device in settings such as in this photo, courtesy my Ghanaian friend Koranteng Ofosu-Amaah². But the hilarity papers over a dark stain.
Ghanaians and Nigerians are brethren. We’ve had so much in common even in pre-colonial times, with great migrations between the many peoples of the two territories. The aftermath of colonization, leaving us a pair of Anglophone countries in a Francophone sea meant even more exchange, as well as Ghana’s role as the pioneer of West African Independent nations, whose charismatic independence leader, Kwame Nkrumah, became an icon of Pan-Africanism. With the boom in Nigerian wealth from mineral and cash agricultural resources peaking in the early 80s came a boom in migration of workers at all tiers from Ghana to Nigeria. As corruption and mismanagement began to corrode the benefits of that boom, Nigeria’s venal leaders needed a scapegoat, and, hey! what’s this!? Ghanaians in our country! All of a sudden they were apparently a problem. General Buhari infamously declared in 1984 that “Ghana Must Go!” Remember what I said earlier about Nigerian ubiquity? Seems the champion traveling nation had turned anti-immigrant in a fit of demagogue politics. The checkered plastic fiber bags were popular at the time, so with images of Ghanaians carrying bundles of these bags in the queues of the deported, the luggage gained its piebald name.
Interestingly enough, the expulsion of Nigerians was a decade-late echo of the 1971 mass expulsion of Nigerians from Ghana by Prime Minister Kofi Busia, though no one explicitly talks about tit for tat. These episodes say so much about the problems of Nigeria and Ghana, but ultimately about eagerness of leaders to shirk responsibility and seek ready scapegoats for their own mismanagement. In the mid 1980s the Ghanaians went, but not all of them, thank goodness. In 1988 I was in a horrible head-on car collision in Port Harcourt. My father took me, unconscious, to two Nigerian doctors both of who waved off my condition, and said I’d be OK. He then took me to a third doctor, who happened to be a Ghanaian. Dr. Attey wasted no time palpating me, and by the time he ordered me rushed into surgery, I had lost so much blood internally that I should have been a goner. A Ghanaian doctor saved my life, making me keenly aware of how blanket political actions can demolish the individual graces of economic exchange. With those Ghanaian professionals applying at home the energy and entrepreneurship honed in emigration, Ghana has rapidly superseded Nigeria in per-capita growth. These days I understand Nigerian elites are flocking to Ghana to buy property. I can imagine the prospect of another round of turnabout there, but then again, I hope Ghanaian leaders are more sensible than that.
13. Proverbs are the vegetative protein of language. It starts in the native tongues. Even translating such gems loses them their shine “Only the shovel-bearer buries the dead; the mourner just makes a racket.” (from Yoruba) and “You don’t have to tell a deaf man that war has broken out” (from Igbo). These become flattened into shadows in English. It’s like my name. If you gather ten Uchennas and ask them what their name truly means, you’ll probably get six different answers. There is such nuance in the two words “uche” and “nna” that they add up to a combinatoric explosion of meanings together, and this effect is enhanced with lore and local context in the use of proverbs.
It has always fascinated me studying Western high culture, how much we revere Homeric style of expressing ideas, even though we ourselves have largely retreated to the linguistic consequent of Platonism (regress from forms) and Aristotelianism (rigorous classifications), with an enormous battery of terms each of which is tasty, but rather one dimensional. A friend of my father’s, who wrote one of many books about Igbo proverbs, liked to tell a story of the colonial British schoolmaster who came into class reeling off the great humanistic concepts of Western Philosophy from bits of the Symposium to Descartes and beyond, intending to dazzle the savage children. The children responded over and over along the lines of: “oh, you mean…” and then some native proverb.
Even as Nigeria has pressed together so many native tongues with a mortar of English, the love of proverbs is still everywhere evident. You’ll find them on the side of most commercial vehicles, from construction lorries to long-haul “luxury buses,” sometimes a translation of a native proverb, often a standard British schoolboy number (though these are rapidly losing out to religious mottoes). I recall seeing a lot of “No condition is permanent,” which is a neat specimen because this idea, rightly placed among the laurel leaves of sage Heraclitus, is also covered in what feels like hundreds of native proverbs, including expansions on the Igbo kernel echi di ime (“tomorrow is pregnant” in its poor, flattened rendition).
14. Affirmative action is a dodgy idea. Every culture has its social injustices, and as we in modern civilization rightly strive to reduce these, sometimes we apply a sledgehammer to scalded flesh and complicate injury with our well-meaning ministrations. For many complicated reasons British colonial rule left Nigeria rather stratified, with a larger professional class infused within some regions than others. These led to migrations and cultural conflicts that fueled the Biafran war. After the traumatic war, the government decided that it would force a re-balancing of these historical disparities in an effort to relieve some of these tensions short term, and to reduce their causes long term. They applied a rigid system of ethnic quotas in education and jobs, some of which had positive effect, such as encouragement of students to travel from their homes to other regions of the country at the secondary and University level. Unfortunately, there are just as many negatives, including the promotion of unqualified people at the professional and even elite government level, and grade inflation such that students of targeted ethnicity are shoehorned into schooling beyond their aptitude. This not only wastes resources but also perpetuates the very stereotypes the quota system was meant to rub away.
When I started secondary school in Okigwe, in Igbo territory, I had just arrived from primary school in the UK and US and was largely unaware of all this. There were a few students in class clearly well out of their depth. Most of the southern kids, and even many of the teachers pretty much ignored their struggles, writing them off as “illiterate cattle rearers,” a typical put-down of people from northern Nigeria. These northerners soon turned to me for help because I had no reason to turn up my nose, but even I fell into despair when I realized that they were probably three grade levels beyond their ability. I was also struggling in class because the Nigerian standards were a good deal higher than the US equivalents, but I was a quick enough study that I soon caught up, yet even my own journey was no use to these colleagues. This was the first of many experiences that soured me on anything resembling social quota systems.
Unlike many opponents of affirmative action in US politics, who are often bigots in disguise, I am very sympathetic to its goals. There is no denying the real historical disadvantages of groups such as Native Americans and descendants of slaves and indentured servants³, and any humanist is desperate that these should somehow be addressed, but again the sledgehammer only imposes collateral injuries, and this is one of the several areas where even as a social liberal in tendency, my personal experiences lead me to distrust of some of the most hallowed planks of the US progressive movement. But let me leave aside American politics and get back to Nigeria. We’ve been a very interesting crucible for many social experiments, analysis of which I wish were more spread worldwide in political discourse, especially considering that you can find us everywhere, as I say.
15. Changing the national anthem was a crap idea. I don’t like the new national anthem, and I haven’t met many who do. Our original anthem, “Nigeria We Hail Thee,” (here’s some ancient audio) was written by a white chick, a wife of one of the departing colonial administrators close to the even of independence. Not unlike the name of the country, “Nigeria” which was coined by the wife of early Governor-General of Nigeria Frederick Lugard. “Nigeria We Hail Thee” is a lovely bit of music, but partly out of insecure feelings using an anthem written by a Brit, and partly because committees need something to do, at the end of the 70s the military dictators held a competition for a new anthem, the winner of which was “Arise, O Compatriots.” The new number is more suited to military exercise than to being sung with any kind of real feeling. Ah well. Countries generally do not get the anthems they deserve. “The Star Spangled Banner” is a miserable song, and I’ve never been able to fathom why the sublime “America the Beautiful” was not instead adopted.
16. Nigerians are easy to stereotype, but much tougher to pin down. Whether it’s District 9 or just the ubiquitous association with “419” scams, I find it an endless source of amusement that Nigerians are disproportionate targets for stereotyping. I think it speaks to how large we are as a people. Certainly across Africa, Nigerians are targets for resentment given our numbers and our voluble tendencies (these tensions, for example, are behind the insults in District 9. At the same time, most people to whom I mention my nationality respond with tales of some brilliant Nigerian student with whom they’ve roomed, or some Nigerian doctor who has saved their life, or some great Nigerian novel they’ve read, or some sharp Nigerian rising quickly within the ranks of their business. Stereotypes work only at a distance, and our lot seem especially complex on close examination. Then again, this very notebook of mine is littered with stereotypes, which I don’t always remember to excuse.
And the notebook will continue shortly, in part 2. Meanwhile, especially if you’re Nigerian, or have otherwise had any interaction with the country or its people in the past 50 years (I suppose one could say that at least everyone with an e-mail address has done, eh?), please do feel free to leave your own pithy observations in the comments section. And if that doesn’t apply to you, leave a comment anyway.
See also: 50 Observations on 50 years of Nigeria, part 2
and: 50 Observations on 50 years of Nigeria, part 3
¹ This is not meant to suggest jingoistic hypocrisy. Both branches of my ancestry, the Igbo and the Efik had ancient traditions of destroying twins and higher multiples as abominations at birth, for example, until the intervention of Western missionaries. That might just be the apex of harsh parenting, providing I decline to jump into the abortion debate.
² If you like my wandering, pan-cultural approach to observations of Nigeria, you’ll love Koranteng’s Weblog take from a Ghanaian slant.
³ I’m not avoiding terms such as “Black Americans” out of any political delicacy, but rather because I myself, as a naturalized African immigrant to America am keenly aware of the muddle behind such terms. It’s well attested that Africans have the highest educational attainment rates of any immigrant group in the US (yes, even more so than Asians) so clearly programs such as Affirmative Action are all the more distorted when skin color becomes the sole distinction in addressing perceived imparity.
#15 → The national anthem bugged me even in my pre-teen years. Two fragments of the original anthem are remarkably powerful and pertinent when one considers the current state of the Nigerian nation: ”Though tribe and tongue may differ, In brotherhood we stand…” and “To hand on to our children, A banner without stain…”
One can’t help but think that with 50 years of repeating those words, maybe we’d be at a different point in nation building at this time.
Thanks, Seyi. And amen to that. It’s not just for sentimental reasons that the national anthem should express the truest aspirations of the country. Oft-heard proverbs do sometimes inform our decision-making, and I believe so can an oft-heard anthem. “Nigeria We Hail Thee” said the sort of things that really could frame the success of the new nation. “Arise, O Compatriots” on the other hand doesn’t really seem to say anything at all. It just saunters through a series of soviet-style images of being a good little cog in the machine, and joining a cult of party heroes. Feh!
Wow. There is so much here. Terrifically expansive. Wonderful. So much to parse and chew and wonder at. I love reading about culture.
You ain’t kidding about wielding a machete. There’s just something about that huge blade that’s pretty amazing.
So what does your name mean?
Thanks, Will. I guess 50 years produces a great deal to chew on indeed. To be fair, I started with a much lighter variety of cutlass before graduating to the full-sized machete of the picture. I wasn’t really able to handle that until I was at last 13 🙂
So in my own specific case of the name “Uchenna” it means “what father intended” because I it seems my father intended that I be a boy. It can also mean things such as “The will of God” and “God’s plan” (especially among those who look to Christianize the name), or “dad’s will” or “dad’s wisdom”.
Oh, and “Uchenna” is also a unisex name, though I’d say among those I’ve seen, 70% are boys. There are other variations of the name, including “Uchechukwu”, “Uchechi”, “Uchendu”,
A friend of mine, a girl named “Uchenna,” said her name meant “How considerate was my father,” given in honor of her grandfather who had taken such good care of her mother while her father had been overseas getting started in university.
I’m sorry to say that my exposure to Nigeria, her history, culture, and people has been sorely limited, and this is probably the most I’ve ever engaged with any of the above. The relationship between Australia and Africa has been a relatively distant one (no pun intended) despite our mutual historical relationship to the British Empire – as far as I know, the main connect between the two continents at present is the Sudanese diaspora, although that could just be the issue that’s receiving the most media attention.
Good to have some more knowledge on my radar – and the line about applying a sledgehammer to scalded flesh is certainly an evocative one.
Happy 50th, Nigeria! Her loss in your movement is our gain, Uche, and one I’m thankful for.
Interesting. Is the Sudanese diaspora a recent phenomenon as a result of folks leaving the war-stricken country? I’ve never been to Australia, but I’m told there are modest Nigerian populations to be found in a few of the cities there as well.
And for what it’s worth, I don’t really consider that Nigeria has lost me. As this piece probably expresses, I’m pretty deeply dyed green, white and green (the colors of our flag), and though I certainly respect my American citizenship, and have no plans to move back to Nigeria anytime soon, I am always conscious of how I can keep alive my connection across the Atlantic, including in the upbringing of my children. I hope there is also some service to doing my part to share the real Nigeria with people like you who would not have had prior exposure.
It’s a combination of two factors – the conflict in Sudan coupled with the fact that Rudd’s Labor Government espoused a ‘Big Australia’ policy and a humanitarian approach towards refugees: there were people who desperately needed somewhere to go, and a somewhere to go that invited them in. A situation of a square peg in a square hole, basically. And the media regularly either praises or condemns refugees depending on the government policy du jour – it’s a very hot-button topic, both politically and socially, here.
Many apologies – I didn’t in the least mean to insinuate any kind of loss of identity or connection – I meant simply in the most geographic terms possible!
Well, I like the sound of a ‘Big Australia’ policy, but I can imagine how it can become a political football. I’m a huge believer in migrations and the mixing of peoples, and while I love diversity of cultures and nations, I detest nationalism. Always good to hear the good stuff even on the other side of the world.
And I understand how you meant your last para. Certainly no offense taken. In my emphatic response, I wasn’t exclusively replying to you, if you catch my meaning 🙂
I am terribly ignorant about Nigeria.
I await your next piece to learn more.
(My husband has a machete because it rains like crazy here too,
and everything grows even if you are watching.)
I am very much looking forward to sharing the next part with you, Irene. And I’m glad Victor can also wield a machete. If everyone knew how to do so, Home Depot wouldn’t need to be the size of an airplane hangar 🙂
I lived in Gainesville for the year and a half before I returned to Nigeria in 1981, so that did give me some degree of preparation for the rainy season.
Like Simon, I must confess that my knowledge of Nigeria and its people is severely limited; the closest I come – and this is a pretty sizable remove – is the rather substantial immigrant Somali population here in San Diego, so dense that an area of town where most of them are concentrated is sometimes referred to as “Little Mogadishu.” So this essay is extremely fascinating to me, and I look forward to reading the remaining entries.
“A Ghanaian doctor saved my life, making me keenly aware of how blanket political actions can demolish the individual graces of economic exchange.” This is the exact sentiment that I wish the jingoistic (disguised under the drape of patriotism, of course) anti-immigrant politicos of border states like Texas and Arizona would wake up to. Nicely put.
Regarding District 9, would you mind detailing a bit more about the Nigerian insults/stereotypes you mention? This dovetails with an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with some (mostly white) South Africans about the subtext of that film. I know the presence of the Nigerian villains led to the film being banned in Nigeria, which I found interesting; as an American, I’m no more inclined to take those characters as representative of all Nigerians than I am to think Tony Soprano or the characters from The Godfather represent Italians.
It is often hard to make out ethnic enclaves among immigrants unless you know what you’re looking for. My parents live in Cleveland, and I’m sure most folks from Cleveland wouldn’t know it, but there is a prominent Nigerian population there. I know because I run into them whenever I go to visit my parents and brothers. When I go to other places I come across Nigerians and I know them because I’m familiar with the major languages and how they sound, and of course I speak Pidgin and Igbo (just enough Yoruba, Hausa and Efik not to be sold off at market).
So I certainly understand my far-flung friends’ having had little knowing intercourse with Nigerians, and I’m happy to maybe provide a few clues for the curious 🙂
As for “anti-immigrant politicos” I couldn’t agree more. I’m a fierce advocate of immigration rights, regardless of the immigrants, regardless of the country. I know that France’s repatriation of Roma is to some extent over-sensationalized by the media, but it still grieves me. Arizona’s recent law grieves me. And “Ghana must go” grieved me. Migration is the electric current of modern civilization, and we should cherish it.
And finally, re: District 9. I’m glad for the straight comment. I hope I didn’t give the impression that I was on a crusade against the film. I haven’t even watched it, and for one thing, I like to think I’m above taking up a crusade at second hand. I think its ban in Nigeria was silly. First of all, Nigerians shouldn’t be treated like fragile children, especially not by our own government. I understand it was done as a statement (you can get film of anything you want anytime you want it anywhere you like on the streets of most Nigeria towns), but I still found it overkill. But I did hear from folks whom I respect how heavy-handed the stereotyping was, which is what led me to use it as an example in the article. I agree with you that even stereotypes themselves often don’t do the intrinsic damage that the targets claim, which is the point I was trying to make when mentioning the impressions get when they actually encounter Nigerians. As you say about The Godfather, it seems like just another vehicle for “wop”/”dago” nonsense*, but we all know not to take it too seriously, having actually met Italians. That said, it is an interesting question how the pattern of perception is affected when, e.g. the person who has watched District 9 hasn’t met Nigerians. You might not be a great example for that, because you’re an outlier in terms of worldliness.
But you did ask a specific question 🙂 For the answer, I’ll defer to my friend and award winning novelist Nnedi Okorafor (from whom TNBers will soon be hearing more):
“My response to District 419…I mean District 9. ;-)”
*Hoping I don’t offend anyone with that language. Allow me to refer anyone new to my writing to my Tongue of Warcraft, Part One—Taboo Words piece.
Excellent piece, my friend. You give a lot to think about and muse on.
It’s interesting the point you raise about stereotypes – my brother is of Somaliland descent and is always having to rebuff ingrained notions about his people and culture. Never more so than in recent times with the publicity around the Somali pirates. Having to explain that Somalia and Somaliland are two different places can be tiring for him, I think.
Bring on the next piece!
Oh wow, Zara. I’ve never doubted your depths, but it is always a pleasant surprise to get a glimpse into another corner of the pool 🙂
Yes, I don’t like to be too doctrinaire about stereotyping. I think it’s one of the most important human instincts. It allows us to see the entire world without going crazy in its complexity. I think maybe, eyeing the article word count warily by the time I got to item 16, I might have been too terse in that last one. I’ve had to give a clearer picture in responding to Matt (which is why I’m glad of his probing question). It’s not the stereotypes that I detest, but it’s rather the subset of people who are incapable of adjusting or at least suspending stereotypes once they’ve actually encountered someone under the umbrella.
As long as people listen to your brother’s explanations, genuinely treat him as an individual, and carry that experience forward with them in their lives, they have my complete sympathy. Speaking for myself, yes indeed, it can be a little tiring sometimes, but that’s usually just a matter of mood. Most of the time talking to someone about my background, and learning about theirs is a favorite way to engage with people, in which case stereotype-busting just becomes an excuse for the most pleasant exercise.
My brother has just been to Somaliland for the first time. I won’t co-opt his experience here, but I think it was life changing for him.
Stereotype busting is a fantastic pastime. We should all engage in it more, I feel!
I thoroughly enjoyed and learned from this wonderful post, Uche. It is among the best of yours, marrying the freest tone/style with fascinating examples/facts with your own well-globalised opinions. I ate up every bit of its delightful joy in and love for—-as well as oft-too-stern-judgements about (IMHO)—-your countryfolk.
My eye keeps returning to the fabric beneath the fufu dish. Gorjus!
Having first met Ghanaians in Chicago, much earlier than meeting Nigerians, I did form a fine image of them and their culture, BTW, and I was both happy (for your being nearly resurrrected by a Ghanaian doctor!) and sad (oh those damned “immigrants are our country’s problem” worldwide slogans!) to learn of the Ghanaian/Nigerian connections.
Looking forward to your next post!
Thanks, Judy. Good to be back out from TNB backstage. I wonder whether you’ll find the judgments in the rest of the 50 (which is almost completely written) a balance for these 16, or even more on the harsh end. It’s hard for me to assess the pH level of my own reactions to Nigeria, because I’m so immensely close to the matter, but I’ll be very interested in the reactions of others similarly placed. I couldn’t help loving Nigeria if I wanted to, but I also am keenly aware of its problems, having had my life shaped by so many of them.
And I am very grateful for kindly folks like you who might not be as close to the matter, but who gain some benefit of perspective from your remove. After all, we want to be able to tell it all like it is, but we also want to have friends with whom we can laugh about just what it is. And when I think of such friends, I do also think of Ghanaians, who for Nigerians, as I put it in the article, are truly brethren.
I’ll have to find a picture of my Mum’s fufu dishes, which are truly a visual as well as gastric delight. I cast about a bit before posting this piece, but came up empty. I know I have some, though.
Great little pieces, Uche. I liked them all, but perhaps the machete and the proverbs the most, although the affirmative action one and the malaria one also resonated. I’ll just comment on two.
There’s a tree on Bougainville that drops its seed pods and after the pods have been rained on a few times, they look rather like turds. The pods are called “tuntulu.”
Proverb: “Disgusted by tuntulu, he stepped in pigshit.”
“Out of the frying pan, in the fire,” wouldn’t you say?
Machetes! No more complete tool in the world. I have three, including one that’s been with me since 1969. As you know, people don’t understand the fine, even delicate work that can be done with a machete, which is no doubt the fault of the movies. I had some people visiting at the Hilo place and when I set out to show them the property, my 24″ Crocodile machete swinging loosely in my hand, they got excited. What are you doing with that! I said, If we’re going to walk around where there’s thick vegetation, why wouldn’t I take my machete? Leaving it behind would be like going naked.
There’s that lovely local context that enriches the proverb. So I would say similar to “Out of the frying pan, in the fire,” but not really the same, just as we’d say dilemma is not quite the same thing as quandary 🙂 I’d even say it’s a different flavor from “between Scylla and Charybdis” because of the temporal element of the Bougainvillean proverb.
And as for machetes, you’ve nailed it in that last para. I do always see machetes in the movies as blunt technique tools, and often with horrific use on humans. It is hard to express how utterly alien that attitude is to me, having done so much fine, even delicate work, as you say, with the instrument, and seeing it as I do as a tool for use on vegetation, not flesh 😉
Can’t wait to see more of this.
What is it about machetes that I like so much?
I come from a city that has a substantial Nigerian – and the largest Sudanese population in the country, I believe – population, so the many that I’ve met always make me want to know more about the culture. Thanks for this piece. It’s always nice to have light shed on places and people, things we may not ordinarily know much about.
This was wise and wondrous beyond words, Uche. I loved each and every observation, and learned so many new things about Nigeria. And your title headings. Loved them. In fact, one really gave me pause. Made me think that Crayola should adopt a new color name: Rainy Season Green.
Peace, my friend.
I wonder where one gets fufu
& pounded yam in
I want some.
I too, miss communal parenting.
One was reluctant to misbehave
where I grew up because
any number of neighbors
could & would
set you straight.
all debts forgiven…
The pounded yam fufu part is probably easier, since it’s just a matter of buying the powder and mixing into paste in boiling water these days (traditionally you would boil the yam and then actually pound it into the paste with a huge mortar and pestle). The most common brand of powder I see in the US is “Iyan”. The hard part is the soup. It’s a pretty rich recipe, with a lot of spices hard to get in the US. Your best bet is to find a Nigerian grocery store and ask them if there is a Nigerian restaurant, or if they sell frozen, prepared soup (probably a pale shadow, but it would give you the idea).
I quickly looked and found:
The lady on the front f the page is wearing traditional Efik dress, so the store might have a Calabar (principal city of the Efik) slant. If so that is a *very* good thing. As I’ll mention later on in this series, Calabar is the capital of Nigerian cuisine. And it’s not just bias because I was born in Calabar. Any Nigerian will tell you that 🙂
See also: http://www.africanchop.com/chopso.htm#wholeus
Which has listings of such stores, but only lists one for Nashville, different from above.
@Justin: I think there is something about the male psyche that is always satisfied by a big knife. Cue the Crocodile Dundee scene. 🙂
@Rich: thanks. The danger is Crayola made a Rainy Season Green is that it would leak beyond the lines, and over all the other colors, and would eventually swamp the paper. I suspect that entire labs at Crayola HQ have been quarantined from complete takeover by the Rainy Season Utter Utter Green 🙂
Great stuff, Uche. My favorite moments on TNB are invariably those where I can absorb experiences that are oddly familiar and yet totally alien. I have seen, for instance, the Ghana Must Go bag in spots around the world, but have never known the story behind them. But I almost feel like I did in some fashion, because I was very familiar with the knowing glances exchanged by those using them as luggage, the inevitable smile and nod.
I really like your willingness to be opinionated without apology, and deadpan without explanation.
The one place I do feel on firm ground is the result of my 20 year relationship with the staggeringly large catalog of Fela Kuti. His music came to me through his partnership with Ginger Baker (of course), but once I realized those albums were to be relegated to the bottom of the canon, I dove in head first. You could (and most certainly should) write an entire post on Fela’s political stances, his 29 wives, untold children, attempt to cordon off his personal compound and declare it an independent country, and always tenuous relationship with whoever happened to be in power, in Nigeria and beyond.
There is something about the chequered raffia material and design of the Ghana Must Go bag that’s utterly practical and yet always right on the edge of a luggage horror story. Such a chaotically poised state is so typically Nigerian that as you’ve observed, cementing the bond symbolized by the bag needs no more than a wink.
In one way there is so much to say about Fela, much which his biographers have already covered, and even much that would never make the nice storyline arc of any edited biography. My own anecdotes such as when his brother Beko Ransome-kuti, health minister at the time, kicked off a very ostentatious campaign against smoking, and of course the papers tracked down Fela for his thoughts and got an earful to the tune of “Me, I go smoke, and na wetin I go smoke na him be my concern.” Fela is a microcosm of Nigera in many ways, with his contempt for order or political exigency, and his own logic, impeccable in its inscrutability. I’m sure a lot of his hijinks seem lurid to a modern sensibility, but in another thing there is not much at all to write about Fela because it seems to b making an issue out of something that is so completely normal in its way. Eh. You know. That’s just Fela. It’s the same way that even after writing all this about Nigeria, it all just adds up to: Eh. You know. That’s just Nigeria.
I’ve dreamed of visiting Nigeria one day. Wow… I learned so much from this piece! And thanks for the pictures too. A friend in College brought me some Nigerian tea a few years ago–and I swear it was so delicious, I can still taste it. One another note, before I moved to the U.S. 8 years ago, I had no idea once could actually die from malaria–all the people around me (in Haiti) who got malaria survived it quite well 😉
I love Nigerian and Kenyan black teas, especially for breakfast. They have an earthier liquor than say a Ceylon or Darjeeling or even many Assams. I do prefer those lighter teas in the afternoon, though. . I’ve often said the only good Lipton tea is the stuff they harvest and package in Nigeria, which is of course hard to get outside the country.
And yeah, I was shocked that Malaria was such a big deal when I arrived in the US. I’ve since learned better, though. I’m glad there’s so much effort going into eradicating it.
Fascinating, funny and – as always from you, my friend – informative. I now find myself intrigued by fufu (and not just because it’s fun to say) but, I admit, my favorite point was the last – “Nigerians are easy to stereotype, but much tougher to pin down.” True of many people and often too easy to overlook.
Re: your Crocodile Dundee observation on the male psyche, I confess that I went through a period in my teens during which I carried a Bowie knife over a foot long but it eventually gave way (mostly for plausible deniability) to a roofer’s hatchet. Certainly no machete but definitely a conversation starter… or stopper, depending on the circumstances :).
Yes, it’s a bit of a truism, and as I’ve had to admit, I probably abbreviated its build-up more than I should have done, but it still always bears saying. Interestingly enough, I’ve encountered very little stereotyping to my face (or maybe, as I’ve heard, I just tend to be oblivious to such things), but through media and such I do get a sense of some of the prevailing lazy image.
Hmm. I might have to explore the world of roofing hatchets 🙂
“I’ve encountered very little stereotyping to my face….” Probably due to the whole barefooted, martial-arty, machete-wielding thing would be my guess.
And they’re handy little buggers – hammer on one end, cutting edge on the other – though a little oddly balanced, favoring the blade. Poor for long, elegant sweeping in brush but good for close-in detail work (you could even do a decent job of prepping skins for tanning in a pinch, if you keep a shallow angle), camping, building shelters, the occasional “Pirates of the Caribbean” melee fantasy…. 😀
You might be right, but I’ve also liked to think maybe it’s manner. I like to think I’m almost unfailingly respectful to others, while carrying myself to suggest that I demand a return of such respect (a bit of finishing I learned, often the hard way in university in Nigeria). It’s one of those things I desperately hope I can pass on to my kids, because I think it makes such a difference in life. Maybe, despite my piqued interest, I can do with giving the melee weapon a pass 😀
Just a quick comment to say WOO HOO!!! I got the 100th comment!!! It would have been cooler to get the 50th on a post about 50 notes on the 50th anniversary… but I’m no good with numbers.
Also, I love that you said “fortnight.” I stopped saying that when Americans began making up more than 50% of my friends in this world. They looked at me in total befuddlement whenever I said it.
Oh bugger, there seems to be a problem with the comment counter…
Hah! You made my morning, mate. Thanks. 🙂
Whoa! Now JEF’s Cadaver Blues installment is incorrectly showing 99 comments on the front page. Looks like a WordPress issue with the post immediately below the “Inside TNB” row.
I guess it’s working now, but that was weird. I got all excited for some reason. Stupid WordPress.
I’m an English professor in a school full of Nigerians (yes, you’re everywhere!) I’ve heard so much about Fufu and corporal punishment in Nigerian schools and homes (no wonder they’re my best students!:) I’m going to share this article with them. Thank you for sharing your memories and observations. Words are power.
Perhaps it’s worth dropping a hint to your students that rather than an apple, you’d like a platter of fufu one day 🙂
I’d be delighted if my wry observations do resonate with your students, and I certainly hope they continue in their own writing. Words are indeed power.
I’m South African, and (hence?) know little about other Africans. I won’t buy into the stereotypes (unless of course they’re kind – Tswana people are peaceful, right?), and in a funny way perhaps this blanks people out even more, unless we are friends or have become family. I’ve just read Purple Hibiscus, and apart from the beautiful writing, was MESMERISED by the society and culture and history and weather the story immersed me in. I love that word harmattan, and am fascinated by the wind’s journey and reason for being. I am hungry to know more about Nigeria, including the diaspora, and your article is hitting the spot like fufu. Literature is so much better than the news for understanding what’s going on in world. Also, I am agonising at the moment about the limits of staying at home and the alienation of moving abroad, and like to hear how other immigrants, particularly African, manage this. My middle class educated worldliness sometimes feels like a Stranger Curse. Wherever I find myself I do not quite belong. Including, most excruciatingly, in South Africa. As a writer, I like the format you’ve chosen, of a list. It facilitates a variety of approaches to the different topics you want to discuss that a regular article or story might not, with their demands for a consistent voice or tone and point of view. I find it interesting to notice what you’re funny about, what you’re angry about, what you’re quiet about. And I hope as I explore your other writing to be given access to the sensitivities of this subtext. Thank you, I look forward to more.
What a thoughtful response. The first thing I should say is that I suspect it’s trickier than it appears to get at my deep-seated emotional response to something from my writing. I’ve always been a bit of a chameleon in that regard, and I enjoy putting on voices, and the style that goes with them. I think I do it pretty subconsciously, and the reason I know is because I’ve had many misunderstandings with even friends and loved ones because they superimposed too literally over my mind something I’d written. I suppose in modern writing, so obsessed with vérité, this might be considered a bad thing, but I’m much more in sympathy with the Elizabethan masquers and court intriguers and metaphysical embroiderers, the traditions of Celtic bards with their rodomontade, and of course those of West African griots with their stratagems of getting from children in whispers what their parents will pay to hear. Ooh. Hey. I think I have the warm beginnings of another TNB piece 🙂
Anyway, all that said, that is creative writing, but conversation is different. If you ask me a straight question, I’ll usually give a straight answer. What angers me most about Nigeria is the disappointment it’s worked on my parents, who got through the war (fighting on the Biafran, separatist side), left the country afterward in furtherance of their careers, and came back about a decade later, committed to the idea of Nigeria for the first time since before the upheavals that led to the war (a commitment that probably took a spell abroad to cement). When my family returned, the country was absolutely alight with energy and progress and abundance, and in five years or so my parents had a front row seat to more destruction than the war itself had ever wrought, certainly more than I would have thought possible in peacetime. Maybe because I was schooled through those years, I think I’m in myself fairly philosophical about all that, but my parents are not, and watching them watch their dreams crumble is what does made me genuinely angry. But there is more than enough to balance that. There is much insight and joy and wonder and hilarity, of which I hope some comes across in my notes.
As for the feeling of not belonging, I certainly sympathize. If I may be forward, that is precisely what I tried to express in my poem “Growing up Misfit.”
As you say, that middle class worldliness bound to the curse of being an eternal stranger. The feeling of being in all worlds, but fitting in none. There are many like us, which I suppose is some comfort, and we do seem to be always able to find each other wherever we go, which I count a blessing. I think that is how we manage the alienation. We seek each other out. Not just other Africans, but other misfits regardless of origin. And we talk self-indulgently about it. Sometimes (at least for me) with the mask on, and sometimes with it off. I find it a healthy self-indulgence, and I appreciate having you as well with whom to share.
Uche, what an amazing piece! I’m gonna need a little more time to digest it, but just wanted to let you know.
Thanks, Brin, I’ve always admired the heft of your articles, so that means a lot coming from you.
Fufu is wonderful, and indeed, no West African dish ever feels complete without it. 🙂 It’s curious how rice fulfills the same gastronomical niche in Asian countries, including South Korea, where I am from. People from countless countries in the world simply do not feel full without a large starch-based dish to accompany their actual meal. It makes you wonder if all these similarities are sociobiological in nature, and it powerfully attests to the common origin of all human life on this planet.
Rice has also become very popular in Nigerian cuisine, usually with meat stews rich in tomato, palm oil and curry, and often greens on the side. I think the tomato/palm oil/greens mixture is pretty ancient indigenous, with curry powders coming over the Sahara in the spice trade in recent centuries (we sent plenty of our own native spices the other way). As you say, most cultures have developed a starch-rich core cuisine, but it’s interesting how cultural taste seems to govern mealtime satisfaction, which one might imagine would be down to more primitive physiology. I guess it’s just always remarkable to what extent the social modifies the biological.
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