50 Observations on 50 years of Nigeria, part 2By Uche Ogbuji
October 30, 2010
This is a continuation of my series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1.
17. Nobody deploys the witty put-down quite like Wafi and Safi boys (and girls). You know it by many names: “the dozens,” “snaps,” “cracks,” “yo mama jokes,” and such. The tradition of non-violent contests of wits through rapid-fire mutual insults is well know anywhere Black culture has left a mark. But in my travels I don’t think I’ve met any group that dishes it out quite as expertly as folks from the Niger delta towns of Warri and Sapele (AKA Wafi and Safi), rendered in the particularly extravagant brand of Pidgin English for which that region is famous. I myself still bear the scars from some such encounters. And if you are trying to get cozy with a girl from that region, you had better come correct, or you might not survive the resulting put-down.
18. Church is the new commercial franchise. Much has been made of the fact that the center of the Christian evangelical and missionary sphere has moved to Africa and Latin America. In Nigeria, we’ve embraced the ideas that were used as artillery against eons of indigenous culture with prodigious zeal. Nigerian Francis Cardinal Arinze is often mentioned alongside some South American prelates as a strong candidate for the Papacy, although the reality of Rome as oligarchic center of the Catholic church makes this a distant contingency. Nevertheless, it’s an anecdote that illustrates the extent to which we are become a hierophant country. Walking the streets of Nigeria the first thing you notice is that there is a church or mosque on practically every street corner—the Crescent exerts as much influence as the Cross, as the world knows from stories of northern Nigerian states which have adopted Sharia law. It’s not my intent to get into religious debate here, but I will point out that this proliferation of religious smallholders has rather a commercial slant, with clergy emerging as one of the foremost professions as the middle class evaporates. I’ll leave alone here the question of whether or not that is a good thing.
19. Yoruba has the sweetest names in existence. My wife is American, but she has always liked the rich meanings of Nigerian names, so when considering names for our children, the first name was always going to be Nigerian. But though she knew very well the fury that would result from choosing a Nigerian name not of my father’s language, she quite had her head turned by Yoruba names, and I certainly can’t blame her. Names such as “Kayode,” “Tunde,” “Funmi,” “Olumide,” “Toyin,” “Abimbola,” “Segun,” “Funke”. Igbo has some lovely names as well, such as “Amaka,” “Obinna,” “Ifeyinwa,” “Kalu,” “Adamma,” and “Nneka” not to mention my own name or that of my children, considering my obvious bias, but if I’m being truly frank, I have to give the laurels to Yoruba names.
The Yoruba language in general is one of the loveliest and liveliest languages you’ll ever hear. Like many Kwa languages (including my native Igbo) it is a tonal language, which gives it a musical quality, and it seems to make very rich use of this scale compounded with the pitch of vowels. You really cannot appreciate these names reading them. You have to hear them, so I’ve prepared an audio file (you should see the player in the upper right corner of this posting) in which I pronounce the names I mention in this item, for your enjoyment. I also used it as an opportunity to provide the proper pronunciation of the names of some famous Yoruba, whose names often suffer terribly from their reduction to European phonetics. That includes Sade Adu, the iconic singer, and Sola, which you often see as “Shola,” and includes the Newcastle United striker Shola Ameobi and the UK pop singer Shola Ama.
20. Hawkers are the nuisance that bring life to the street. “Akara! Puff-puff! Sugarcane! Pure-wata! Bread! Okpa di oku! Fresh banana! Groundnut! Chin-chin! Plantain chips! Eggs-y! Mineral! Mango-Oh! Maize! Gala!”¹ They sell plenty of non-food items, as well, everything from kid’s toys, book and CDs of music or Nollywood films to handkerchiefs to cigarettes. Whether you’re along the sprawling thoroughfares of the cities, or wandering dusty, sleepy back roads, you’re sure to hear the bellowing of street hawkers, balancing enormous pans or basins balanced. If you are in a taxi or bus, you learn to duck at every stop, or close the windows, otherwise you might well get your head taken off by the trays of all this merchandise shoved through the window for your attention.
Beside the threat of decapitation the main problem is the employment of children in often very dangerous conditions. Anyone who has spent time in Nigeria has seen some child with a basin of goods on his or her head, weaving through cars in traffic for an opportunistic sale. I’m not hard core against child labor, and I think that many who are suffer serious economic naivety, but even if we assume the children are getting some schooling (several states have banned street hawking by children during school hours), it’s still a worry to see them in such unsafe conditions.
I have a tableau memory from soon after returning to Nigeria in 1981. I was taking a walk in the city of Enugu. At a motor park, I noticed several booksellers and I stopped, amazed at the variety and depth of the books they were hawking. There were hefty academic tomes, pulp fiction, comics, periodicals from all over the world, and all the major Nigerian newspapers. One of the gentlemen was unpacking, having moved from a different location, and I marveled at how much stuff he pulled out of his suitcase, and the crate he had been carrying on his head. Suddenly, behind me I heard someone shout: “ARSE WATER!” I jumped, bewildered, half expecting a foul shower upon my head, much to the amusement of the bookseller. Surely enough, coming behind me, calling out to passersby was a hawker with bottles of, yes, ice water on her head. I guess I hadn’t just yet adjusted to all shades of Nigerian accent.
A more recent anecdote is the white American dude who was spotted causing a stir hawking Gala by Lagos motorways. I’ll take this as an opportunity to mention that despite stereotypes of narrow-minded, isolationist Americans, usually when I come across a foreigner truly immersing themselves in Nigeria, it’s an American, so props due.
21. The modern vespers are the sounds of generators starting up. Never mind the rains down in Africa. Rainy or dry season, what I bless is the day coming to a close, with family, friends and neighbors gathered on the veranda, with crickets in the background. If “NEPA has taken light” that evening (i.e. if there is an outage by the National Electric Power Authority) then one by one you hear the rumble of generators starting up throughout the neighborhood. Evening has arrived, and the Gulder, Star or Guiness beers come out, as do the exaggerated stories, and strolls to greet the neighbors. Americans in the deep south probably gather this scene best, with the exception of the generators. Twilight is a magical time worldwide, and in Nigeria, if you’re not thinking of the awful waste of energy, you gain particular affection for the sounds of electricity in the absence of NEPA.
22. No wonder it took the machine gun to pacify the Igbo. The first problem was “Igbo enwere eze” (“The Igbo do not have kings”). This expression emerged around the time the British were figuring out how to colonize Igbo land, and were frustrated by the fact that in so many Igbo counties, there was no single ruler to corrupt or co-opt. Most Igbo territory has had a republican political structure for centuries, with the most important decisions being undertaken by the Ozo, nze or ichie, the titled elders of each township. The enormous strains on this system under the influence of British administrators and missionaries is the main undercurrent of Chinua Achebe’s famous novel Things Fall Apart. Lord Lugard, the British administrator of Nigeria specifically targeted the idea of “Igbo enwere eze” as a threat to British interests. There were Igbo regions with kings, such as Arochukwu and Onitsha, and here were some veins of centralized religious authority, in institutions such as “Nri” and the “Long Juju” of Arochukwu, but for the most part the situation was local autonomy and government by a panel selected on objective standards of merit. This as well as the dense tropical forest made the Igbo an exceptionally hard case for British subjugation, and British tactics were accordingly harsh.
The most emblematic way I can illustrate this phenomenon is through words of those who studied the Igbo. The words of British anthropologist Sylvia Leith-Ross in 1939 are especially instructive: “But one thing is certain: the Ibo does not think very much of us [the British]. Disassociated from our inventions; the gramophones, the cars, the rifles, the thermos flasks and the riches he imagines we all possess, he sees little in us. When he strives to copy us, it is not because of the courage or wisdom, the virtues or the talents he may see in us, but simply because we represent to him success…. We cut quite astonishingly little ice unless there is, which is rare, downright fear, or in cases even rarer, true love and confidence.”² It does amuse me that Sylvia in clucking about the temerity of the Igbo and doesn’t herself shrink from temerity in claiming for the British a good number of inventions that aren’t theirs. It was another American invention the British would probably have liked to have claimed that settled the matter for them. The maxim gun or early machine gun had already been deployed in the north of Nigeria and in Oyo, and bringing the infernal device to Igboland, the British basically massacred their way to colonization around the turn of the last century. But even in subjugation the Igbo had a reputation as being very hard to rule, and are still known as fiercely independent, argumentative, and surly. The maxim gun was probably the only way the region was going to be cracked.
This goes for women as well as men. As political scientist Judith Van Allen says “The experience of Igbo women under British colonialism shows that Western influence can sometimes weaken or destroy women’s traditional autonomy and power without providing modern forms of autonomy or power in exchange. Igbo women had a significant role in traditional political life. As individuals, they participated in village meetings with men. But real political power was based on the solidarity of women, as expressed in their own political institutions—their ‘meetings’ (mikiri or mitiri), their market networks, their kinship groups, and their right to use strikes, boycotts and force to effect their decisions.” This didn’t stop short of taking matters into their own hands to deal with the British. A famous incident was the “Igbo Women’s War” of 1929, when tens of thousands of Igbo women rioted against misrule and oppressive taxation of the marketplace (which has always been the realm of women). They attacked European stores, banks, courts and prisons. In the end, the colonial administration called in troops who fired indiscriminately into the crowds of women, and yet the protests still took a couple of months to put down. Igbo men could have told the British you don’t mess around with Igbo women.
23. Each motorcycle is a gang of one. Some time in 90s, motorcycles, nicknamed okada after a long-defunct, notorious no-frills airline, became the most prevalent taxi vehicle in Nigeria. Cheaper and easier to maintain than even the popular Peugeot cars that used to dominate the roads, you can now find motorcycles running every errand you can imagine, and quite a few you cannot imagine. There’s one carrying eight live goats, another whose passenger is clasping at a half-dozen car tires; there’s one squeezing through spaces smaller than a car’s width on a neglected roads being reclaimed by bush. And everywhere they are causing ruckus. The riders never seem to wear helmets, and often break off their rear-view mirrors so they can weave through narrower spaces. Every car sports scratches from okada grinding their way between lanes, and many pedestrians bear scars of having been struck by a careless rider. Motorcycle gangs, especially in the US carry some reputation, but in Nigeria, the very idea seems silly, considering that each individual wreaks as much mayhem as you like.
24. A three piece suit in sweltering weather? That’s just proper. Dashiki? Agbada? Kaftan? Buba and Wrapper? That’s just smart. It’s true that, as I said in part 1, dancing well without the sharpest dress is enough to float you somewhere above the basement of the social scale, but to really rise to the rarefaction, you do need to suit up the part. This could be a suit (i.e. western style) quite literally, but there is an extra edge from rocking a more traditional outfit in style. Going from the uniform land of secondary school to university, the difference was stunning for me. Everyone was elegantly turned out for the merest venture outside their hostels. Even jeans and tee shirts were considered déclassé. The university town of Nsukka tends to a year-round dry heat, being at the northernmost reaches of the rain forest, but in my travels, even in the most humid, oven-like conditions of the far south, you would often see people gliding about in sharp suits, without looking like microwave-safe burrito packaging. Whether from acclimatization or genetics, it’s pretty handy once you warm up to the practice. After moving to the US, I had a two year stint living in Dallas. People were always amazed that I didn’t bother with an air conditioner in my car, not even on the work commute, which meant suits, since I was contracting at IBM at the tail end of the “big blue suit” era.
But western suits didn’t traditionally emerge in Nigeria for a reason. Even if you can handle the conditions, it’s more practical to sport attire that keeps the air moving, thus the more globally recognized varieties of West African dress. The dashiki (originally a Yoruba name for a lightweight jumper) is perhaps best known from its black-power movement heydey in the US, and it’s also the most common sight in Nigeria, given its flexibility of style and function. Women, especially younger ones, wear the same sort of thing but with a more feminine cut, called a kaftan. More mature women, or ones who want a more traditional look will often wear a long wrapper about the waist with a top of variable fanciness called a buba. Sokoto trousers (named for the Nigerian city, I guess) or a skirt were the automatic pairing of the dashiki or kaftan, carefully designed to match the top. An proper outfit rarely complete without headwear, generally a kufi cap for men, and head-tie for women which can range from the super-simple head-scarf to very elaborate headdresses. Whenever there is a big event in the large Nigerian community in Cleveland, where my parents live, it’s always a big deal to have one of the ladies come over who is specialized at the origami-like folding that goes into the most effective head-ties. Usually people closest to the celebrating family will wear the same particular head-tie, as an honorary marker. It’s all rather overwhelming in the layers of decorum.
The traditional garb for the Nigerian “big man” generally takes it up a notch. The agbada is like a dashiki, but with masses of extra fabric draped over outstretched arms down to the feet. The idea is probably to show off that the wearer is wealthy enough to buy extra quantities of the often very expensive, finely embroidered cloth, but it does also have an elegant look to it, if impractical, as the wearer has to constantly bunch the excess cloth over their shoulders to keep it out of the way.
25. You don’t miss the middle class till it’s gone. I’m of middle class upbringing, and almost all the Nigerians I’ve known personally have been middle class. Economics tend toward universality, and my moderate good fortune probably stretches back generations. My surname, Ogbuji, comes from my great grandfather, and is an honorific for a great farmer, indicating a degree of wealth. I fell on the right side of the Igbo caste system which, though far less pervasive than that of say India, did involve some stratification of society. Wealth leads to leisure, which incubates traits for social achievement in future generations, which furthers wealth, a cycle someone would do well to explain to half-wit elitists in schools along the lines of Ayn Rand’s. By the time colonization came along my grandfather was well positioned for a modest administrative job, and so to secure a top education for my father. My maternal grandfather had similar advantage from being the head of his large, riverside clan. As the new Nigeria swelled into its fresh new promise, my parents progressed through professional education. The new country needed a huge number of professionals, and had the resources to develop them, including a superlative school system. The war interrupted all that, and after losing the fight, my parents completed their rise to laurels abroad, in Egypt, England and the US, my mother as a registered nurse, and my father with a two-pronged engineering doctorate.
When they returned to Nigeria, my parents had all the professional qualifications to join the booming middle class. The country was awash with top-notch teachers, bankers, doctors, lawyers, administrators, engineers, etc. Almost every observer of foreign affairs expected Nigeria to be the next economic world power (no one was even really thinking of the Asian Tigers), and the main reason was the combination of natural resources and an over-achieving professional class. Nigeria might be one of history’s greatest lessons in how mismanagement from the top can annihilate economic promise. Our governments made the Weimar Republic look like a paragon of prudence. Corruption fueled a sure erosion of the meritocracy, and it wasn’t long before the brain drain started. These Nigerian professionals were already being heavily recruited abroad. They resisted this pressure because so many of them really wanted to build Nigeria to its full potential, but the effects of the national collapse became such that middle-class families came into difficulty providing the essentials for their children, including the education that ensured a continuation of the class. Gradually, the best started to move abroad, leaving the less competent to fill their positions, increasing the effects of institutional decay in a vicious loop.
Nigeria’s middle class is now scattered throughout the world, and in Nigeria itself, there is very little in between the super rich and the desperately poor. I don’t believe that is the end of the country’s promise, but any process of rebuilding will be a slow and painful one. The custodians of the country’s welfare didn’t recognize, or didn’t care about the long-term effects of policies that undermined Nigeria’s middle class, and now the resulting chasm is all too plain to see.
26. Hausa is a killer language for 4-part harmony songs. There was more to the one-Nigeria policy that dominated my days on secondary school than the education and employment quotas by ethnicity I decried in part 1. There was also a healthy encouragement of cross-cultural learning, which permeated all school subjects. We were all expected to learn about each of the principal indigenous religions, and in music class, this meant learning folk songs from all over Nigeria, often in choral, harmonic arrangements. I clearly remember that my favorite songs were the Hausa folk songs.
“Bias achikingo, mamu bias, mu bias, mu abarge ache shemu bias…”
Note: I’m probably butchering that because it’s coming from memory, and Google is no help (probably because the butchery goes beyond Google compensation), so I’d be happy for anyone to set me straight on the lyrics. There was also:
“Oh duniya duniya na chetan katamaike, muya yesu…”
The music was marvelous, and very amenable to rich arrangement. A lot of this comes from the centuries-old traditions of wandering scholarship and culture, including musical culture, among the Hausa and Fulani of the north of Nigeria, whose ancient city states were much like older variants on the modern Arabian Gulf Emirates. Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, and co., under court systems of proud kings and queens incubated rich cultures, which I’m always keen to explore, but which comes most viscerally to me in the form of stirring songs from my school days.
27. So much else died when Dele Giwa was murdered. Until the decline of the late 80s, Nigeria was blessed with a vibrant, independent, argumentative press. Unlike many other pieces of the country’s promise, this institution died not with a whimper, but with a quite literal bang. The succession of 1980s military dictators I mentioned in part 1 soon decided they were sick of the meddling press, and instituted a regime of repression against media and commentators. I give many of these credit for sticking to their guns through very dangerous times for themselves and their families, but they are only human, and inevitably, many fell into line. A few journalists retained their incorruptible honesty, and chief among these was Dele Giwa. I read the newspapers as avidly as most Nigerians, and it wasn’t hard to see that Newswatch magazine, founded by Giwa, was among the last truly independent journals. I always sought out Newswatch and looked forward to Giwa’s hard-hitting editorials and exposés of corruption and mismanagement.
1986 saw a series of threats and other harassment against Giwa, including arrests under the ludicrous pretense that he was fomenting revolution against the government of the despot Ibrahim Babangida. On October 19, he was murdered at home when he opened up a parcel containing a bomb, almost certainly sent by government agents. His family was also at home, but no one else was harmed. By this time, many Nigerians were jaded by the excesses of the military government, but the explosion that took the life of this much-loved firebrand woke everyone up to the extent to which we’d become a banana republic. It certainly hastened the brain drain I mentioned earlier, making clear that excellence in one’s profession was not just under-appreciated, but could be dangerous, treated as a form of subversion. It wasn’t the first episode of press interference. In the 70s, the military government of Murtala Mohammed essentially nationalized the venerable Daily Times newspaper, ousting its chief editor, the father of Nigerian journalism Babatunde Jose, but at least that action was undertaken without the shocking brutality of the Dele Giwa bombing. It’s worth a moment to laud another excellent professional, Giwa’s lawyer Gani Fawehinmi, who despite seeing what happened to Giwa refused to submit to the government and remained a loud voice against repression, never losing a chance to remind the powerful just how devastating his client’s death had been to the idea of Nigeria as a just commonwealth. He was constantly harassed by government, who perhaps thought better of murdering him as well, given the horrified reaction of the people to the Giwa incident.
Nigeria’s press seems to have awakened since the return to civilian rule in 1999, and it has returned to some of its earlier vibrancy, but it will take some time before it fully regains its lost splendor.
28. The local hard liquor picks up some crazy-ass names. Foreigners call it bush gin. Nigerians call it ogogoro, kai-kai, akpeteshi, sapele water⁴, burukutu, push-me-I-push-you⁵, shekpe, budo, mmanya oku⁶ tumbo, ufofob. Whatever you call it, it is some serious rotgut with punishing alcohol levels, distilled from raffia palm tree sap, and often subject to local bans because poisoning is hardly unheard of. But it’s all native-natural, and subject to the Nigerian penchant for extravagant nicknames. Of course there is something about hard liquor wherever you go in the world that cries out for crazy names. I’ve always loved palm wine in all its delicious varieties, but I’ve only tried bush gin once, when I was fifteen or so, and that was almost enough to put me off alcohol for life. It was like swallowing an acid firecracker. ‘Nuff respect to the red-eyed constituency that puts down shot after shot.
29. Who the heck needs a special house to get fattened up in Calabar? Calabar, port city jewel of the south, and the city of my birth, is famous for the practice of fattening houses, where girls of marriageable age are literally fattened to improve their prospects for suitors, and taught lady culture and craft. But Calabar is also famous as the culinary capital of the country, and I’ve often wondered why anyone thought a special house would be necessary to put on the stone there. Surely everyone who feasts on the various dishes with sumptuous names to match: Afia Efere, Afang, Edikang Ikong, (all of which go with fufu), Ekpang Nkukwo, Coconut rice, etc.⁷, goes maw down until their belly splits their vest, goes home to darn the top, and then goes back for more the next day. Yeah, any dining room is a fattening room in Calabar.
Calabar is certainly a wonderful place to visit, and the main location I’d recommend for a tourist, especially during the Christmas Carnival.
30. Kaduna is soo tantalizingly close to a multicultural example. I’ve only spent more than a few days in two northern Nigerian cities. My father lectured at the University of Yola for a couple of years, and I visited my cousins in Kaduna for a few weeks a couple of times. Kaduna always left quite an impression on me: a busy, multicultural, cosmopolitan city that was one of the great Hausa city-states and the original capital of the northern region of colonial Nigeria, and remains the most important northern city beside the capital, Abuja. My vibrant memory of the place always seems at odds with hair-raising stories I read of religious riots there. Its history bears out my personal impressions, while damnable manipulations by politicians have ensured that it can get as dangerous as the newspapers report. Kaduna’s population has always been majority Hausa-Fulani and Muslim (the north of the country is predominantly Muslim while the south is predominantly Christian), but it has also always attracted people from all over Nigeria. There was an especially prominent immigration of southerners once it became the Northern capital, and great need emerged for the professional classes, always better developed in the south (and hence the quota system the government later instituted).
Historically non-Muslims have often been welcomed and safe in Islamic territories, and one thinks of places such as Moorish Europe where Caliphs were very tolerant of all faiths, including Jews, and intolerance only emerged once Christians regained power. Kaduna had much of that ecumenical promise, but the complicated politics leading up to the first military coup, and eventually the civil war featured the manipulations of civil and religious leaders to fan flames of ethnic and religious paranoia. Since then, Christians-Muslim religious strife has been a constant menace in Nigerian cities including Jos and Bauchi in the middle belt, and Kaduna and Zaria in the near North. The spread of Islamic extremism worldwide has not spared Nigeria, and you might have heard of far northern Nigerian states who’ve adopted Sharia law. Unfortunately this trend means the future looks bleak for a harmonious Kaduna, even though many southerners remain there (a 1987 survey counted Igbos, target of the worst riots, as 20% of the population, and southerners overall as almost half).⁸
31. There should be a special circle of hell for the people who light gas flares. In part 1 I mentioned the devastating environmental consequences of Nigeria’s so-called oil wealth. I was not the only one looking to bring attention to that tragedy upon Nigeria’s independence milestone. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta made the point in a much more destructive way, car bombs in the capital. Their terrorist tactics are execrable, but it doesn’t do to ignore the fact that, as the linked article concludes: “Abuja’s glittering high-rises stand in stark contrast to the polluted creeks and poverty of the delta.” The mess in the delta even has its own beacons, gas flares lit by petroleum companies who hit veins of natural gas while prospecting for oil. Deciding the gas too expensive to process, they pretty much just light a match, and leave the resulting flare to burn. This has been going on for decades, and some of the flares have been alight that long.
While living in Port Harcourt where my father lectured, I could see several gas flares around just from the campus, especially at night, and it wasn’t too far a drive to where you could hear their loud hiss and crackle. The waste and environmental despoil is staggering, not just for Nigeria, but worldwide as gas flares are a significant source of atmospheric pollution. I hereby supplement Dante’s nine circles of hell with a tenth.
I saw bound and gored on large, rotating spits
The heirs of Rockefeller’s wretched souls
And interspersed among them, fucking gits,
The local heads entrusted with controls,
And under all these damned, enormous flares
Of flaming gas from oil-prospecting holes,
Kindled in their deeds of mineral shares;
From ether of the famous sweet, light crude,
Their shrieks of pain annealed me to my hairs.
There. “E dove si vede di giustizia orribil arte,”⁹ and all that.
32. Wonderland got nothing on Nigeria. This item will be difficult to put into words, but it makes so much sense after you’ve lived it. So much experience in Nigeria, after the obsessive orderliness of the West, is something like the looking-glass world of Lewis Carrol. You never have a clue what people are going to say. You never have a clue what people are going to do. There is never any warning before someone jumps out of a parallel universe to rumble along the fault lines of your own world. Logic is fungible. Vicissitude is everything. Idiosyncrasy is norm, except where the norm flows from custom. But even custom is draped in contingency, while leaving undraped a great deal of circumstance. And thusly. And so. If you plan to get along, and not go mad, you just learn to roll with it.
One of the blessings of growing up in Nigeria is the training in agility in mind and limb in all things. Of course some Nigerians go abroad and fall grossly afoul of the prevailing order, which can have rather unpleasant consequences, and perhaps sometimes lead to the stereotyping I mentioned at the end of part 1, but those who can take their mad hatter adaptability to adapt back into Alice’s world often have much to thank from their background.
See also: 50 Observations on 50 years of Nigeria, part 1
and: 50 Observations on 50 years of Nigeria, part 3
¹ To give a sense of what these wares are, akara is a delicious spicy bean fritter. Okpa di oku is “hot okpa,” a boiled soybean paste preparation—cheap and nutritionally functional. “Chin-chin” is a pastry fritter—think walnut-sized beignets. “Mineral” is soft drinks. “Gala” (approximate rhyme with “challah”) is a brand of beef sausage rolls.
² The passage continues: “I never ceased to wonder at and be a little disturbed by their lack of any reverence, if I may use so portentous a word, for anyone superior to them, either when used in connection with the white man or with themselves. True democrats, no one was better than themselves but yet, they were somehow better than anyone else. This self-assurance was sometimes a little frightening. They want to learn from us but only such things as may be materially productive as soon as possible. They tolerate us because they need us. They do not look up to us resentfully as conquerors but complacently as stepping stones. What will happen when they can, or think they can, mount alone and have no further use for the stepping stones, no one can tell.”—”African Women: A Study of the Ibo of Nigeria,” Sylvia Leith-Ross, 1939. The spelling “Ibo” is a long-rejected one because it does not express the labial-velar plosive of the “gb” phoneme, the same sound that you find in my surname, Ogbuji.
³ The passage continues: “British colonial officers and missionaries, both men and women, generally failed to see the political roles and the political power of Igbo women. The actions of administrators weakened and in some cases destroyed women’s bases of strength. Since they did not appreciate women’s political institutions, they made no effort to ensure women’s participation in the modern institutions they were trying to foster.”—”‘Sitting on a Man’: Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women,” Judith Van Allen, Canadian Journal of African Studies, 1972
⁴ Named after the Sapele town I mentioned earlier.
⁵ Another similar, fun bit of pidgin slang is “face-me-I-face-you”, which is the nickname for tiny apartments within tenements that have become the abode of many entire families in large cities such as Lagos where real estate is dear.
⁶ Literally Igbo for “hot hooch.”
⁷ It’s not easy to find, but if you can, I highly recommend my aunt’s cookbook “A Taste of Calabar”.
⁸ “Migration and the Economy: Igbo Migrants and the Nigerian Economy 1900 to 1975” by Mathias Chinonyere Mgbeafulu (2003)
⁹ “And there one saw justice at its terrible art,” Dante, Inferno XIV.
God, we are lucky to have you here, Uche.
This is a fabulous series. So much information – all of it interesting and entertaining, amusing and provoking.
What’s the Yoruba word for ‘treasure’? Whatever it is – it should be synonymous with Uche.
And Arse Water…. That will stay with me forever.
Thanks, Zara. For ‘treasure’, I expcet the Igbo would use the name ‘Ngozi.’ The Yoruba would use the name ‘Wuraola.’ Both gorgeous names.
And you can bet that I did *not* buy the arse water from that hawker 😉
I can’t stop laughing.
The pictures in my head are so gross.
I really did think Uche was going to segue from arse water into what I believe in Nairobi are called “flying toilets.” I don’t know whether flying toilets are used in any Nigerian cities, but arse water led my thinking immediately to them.
Ha ha! The connection didn’t even cross my mind. I think living in Nigeria does indeed come with its defecation stories, but mostly involving squatting in bush rather than over a bag. I’ve never lived in the most crowded parts of Lagos, though, for example, so who knows what I’ve missed out on 😉
Oh lord, that motorcycle picture is familiar… They do the same in the Philippines, and presumably other countries, too. I think the most I ever saw on one bike, though, was 5 people. In Asia it’s always the father who gets the one helmet whilst his family hold on and hope that his drunkenness doesn’t cost them their lives.
That Nigerian booze sounds enough to put even me off alcohol… Wow. Nasty.
What gets me about ogogoro is that palm wine is so delicious, including raffia palm wine. It comes from a different fermentation process of the same sap. I can’t fathom why anyone would want to go the nastier route. As the name implies, palm wine has far less alcohol content, and some is even mild enough for children.
Yeah, I don’t understand drinks that are that strong. China has plenty, from what I’ve seen so far. I’d rather drink a lot of weaker booze and actually enjoy it, rather than burn my stomach lining with foul brews.
The motorcycle picture is also familiar to me as I saw such things in India and in the Amazon.
(I can’t believe I forgot your penchant for footnotes, especially since you have the prettiest number font ever for them.)
I do wish you had bought and drunk some “arse water,” if only so you could say you did. Opportunity lost, Uche, opportunity lost.
Your descriptions of Nigeria are both interesting and illuminating, especially for someone like me who knows so very little about Nigeria.
You are a great teacher, Uche!
Thanks, Irene. I probably did buy plenty of “arse water” over time, but luckily by then I would have trained myself to hear it as “ice water.” Boy, with the experience of traveling in a packed bus during rainy season, I can imagine they sell the stuff by the gallon!
I know I can’t post pictures in the comment area, and I understand why that is, but I have some pictures of bicycles, not even motorcycles, in India, carrying more than I can fit in my car!
If you have them somewhere like Flickr or Picassa, and post the links in comments, I can turn them into embedded pics for you. Meanwhile, until then enjoy this gem:
Posting on Irene’s behalf. A picture taken in New Delhi, India.
They were only stopped because of a traffic jam.
He actually pedaled all of that with the guys on top.
We saw it!
(I take SO many pictures!)
Oh yeah. I believe it. I hardly expect the pedal-wallah woulda walk-pushed the frame all the way to market 🙂
Love the photo of the tyre’d fellow on the m’bike, Uche. HA!
Book, book, book, book, book. Please.
This belongs in print or (yes!) in the iBook store, complete with audio, images, maybe a little video. Read what you write, listen to you speak some of it.
So much of these resonates that I hardly know where to start, and I don’t want to go on and on.
The local politics thing — indigenous political structures vs. the ones the colonizers tried to put into place (I’ve seen that first-hand myself), the changing roles of women, from very powerful to much less powerful, again not so much that anybody pushed them down, but that the outsiders (who, after all, had the power) raised up the men because they only would work with men, politically and economically.
And so on. Wow. So much of what’s out there about other countries, other societies, is either mere sloganeering or only caricaturing.
This was a great Sunday morning read, Uche. Thank you.
It certainly feels like a book’s worth of material. I’ve been cutting and cutting and cutting, and still end up with these long posts. It’s funny how once the reminiscence and reflection starts, it just comes tumbling out. There is always complexity in human affairs, anyway, but the pitch of gradient once you throw colonization into the picture, especially enforced colonization, with the clash of mores and perceptions opens up so much marvel and horror that it feels as if the brain can scarcely contain it.
I love this, Uche. Genuinely fascinating stuff. I could read this all day long. This post puts me in the role of being a student of culture, one that I welcome it its entirety. I wonder, for instance, if I could write this equivalent as a teenager in Washington D.C., as it would be sent to a literary group in Abuja. Mostly, I enjoy your posts as a knife in the side of my lack of recent travel. Also, in reference to #17, we called them Wolf Tickets, which remains one of my favorite phrases.
Oh cool! I always wondered about the expression “woofing,” and I just looked it up and it seems to be a variation of your “wolf tickets.”
I ❤ language 🙂
YES!!! Uche, I completely second Don’s comment: Book, please. I’m not unrealistic so, say, mid-next week? Even with (or perhaps especially because of) this informal style, you paint such a rich and amazing picture. Thank you for this.
My heart broke for your parents, though. “Corruption fueled a sure erosion of the meritocracy, and it wasn’t long before the brain drain started.” My stomach drops at that. Micro and macro, that is repeated so often, in so many arenas. I try to tell myself it’s like lava flow – it destroys what’s already there but creates new and fertile land further down the coast… but I don’t think I’m buying it. It’s just stupid and so obvious to anyone with eyes to see.
Yeah, I hold both points of view on that. It is indeed stupid and destructive at the time it occurs. But I do also agree that it creates new forms of fertility which can provide completely unexpected benefits. A quick preview of item 50 in this series is that I believe Nigeria’s diaspora is its very future, and that Nigeria will be OK eventually because of the quiet, but widespread success of that diaspora. I like to think my parents will see that promise emerging from their own disappointment in their lifetimes. Their grandchildren are American, but also very Nigerian, and like many immigrant traditions (Irish, Italian, Latin American, Pacific rim, South Asian, etc.) that identity remains strong, and connects them to the old country until such time as they are again able to do it some good.
But yes, until then, it has been a heartbreaking disappointment for my parents and so many of their peers that had such wonderful dreams for the country int he glory days of the late 70s and early 80s.
One of the reasons I wanted to write this series, and one of the reasons I’ve had such a run of energy in writing it is the degree to which understandable heartbreak has colored other retrospectives for the anniversary. I have a sense that my generation is a bit more sanguine about things. We’re getting on with our lives and our families knowing that as long as we’re out there, thriving, it would be foolish to write Nigeria off. I wanted to capture a bit of the complexity and intensity that drives those of us in whom the future of Nigeria lies.
Uche, this series is turning out to be such a great, great cultural introduction, especially for someone like myself who knows very little about Nigeria, other than what I get out of my National Geographic subscription – which is surprisingly little, as they seem to focus on more troubled African areas like the Congo these days. I agree with Don: this needs to be in book form.
Thanks for the encouragement. I guess I’d better start shopping is around for a hefty advance B)
Oh, now that I’ve taken off my ACME DreamOn shades, the world looks so much more drab! Ah well.
I’d be satisfied with poaching a few NatGeo subscription fees, though 🙂
Hey, don’t you guys
Ark of The Covenant
@JMB: Whoa! I hadn’t even heard of that, so I googled it, and found among other things this:
and in one comment:
Wow! Talking about laying it on thick 😉
@Irene. Motorcycle? Exactly! That’s how Indiana Jones smuggled it out of the country under hot pursuit by the Second Mechanized Brigade of the Nigerian Army 😀
It’s on the back of a motorcycle.
What a gorgeous post this is, Uche!
I had wondered where “the dozens” originated, especially having been “dozened” by a family of African-American “experts” (my son’s teenaged babysitting neighbours)—-and it took several days for me to recover. Whew. All I could come up with was “Yo mama’s so big, a helicopter landed on her Malcolm X jacket.” And, yes, I’d heard it somewhere before blurting it out to the family. They were Way Amused.
You describe the hawkers so wonderfully, Uche. And I loved the photo showing them doing just what you’d said.
Loved the part about the strong, capable, politically courageous women of Nigeria.
Oh, wow: SADE! Soooooo beautiful and beautiful-sounding.
Thank you, thank you, for your entertaining, informing, rounded description of your beloved people.
I’ve always thought: may we all be granted the versatility of street hawkers (as long as we don’t have to make our living in traffic, as they do).
I’m glad you appreciate this street-hawker-wares smorgasbord of a post. I tried to tap into that versatile spirit, but I still managed to scatter my bag of loose change all over the motorway 🙂
Lucky us, recipients of your loose “scattering,” Uche!
Your delight and love is writ all over this wonderful post.
Oh, Uche. I have such a desire to go now. It’s been on my list for a while, but I never seem to be able to squeeze it in. I’ve been through Eastern Africa – Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, but never Nigeria. I have to hand it to the Nigerians, when it comes to email scams, they are a world power, hahaha. I’d like to explore the more positive aspects in a visit.
Question – is khat popular there? It’s my own ignorance showing in the question, I’m sure. It’s prevalent everywhere I’ve been, both in Africa and even into the Middle East. Has the habit ventured to the western regions?
All that aside, FASCINATING read, my friend.
And happy birthday 🙂
Thanks for the birthday wishes. Lovely day, it’s turning out to be. As for the Mother Continent, we’re even. I’ve never been to East Africa, and I’d love to go. Although I guess Don has reminded me I’ll want to beware flying toilets 🙂
Qat (“khat” is also correct, of course, but I like the spelling that’s so good for offloading that obnoxious “q” in scrabble 🙂 ) is not big in Nigeria as far as I know, thank goodness. I’d say alcohol, caffeine and good old fashioned weed are the most popular narcotic substances.
Glad you’re enjoying the series. Two down, one more to go 🙂
I’m aghast! One should always, always, come correct, no matter what the situation!
More fascinating stuff, Uche, about a country, culture, and people, that my store of knowledge is sadly lacking in.
Thanks, Simon. Glad it hasn’t worn out its welcome because part 3 (the final bit) is on its way 😉 And to think that when this project first occurred to me I thought it would be a quickie.
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