29 December 2008

Of Media and Men

Earlier this month, stories describing unrest in Jos littered online news agency Web sites. Jos historically battles Christian-Muslim tensions, and recent local election results reignited this long-held religious conflict. Soon after, Nigerian news agencies reported tanks being deployed in the nearby city of Kano "to quell possible reprisal that could arise from the Jos riots" (http://allafrica.com/stories/200812020007.html).

I have always been skeptical of events represented in the media; after all, they are just that...mediated. They require someone, usually a news agency, to interpret, present, and decide what is most important for its viewers to hear and see. But it wasn't until I saw for myself that my skepticism was confirmed.
As it happens, the accounts mentioned above appeared just two days before my own venture to the "tank ridden" city of Kano.

Though not restricted from traveling by our own employers, warnings had been given to us that travel was inadvisable, and employees of British Gas were denied permission to visit Kano. Needless to say, my senses were on high alert when we arrived. But instead of my own fears being verified, it was my skepticism of the media that was substantiated. During our 5-day stay for Kano's biggest event of the year (its Durbar), I saw no tanks and no military mobilization. Even during the Durbar itself, an event that easily drew 1 million people, I saw fewer police present than a typical University of Texas football game. In fact, the only cohort that made me the least bit wary were the Shell security officers that showed up to our hotel in bullet proof vests and infantry helmets...presumably to protect us from the nonexistent tanks. Even the Shell's head of security was overheard saying it was a bit of overkill (no pun intended).

Many times the media is our only window into places unknown, far away, or outside of our field of experience. Even when first moving to Lagos, my only knowledge of the city (the 2nd largest city in Africa mind you) was that of expat kidnappings and attacks on pipelines by the "terrorist" group MEND, all mediated to me through various news sources. I heard nothing of its rich culture, the picturesque beaches, the unparalleled textile industry, the thriving art scene, and of course its friendly, approachable, and patient citizens.

Undoubtedly, we owe a debt of gratitude to those working in media-related industries - providing peaks into places we know little about. But as I learned first-hand in Kano, that is just what they are...peaks. We generalize based on small snippets, form perceived realities based on what we are told, and depend on men to decide what is important for us to see...and in your case, that man is me.

25 December 2008

Merry Christmas

To our family, friends, and blog followers:

Though we may be far away, we will be thinking about all of your over this holiday season. We wish everyone a very Merry Christmas, and may the blessings of the Lord follow you in the year to come!

Sarah and Brian

21 December 2008

Things You Might Say in Lagos

I Must Ease Myself: This is the polite way to say I have to go to the bathroom. I had to ask where I can "ease" myself a number of times after a night at a local beach bar. Usually it involves squatting close to the Atlantic after the sun goes down and a mental reminder to face uphill!

To a sneeze, you will not hear "Bless You," but rather "Sorry." The first time I had a 3-peat sneeze I got a coup
le of these. "It' s not your fault," I responded after wiping my nose, to which I received some confused looks.

Oyibo: For those following this blog on a regular basis, you
know exactly what this is (see my previous post).

You Are Welcome: Rarely used as a response to "thank you," this is a typical Nigerian greeting usually heard upon a first encounter or when entering someones home. It is an invitation for one to enter anothers physical space to which "thank you" is the appropriate response.

No Wahala: Some things are the same even halfway around the world. "Wahala" is the Yoruba word for "problem."

E casan: Yoruba for "Good Afternoon." Locals will use
this terms even when addressing oyibos like me!

Dodo: And no it is not pronounced like the extinct bird...think more excrementally. Despite a less than appetizing name, these fried plantains are a local specialty and delicious!

Eba (see side photos):
Another local dish made from the cassava root. The cassava is peeled, dried, ground, sifted, roasted, then made into a mashed-potato-esque
blob used by locals to sop up gravies. As my Ugandan friend notes, Africans like their food wet.

Present Tense
: The use of present tense here abounds. Though some may find it sounds a bit primitive, I for one find it sounds wise. Somehow purging all the helping verbs makes present tense statements succinct and insightful. Think, "Confucius says..."

17 December 2008

Things You Might See in Lagos - Part 2

Check out the slide show above for just a taste of what is Lagos.

Water Hyacinth
: Just when you think the lagoon is looking a little "Lagos nasty," these beautiful flowers arrive with vengeance. Usually appearing in the morning, the floating purple buds and accompanying vegetation take over the lagoon behind our flat.

Mr. Biggs: Watch out McDonald's...here comes Mr. Biggs! This local fast food joint specializes in spicy jollof rice and chicken. Think nonbreaded Popeye's with a kick! (For those anti-chain types, you'll be happy to know the Mac-invasion has not landed in Lagos. The only fast food joints you'll see are local ones specializing in chicken and rice.)

Lizards: You cannot step foot outdoors without seeing or hearing a Lagos lizard. These dual colored reptiles bask in the sun when they aren't dodging foot and motor traffic.

Make-Shift Ads: Need a plumber? How about an electrician? No need to consult the yellow pages, just watch the roadside. Spray painted signs on walls are a preferred method of advertising.

13 December 2008

Things You Might See in Lagos - Part 1

Check out the slide show above for just a taste of what is Lagos.

There is no dearth of beaches in this "lagoon" town by the Atlantic. Whether standing on our balcony or relaxing on Eleko beach, water is never too far away.

: Though a bit of an Africa cliche, the preferred method of toting is by head. Anything from cloth to raw meat to planks of wood will be carried by this hands-free method. I have never seen so many people with perfect posture...a necessity for the delicate balancing act.

Roasted, fried, or packaged like chips, this locally gown fruit makes for an excellent side dish or snack.

On any given day, fishing canoes and their vocational passengers will float in the lagoon behind our flat seeking the daily catch. Casting their nets, they toss and retrieve, toss and retrieve then wade to see what their efforts have produced.

11 December 2008

Any Time From Now

We first noticed the leak near our kitchen sink about two months ago. A large puddle of water caused by a continuous drip formed against the outside wall shared by the faucet. More apparent, however, was the mold caused by the leak that had pushed away paint from the entire bottom perimeter of our first floor walls...two feet of mold to be exact. And so began the process: fixing the leak, drying the walls, scraping the paint. After numerous consultations from about 12 different people, we are no closer to mold-free walls than when we moved in.

It is a common belief here that tasks progress at such a slow pace, the only honest prediction for completion is "any time from now." Though often misinterpreted by foreigners as laziness, Lagosians actually pride themselves on their incredible capacity for patience...and given the traffic here, that is a much needed virtue. A rather humorous and make-shift book, "How to be a Nigerian," delineates the daily grind as a constant game with Father Time. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. After all "the clock did not invent man."

But even with this simultaneous respect and disregard for Father Time, my experience with our house mold seems to predict another factor at play...hierarchical compliance.
According to one of our guest house employees, "it must go through so many bosses" leaving much more opportunity for tasks to be slowed down or forgotten.

Further prolonging the task, most bosses greedily hanging on to their power, not allowing those below to make a decision.
As my friend Eko sees it, "we do not have basic human rights here." Those at the bottom of the food chain "are like birds standing on one leg, observing our new surroundings"...nervous, timid all the time. They are scared of making a decision the boss should be making. "That is why you see so many workers standing around doing nothing" waiting for directions on what to do and how to do it.

I had a chance to see this hierarchical dance first hand. Emanuel, our "head" painter of sorts, came to test primer on our walls. He had a subordinate painter who actually completed the task, meekly following Emanuel around painting where Emanuel pointed and not saying a word. When the task was complete, I asked Emanuel if I could reschedule the next phase of our painting project. Even though Emanuel would be the person painting our walls, or rather telling someone else to paint, I had to inform his boss directly. "Couldn't you relay the message to him?" I asked. "He may think I tried to convince you to reschedule for another day," Emanuel told me.

So for now, I'm resigned to the fact our walls will be completed any time from now, or when the boss says so, whichever comes first.

03 December 2008

The War Zone

The last time I visited Lekki Market, the market most convenient to our home, I had a bit of a disturbing experience. Since I frequent this market weekly, I mentally prepared myself for aggressive stall vendors vying for my business and the mob of boys hoping to carry my purchases, for a small dash of course. Not seeing my usual helper, Sunday, another eager boy quickly took his place and we headed toward the produce section. Cilantro, limes, and bell peppers... my list was short and specific.

Lagosian markets conveniently are organized by sections (plastics, produce, nonperishables, tchotchkes) making it easy for
oyibos like me to navigate. However, once you enter a particular section all rules are off. One vendor might sell tomatoes, bell peppers, and yams; another may sell yams, pineapples, and plantains. Because of this inconsistency, and the fact that fellow vendors are also hoping for your business, each will coerce you toward their own stall whether you need their products or not.

But coercion is an understatement as my friend Eko sees it. "Marketing is war. They do not want a relationship with their customers, just their money." And he couldn't be more right. On this particular day, I had just entered the row of stalls and eyed a vendor selling herbs. Before I could enter, a large woman in traditional clothing and gele gripped my hand tightly and led me toward another row of stalls. Having my bearings, I planted my feet and said "No, do not touch me," which did little to loosen her grip. I looked over my shoulder hoping to find refuge in the stall behind me -- after all, it is basic vendor etiquette to leave the customer alone once they've entered a neighboring stall -- when another woman, seeing me eye her produce, grabbed my other hand and started pulling. So there I was in the middle of Lekki Market standing with my arms spreadeagle as these women fought over me and my potential naira.

Eko sees Lekki Market as the central war zone for marketing. "Their eyes are too big there," he notes of the Lekki Market vendors whose customer base is almost entirely oyibo. They refuse to price fairly hoping for unusually big profits, and will go to great lengths to get them as I found out first hand. So if you ever find yourself visiting Lagos, don't worry too much about the police on the street with AK47s...but Lekki Market, that's another story.

01 December 2008

The English Tug of War

In Yoruba class last week, our instructor Tayo posed a question to us: What challenges have you faced with friends and colleagues who are Nigerian? Inevitably, the topic of English pronunciation came up. On a daily basis, we find ourselves unable to understand our own language in basic conversation. Whether it is pronunciation (which part of the word is emphasized) or cadence (which part of the sentence is emphasized), this unlikely barrier causes miscommunication and lack of understanding in even the simplest of situations.

As our class discussed the challenges of this Nigerian-American English tug of war, Tayo relayed to us an interesting story. During his grade school years, often teachers from Western or European countries would come in to teach various subjects. Armed with their expert approaches to pedagogy, and of course their various English accents, these teachers were responsible for what the students learned...and Tayo did not understand a word of it. Their accents were so different from his that he desperately copied everything the teacher wrote on the board just to stay afloat.

Tayo's experience is not an isolated case, as most current and former university students can attest to; however, his experience is different in one key way - it was his responsibility to understand his "Western" teacher, not the teacher's responsibility to acclimate accentually for the Nigerian students.

It occurred to me how often American university students shed their own responsibility to understand when placed in similar situations. We blame unintelligible accents for bad grades, or complain we must learn an accent in addition to the course material. Somehow the sole expectation for acclimation is placed on the non-American speaker.

After class, I shared these somewhat troublesome thoughts with Tayo. "Thanks be to God," was his response. "We come from different races, from different backgrounds, from different countries, and yet it is still you and me." He pointed to me, the whites of his eyes speckled with traces of red sleeplessness, but he continued with intensity. "We must communicate to understand each other, and that is our God-given gift." And with this ability comes responsibility - to communicate, to understand, and to meet one another halfway.

26 November 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

In honor of today's holiday, we'd like to share a funny Nigerian Thanksgiving moment with you. As you might expect, the only place you'll find turkeys or Thanksgiving celebrations in Lagos is within American expat communities. But, seeing as many Americans work alongside Nigerian nationals at Chevron, "Thanksgiving" was the topic of the diversity moment at Brian's most recent holiday committee meeting.

Being the only white American on this particular committee, everyone asked Brian what we do for Thanksgiving. "We get together with friends and family, eat turkey, and watch a lot of (American) football."

No sooner had the words left his mouth, a Nigerian committee member chimed in: "Yes. It's very religious. They thank God for everything they have and go to church." Not wanting to be rude or prolong an already lengthy meeting, Brian didn't argue with the man. True, we do give thanks for the gifts in our life, but Thanksgiving would probably not fall on our list of "religious holidays" ...well, unless you consider football a religion.

Later that day, Brian looked over the minutes from his committee meeting, which of course included their "diversity moment" discussion. Here's what he read: "The diversity moment was given by Femi Owolowo*, who emphasized on 'Thanksgiving Day' - a yearly event in America. He mentioned that Americans observe this public holiday and exchange gifts just like Xmas and New year holidays."

So, in the spirit of "Nigerian Thanksgiving," Brian and I hope all of you have attended church, and we'll expect our Thanksgiving gifts when we return. Happy
Thanksgiving everyone!

*Name has been changed.

23 November 2008

Pragmatics of Peeing

Every Friday, I brave the midday heat to meet my friend and Yoruba tutor Henry at our local park. This week's topic..."must know" Yoruba phrases. Among the typical Yoruba pleasantries and necessary "pricing" etiquette for market bartering was the most vital phrase of all..."Where is
the bathroom?"
Henry quickly scribbled the words "mo fe to" onto my notebook
with the corresponding English translation - "I want to ease myself." Before his hand finished the final letter, I already was struggling with the lesson. And it wasn't a matter of understanding the Yoruba; it was the English translation!

"I want to ease myself" was not in my
oyibo vocabulary. I understood the words and their meaning but still searched for the American equivalent - "Where is your restroom?"...no; "May I please use your bathroom?"...not really; "I have to relieve myself"...pretty close but not commonly used back home. When considering all my alternatives, I still couldn't imagine approaching a stranger and making a definitive announcement about my desire to urinate. Even using the "politically correct" terminology of "easing oneself" did not dilute the frank statement.

"Why don't you just say 'May I use the restroom?' or 'Where is your restroom, please,'" I asked Henry. Without pausing, he responded, "There are some things that don't need to be asked." He explained that in Nigeria if you know you need something, you don't ask for it. You just say it. If you ask "where is the restroom" and there is no physical building of restroom-like quality (which is often the case here), you'll find out just that and nothing more. You'll be in the same predicament as before, unable to ease yourself and not knowing where the appropriate place is to do it.

This want-it say-it approach doesn't stop with bodily functions either. Earlier in our conversation, Henry taught me how to request a drink. Far from our own overly polite methodology ("May I please have something to drink"), in Yoruba you say "mo fe mu Fanta" (I want to drink Fanta). According to Henry, it makes no sense to ask for "something" to drink when you know what you want and you know it's Fanta.

Our conversation reminded me of another all-too-familiar situation. The ease with which people ask for a dash. Without a second thought, I've had friends and acquaintances ask for a bit of money, cookies, a fish dinner, a laptop, and even the sling bag I use to tote my daily necessities. I've dismissed it as rude up to this point in time (despite being told to expect these awkward requests), but now it makes me wonder if the same rule applies. Whether you are peeing or propositioning, if you want it, you say it.

21 November 2008

Lightning in a Clear Sky

Weekends in Lagos are often spent soaking up the sun (and a few beers) on nearby beaches. On our last beach venture, four of us decided to end our day at the local Eleko beach bars. Lined side-by-side, these nondescript shantie-style huts (distinguish only by make-shift signs like "Corona Bar" or "Joe's
Place") abut the Atlantic ocean

and allow their patrons to sit
in direct view of the
shoreline and water that stops
only when it hits Antarctica.
On th
is particular night, as we anticipated the quick sunset typical of areas close to the equator, we observed a different celestial phenomenon...lightning behind the single almost transparent cloud in the otherwise clear sky. As we pointed and watched, I couldn't help but think how appropos this was to life here in Lagos.

Lagos is a series of contradictions...people, things, and events that shouldn't coexist but do. Beautiful mansions stand alongside make-shift shanties. Impeccably dressed Nigerians pass construction workers "easing themselves" on this side of the road. Picturesque beaches lie tangent to trash heaps and "toilet areas."

Minibuses tarred with city grime carry locals in their best traditional dress. Professional women in dresses and heels ride on the back of motorcycle taxis to avoid stand-still traffic.
Residents struggling just to get by boast top-end cell phones with all the bells and whistles. Cost of living is high even by US standards while poverty rampant. Salaries rarely are commensurate with work put in or funds needed to live comfortably. Even the flowers seem to reflect the omnipresent contradictions with gorgeous blossoms supported by barbed, thorny stems.

And so when I see the lightning in a clear sky, I can't help but feel happy and sad, confused and at peace, upset yet content about the incongruity of life in Nigeria's "Centre of Excellence."

17 November 2008

In God We Trust

On my way home from church yesterday, I received a curious text message. Henry, a friend from the neighborhood who doubles as my Yoruba tutor, dropped me a line to say hello. This is what he wrote:

Hi, mrs. Seira. I'm so glad as I see you again this morning. May the lord be with you and your husband. (Amen) Almighty God
will meet you at the point your

A very nice, though odd, message I thought to myself. After all, Henry didn't strike me as particularly religious or one pursuing a vocation in the seminary. Finding the message curious, I read it aloud to my husband and our dispatch driver Godwin. To my surprise, Godwin completed the message aloud, in harmony with my own scripted words. I guess the message wasn't as curious as I thought.

A similar situation presented itself a couple of weeks ago as I was once again in transit. On the radio played a song that rung vaguely familiar, though I could not place it at first. As it transitioned from verse to refrain, I realized I sang this song every Sunday at the end of Mass while different groups processed to the altar offering tithes. "Igwe....Igwe....Igwe" I recognized, before the song faded into a Top 40 hit.

Unlike the typical US community where religion is considered taboo in typical conversation and spoken in afterthought if mentioned at all, religion saturates almost every aspect of Lagosian life. Products, services, and business names often include religious references in their titles. Pengassan, the Nigerian oil and gas union, periodically holds "prayer meetings" on Chevron's front steps. Dance clubs and radio stations play Igbo praise music alongside pop and rap music. Devout Muslims lay their mats conspicuously on streets, in alleys, and alongside shopping centers for their daily calls to prayer. Even semis, tow trucks, and minibuses used for public transit tout religious messages in tow -- "Pray 4 Me," "The Way of God," "Thank You Father," "God is Good."

In Lagos, religion is not something you only celebrate on Sunday or only talk about in the confines of your home or church. It is not something that could cause uncomfortable silences or elicit "bible beater" labels. It is a heartbeat, a pulse, something that often goes unnoticed because it simply is. And so it is here, 6,500 miles from home, that these words genuinely ring true:
"In God We Trust."

11 November 2008

The Blog is Mightier Than the Sword

True, This! —
Beneath the rule of men entirely great,
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! — itself a nothing! —
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the C├Žsars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! — Take away the sword —
States can be saved without it!
Richelieu: Or the Conspiracy by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

I stray from my normal blogging topics in light of yesterday's conviction of Myanmar blogger Nay Phone Latt. Though taking a new form in our current multimedia and multinational world,
Bulwer-Lytton's 19th century adage still holds true - the pen is truly mightier than the sword. Words have the power to influence; they have the power to change; they have the power to attack injustices and demand reform. But most important, this power to take action is in everyone's hands as Nay Phone Latt has shown us. So might I encourage those who read blogs to create blogs; those who have something worth writing to blog it. It is a seemingly small freedom that has influential consequences and over centuries has proven more valuable than violence.

See Full Story on cnn.com

Nay Phone Latt's Blog

07 November 2008

Nigerian Ghosts

Nigerians do not celebrate Halloween. But living in an expat community far from home, people go to great lengths to celebrate familiar traditions. And Halloween is no different. This year enthusiastic friends in a neighboring community commemorated the American tradition with B00ze Fest. The party itself progressed as any other party would: plenty of food, music, camaraderie, and even a margarita machine. Toward the end of the evening, the oppressive humidity and one too many margaritas caught up with me and I ventured outside in my "beer wench" costume for fresh air.

At the end of the walkway my friend Echo sat in a plastic chair observing who came and went. He waited for us and our friends to finish our enjoyable evening so he could finish his work by driving us home. We exchanged pleasantries, and I stopped beside him to chat about nothing in particular.

As it happened, I took a seat on the asphalt beside Echo’s chair out of the streetlight’s reach and obscured by shadows. After a bit, I began to notice something peculiar. People trickled in and out, some offering a surreptitious hello but most passed avoiding eye contact all together. “They do not see us,” Echo observed. I thought nothing of this simple statement at the time, and we continued to chat unobserved by those who passed by.

Then yesterday, I saw Echo on my way to the gym. He once again waited by the car to fulfill his duties as a driver. As we spoke, I discovered he attended college and received degrees in city planning and geographical studies. He is a smart and well spoken individual so his education level did not surprise me. But his current vocation did! Why is a college graduate, who has a strong work ethic and ambitions for bigger and better things, working as a driver?

"I have struggled with that for years," Echo said, with obvious pain and anger in his voice. He spent six years in school training for a job he would never have...six years he now feels were a waste. "They don't think we a human beings! They don't think we have anything here [pointing to his head]," he says of those with more respectable jobs. And so he continues to struggle, knowing how much he is capable of but trapped in a land of inopportunity.

Then I think of the our steward John, who speaks English, Igbo, and German; or Johnson, another driver, who can clearly explain and differentiate Yoruba grammatical cases. Yet somehow, their vocations obscure their intelligence in the eyes of others. They are left in the shadows; they are present but unseen; they are passed by but unacknowledged. And, like so many others, they remain ghosts in their own home.

05 November 2008

Today I Chose to Ride the Oko

There is a village not too far from Central Lekki Island; Iba-Oloja is its Yoruba name. As the story goes, a disoriented expat stumbled upon this village 15 years ago. The expat sought a nearby beach for his family to enjoy their day and instead found Mufa, the guide who today takes curious visitors to Iba-Oloja on day- long excursions by oko (canoe). The two maintained a relationship over the years, and with the help of donations, and of course proceeds from oko rides, the village now has a bathroom, uniforms for the school children, and a fully-functional school. This was the village I visited yesterday.

The canoe ride itself did not prove troublesome. Traversing serpentine inlets formed undoubtedly by oko traffic, we floated along in private oar-steered vessels toward the village. Tree leafs and brush tickled our faces, monkeys and cicadas released calls of unknown meaning, and the humid yet serene atmosphere revealed an Africa I had only read about in books.

But as we approached Iba-Oloja and disembarked
with the help of Juma's and Mufa's steady and skillful hands, my trouble began. It is a philosophical trouble that still does not have an answer for me. A conflict that up to this point in time has only been hinted at, but today disclosed itself painfully. On the one hand, here we arrive in Iba-Oloja with genuine curiosity and wonder. We want to see, listen, and watch the happenings of a small isolated village and its residents. And the people welcome us without hesitation, showing us their school, performing juju and traditional dances, and allowing us to visit and drink with the chief in his humble quarters. And it is obvious the villagers know that with visitors come gifts and awareness of their needs. So our visit is welcomed and accepted by those who call Iba-Oloja their home.

On the other hand, we come to see, listen, and watch but not much more. We do not seek an understanding that only friendships can bring. We come and go as we please to enter
voyeuristically into their world, and we bring lenses and flashes to document our "experience." As I watched the closing traditional dance, I sensed this relational disconnect in the actions and voices of the villagers. It was not overt rudeness or inacceptance but more like a constant low hum of banality only audible when it stops, when someone shows a true interest in who a person is as a friend, companion, human being.

And so I post this account with hesitation, knowing that I will not return, will not seek friendships, and cannot do justice to these photos that the people in them deserve. Today I chose to ride the oko.

03 November 2008

The Cultural Disclaimer

You may remember Echo from one of my previous posts. He is a well spoken, intelligent, and insightful individual who works as a driver for my friend Annette. (Unfortunately, intelligence and education are not always rewarded with commensurate employment here in Nigeria.) Fulfilling one of the duties of his vocation, Echo came by my house today returning some items on behalf of his "madame." Before leaving, Echo candidly asked a question that had been bothering him for some time. A number of years ago, he worked for a British man here in Lagos. Because he respected the man and wanted to show his appreciation Echo presented to his boss a pair of trousers, wrapped neatly in paper and ribbon. Two weeks later he was fired.

The gift and his subsequent firing could have been unrelated,
Echo admitted; but still in the back of his mind he felt he had offended the man in some unknown way. Echo continued, relaying a similar and more recent story. He wanted to present a gift of cloth to his former "madame." Trying his best to take proper precautions, he bought fabric for both his "madame" and her husband so the gift would not be taken as an inappropriate proposition. Again, he carefully wrapped both gifts and presented them to his employers. When the two saw the gifts, Echo expected to see joy in their eyes. After all, in Nigeria cloth is considered the finest of gifts one can receive. And it is gifts of cloth and fine drinks that the obas (kings) reciprocate with accolades of blessing and prosperity. Instead, Echo sensed an apprehension which he could not understand.

Needless to say, Echo was both distraught and confused by the situations he described. As we contemplated the cause of the misunderstandings, I began to realize just how complicated the rules of engagement can be even to those native to a particular culture. Most of these unspoken rules are considered and processed quickly and unconsciously by those who practice them, and quickly zip by those not privy to particular cultural conventions

In Echo's situations, we concluded that two things dictated the appropriateness of the gifts: relationship and timing. In both situations Echo was a subordinate giving a gift to his employer. Though many of us often develop close relationships with fellow coworkers, as a general rule gift giving in a professional setting must be performed with care. It may cause embarrassment if the employer cannot or has not reciprocated with a gift in kind...after all, if anyone should be gift giving, it should be the employer. Or, if done with enough frequency, it could be seen as an informal bribe or a method of gaining favor with the boss by inappropriate means.

The other factor out of sync with Echo's own perceptions seemed to be timing. Echo's gift was not given in response to a finished project or encouragement for a particular task. It did not involve the holiday gift giving tradition or the obligatory Boss' Day gesture of appreciation. It was a simple token of gratitude unrelated to any particular occurrence or holiday. And, at least in the culture I grew up in, this would seem a bit awkward. Now, some may argue "random acts of kindness" do occur, but that is just what they are...random. These acts not typical or repeated, and too many random acts of kindness hone suspicion.

With so many unspoken rules and cultural nuances, we resigned ourselves to the fact that we cannot always predict how a gift, comment, or action will be received in a culture that is not our own. We can insult or betray without knowing we have done so. But until we rectify the cross-cultural confusion, a simple preemptive disclaimer can do wonders:

"In my culture..."

31 October 2008

The Handset Revolution

Admittedly, I was one of the last people in the United States to get a cell phone when they become commonplace at the end of the 90s. I rejected the trend with vigor, embracing my freedom from untimely rings and unlimited access to my whereabouts by friends, family, and colleagues. When I finally gave in, it was an economical decision more than a true need or want. I planned to move to Chicago and it was much cheaper to call home with a cell than on the "old fashioned" touch-tone phones. So, I graciously accepted my parents college graduation gift...a cell phone and 1 year of service.

Now that I live in Lagos, I find myself once again with this long-forgotten freedom, sans cell phone. I have perfected the art of living in the moment without interruption or bother from situations far from my immediate
surroundings. After all, if Lagosians can live without cell phones, so can I! When in Rome...

But yesterday, the reality of my situation came to a screeching halt. I took my normal walking route as I do every evening and happened upon my friend
Mohammad, a Nigerian guard for one of the large mansions that saturate my "Paradise by the Lagoon" (and yes, that is the neighborhood's official slogan). Mohammad is an avid Chelsea supporter, and he asked if I had seen the soccer match? I hadn't but I knew Chelsea had lost. Mohammad proceeded to reinforce his undying loyalty to the team. "Look at my room," he said. He handed me his cell phone, and a room bedecked with Chelsea memorabilia popped onto the screen...Chelsea bedspread, Chelsea lampshade, Chelsea poster...the works! "Do you have bluetooth?" he asked. "I can send you the picture."

So here I am in Lagos, speaking with someone who presumably makes about $3 an hour asking me if I had
bluetooth on my nonexistent "handset." It was then I realized the fundamental role handsets play in the lives and livelihood of my neighbors and those who work for them.

Lagosians may not have permanent homes; they may not have cars; they may not eat more than one meal a day. But by gosh, everyone has a handset...and with all the bells and whistles, too! On any given day, I will hear Celine Dion or Nigerian gospel music being blasted from a handset as a national walks along. Personalized ring tones are a must, and almost everyone keeps pictures of family and friends stored conveniently in the palms of their hands. Handsets seem as much a reflection of personal identity than a communicative convenience.

The handset also influences the local economy creating jobs and stimulating competition among the various cell phone service providers. Hundreds of street vendors oppose "go-slow" traffic to sell handsets and their accompanying reloadable minute cards. The minute cards conveniently coincide with this credit-free, cash-only society. Heck, the Lagos marathon is even sponsored by the up-and-coming cell phone service provider Glo.

There is even a strategy to purchasing handset service, and Glo is the least desirable provider according to Mohammad. "You see that [trash can]. You must stand on top to get service!" Mohammad swears by MTEL. "And the 36 and 37 numbers are better. Don't get the new 07 or 08 numbers."

So despite my resistance, and with a little convincing from Mohammad, I have finally conceded to the handset frenzy. When in Rome...

27 October 2008

I'll Never Complain About Easter Vigil Again!

Being a good Catholic (or at least trying to be), I have made a weekly commitment to attend Mass at my local church. Based on prior services, I know that Mass usually starts late, ends late, and occupies about 2 hours in between. Yesterday, however, was the annual Harvest Festival at my church. It is a day of thanksgiving for another successful and healthy year, and offerings are made in celebration. So I pulled out my mental calculator (Mass starts at 9:30 am, has potential to to run 2+ hours, with an extra 1.5+ for Harvest festivities) and told Brian I would be home around 1:30 pm.

I didn't get home until 4...and I left early!

The Mass itself lasted until noon...2.5 hours as I anticipated. But just before the final blessing, the Harvest Committee Chairperson approached the pulpit and announced the Harvest procession order, which included special guests and numerous groups, committees, and communities. Apparently this was done in the interest of time, so the gift presentation would proceed "as quickly as possible" (I've learned very quickly, that "quickly" is a relative terms). A 2-hour procession ensued.

Despite its length, the time passed quickly as I watched the various groups approach with gifts...fruit baskets, paper towels, fans, juice boxes, sprite...even a lamp. With the choir in full swing and the parishioners dancing energetically toward the alter for a holy water blessing, I waited in anticipation for the Chairperson to call a group I identified with. Special guests..no. Charismatic Renewal or St. Vincent DePaul Society...no. Mothers and children...no. Men of possession...no. The end of the procession was approaching and I had yet to present my gift at the alter! Finally, they called Small Christian Communities, Road 2.

I live on Road 2, so I guess that was close enough. I exited the church and asked someone where the Road 2 group was gathered. Before I could grab my box of yams for offering, a woman pulled me her direction and the undulating group began to push me forward into the procession. Dancing and singing with everyone else, it was not until half way down the aisle that I notice our group is carrying a refrigerator, television, and electric fan. Whoops! Obviously this was an exclusive, affluent, and "official" christian community that had organized such generous gifts.

A bit mortified by my mistake, and glad that I had left my yams outside, I returned to me seat for the final blessing. The young woman seated next to me looked at her watch and sighed. I'm glad I wasn't the only one thinking "when the heck is the service going to be over." She finally turned to me, out of either curiosity or boredom, and introduced herself. Tonia was realtor who just recently joined the Transfiguration community. Presumably she didn't know many people either, so she took me under her wing for the after Mass activities.

Processed and blessed, we left the church at 2 pm and headed outdoors where linened plastic tables awaited the opening festivities. We chose seats close to the front, purchased food (spicy pepper rice), and turned our attention to the front where a man with a microphone began to speak. The rest of the afternoon progressed much like a public television telethon. The MC talked non-stop asking people to make donations for the construction of a new church building. Slips of paper were handed to him with promised pledges. The names and pledges amounts were announced with enthusiasm no matter how small or large. The MC even had a long table with seated guests behind him, making it eerily similar to the televised PBS fundraising efforts.

After enjoying the company of my tablemates, and seeing that the live auction was about to start, Tonia and I decide it's time to throw in the towel and head home. Walking down the street toward home, I think to myself, 6.5 hours at church...Easter Vigil will be a piece of cake next year.

21 October 2008


One of the advantages of Lagos' bad traffic (and yes, there are advantages) are the long, uninterrupted conversations that take life with whomever your travel companion might be. Yesterday, it was with my friend Annette and her driver Echo.

Echo is from South-South, the area rich in oil that often biases media representations of Nigeria with stories of armed roadside robberies and kidnappings. During conversations with Nigerian nationals, the discussion inevitably turns to political topics, perhaps because of the indiscriminate poverty that litters the streets or an incessant expat curiosity about things that are done differently than home. The conversation was no different today.

The political situation in Nigeria seems hopeless in Echo's eyes. Though elections are held freely, the same corrupt leaders seem to sneak their way in, rotating the power based on whose turn it is to run the country. It has been said that election results are decided before the election actually takes place. Outside politicians may be let in, but are forced to succumb to the corrupt ways of their predecessors or face certain death.

Looking around at people on the side of the road, happy but without much to call their own and obviously struggling for survival in poverty-stricken Lagos, I ask Echo if the Nigerian people felt they could do anything, change anything, influence the government in any way. To change would be to coups, and the horrors of the Civil War (Biafra War) are still burned in the memories of many Nigerians. The hope lies now with future generations further from the realities of war.

Echo seemed sad as he continued to talk, remember days of agricultural prosperity that have since passed. But could one person make a difference, I ask. Echo begins to speak of Ghana's former president Jerry Rawlings who boldly removed corruption from the government and transformed Ghana from a country of poverty to one of prosperity. Yes, one leader could make a difference. But Echo does not know that person here. Perhaps Anini came closest, though his Robin-Hood tactics were seen as less than justifiable and he was eventually executed by the government. And so it remains...a dysfunctional and corrupt government that has little concern for the people it represents and offers little hope for a more prosperous future.

20 October 2008

Oyibo - 0 Sarah - 6

Nothing seemed to be different yesterday when I departed on my walk. Aside from a quick detour to a friends house, I took my same route at about the same time. As I headed up Road 26 on my side-jaunt, I ran into a gentleman, Emanwe, who on our first encounter shouted "hello, oyibo" from across the street. When we approached each other, I kept waiting for "oyibo" to fly my way. To my surprise, we immediately started chatting about his clients in the neighborhood (he was picking up money for an upholstery job and had been waiting since 2 pm) and his shop just down the road. When we finally departed, I waited for a "bye, oyibo" that never came. Sarah - 1

I continued along and right where Road 2 turns to Road 3, there is a shanty up again a concrete wall. "Sarah!" someone yelled from the shanty. It was the
Igbo woman from east of the Niger River and one of her male companions I had met the other night. The woman runs her business from the shanty selling food to the construction workers during their breaks. I had seen her there before, but hadn't recognized her as the same woman from the other night until now. The three of us chatted for a bit...the man spoke of his desire to visit Los Angeles and asked how close that was to my home. I said good bye, and continued on my walk. Sarah - 2, 3

It was starting to get dark by this point so I pick up my pace. There are rows of shanties next to a large building that is not much more than a foundation at this point. Again, "Sarah" is shouted my direction. I returned the hello to my friend who has just
finished work, waved quickly, and watched him enter one of the shanties through a cloth curtain. Sarah - 4

Toward the end of my walk, I passed by the guard from my
oyibo walk who had repeated "Sarah" to commit to memory. This time, "Hello, Sarah" was called from behind the gates of the house he guards. Sarah - 5

Almost home by this point, and hoping my
oyibo luck had not run out, I hear my name called out again! It was Peter who guards the main gate of our neighborhood and whom I passed on the way to church on Sunday. He asked how my weekend was, how I liked Nigeria, and if I enjoyed my church service. Sarah - 6

I make it safely home with no "
oyibo" thrown my direction. I never thought my simple introductions would actually amount to anything...but then again, maybe it was because I left my Channel knock-off sun glasses at home opting for a less oyibo-ish pair.=)

18 October 2008


Contrary to popular belief, I do not sit by the pool and drink cocktails all day. Tempting as it is – our apartment complex (of sorts) sits on the north side of Lekki Penninsula directly tangent to the Lagos Lagoon – I actually get out and about for my daily 4-mile walk.

I began my usual route from our house at Sussex Harbor (Chevron’s private gated community within the Victoria Garden City subdivision). Our community sits on a 3.4 mile loop that encloses our entire subdivision with a local park and roundabout at its apex. On any given day, I will pass by beautiful mansions gated in, guarded, and barb wired as though preempting unwelcome visitors. Between these houses, there are lots waiting to be developed, lots being developed, and lots that are between the two stages with shanties and huts haphazardly erected…presumably for the workers to gain refuge from the smothering daytime heat or to stay the night if their transportation doesn’t come (that happens more often than you’d think).

As I take my daily route around the loop, I always say “good afternoon” to whomever I pass by. The usual response is “fine” or a simple “hello” from my neighbors and the workers loitering in the street. But my most recent jaunt was different. I was passing a group of construction workers, who didn’t look like they were up to anything bad but nothing good either, when a tall, burley man yelled out, “Hey oyibo!” Although other expats had relayed to me their own “oyibo” experiences in the markets or on the street, the term had never been addressed at me until now. Recognizing this Nigerian slang term for “whitie,” I turned around and smiled sarcastically in his direction (though I’m not sure if it translated as sarcasm or flirting) and went about my swift walking pace. To my surprise, the situation upset me! What reason did this man have to yell out “whitie” at me? Instead of flashing a sarcastic smile, next time I vowed to take a different approach.

Wouldn’t you know, not 5 more minutes into my walk, I hear a soft voice on my left: “oyibo, hi.” Still a bit unnerved, I didn’t stop my cardio-pace stride, but said “My name is Sarah. You can call me Sarah.” I continued on my way hearing the gentleman repeat my name a couple of times, presumably to commit it to memory.

Up to this point in my walk, most of the people I encountered were construction workers or employees of the Beverly Hills-esque mansions that flank our condo complex. But as the sun sets, workers begin to disappear and the residents of the homes emerge. They are usually returning from work, coming out for their nightly stroll or bike ride, or doing a bit of exercise as is my custom.

As I near my turn-around point, I pass a group of 4 girls in their mid-20s returning home from work. Once again, "oyibo" was aimed loudly in my direction, this time from residents rather than employees of the multi-million dollar homes. Once again, I turned around and said, “My name is Sarah.” At first, there was silence. But then Linda extended her hand and introduced herself and her friends. We chatted just a bit about where we lived and where we were headed then bid our farewells vowing to hang out if our paths crossed again.

I continued up to our neighborhood park, then started back. No sooner had I turned around, when a woman in tradition dress looked at me from across the street and said, “hello… oyibo.” I’m not sure what it was about this particular night, but apparently my whiteness was more noticeable than other evenings. Maybe it was the residual dark lipstick or Channel knock-off sunglasses that I wore. In any case, I again introduced myself and we began to talk about where we were from. She was Igbo, from an area east of the Niger River. In the midst of our discussion, her two male companions came to join our conversation. I once again gave my name, to which one replied, “I say ‘Hello oyibo’ every night….Sarah…Now I have it here [as he bows his head pointing to his temple] for when I see you.”

After this last encounter, I begin to think the maybe oyibo is not always meant in insult or taunt. Maybe it does have endearing qualities to it and I should simply embrace my oyibo label.

But this morning was a completely different experience. I took my walk early due to evening plans. The streets were pretty desolate except for children being dropped off at school and a trickling-in of construction workers. As I passed by the local school, traversing between the school’s 5 armed guards, one guard looked me square in the eye and said, “whitie” in staccato, plain English with no endearing quality whatsoever. Thinking it wise not to speak to a pissed off guard with a gun, I didn’t introduce myself this time. But I did wonder as I passed by, what exactly I had done to cause this man to speak with such disrespect. And what does it mean to be oyibo in Lagos?