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?

13 October 2008

Beware of 419

So it is one month since Brian and I arrived safely in Lagos. I am happy to announce that finally I am starting my blog. I am also happy to announce that I haven't encountered any Nigerian scammers...well, until today. Just when I started to think, "does this scamming stuff really happen or are these just isolated internet-based incidents that prey on the less than intelligent," it almost happened to me.

We were told before arrival that changing money on the black market was the way to go. Basically, you find someone who knows a guy who can change your money for you at a much better rate than any of the banks around town. The guy looks like your Joe Schmoe off the street and carries around his wad of cash to change for US $100 bills on any given street corner in Lagos. Well, not feeling too comfortable changing $1,200 on a street corner, I went to the local bank to check how their rate compared. Pretty close! So I changed my money there, no incident.

I returned to the same bank today to collect more naira. The electronic marquis posted on the wall showed a USD exchange rate of 117.5...same as a couple weeks before and competitive with the black market rate of 118. I approached the counter, recognized the woman who had helped me before, and handed her 5 crisp $100 bills. She counted my money then left to speak with another bank teller. She returned and asked me if I was changing money for educational purposes. Educational purposes, I asked? Yes...the posted rate was only for use by schools. Huh? I must have looked a bit confused. Before I could assure her that I was a high school administrator changing my money for "educational purposes," she offered me 115. Yeah, right.

I turn to leave indicating that I was taking my business elsewhere. As I approached the rotating door, the guard on duty caught my attention and pointed back to the teller who had offered me the less than desirable exchange rate. She had a colleague (presumably one of her fellow tellers) who would like to buy my money at a rate of 116. You have got to be kidding me. It's not like I'm haggling for the lowest price on some beads at the local market. I am inside an established bank which sits directly across from Chevron's offices and which many of the Chevron employees use for their personal banking needs. I guess no place is really safe from the scam.

So 419 is the penal code for fraud in Nigeria. On the highway, we will see signs reading "Not for Sale. Beware 419." Apparently a common scam is for someone to sell (for cash of course) a plot of land or a building that they do not own. Could you imagine walking into the new home you just purchased and seeing another family seated at the dinner table?