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..."