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.