31 January 2009

Egypt - More Than You Bargain For

After living in Lagos for 3.5 months and having to bargain on a biweekly basis for everything from tomatoes to key chains, I thought I had it down. The seller starts high, the buyer goes way low, and then somehow you manage to agree on a price that is suitable for both parties. In Lagos, bargaining (or pricing) seems to be a way of life. A price is never set so pricing is the natural progression of the buying process after you've chosen what to buy and before you bring it home.

But the minute we set foot in Egypt, all bets were off. Bargaining was like walking into crossfire. You could not walk 20 feet without a street vendor shouting at you, a cabbie soliciting your business, or an eager seller following you down the street. Wherein Lagos you simply pass a vendor by, in Egypt there is no such thing as "no." Persistence seems to be the way to subsistence, and with good reason. If one vendor doesn't attract your business, there are 10 others waiting for it just down the road.

In Lagos, if a vendor doesn't like your price you may volley once or twice, state you highest price ("1,000 Naira, finish!"), then agree to disagree and simply walk away. In Egypt, the bargaining could go on and on. This quickly became clear with one particular Egyptian vendor selling a Louis Vuitton wallet (a very obvious knockoff I might add). He started a $50 American dollars, and I knew full well I wasn't going to pay more than $10. We got down to $20, and I began questioning my own decision to buy. After all, I didn't really need the wallet, and the poor quality stitching (un)sealed the deal. As I began to walk away, the price quickly fell to $15, then $10, the $7...and I was out of earshot. I guess in Egypt you really can get more than you bargain for.

28 January 2009

African Diversity - Egypt

Lagos living with Cape Town convenience...that's what I thought when we first arrived in Cairo. The city itself had more than hints of Lagos. Dirty, crowded, and bustling to name just a few. Though a mere 8 millions residents compared with Lagos' 13 million, the streets were packed with pedestrians, street vendors, and traffic that puts New York City to shame.

One of our first stops while in Cairo was Egypt's national museum. From the outside, the regal building seems to announce the true value of what it holds inside. But once you enter, thousands of 4,000-year-old artifacts sit in aisles, un-encased and unprotected. Similar to many of Nigeria's museums, there seems to be a severe lack of priority (or perhaps a lack of funds) when it comes to artifact preservation and presentation. Glass panes held together by cracked wood formed the display boxes we peered into. Half the time the artifacts were unlabeled, and those that were displayed type-writer descriptions on yellowing paper. Up until recently, the mummies of Egypt's most famous pharaohs were not protected adequately from temperature, air, or other elements giving new meaning to the phrase "oldie moldie." But regardless of a general paucity and priority for preservation, the sites of the city, their historical significance, and the sheer number of ancient artifacts you can see is a tourists dream.

As an added bonus, the city's infrastructure makes it all easy to see. Cairo boasts the only subway on the African continent. A safe, new, and clean transportation option, the subway is easy to navigate and cheap (about 20 cents per ride). Currently it doesn't go as far as the airport in the northeast or the Pyramids out west, but taxis are numerous and the highway system decent. Just make sure your hotel writes your destination (and your hotel address!) in Arabic for the non-English speaking cabbies.

Despite just a few language barriers, overall we were surprised by how much English we saw and heard in this primarily Arabic speaking city. And once we traveled to Luxor, us mono-glots were in heaven! As a general rule, you can assume anyone in Luxor speaks your language...Spanish, German, even Japanese. At one point during our trip, a vendor approached us trying to sell some papyrus. Not receiving an immediate response from us in English, he subsequently switched to Spanish, then Italian, then German. No joke!

Despite traces of third-worldness
(a gentle reminder that we had not left Africa), Cairo and Luxor were easy to navigate, tourist friendly, and cosmopolitan to say the least.

21 January 2009

African Diversity - Cape Town Class

In addition to top-notch infrastructure, Bay-Area-esque feel, and severe lack of wild animals running around, Cape Town eluded its "African" stereotypes in another way -- my skin fit in. How could this be? After all, South Africa is only 18% white!

Staying in the tourist area close to the VA Waterfront, and presumably one of the most affluent parts of town, racial demographics seem askew.
Our Nigerian friend EG observed this as well...a severe lack of bi-racial couples, especially noticeable to her and her Anglo-American boyfriend, Wes. Though not completely absent of racial diversity, this well-to-do area is hardly representative of the city as a whole. Speaking to this point, a former DePaul University classmate of mine made a poignant observation: "You can't talk about race without talking about class." And in Cape Town you see the striking truth to this statement. Cape Town is where race and class collide and divide.

This reality became conspicuously apparent toward the end of our trip. As inevitably happens in unfamiliar cities, Brian and I took a wrong turn on our way back to the city. As we drove past the casinos trying to find an alternate route, our environment became strikingly familiar -- vendors walking between cars selling anything from fruit to car mats; make-shift shanties flanking the roadway; and, of course, our skin color placed us in the minority. No...we were not in Lagos. We had stumbled upon one of Cape Town's many "townships" where the less than affluent reside and apparently black skin was a condition of lease.

In my previous blog Class-ic Racism I wrote, "
In Nigeria it is not my race that I notice most...it is my class." But pondering once again my former classmates statement, I know she is right. You cannot talk about race without talking about class...even in Africa.

19 January 2009

African Diversity - Cape Town

The minute you step off the plane in Cape Town, this is what inevitably runs through your mind: "Are we in Africa?" Easily mistakable for an American or European seaside community, Cape Town's infrastructure boasts ease of travel, drinkable water, clean streets and sidewalks, and tourist areas galore. In stark contrast to Lagos' tropical terrain and climate (i.e. my quintessential "Africa"), Cape Town is dry, cool, and features a grandiose and picturesque coastline. In many (in fact most) ways it reminds me of the Bay Area in California. Wineries are plentiful, the summers can still be cool, and there is a general easygoing-ness that accompanies most tasks.

Though most speak English, Afrikaans is king. Streets and businesses claim names from this Dutch-based language whose vowel sounds have no relevance to their English counterparts. Springbok, wildebeest, ostrich, cheetah, and other game certainly reside nearby; but the only signs we saw of them were on menus, near farms from which they had escaped, or caged for tourists to pet. Still no signs of my quintessential "Africa." Ivory and zebra skin were aplenty in the local souvenir shops, though most were raised in mass for "legal" poaching. And our authentic South African cuisine at Moyo's was served to us by waiters from Zimbabwe.

In Cape Town we found the US of the Southern Hemisphere; modern comforts, big-city feel, and surface-level prosperity in the tourist parts of town...a definite contrast (and break) from the laborious Lagosian living.

12 January 2009

Where Are We From?

The first photo is our two friends Bruce and Neulah who are South African. This photo was taken just before Christmas at Cape Town's annual Christmas carol singalong at its botanical garden. Being almost 80% Christian, we felt at home during the Christmas season there.

Obviously there is an oyibo in this second picture. The person to the right of me is EG, one of our very good friends here in Lagos. She is Nigerian, born in Warri. Her full name is Eguonor Abinogun, which can be a bit confusing to the typical Nigerian. Technically she's considered
Urhobo, but her last name is Yoruba.

Look carefully at the third photo, and don't be fooled...there is an oyibo in disguise. The other gentleman was our Egyptian tour guide while at the pyramids in Giza.

The fourth photo is also a bit tricky...the gentleman on the right is our roommate, Ben. He attended primary and secondary school near Kampala, Uganda (where his parents and family still live), but he's American. On the left is a Nigerian gentleman we met during a late night at our hotel pool bar in Benin City, Nigeria.

The final photo is a bit atypical! It was taken during my trip to Kano (the northern part of Nigeria that is primarily Muslim and so close to the Sahara they are planting trees to keep the desert from expanding to Kano). Rarely did we see 18-30 year-old women walking the streets. Most are obligated to stay at home or only exit their homes with their husbands.

10 January 2009

African Diversity

Every week I attend a book club that reads publications about Africa, written by African authors, or both. Yesterday, as we were choosing our books for the next few months, I made a startling comment that surprised even myself: "Before reading this book [King Leopald's Ghost] I had no idea where the Congo was or even that it used to be called Zaire." Embarrassing but true.

Before moving to Lagos, Africa was this conglomerate of the unknown.
Botswana, Sudan, and Togo could easily have passed for the same country in my mind. After all, they're all Africa, right? Lots of black people, lions and leopards, and probably civil unrest. In a nut shell, that was my Africa. I exaggerate a bit, knowing full well the world's largest desert rests in the north (I don't think leopards hang out there), and the residents of northeast Africa most certainly do not look black. Then of course there is South Africa...lots of white people and the most "civilized" of all African countries.

But let's be serious...if I took a poll of all my blog followers and asked them to point out Gabon, Namibia, and Burkina Faso on a map, how many of us would get all three right? Somehow, over the years, this vastly diverse continent that boasts over 1,000 indigenous languages and probably just as many cultures, has melded into "Africa." So, in celebration of the most misunderstood continent on the planet, my next couple of blogs will focus on African diversity. To give you a taste of what's to come, here are a couple of photos of people from different African countries. Can you guess where they are from?

04 January 2009

Class-ic Racism

As most people know, I have an insatiable interest in university life and the academic aura that surrounds it. Feeding this addiction of sorts, I decided to visit the University of California, Berkeley to attend some classes (incognito, of course) before leaving for Lagos. As it would happen, the grad school course I attended was open forum with no professor to mediate, and one of the students had visited Nigeria on several occasions. This student told me something I have contemplated since we arrived: "When you move to Nigeria, you will notice you are white."

What I believe this African-American student meant by her statement is
never before have I noticed my race. It has never affected where I go, what I do, or how I do it. In some ways, being white in the United States is the default, the status quo. Opportunities are open to me without hesitation, while the same opportunities may be denied to others simply on the basis of race.

But after living in Nigeria for almost 4 months, I've come to realize that the student at Berkeley was wrong. In Nigeria
it is not my race that I notice most...it is my class. Sure, there are small things that make me conscious of my skin color: being called oyibo (which technically means "foreigner" not "white person") or feeling an implicit obligation to say hello when I see another white person walking down the street. But racial identification here seems less essential, less philosophical, and more of a peripheral difference than back home.

On the other hand,
it is easy to see and feel the economic divide just walking through my own neighborhood appropriately tagged the "Beverly Hills of Lagos." There are those who build houses and those who live in houses. Those who open gates and those who enter gates. Those who guard homes and those who reside in homes. There is little to no social interaction between these two classes of people, and a person's dress, speech, or pragmatics often reveals to which class they belong.

This "classism" of sorts became poignantly apparent while purchasing plane tickets for our recent vacation to Cape Town. My friend Eko, who also happens to be a driver, took me to the local South African Airlines office to finalize our trip itinerary. After realizing I would have to wait for a bit, I went outside to see if Eko wanted to wait inside with me. Not seeing him right away, the receptionist asked if I was looking for my driver and pointed to a small building in the parking lot. As it turned out, there was a separate place for drivers to wait. In contrast to the comfy couches and airconditioned building where you buy tickets, this building was small, unairconditioned, and furnished with old metal chairs topped by cracked leather cushions. Here, the way you are treated and the opportunities you are afforded seems to be a direct function of your class.

It is thought that art imitates life (and vice versa). I recently saw a performance of "The Divorce" by Nigerian playwright Wale Ogunyemi. Set inside a couple's middle- to upper-class home, the play centers around a Nigerian couple struggling to come to terms with a failing marriage. During the course of the play, the steward was yelled at, ignored, accused, and disregarded as customary interaction with his "master" and "madame." Aside from being a comic relief character, the steward embodies the divide seen all too often in upper-lower class interactions here in Nigeria..

So when I walk through my neighborhood, interacting with those I meet, it is not my oyibo skin that I notice most. It is my earning potential, my education, and the other class-ic advantages my white skin has come to signify.