27 February 2009

Land of Opportunity

Those who follow my blog regularly will recognize the name Eko...one of my very good friends here who is willing to answer all my curious questions about how things work in Nigeria. Over the Christmas holiday, as is customary, he returned to his village north of Calabar and just on the other side of the Cameroon border. Rather than simply traveling to visit his family for the holidays, Eko's journey had a different purpose: to acquire land.

Land in Nigeria can be acquired in two ways. You can purchase it (the process of which is similar to buying land in the US) or you can inherit it. In Eko's case, he was entitled to a piece of land left behind by his father, a former high chief in the region of Calabar. But the way the land is acquired is a delicate dance of flatter, gifts, and exhibitions of loyalty.
Families here in Nigeria are typically large and the lines between immediate and extended family blurry. As is the case with Eko's family (and knowing very well that many sought their same inherited right to his father's land) Eko had to act fast...well relatively speaking.

The process took the better part of December to finalize his land acquisition.
Eko explained that he had to approach a number of chiefs, bringing with him good wishes, fine cloth (considered one of the most reverent gifts one can give), and of course money. After meeting with several chiefs, he was finally referred to the high chief offering the same accolades and signs of devotion. At long last, he was escorted to the property which would be offered to him by entitlement, all the while providing good meals for those who accompanied him.

When Eko first explained this process, it seemed a long, drawn-out, and arduous process of flattery just to acquire a small plot of land. But as I thought more about, I realized we do this back home. Though not necessarily reserved for land purchase, it resembled our process of schmoozing...vendors sending gifts of appreciation for business; lunches and dinners meant to gain new clients or appease old ones; golf outings in which more business agreements are made than from behind a desk. It rang all too familiar.

So when it comes to land and opportunity, the delicate dance seems similar and familiar. Though the thing being sought and the "perks" offered along the way may be different, the way to opportunity remains the same.

24 February 2009

African Diversity - What I See Is What You Get

For the past couple of weeks, I focused my blog topics on African Diversity based on several recent trips...from Kano to the Eleko Beach Fishing Village to Cape Town. Now I must make a confession...all is not as it seems. The most poignant thing I've learned about diversity and culture during my travels is that you cannot possibly grasp, in totality or truth, the reality of a particular place or culture during a vacation.

Case in point...until our last day in Cairo, I created an image of the city that was a far cry from the comforts of back home. A city that seemed much like Lagos (busy, crowded, a bit "third world") yet it still portrayed an "exotic" feel to me that was unlike Lagos or the United States. But on our last day the falsity of my mere glimpse of Cairo came full focus.

Due to a hotel mix up and end-of-trip exhaustion, we headed out of the city confines early and grabbed dinner close to the airport. A local Cairo restaurant guide indicated there was an On the Border in the Cairo suburbs and just a few miles from the airport. The existence of an On the Border in Cairo was not too surprising; after all, we had seen American food chains speckled in the tourist areas of the city. But the sight we saw when the cab pulled up to our destination blew our mind!

On the Border was housed in a two tower, multi-level building complex that put most American malls to shame. Named "Citystars," this mega-mall accommadated stores such as FCUK, Levi's, and every athletic appareal establishment you could think of (Puma, Adidas, Nike, etc.). And...it was overrun with teenagers! Just like teens and tweens back home, the mall seemed to be the local hangout. Other than the multitudes of scarf-covered heads, this could have been any suburban mall in the United States. So I guess Cairo was more like home than I thought.

As I found out first hand in Cairo, often our perceptions of other cultures, countries, and ways of life are shaped by what little we see and encounter during holiday. Even now, having lived in Lagos for five months, I know I still have much to learn and in some ways am sheltered from the reality of Lagos living. So I ask all of you to take what I say with a grain of salt; know that what I see and what I write is based on my own perceptions and limited experiences; and go out and see for yourself, create your own perceptions, and challenge mine.

(For those of you trying to figure out which Citystars establishments are pictured above, here are your answers: (1) Starbucks (Yep, even in Cairo); (2)
Chile's; (3) Macaroni Grill; (4) Toys R Us; (5) On the Border; and, (6) Duh...

21 February 2009

African Diversity - Badagry

"Go to Lagos, then die; go to Badagry, then live." That's what our tour guide (Baba)Tunde told us on a recent visit to this Benin-border town west of Lagos. Presently, his statement is probably true. Upon arrival to the city, there was a noticeable absence of trash on the side of the road, and the people seemed relaxed, content, and markedly quieter than the yelling Yoruba of Lagos-town. The serene walk across the sandbar beach that takes you from lagoon to ocean remains practically desolate and undisturbed, at least for the time being. (Michael Jackson has traced his roots to Badagry and has plans for commemorative restorations...and an amusement park, of course).

But prior to 1832, Tunde's adage probably went more like this: "Go to Lagos, then live; go to Badagry, then die." Badagry is the second largest slave port on the African continent after Goree Island in Senegal. While many an African waterfront carried names such as "The Ivory Coast" or "The Gold Coast" after the most abundant items exported, shoreline parallel to Badagry became know as "The Slave Coast." From the time of Portuguese "discovery" in the 1440s to the abolition of slavery and beyond, millions of Africans were captured and shipped from Badagry to the Caribbean as domestic and farming slaves.

Today, you can still visit the slave market where men bartered for men, and the Badagry Heritage Museum makes the realities of slavery all too real. On display are large circular troughs from which slaves used to drink and neck harnesses with connecting chains for keeping slaves in single file captivity.

As a final testament to the reality of historical atrocity, you can ride a canoe propelled by motor across the Badagry lagoon and walk the same path former slaves did to the Point of No Return. Looking toward the point from the sandy path, it almost seems inviting -- tall palm trees framing the exit point, blue sky lying in between, and the Atlantic waves heard but not seen. This would be the last glimpse enslaved Africans would see of their beloved continent.

Though living side-by-side with a tainted history (literally...a woman hung laundry to dry in the former slave market),
the city and people continue to live and thrive. I guess Tunde was right: "you go to Badagry, then live!"

18 February 2009

It's A Hard Knock Life

Eleko Beach is a popular weekend getaway for many expats. Lined with stilted beach huts and palm trees curved by the wind, it offers a perfect break from the chaos of the city. But Eleko beach is not just a place of liesure for foreigners; it is also a place of work...hard work.

Abutting the beach huts is a bustling fishing village. Large wooden ships painted brightly with Bible verses (John 20:29) or short adages (Still Africa) line the beach waiting for their turn at sea. Those already at sea bounce up and down violently against the Atlantic current and somehow stay afloat, all the while fisherman cast and pulling fish nets to and from the vessels.

The process of moving the daily catch to market takes whole community participation. On the boats are up to 20 men helping to pull in heavy nets filled with local fish varieties. Once claimed, others from shore paddle toward the boat in canoes using oars with large serrates to propel themselves off the ocean bottom and over the breaking waves at shore. If they make it over the shoreline breaks without capsizing, they continue over the rough waters and dock tandem to the ship to collect the catch and return it to land. Others not aboard the "collection canoe" swim out with large plastic buckets or abandoned coolers to fill at boat side with fish, then carry the current back to land with their catch.

Once the catch of the day is exhausted, the ship must return to shore. Ropes are thrown toward land where men line up in file to Heave an Ho the boat in, manually and in sync. Market women barter seaside for the best quality for price then transport the fish by minibus, okada, or other means to the various markets of Lagos and beyond.

This exhausting process is not atypical in Lagos. Work is hard, it takes time, and often it takes the whole community to make it happen.

15 February 2009

Kano - The Sight of a Woman

While in Kano, we also visited privately with one of the emir's 4 wives. Because of Muslim tradition, only women were allowed to see or speak with Ada. Wife number 3 of 5 (which has since risen to #2 with the death of wife #1), Ada spoke candidly about life as an emir's wife. She married when she was 19 and had ambitions to be a pastor and travel the world. Instead she chose a life of seclusion with the emir inside the palace. True, the emir takes her traveling when opportunity arises, but without the emir she must stay in the confines of her living quarters with a couple hours in the evening allowed for courtyard meandering.

She mostly communicates with her husband through concubines...and yes, they are concubines in the traditional sense of the word. They may sleep with him and mother the emir's children...children who will enjoy the same benefits as Ada's. When we asked if she despised the concubines for their relationship with the emir, she seemed a bit surprised. After all, she and the concubines are in the same boat...devoted to the king as helper, companion, and mother of his children. Instead of animosity, they have a mutual respect and understanding for a situation they both share.

It is interesting...when visiting Cairo I expected to feel compelled toward respect of Muslim traditions and beliefs. But it was in Kano that I most noticed the restraints placed on people of my own gender. It isn't just the emir's wife who is confined to her home; it is pretty much any woman over the age of 16 (or so it seemed). We saw girls and older women frequently lining the streets. But as for the other demographics, they were nowhere to be found. And while in Cairo I would not have felt too out of place wearing a modest tank-top, in Kano I did not see one woman without headgear and covered from head to foot. In fact, we were advised to cover our necks before visiting with the emir's wife.

Despite a tradition I do not fully understand, and an anonymity that is true for most women not often seen outside their homes, it did not seem a hindrance to who these women are. The emir's wife is strong, she is outspoken and candid, and she has accepted her choice in life as her own. She has three equally strong daughters, all of whom chose different paths than their mother's...to see the world and be seen by it.

12 February 2009

Kano - Barka da Sallah!

As it happened, we visited Kano (and Katsina) during one of their biggest festivals of the year - the Durbar. In celebration of the end of Ramadan, the emir hosts a colorful parade of flags, music, and horsemen. Historically organized as a show of forces and undying allegiance to the emir, its modern day participants are usually high-ranking community officials and businessmen exhibiting symbolic allegiance to the king. The emir's family are often involved (the men at least) and can be identified by conspicuous "bunny ears" atop their heads.

The procession proceeded much like a parade except in the round. Acrobats demonstrated their flexibility and tricks; drums, xylophones, and long pipe-like instruments provided musical entertainment; and extravagantly adorned horsemen marched to the arena center in anticipation of the emir's arrival. At its climax, the more prominent community members rushed full-speed from one arena end to the other to greet the emir himself. Clothed from head to foot and shaded by a large ornate umbrella, the emir accepts the honors then retreats to his palace for visitors.

From those living in the palace to those living in the bush, all celebrate this holiday (the Eid) with a sacrificial goat, cow, or chicken for the most impoverished. The day before festivities began, we watched Kano residents chose from among hundreds of cows the best one possible for their Sallah celebrations. We also saw goats being expertly skinned having been carefully slit at the throat in halal style, then blown up like a balloon through its hind leg for easier skinning.

The Sallah meat itself is cook, fried, and cooked again it seemed, and the final product texture is somewhere between overcooked shredded beef and beef jerky. Tasty, salty, and as dry as the Sahara desert! The Durbar, with its colorful adornments and regal procession, is an event northern Nigeria can truly claim as its own.

07 February 2009

African Diversity - Kano, Nigeria

Though I was able to "Walk Like an Egyptian" in Cairo, Kano was a different story. About 500 miles northeast of Lagos, this Sub-Saharan city could have been on another continent. Sure, it had notes of Nigeria - kola nuts and sugar cane sold road-side, okada (and LOTS of them), traffic which would test any patience - but if the airport sign hadn't read "Welcome to Kano," I would guess we had landed in the Middle East or Afghanistan.

Kano, with its significant Muslin influence, seemed more Muslim than Egypt. The buildings and palaces invite visitors through Arabic-style entrances. The weather, wind, and sand reminded you just how close you are to the world's largest desert. And you can't drive two kilometers without seeing quotes from the Koran conspicuously displayed on highway signs (in both Arabic and English).

In Lagos, where poverty slaps you in the face, poverty in Kano gets into your blood. Perhaps it was most evident while visiting with the emir's wife. Our tour guide had lived in Kano for many years and befriended Ada during her extended stay. Every year when Paulette brings her tour group for the Sallah celebration, Ada invites the women to share drinks and company in the palace. Though generous and inviting, it was hard to believe we were visiting with an emir's wife! Her living quarters were comfortable but conspicuously rough around the edges...tattered carpeting that frayed as it approached the walls, furniture that
probably had seen decades of Sahara dust, and no running water in the toilet facilities. If presumably this is how kings and queens live, it's difficult to imagine the hardship of the general population.

The city of Kano itself proved a far cry from Lagos. Sidewalks make traversing on foot much easier, traffic laws for the most part are obeyed, and foreigners were few and far between. While residents of Lagos construct make-shift homes out of scrap wood or metal, homes in Kano possess a Santa-Fe-esque quality with clay being the most common home construction material. Kano residents are decidedly tamer than Lagosians as well. Street vendor vie politely for business but rarely cross the border from persistence to annoyance. And not once did we witness confrontational yelling between drivers or vendors (a daily occurence in Lagos). A noticable deficit of English speakers made communication more difficult than anticipated (most opt for Hausa, the "language of government" in Nigeria), but despite the language barrier the citizens were warm, welcoming, and just as curious about us as we were about them.

Overall, the calm of Kano was a needed and appreciated break from the everyday mayhem of Lagos living.

04 February 2009

Egypt - Walk Like an Egyptian

As a typical part of my pre-travel ritual, I do extensive research on what attire to pack. Weather, terrain, cultural activities, and the like all play a role in my complicated decision-making matrix for proper packing protocol. And as with our other jaunts in and outside the US, I went through the same rigorous process for our trip to Cairo…with one slight alteration: I was a woman entering the gateway to the Muslim world.

With the Middle East a mere hop over the Red Sea, my ways had to amend and not offend. No shorts, no scoop necks, no tanks. A friend who used to live in UAE had told me stories about Sharjah (a small emirate beside Dubai). Even if just driving through, she had to cover her head in observance of Muslim law. Another friend who lived in Kuwait always carried an emergency jumper she could toss on if so compelled. As a visitor to Egypt, I was determined to blend in and respect the traditions of a country I knew little about. So armed with a scarf and no-wrinkle, ankle-long skirt I was ready to walk like an Egyptian.

As it turned out, my worries were unwarranted. Now, you wouldn’t want to sport your Daisy Dukes, and most women did wear headgear; but, you weren’t obligated by any stretch to alter your typical American dress. Though definitely in the minority, scarfless women were not an unusual sight. And after a while, the scarves themselves seemed to pass your notice, blending in as another accessory to the outfit as a whole. Maybe it was because the women in Cairo had an impeccable sense of style, or perhaps it was the utility factor amidst wind and dust; whatever the reason, the missing hairdos and ponytails faded into the unremarkable.

Tradition carries such a ring of normality in Egypt you almost cease to notice. Take the all-woman subway car for example. In each subway station, a two-car length shaded section along the track indicates where the “women cars” stop. You aren’t forbidden to ride the other cars alongside men (I saw a number of women do so, with and without headgear); it’s just a small Muslim convenience, and widely used I might add, for the women abiding by more conservative beliefs.

Though we saw the occasional full-body coverage with gloves and face scarf, coverage was not a requirement for females by any means, nor was walking three feet behind my husband on the street. As it turned out, it was much easier to walk like an Egyptian than I thought.