... the other Black experience

20 Things I Learned in or about Nigeria

So I just visited my familial homeland of Nigeria for the first time in my adult life. It was quite the eye-opening experience and it gave me much to process.

Here's what I learned:

1. They have an unabashed relationship to money that I find refreshing. There didn't seem to be any taboo or secrecy or shame about money or lack thereof. In fact, when visitors come to people's houses, there's this elaborate ritual that culminates in the hosts giving the visitors money on a plate to send them on their way. Obviously the wealthier the household, the more I left with. But it was moreso the gesture that I found so appealing - having folks support each other's well-being in such a direct and tangible way. The organizer for my trip jokingly called this their version of welfare. I appreciate theirs WAY more than the American version.

2. I was well aware of the pervasive fundamentalist Islamic presence in Northern Nigeria, but I didn't realize how tightly the fundamentalist Christian tentacles were wrapped around southern Nigeria. I can't tell you how many times people looked at me like I had two heads when I told them I don't go to church. And my distinction between religion and spirituality didn't go over so well in the many discussions I had throughout my trip. Having a personal relationship to the divine outside of the church institution was unheard of, except for witchcraft of course (if you consider the devil a spiritual entity and technically he is but I ain't gettin' into all that). God help anyone who's an atheist in Warri.

3. There is a very eclectic fashion sense and refreshing lack of neurotic self-consciousness, as well as a detachment from Western brand names. Though there were many women with perms, wigs and weaves, they didn't seem to be wearing it out of hatred for own hair texture. It was just a hairstyle to them. A woman would just as easily take her wig off to re-adjust it with no trace of irony. And a Nike shirt or Dolce Gabbana shades didn't seem to hold any significance as status symbols. People didn't seem to wear purple cornrows to be punk rock or fit any other label. Instead, indigenous clothes and jewelry hold weight as status symbols: the quality of the fabric used to make traditional outfits, the quantity and heaviness of the coral colored jewelry they wear as their form of "bling." I dig it. Here's a gorgeous example, courtesy of my brother Akpode and my sister-in-law Bose:

4. When I found out that we were in Nigeria ostensibly to celebrate the birthday of a popular retired military general, the film "The Last King of Scotland" came to mind. The guest of honor turned out to be a sweet, humble guy who, as far as I know, is not responsible for any mass tortures or deaths. He's really into sports though.

5. Speaking of stereotypes and negative expectations: Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos. Ohhhhh the stories I've heard: kidnappings, mass extortion by everyone from the lowliest luggage handler to the passport stamper, 419 scammers, folks who scope the Western Union and wait for tourists to change money, then rob them outside. Well, the last one actually did happen to my mother two years ago, adding to my already mounting fear about this infamous airport. HOWEVER, apparently alot has improved within the two years. I had an easy, breezy check in/check out and everyone was friendly. Though the trip organizer's four pieces of luggage were initially lost, they all got back to her safe and sound within two days.

6. I was surprised by the number of white people on the flights. Apparently quite a few folks fly in from the UK and the Netherlands to work. I thought I'd only see Peace Corps volunteers and big-time oil guys. Seeing regular working class and middle class white people in Nigeria (some of whom live there) actually blew my mind.

7. It's really difficult to get around in Lagos...even WITH a car. Motorcycles (they call them okadas) seem to be the fastest means. A route that would take 30 minutes one day could take over 2 hours the next day.

8. Oil is in the air they breathe, literally. You smell it day in, day out. Generators constantly abuzz - for those who can afford it. Otherwise, folks rely on the government for electricity...which means constant blackouts. There's a very zen quality to going about your business even as the lights go in and out. One time I was chatting in a hotel room with three other women and the room suddenly went pitch black. I was the only who gasped. Everyone else just kept on talking like nothing happened. A few minutes later, we pulled out our cellphones to use as flashlights. We looked like we were telling ghost stories. That's an image that will stay with me always.

9. But getting back to oil, I didn't get a chance to visit Port Harcourt, the oil hub (and unfortunately the kidnapping hub) of Nigeria, but a couple who lives there sings its praises. There is a bizarre juxtaposition of oil wealth amidst a destitute population that doesn't seem to reap any benefits from the black gold sitting under their land (like in so many other places in the world), resulting in the constant threat of oil workers being kidnapped for ransom, yet this couple loves their home and insists that there's much more to PH than the oil battles constantly bandied about in the news.

10. The news from an internationalist perspective is SOOOOOOO MUCH BETTER THAN THE AMERICAN NEWS MEDIA. I mean, I knew that before I went to Nigeria, but to actually get to experience that was awesome. There I was, watching CNN international, seeing what the weather was like in Tokyo, Cairo and Sao Paulo all at the same time, hearing newscasters with a wide range of accents (not just the Midwestern "neutral" tone beaten into the vocal cords of American broadcasters, bless Al Roker's heart), hearing news STORIES, actual stories with a beginning middle and end, stories that had depth and nuance and highlighted people's SOLUTIONS to problems - not just the problems themselves.

For example, from American news, all I learned was that 100,000 people died from an earthquake in China. The end. It wasn't til I was watching an in-depth news report in a Warri hotel room that I really grasped the horror of what's going down in China - entire school populations gone, ghost towns everywhere, thousands upon thousands of orphans everywhere, etc. I also saw a documentary about North Korean sex workers who would take these treacherously circuitous routes to escape to South Korea where they could leave sexual exploitation behind and make new lives for themselves. And these stories were not on an "Asian" station. They were mainstream. In Nigeria. Rarely do I see in-depth news stories about people of color in American media. The most recent one that comes to mind is Hurricane Katrina, and even those stories were smeared with lies about looting and rape etc., and I didn't hear SHIT about the huge Vietnamese population of New Orleans and how the hurricane affected them.

11. In all the villages I visited, people really look at each other while walking down the street. It's not a creepy stare, more like an acknowledgment of your presence as a fellow earthling. Here in America I've noticed that when I sense somebody I don't know looking at me and I look back at them, they'll immediately turn away like I caught them stealing a cookie or something. In Nigeria, it's more like "I see you, you see me, okay we're good," or "I'm looking at the pimple on your nose because it's interesting. Okay, I'm done," while here it seems we're socialized to pretend we're not staring at each other's pimples.

12. The men are very straightforward about their attraction to a woman - hi, I like you, here's my number, call me. While I find that refreshing (that seems to be my word of the day, or even the best word to describe the trip as a whole), it would be great if they shook off all the sexism they've been indoctrinated with.

13. It was so inspiring to be SURROUNDED by women entrepreneurs AKA market women. It seemed to be a matter of course that if you received a solid education, it was part of your destiny to create opportunities for other people's economic empowerment by starting a business. I dig that highly and I'm integrating that philosophy into my life.

14. I went to my father's grave and I was most surprised by how calm I was, like something had healed. Being surrounded by the love of his relatives - my relatives who I was meeting for the first time - filled me with joy. And hearing the story of how my last name came to be was something else: Djere means "to flee, to escape." My grandfather was given that name at birth to mark a famous event in the history of his village. The residents built a fortress to keep neighboring ethnic groups out. On the day he was born, the outside factions attempted to climb over the fortress, only to be beat up by the residents - so they attempted to flee by jumping BACK over the fences and away from my ancestral hometown of Imode (EE moh dey). I come from a town of warriors, go figure.

15. I didn't get to visit my mother's village this time around, but I'll be back. The flats I visited were either compounds - usually one big house for a large extended family - or apartments for smaller families or folks who live in the most congested urban areas. Everybody had ceiling fans, which was nice. I prefer that to central air conditioning (which often clogs my nose and makes my skin feel leathery).

16. They don't drink the water either. Bottled water (or water in a clear plastic sachet) is where it's at in Nigeria, and of course there are tons of local filtered water businesses to fulfill everyone's needs. NOBODY relies on the government for drinking water, which is a damn shame. I useta be wary of American tap water, but now I'm like fuck it. It cost too much to constantly buy bottled water or replace filters, and it took up too much time to constantly boil water, so I drink from the tap and trust that I'll be alright. So far so good.

17. Warri has an unofficial curfew of 7pm, meaning drive-at-your-own-risk once it gets dark. Yet I saw that there were people hanging out on the streets at night, so I'm thinking it can't be THAT scary, at least for the residents. But I didn't get a chance to find out.

18. Lagos (the NYC of Nigeria) was much more secularized than Warri (the, um, Atlanta of Nigeria - fairly cosmopolitan, but still entrenched within the Bible Belt). I didn't get a chance to visit the nightclubs of Lagos though. I'd like to check out Fela's Shrine club the next time I'm out there.

19. There will definitely be a next time. I'd like to build a house for my family on our land. I look forward to going back and forth between America and Nigeria on the regular (and maybe even the Netherlands...I fell in love with Amsterdam for the four hours I was there during my layover), but I doubt I'll ever live in Nigeria full-time. The sexism and religious dogma are dealbreakers for me.

20. My family makes so much more sense to me now that I've experienced Nigeria as an adult - particularly with my shifting perspective toward my father: the religion thing (in his case, his loss of faith, and ensuing bouts of depression), the be-a-good-provider-no-matter-what thing (alot of African-American men could learn alot from their Nigerian brothers in that regard), the respect-your-elders-no-matter-what thing (never mind that the elders might be insufferable, abusive assholes), the education-is-everything thing (throw a rock into a crowd and you'll hit a Nigerian with an MBA or a med school degree), and the love-can-be-a-nice-perk-but-let's-face-it-marriage-is-a-business-arrangement thing. Though my mother did bad business by marrying a gambler, she has that wonderful Nigerian resourcefulness (or as Jay-Z would call it, a "hustler's spirit") that has resulted in her recently buying her first house. Thankfully, I've inherited that. I live in a nice home, eat mostly organic food and manage to live a beautiful, abundant life and most folks don't even know what I actually do for a living Tommy from the tv show "Martin." Sometimes I don't even know lol, but I'm blessed to be able to live well as I figure it out and focus in on my music and poetry. And for those who swear I have a secret trust fund somewhere, I do. I call her God. (And as far as God is concerned, I believe he can be male OR female, depending on which person is embodying her.) My trip to Nigeria confirmed that for me. God gives us each other to learn, teach, give and receive from each other. As long as that flow of exchange constantly happens, a person can never truly be poor.

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Comment by Matrix on June 20, 2008 at 1:20pm
Word up Sam! And yeah, driving drunk isn't cute lol.
Comment by Matrix on June 18, 2008 at 5:50pm
I didn't get a sense of the music scene where I was. I didn't make it out to night clubs, concerts, etc. I'm saving that for my next trip.
Comment by Lower Frequencies on June 18, 2008 at 3:36am
It's a great feeling when going back to the soil that your family was born in. Sounds like you had a very enlightening trip. In DR, it's all party party party... which I already frequently do here in the city... It's hard to get to know your fam when their driving drunk and taking me the place I'm staying... Now I'm scared of ever going back more than anything... my uncles are gonna get me killed... Anyways, thanks for sharing, it reminded me of the nights that the lights would go out in DR in my younger days (very young). They would set a fire, let it go wild in a controlled space, I'd listen to them talk shit all night, good times :)
Comment by Rosenda on June 17, 2008 at 4:23pm
WONDERFUL Onome. That is inspiring and beautiful and fascinating. I just saw a PBS documentary about the Nigerian film industry and how it grew out of their attitude and way of life there. That photograph is AWESOME. Love the gentleman's hat with his outfit and the lady's necklace and dress.
Comment by Rhinos Have More Fun on June 17, 2008 at 4:17pm
Nice read, Onome. In America, we hear so many things about Nigeria's corrupt governments, but reading this should definitely add another dimension and show the brother or sister raised in the USA that there are definitely some things we CAN learn from our folks on the Motherland...

So are we gonna work on a Diasporan Dual Citizenship, or what? ;-j
Comment by Compound Egret on June 17, 2008 at 10:43am
Very interesting post, Matrix. Love that fabric pictured in your relative's clothes.
Comment by Christopher Irving on June 17, 2008 at 3:19am
Wow now I really wanna go check out Nigeria!!
Comment by sublimityeternal on June 17, 2008 at 2:25am
This is such a greeeeeeat post!
Comment by Matrix on June 17, 2008 at 1:54am
Thanks Sekou!

Word, El Mach. Once you finish taking care of business in Toronto, I'm SURE you'll be trekking through the rest of the Americas soon enough.
Comment by Sekou on June 17, 2008 at 12:56am
always a blessing...


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