|Chapter the Last
||[Jun. 10th, 2006|03:57 pm]
|||||"Coming to America," Neil Diamond||]|
“People go to Africa and confirm what they already have in their heads and so they fail to see what is there in front of them. This is what people have come to expect. It's not viewed as a serious continent. It's a place of strange, bizarre and illogical things, where people don't do what common sense demands.”
- Chinua Achebe
“When I look at the system here and look at my position - not just as a basketball player, but when I look around me at the values of [Americans] and the culture and compare them with the values of where I came from - I feel so blessed to be from Africa.”
- Hakeem Olajuwon
“The darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it.”
- George Kimble
The night before Heather and I left for Kenya in April I met a young man named Solomon Adina. Scribbling diligently in a notebook, he sat a few seats down from us at a talk given at the Lagos Yacht Club by Chief Bill Knight of Pro Natura International, an NGO that helps indigenous peoples of the Niger Delta by redirecting big oil company pay-offs away from the venal hands of local leaders and toward grassroots-level training for sustainable development.
The talk was brilliant and informative, for Bill Knight is not just another bloody English expatriate in Africa. Though his chiefdom is mostly ceremonious and honorary, Bill Knight is African. He was born in Kenya and has lived most of his life on this continent. His work for the last thirty years has been to help improve the lives of African communities.
When the talk was finished, Solomon raised his hand and asked a question in the way of a young man who wants desperately to express deep feeling but lacks the means to articulate it. When the questioning was finished, the mostly expatriate crowd rose from their seats and headed for the bar.
Solomon made his way around the room, his eyes searching, his lips eager to move, ready to engage with anyone who would listen. Trying to look as unapproachable as possible but evidently failing, I was soon cornered.
It is a casualty of the foreigner in Nigeria that he becomes suspicious of an approaching Nigerian smile, especially an unfamiliar one. What does he want? They all want something. A shame, indeed, but really a necessary defense mechanism you too would find yourself using should you be an expat living in Lagos for more than a few months. It is a reality even for the most tolerant of expatriates. It has come to be expected.
But - though Solomon stood way too close for comfort when he spoke to me, which made his acute halitosis even more unbearable - I found him fairly harmless. He was born and raised in the Niger Delta, he told me, and was in Lagos for a short while to shoot a documentary film on this incredible agglomeropolis of a city. He asked me my opinions of Lagos and the Niger Delta region and its conflicts, and he listened to my answers with exaggerated interest. Soon he came around to his proposition. He would like to come to the American International School, he said, to interview me for his film. He had interviewed “many expatriates,” he said, for he wanted to get the “foreign perspective.”
I was, of course, wary of this “interview,” but I gave him my email nonetheless thinking that I could just not reply if I decided against it and that if it went awry in the many ways I anticipated it might, at least I'd have something to write about. (The latter excuse is one I use for doing many things I shouldn't, and it may one day get me in trouble.)
It's true that distance can improve many a relationship, for I found Solomon much more agreeable by email. I agreed to the interview, but it turned out to be interesting for different reasons than I expected.
The day before we arranged to meet, an executive for Baker Hughes, the same company my mother works for in Houston, was shot to death on his commute to his office in Port Hartcourt, in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. This was the first time I had ever heard of an expatriate being killed by a Nigerian rebel group. They have taken expats hostage many times, but those prisoners were treated well for the most part and held only for ransom.
Even though I remember last February the leaders of MEND (The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) issuing a declaration of “total war” on foreign oil interest in Nigeria and stating that the Nigerian government cannot guarantee the safety of any expatriate, this murder still came as a shock. It just had never happened before so far as I had heard. MEND never claimed responsibility, and it was later found that the Baker Hughes executive was a mistaken target. Was this an isolated incident, I wondered, or was it the beginning of an increased assault leading up to the upcoming presidential elections in April 2007? Their goal is to push out the oil companies, to push out the federal administration, and to seize control of both.
The actualization of this scenario is what Jeffrey Taylor wrote about in the April issue of The Atlantic Monthly, saying we'd see U.S. troops on Nigerian soil if that happened. My letter to the editor of that magazine published in June refuted that claim. Even if the rebels destroy every rig offshore, Nigeria has the largest (if poorly paid, corrupt, and untrained) military in West Africa. It's army of more than 80,000 would not need U.S. support to squelch an uprising in the Delta. And the oil companies aren't going anywhere. Shell Oil alone loses around 100,000 barrels per day because of Niger Delta “bunkering,” the stealing of oil by siphoning from pipelines. But profits - like the $23 billion made by Shell and the $32 billion made by Exxon Mobile in 2005 - more than make up for the loss. The rebels of the Niger Delta could kill 1,000 expatriate workers, and all it'd do is shut down some pipelines until company reps deemed it safe to begin again. Nigerian is only the sixth largest supplier of oil to the U.S.
The day after the murder of the Baker Hughes executive, Solomon arrived with his cameraman, who pulled out a contraption that looked similar to the Panasonic my mother purchased in the 1980s, only bigger. A bulky, bruised, but functional VHS recorder.
The interview began awkwardly, as the camera filmed my classroom while I talked, as if somehow the replicas of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence had something to do with my opinions of Lagos and Nigeria. Soloman noted with loaded surprise that I had an American flag in the classroom, as if that would be entirely unusual in a U.S. History class at an institution called the American International School.
I never felt attacked or insinuated in any imagined expatriate collusion, but eventually, he came broadly and generally to the question about the American oil presence in Nigeria. What did I think of it?
My mind went immediately to the death of the Baker Hughes employee, not an old man, who most likely had personal ties to my hometown of Houston, Texas, and, if not, he was certainly tied to it by way of his company's base. I began to think of how the ties between Texas, and particularly Houston, and the southern shores of Nigerian go back more than a decade before I was born. In many respects, it was not at all unlikely that I would end up here in Lagos. It is much more of an oddity that I am now moving to Vancouver, Washington.
Solomon had heard of the tragedy, and he seemed obligatorily saddened though not surprised. As I answered his question about what I thought were the responsibilities (concerning the oil industry) of the Nigerian government, Nigerian people, American and other foreign companies, and the world at large, I thought of how circumstantially natural it was that this man from Houston sat talking to this man from the shores of Nigeria about the connections between both of their lives.
The interview went on for an hour, the entire time of which the jerking camera angles and unsteady panning around the classroom continued. I wondered, with the camera often held so far away, whether it would pick up my voice at all. I'm going to look awfully silly in this documentary if it ever gets produced, I thought, but I continued answering questions through the whole of it and voiced no concern.
At the end, as they put away the equipment, I thought I had escaped what I feared this entire meeting might be for - an opportunity for advancement. But then began the appeal.
Solomon, like many Nigerians, has never been to America, and like many Nigerians, he badly wants to go. All he needs, you see, is a letter from me with my home address, indicating that he will stay with me, and a promise to the U.S. Consulate in Lagos that I will be responsible for him during his entire stay. This is not how he (nor the ten or so other Nigerians who have asked the same in the past) presented it, but this is what it means.
Truth is, I would love for Solomon to go to America. I would love for my old tennis coach Ken to go to America. I would love for Rasheed, the wood carver at Lekki market, to go to America. I would love for all the Nigerians who have asked me for help with a visa application to go to America. But I cannot be legally and financially responsible for them, so I will not claim to be so to the U.S. government.
“But no, no,” they always say, “You will not be responsible for me. You just must say that I am going to visit you, and then you will not have to worry about us. We will find our own place to stay. We are not asking for money. The consulate says that if I do not have enough money in my bank account to last for 90 days, I must have someone to write this letter for me. But you will not have to pay for me.”
“Okay,” I always respond, “So what if I lie to the U.S. Consulate and say you are coming to visit and to stay with me. What shall I tell them after your visa has expired and you have gone into hiding? What shall I tell them then?”
The discussion and pleading circled until finally I said that, yes, I will write you a letter, but no, I will not put my address on it. I will write the address of a local hotel. When the consulate calls, I will tell them that I will help to show you around, to help you find things, but that I will not be responsible for you financially or legally. And if you hit the jackpot (there is actually a lottery in which legitimate visa applications are randomly picked) then I will even go as far as to pick you up at the airport.
Some hopefuls grab on to this last option; others calculate the likely futility and walk away. And I'm sorry. I'm sorry it is so difficult to get into the U.S. I'm sorry most of the people there take for granted the opportunities they have. I'm sorry the Nigerian government is too corrupt and incompetent to take advantage of its resources and use federal and local income to better the lives of its citizens as a long-term goal for improving the economy.
Solomon gracefully accepted my reasoning and shook my hand. I was curt in my explanation. I needed to be in the garage in fifteen minutes. I had to go.
“Where?” he asked.
“The friends of my colleague, Jeff, who has lived in Lagos for ten years but is going home this year, have applied for chiefdom on his behalf. He is going to become a chief of Akateland if all goes well, so we are petitioning the king today.”
Solomon gave a befuddled, amused look. “Why?” he asked. I had no answer for him. Did he think it was nonsense? I'm sure. Did the king? Maybe. But they took the application, as well as the application money paid by friends of Jeff, and made him a chief. He has his own robe and hat, and anytime he wants he may visit the palace, they told him. They also told him that anytime they need something in America, they will call on him. All around the palace there are informal pictures of the king hanging out with President Olesegun Obasanjo.
We oyinbos try at becoming more Nigerian as the Nigerians try at becoming more American. And whoever can pay gets what they want.
The day after the interview, just a few miles outside of Lagos on Inagbe Beach, an oil pipeline exploded killing nearly 200 people in the surrounding area, including those who caused the explosion in an attempt to steal oil.
All the online news read, “Explosion in Lagos Kills 200,” so I had many people emailing me from back home, asking about my safety.
My response was this: “I am okay. This is something that happens two or three times a year. The black market for oil continues to thrive, so the illegal siphoning of oil continues to occur. That is what leads to these explosions, and, unfortunately, to many deaths. They happen every year. They have come to be expected.”
In a two days, we'll be in Paris. We will spend four days there to debrief and find our bearings before returning home and settling in one spot for a long while. Tomorrow evening I'll make my way from the AIS compound to Murtala Muhammed International Airport for what may be the last time in my life. I sincerely hope that the future affords me an opportunity to return to Lagos, though hopefully in an entirely different capacity. Right now, though, I need to leave it. I have not been on American soil in eleven months, and even then it was only for a month or so. Though I am more ready than I can describe to you, there is some trepidation.
I don't know how I'll handle the re-assimilation, the reverse culture shock. I've heard stories of teachers who had lived in Lagos only a few years before going back and being so overwhelmed with the pace of life - the consumerism, the technology, the vast number of choices - they had to enter therapy to help adapt. And I can't afford therapy.
A few weeks ago Heather and I were having a late lunch at the Guest Quarters of the U.S. Consulate, which is the only place where one may view American television. There were two women who were so excited about the finals of a show called American Idol that they were literally bouncing in their seats and screaming. They even approached us to ask whom we wanted to win. Heather actually knew something about it, but this was the first time I had ever seen the show in my life. I vaguely remember it being on before I left for Lagos. One of the women so expected me to answer her questions about the show that she made me feel almost un-American for not knowing anything about it. I began to have nightmares about U.S. customs officials questioning me about American Idol, requiring that I answer correctly before being able to enter the country.
Must I watch this show to live again in America? If so, I may as well stay here.
The past two weeks have been, like all my time in Lagos, bittersweet. The highlight was most definitely when I met Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate for 1986 and the first African (therefore the first Nigerian) to win the prize. He spoke at the Goethe Institute here, and it was so informal that he casually walked, almost unnoticed, into the crowd that waited to hear him speak. Heather encouraged me to introduce myself, so I did by telling him I teach his poem, ”Telephone Conversation,” to my ninth grade students. We even got several pictures with him. I thought he'd have a protective entourage, but no. Just a few people to do the business of selling his new book, You Must Set Forth at Dawn, of which we got two signed copies. That was the sweetest thing. I don't want to write anymore about the bitter. I want to remember the sweet.
On the second to the last day of school, Chief of Akateland, a.k.a. Jeff the technology teacher, called me in my classroom to ask for a quote for the end-of-the-year show, a collage of pictures and video clips covering events from all grade levels from August to June. He said he needed it in an hour. I said sure I would see what I could find in books and online. He said no, he wanted me to write the quote. It would come on the screen at the end of the show. It needed to represent all staff and students who were leaving, he said, as a final sentiment.
This request was somewhat daunting, and I had enough things to do already, but I can never turn down the opportunity to be read by a captive audience, even if it is only a few words. Twenty minutes later, I sent him this:
Lagos is more than a city. It lives within us, as it always will - its sounds echoing in our hearts, its images adorning our memories, and its spirit filling us with the wistful joy of nostalgia. We will always remember what it taught us - to see beauty in chaos, to laugh loud from our bellies, and, most importantly, to “take time.” Not to take “our time” but to take time itself for what it really is - the true moments of our lives, the here and now. In America they have watches, but in Africa we have time. And our time here can never be measured in minutes or hours or days but only in smiles and laughter and friendship.
Sentimental, maybe, but I am sentimental about Lagos. It is a part of me now, and those who get to know me and those who learn more about me in the future will all get a little bit of Lagos dust on them as well. I do not say goodbye but offer only the pidgin version of au revoir - Go, Come! Go, Come! For the love of Lagos, Go, Come!
|Wole Soyinka Pics
||[Jun. 4th, 2006|08:25 pm]
Oyinbo (white man) chats with oga (wise and wealthy man): Soyinka strolled up nonchalantly to the waiting crowd, so I strolled up nonchalantly to him, telling him I teach his poem, "Telephone Conversation" to my 9th graders.
Soyinka was saying to me, "Let's look away so no one else sees us taking the picture." It was before the talk and he didn't want to take lots of photos.
After the talk: getting a copy of You Must Set Forth at Dawn signed
Heather, Professor Soyinka, and me
My final entry, Chapter the Last, to come in the next few days. I leave Nigeria for the last time on Sunday, June 11.
|The Many Failures of Lions
||[Apr. 28th, 2006|02:23 pm]
“Now it is pleasant to hunt something you want very much over a long period of time, being outwitted, outmaneuvered, and failing at the end of each day, but having the hunt and knowing every time you are out there, sooner or later, your luck will change and that you will get the chance that you are seeking. But it is not pleasant to have a time limit by which you must get your kudu or perhaps never get it, nor even see one. It is not the way hunting should be. It is too much like those boys who used to be sent to Paris with two years in which to make good as writers or painters after which, if they had not made good, they could go home and into their father’s business. The way to hunt is for as long as you live against as long as there is you and colors and canvas, and to write as long as you can live and there is pencil and paper or ink or any machine to do it with, or anything you care to write about, and you feel a fool, and you are a fool, to do it any other way.”
– from Green Hills of Africa
The Icarus Complex
At the cost of a day’s pay and some grumbling from the school superintendent, I could have, at the end of March, driven about 50 miles north of Lagos to see what might have been my only chance ever to see a total solar eclipse. I might have had the perilous view all to myself for I might have been the only one outdoors. Rumor has it government officials in those states ordered citizens to remain inside, fearing that people would not understand what was happening and that bedlam would ensue. I fail to see the long-term benefits of a blanket house arrest over a little community education, but such logic has not been the wont of myopic leaders in these parts. They simply hope for a minimum of natural phenomena and then corral everyone indoors whenever something occurs which they deem inexplicable, such as, say, sideways rain or an abnormally large yam. Yet it is unlikely, or rather impossible – even if such a silly mandate were given – that citizens sat quietly and obediently in their homes without the slightest curiosity about why the light from the windows had dimmed suddenly to a kind of white and ghostly darkness.
Nigerians had just recovered from the cabin fever of the previous week, in which they were forced upon pain of police beatings to stay home from work for five days to wait, to cooperate, and to be counted in the first national census since 1991. This also meant no school, though not one of the reported one million enumerators ever showed at my door. The results will not be published until summer, I hear, but early indicators predict the following report: “There are too many damn people in Lagos. Millions, even. They’re everywhere. How could we possibly count them all?” By the time the moon began cutting in front of the sun the following Wednesday morning, everyone was so excited to be back at work and earning money again that the eclipse itself was overshadowed by the end of the senseless census malaise days.
It is the unspoken initiative of governments to fear curiosity and its fabled lethality, though in this case it would only blind the cat. Still, schools are extensions of government, and so fifty miles south of the benighted nonsense to the north, the American International School of Lagos took similar action, in which (I am sorry to say) I was complicit. I awoke that day having completely forgotten about the eclipse, and in the eventual realization of this I felt no remorse. I’m not the science teacher, I told myself, but I ended up pulling up the NASA website and finding the exact path and time to show the kids. Lagos would have a partial eclipse of magnitude 0.968 (the meaning or significance of which I had no idea) beginning at 10:21 a.m.
Around 8:30 a.m. slow and heavy through the intercom came the superintendent’s voice, with repressed anxiety and faux-calm, forbidding any student from looking into the sky. This of course had the effect of rallying even the most detached and uninterested junior high kids to the cause of defying authority. Those who could not have cared less before were now wholeheartedly committed to burning their eyes out of their heads whether the administration liked it or not.
It apparently had a similar effect on some teachers, for at about 9:15 a.m. the superintendent came back on the intercom, a little less repressed and less calm this time, making it clear to teachers that no – she repeated – NO protective glasses had been approved by the school and that all students, glasses or no glasses, were forbidden to look at the sun. I wondered where students were getting protective glasses? And which teachers were handing them out for viewing? Someone told me they saw some paper-bespectacled fourth-grader from Ms. Gutridge’s class looking upward. Ms. Gutridge, my fiancée.
During the announcement my class prepared to go down to the computer lab to do research. Before they got up from their chairs I warned them again that much worse things than blindness would come to them should I see them trying to sneak a peak at the sun. Besides, I knew after that announcement that the principals would be sniffing about the courtyard like perky-eared watchdogs looking to pounce on any curious cats and the teachers who are their keepers.
As soon as we opened the door we saw Ms. D’Ambrosio, the science teacher, holding binoculars and a notebook, surrounded by her students. At first sight, I thought she had gone mad, forcing all kids who had ever been a pain in the ass not only to look directly into the eclipse but also to magnify the descending rays deep into their optic nerves. It turned out she was only projecting the light onto notebook paper to show the shadowed outline of the sun and the creeping along of the dark side of the moon. Upon realizing what was really going on, it became significantly less interesting. And while her students and mine thought the shadowed projection was cool at first, they too lost interest after about 10 seconds. If I would have had more foresight, or even a little more common sense, I would have brought my video camera to school and at that moment pointed it at the sun, flipped the LCD screen, and shown live coverage of what we all wanted to see. They would have run from the binoculars to my video camera. I could have been a hero. Instead, I escorted my class quietly down to the lab as they all sauntered slowly and looked out into the courtyard at how everything in the sunlight seemed awash in a strange yellow tint.
As the students filed into the lab and began their research, I saw the light continue to change outside. I began to think of when I was a child and how there was similar paranoia and fear mongering in school and how I never saw an eclipse except through those ridiculous pinhole projectors. Did they really expect us to get excited about a slowly moving shadow on a goddamned piece of paper? I mean, really, I could recreate that with a flashlight and a tennis ball.
I had looked at the sun before. Never during an eclipse, but how bad could it be? As long as you didn’t stare into bright spots. Just half a second or so. I had lived thirty years on this planet, under that sun, and under that moon without ever seeing with my own eyes the true and physical evidence of their alignment. I had to do something.
Checking that there were no suspicions from my students and that they were all hard at work, I sidled slowly toward the door and told one boy near me that I’d be back in a minute. I walked down and around to the other corridor that was opposite the direction of the sun. There were no administrators in the courtyard, only a few idle parents and purposeful custodians. No one was watching me, but I hesitated. I started to look up slowly and then realized the sun was too far behind the building. I walked further down, but it was still obscured and was now shining directly down on the basketball court on the other side of the building. There was no time to go downstairs and all the way around to the court. Besides, if I did my students could see me from the windows of the lab. . . . Wait. That’s it. The windows. I could look out and up from the windows. I hurried back to the lab and must have entered more forcefully than I planned because I noticed many students looking up from their monitors with startled expressions. Going immediately to the windows, I bent over the table between two students who had stopped working, and I looked up toward the light.
“Mr. Curry!” one of them said. “What are you doing? You said not to look. You’re not supposed to look at the sun!”
I could hear several students scoot back and stand up out of their chairs, and as I leaned farther down I began to see that I would not see. The sun was too far behind the building. I would have had to be out on the court. A few kids began to gather behind me, so I stood upright in front of the table and said, “You can’t see it! You cannot see it, anyway. You can’t see the sun from here. I was just checking so that you wouldn’t look. Sit down, sit down.”
Looking back I saw that they were sitting down again though they were still suspect of me and my “checking” for the sun. I turned back toward the window and saw that the light was getting bright again. I missed my opportunity. As I was about to turn away I looked down toward the basketball court. At the far free throw line stood three young boys who could not have been older than first-grade age. They were standing side-by-side, each with one hand up like awnings over their eyebrows, with foreheads tilted back, and one of them, his mouth moving, his other arm raised straight, narrow, steady in a perfect diagonal leading up to his finger which pointed to the sky, and he stood there, fearless and defiant, Icarus incarnate, his wings melting on the playground.
Half the Battle
We talked of not going anywhere. We knew after Christmas that spring break might be our last chance for a last trip, but as we neared March we were running out of money. Or not so much running out of money as having to reserve it for other things such as wedding photography, wedding cake, wedding DJ, my groomsmen’s bar bill at the reception, a down payment on a car, a down payment on a computer, house payments through October, and the $10,000 interest free loans the school gave us upon hiring that we have to pay back in June. These are not pleasant thoughts, and they make me close my eyes and breathe deeply even as I write them, especially those last two, though the bar bill may follow close after as cause for alarm.
The three trips we took within Nigeria to Idanre and Akure, Kano and Katsina, and Badagary all together cost as much as our plane tickets to Spain over Christmas, so that could have paid for our spring break or a trip to Ghana, which we had also planned to do this year. But Ghana is now out of the question. We could have gone there for spring break, but if we were going to go anywhere it was going to be Kenya.
Heather originally had the idea of collecting tribal masks from the North, South, East, and West of Africa before we realized that most South African tribes do not use masks and that there are also no such masks in Morocco. We had our mask from Benin and one from Cameroon, and so in South Africa we bought one from the Congo, which is southern enough, and we had only now to get to Kenya.
When I told my colleague Ken that we were thinking of not going so as to save more for getting settled again in the U.S., he said that he would rather go into debt before leaving Africa without seeing Kenya. And if my mind was not made up by then it was made so afterwards. We would not stay holed up on the compound for ten days. We would spend the money and try not to think about it. We would go to Kenya.
The last two times we prepared to depart from Lagos’s Murtala Mohammed International Airport, we did so only a few days after a plane crash. The first, in October, went down shortly after leaving Lagos going north days before we were to leave Lagos going north on the same airline. The second, in December before we left for Spain, crashed upon descent into Port Harcourt in southeastern Nigeria.
Heather does not do well on airplanes even when there have been no crashes and the airline we are flying is world renowned for its safety record, so these circumstances made for trying times. Then, the day before we were to leave for Kenya, Heather called me in my classroom. She was distraught and panicked because after expressing to a parent her anxiety about having to fly to Kenya the next day, the parent said, “Oh, did you here about that plane that crashed in Nairobi yesterday?”
Before she could get me on the phone, another parent had told her that she should never worry about getting on an airplane because “when it’s your time, then it’s your time.” This always reminds me of a joke my father tells. Whenever he flies, he says he is never worried about whether it is his time. Instead, he worries about whether it is the time of the guy sitting next to him.
I told Heather I did not believe the story of the crash but that I would check it out. There really was no reason to doubt it except that it would have been an utterly absurd coincidence. The third time in a row a plane had crashed either in the country of our departure or in the country of our arrival just days before we are scheduled for take-off? – Impossible, I told myself.
I found the story right away. Jomo Kenyatta International Airport announced a plane had crashed, killing 80 people coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The news went worldwide quickly, but when the international media converged on the Kenyan Airport Authority’s spokesperson to get all the gory details, he informed them it was only a drill. Only a drill? If it were only a drill, he was later asked, why did KAA officials report the crash to the media, even down to the details of from where the plane was coming and the number of people killed? They wanted it to seem real, he said, to test their preparedness. Sounds perfectly reasonable to me. It is good to know all that panic and grief served a good cause. I’m glad to have helped train the staff of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Let me know if there is anything further I can do. Call me anytime with fake news of a tragedy.
The next day we boarded the Kenya Airways flight with little worry about the safety of the airline or our airplane but with slight unease about the nonsense we might encounter once we got there. Heather’s real worry was the smaller plane we would have to take to the coast at Mombasa, but I assured her it would be completely safe. Two days after we arrived in Nairobi, a small plane crashed in northern Kenya, killing 14 people.
Where I Come From
Choosing not to fly a puddle jumper plane from Nairobi to the Masai Mara meant instead enduring five hours of bump-and-rattle roads in a van equipped with the suspension of an old, rusty wheelbarrow, which, unpleasant on the rump though it was, allowed us to take in the captivating, mysterious countryside of Kenya, blurred by agitation though it was. There were some spots of relief in the journey – brief moments when the pot holes disappeared, when we could stop jerking the wheel back and forth, not having to zigzag our way forward – and it was on such a spot, cruising speedily alongside one of the endless many hills, when we looked out to see the Rift Valley below.
A few million years from now, a short time geologically speaking but possibly long after the Earth has rid itself of humanity, Kenya, along with Ethiopia, Somalia, and Tanzania, will break off from the African continent as did Madagascar 160 million years ago and the Arabian Peninsula 30 million years ago. In fact, it has already begun.
The western edge of the Horn of Africa is the only place on the planet where the edge of a continent is actively separating from its mainland, with earthquakes and magma spews occurring in increasing frequency. It happens unconsciously slow, of course, at a rate of about a millimeter per year, but when the lithosphere fully and finally cracks the Rift Valley will no longer be valley but ocean. The Red Sea will flood the deep crevices, eventually consuming the Olduvai Gorge, and inundate the signs of man’s beginning long after his end.
To view the valley smacks of anticlimax. It is difficult to see the context of its significance in the landscape. Its span and stretch can be breathtaking, but it pales compared to the sporadic acacia in the wide-open Mara laid out before green rolling hills, all appearing overwhelmingly vast until you look up and take in the expanse of sky arcing to and fro all horizons.
Looking down at the Rift Valley, one doesn’t imagine it to be a place from which came our bipedal hominid precursors; but it is. It is not easy to fathom this enormous wedge one day full of saltwater sea; but it will be so. One wonders what anthropological mysteries are lying within the ocean floors today.
I saw only a small section of the Great Rift, but I might have seen none of it had I flown a straight line to the Mara. Even so, I’d rather not have seen more of it from a plane. In a place such as that, one needs time for rumination, slow and up close. So I am thankful for my fiancée’s fear of flying. I wish I could have descended further, driven down into the valley and kicked at the dirt with my toes. If I failed to capture all I could in my brief time there, then I can only search for another chance someday.
In later life I hope to go back to East Africa, to Kenya again and to Ethiopia and then to Tanzania to see the Serengeti and the Olduvai, and again imagine it all under miles of water, after all human discoveries that will ever be discovered are long and far away from any extant memory. In the meantime maybe they’ll find another Lucy or Rosetta or their sisters, mothers, or grandmothers.
Physics, Stephen Hawking said, will one day reveal the face of God, yet archaeology may beat it to the punch. One never knows what will be found after the next shaking of the dust. And the silly disputes of tomorrow will look with scorn on the silly disputes of today, and weren’t they all silly, they will say, to have ever disputed that we all came from Africa.
The Last of Africa
Nairobi was a slow-motion flash. We arrived at the Stanley Hotel at 5:30 a.m. having left Lagos the night before and then slept like dead people, to borrow Huck’s simile, until an inconsiderate call from our tour company rep. at 9:30 woke us to settle up the arrangements. Not scheduled to leave for safari until the following morning, the full first day was entirely at our leisure. I opted for more sleeping but was outvoted by Heather and our colleague Leslie and her daughter Hannah; the two of them would meet up with family to begin a separate safari the following day. They all wanted to see the Ngong house, where Karen Blixen lived and “had a farm at the foot of Ngong Hills,” about which she later wrote the episodic Out of Africa as Isak Dineson.
Reminded of her story I recalled not her story itself or Robert Redford or Meryl Streep but the remarkable likeness of another book and movie called I Dreamed of Africa. I thought if these two stories were published more recently, there would be suing of the DaVinci Code vs. The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail variety.
We walked through the house, quietly bemused with replicas of her furniture, flattering photos of her youth revealing features softer and less angular than Streep’s, and so prettier though less stunning, and we then came to photos of her lover Denys Finch Hatton with the long, thin face and small, light eyes of an Englishman less handsome than Redford but looking so very English that it makes the actor’s iconic American accent in the film seem grossly malapropos. The pictures she painted of her servants so detailed with appreciation and curiosity, her books for reference and writing, and finally the unflattering photos of her late in life, besieged by anorexia, consuming only plumes of cigarette smoke, all in black yet smiling as if she knew something we shall never know. And let us not mention the single photograph of the baron, her husband, for he was only a prop, a user being used, living a banal and privileged life without significant risk.
At the small bookstore there, Heather bought the Blixen book and that is what she read the rest of the week and I bought Green Hills of Africa and that is what I read. They served us well in the early afternoons after the morning safari and in the evenings after dinner and then the bar after the late afternoon safari and then made nice beach reading under open thatch-roofed huts in Mombasa, the words all washing down nicely with Cuba libres and piña coladas.
We left Nairobi in the early morning and on the way stopped at Lake Naivasha for a hippo safari, which involved motoring around the lake in what could be called either a small boat or large canoe, getting close enough to sleeping hippo families that, had we disturbed them further, could have snapped the vessel in two with one chomp of the jaws. The largest family we visited was 48 strong; the smallest 22. Being in the water among that many hippopotami is quite a rush, though perhaps I placed too much trust in the manually steered motor at the rear of our family-sized kayak.
That adrenaline fix being finished, we moved on to Lake Nakuru, where we would safari only a day. Here we saw white rhino, ambling in ashen and prehistoric glory, and while deep in the forest we came upon a herd of several giraffe and another herd of even more zebra, all feasting on the brush as baboons scampered about their feet. It was as if someone had arranged a menagerie there before we passed, yet it was all just happenstance of the wild. A good first day. We felt lucky.
But we were in Kenya to see cats, for we had failed to see any in South Africa. One can only see so many elephant, hippo, giraffe, water buffalo, and myriad of antelope before the sight of any animal that does not have paws and fangs becomes merely disappointing on the first day and maddeningly intolerable on the last.
So it was immeasurably satisfying to see two lionesses and a male before sunset, even at a distance at which one needed binoculars to notice which of the three wore a mane. We spent entirely too much time on them, but how were we to know we’d see so many so close in the Mara?
We celebrated that night with some Tusker, a cheap and good Kenyan lager, while taking in a live performance by The Sworbmalts, a local a coppella chorus, who in mid-act pulled Heather up and danced with her all around the lodge bar. I enjoyed this immensely, swaying in my chair to the tune of their voices. When the song was over she came back, sat down, and scooped a bug out of my beer. I gulped it down, and we went back to our room to sleep hard under mosquito nets.
The next day we were off to Mara Simba, a lodge just north of the Talek River on the eastern border of the Mara. Our room there opened up to a small patio which looked out on a river where hippos bathed and snorted loud enough in the predawn darkness to wake us for our sunrise safari and the sleeping crocodiles in the afternoon after lunch made us look up from our books more often than we would have liked.
The panorama of the Mara is ineffably exquisite. To see the sun rise over open savannah and backlight the flat-topped acacia, to see it set among the hills, each moment adding new ember-orange nuance and phosphorescent chiaroscuro to the sky, was one of the most deeply profound experiences of my life. That glow over green will forever be with me.
And the landscape over which we trekked was so teeming with life that by the time dusk came calling us home it had lost its novelty to be ten feet away from four lionesses alternately sleeping and rolling in the grass.
We saw species we never knew existed, such as the topi, an iridescent antelope indigenous only to Kenya and Tanzania whose skin shines purple, blue and mud red in the sun. We saw eland, gazelle, kudu, hartebeest, wildebeest, sable, impala. We saw cub lions, papas, and mamas. We saw all manner of elephant from baby to bull. We saw warthogs spar with their tusks. We saw thousands of flamingo fly away from the banks of a rivulet. We saw mongoose digging, throwing dirt between their legs and far into the air behind them. We saw a black and white colobus monkey looking back at us from a tree. We saw a jackal munching on a field mouse. We saw spotted hyena dog-tongue breathing in the heat. We saw the elusive black rhino, one of only about 10 in the entire Mara. We saw at least a small glimpse of what Hemingway and Finch Hatton lamented the loss of nearly a century ago – a country that still is as we found it.
Between game drives one afternoon we visited a Masai village, where we were welcomed with a song and performed by the men who jumped several feet in the air, their long hair bouncing, in ardent celebration of their song. The women sang as well, but they had no braids to bounce with dance for they are forbidden to grow hair on their heads.
We met our Masai guide who introduced himself as Dixon and who made us privy to the customs and organization of the village. We visited the inside of one of the huts and sat on a thatch bed as the buzzing of flies so bombarded us that we had to eventually ignore it as much as we could, as the villagers were now quite used to doing.
He told us of how the Masai do not hunt but subsist almost entirely from their cows and goats. He told us how the Masai have no religion and that when a villager dies they have no ceremony. In fact, burial itself is somewhat new, for they used to dispose of the body to be consumed by the animals and the earth.
We walked away from the village down to a stream where the Masai get fresh water, and when Heather asked if it were safe from lions, he said, yes, it is safe.
“But are there lions out here?” she asked.
“Yes, of course,” he said.
“They won’t hurt us?”
“No, not unless you provoke them,” he explained. “I have been walking here before and come upon a lion sleeping. He woke up and saw me and went back to sleep, so I kept walking. The only time we have conflict with lions is when they steal our cattle and goats. Then we must kill them.”
“If a lion charged us now, what would you use to kill him?”
Dixon unsheathed a double-bladed machete, which we later found out also serves to cut finger- and toenails.
As we were walking back, Dixon saw Heather’s insulin pump she uses to control her diabetes, and when she explained to him what it was he was astounded. We all learned a lot from each other that day.
On our last day of safari we set out on the game drive so replete with satisfaction that we told our guide Tony we had nothing left to do but to see a lion make a kill. He laughed and shook his head, knowing the lions had made their kills by now, but you never know of what they may make a long, slow meal. Not five minutes after our joking we came upon a dead zebra in the early morning twilight, but the cause of death was not a lion.
It appeared untouched by any predator, no visibly broken skin, no deformities or parts torn asunder. It simply lay on its side with its top hind leg stiff and straight in the air. Heather speculated it might have been a snakebite. Our guide only kept saying it must be a lion for lack of a better explanation. So why was it not eaten?
On returning to the lodge from the morning drive, we saw the same zebra though it now was surrounded by several living zebras standing still. “Look,” Tony said. “They’re mourning.”
When we told this story to one of our colleagues, she said our guide was anthropomorphizing the zebra, but to say that is anthropocentric. I don’t believe our species has a monopoly on grieving.
During the end of the afternoon drive, Tony got a call on the radio and sped off fast over the rocky dirt road through the reserve. He was trying to find us a kill, but not that of a lion. When we arrived, the space was crowded with several safari vans. A leopard had drug an impala up into a tree. We saw the limp and eviscerated carcass clearly, its hoofs hanging well below a bottom branch. But the leopard was high behind the leaves, and we saw only its spotted hind end and tail. This was the second leopard we saw, and the first kill by a cat. We had seen all we could possibly ask for, a lucky safari indeed, and exponentially more impressive than what we saw near Krueger Park in South Africa.
Returning to the lodge for the last time, we felt deeply contented. And just five minutes before we arrived, there still was the zebra, again surrounded, but this time by a horde of vultures picking and pulling at the innards along with a few pelicans, and two hyenas sitting a few yards away from the action, having stuffed themselves full.
“By tomorrow, there will be nothing left,” Tony said.
Such an intensely rewarding experience can also be intensely exhausting, and by that time we were ready for the coast. Mombasa was just what we hoped it would be – a vacation from our holiday, a time to debrief, to unwind, and to reflect amid sea breezes. A time to be lazy, eating and drinking all day at the pool bar. A time to be thoughtful, reading and talking out under a thatched hut on the beach. A time to be silly, riding camels along the shoreline.
We saw the men with the camels waiting for resort patrons to give in to their curiosity. We had been propositioned already by the guys from Aqua Land next door and passed on the opportunity to jet ski out into the ocean, an hour away, to ride through mangroves, which sounded wonderful but not for €165. The camels were more our style.
Heather, whose nom de guerre is Bartering Queen, went out to inquire of the price and haggled them from 3,500 Kenyan shillings ($50) for a 15-minute ride down to 1,100 Kenyan shillings ($15) for a 30-minute ride. They agreed to this price thinking they could fit both of us on one camel, but when they saw me approach, they said, “Oh! Big boy!” and they gave us each our own camel. My camel’s name was George, they said.
All along Heather’s ulterior motive for this ride was to get down to where there were markets selling kikoi, a quintessential Kenyan cloth that has become popular as a kind of wrap-around skirt. Of course, this would take haggling as well and soon it had taken two hours instead of 30 minutes and the tide was too high for the camels to go back along the shoreline.
The camels had to be led through rough and unstable terrain to get to the back roads, along which lived local farmers and villagers who were not used to white people passing their houses and fields, much less white people on the backs of camels.
We were a source of instant amusement for everyone who saw us, and all we could do was smile and laugh back at them and greet them with “Jambo!”
It was all quite surreal, and for a moment I left my body and saw myself from the eyes of those farmers and thought that if someone would have told me three and a half years ago that on this day I would be riding on the back roads of Mombasa, Kenya, through local villages, trying to find an alternate route back to my spot on the shore of the Indian Ocean, I would have said that such a story is unimaginable.
Perched high atop a camel named George my mind began to ponder how soon I will be in a new place again yet back in my home country far away from camel rides on Kenyan beaches, zebras mourning in the Mara, and a farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills.
This, for me, was the last of Africa, for I knew when I returned to work in Lagos I’d see nothing but my flat and my work until I finally left that behind too, along with all the other things about Nigeria that were no longer exotic but imbued with the ordinariness of home. Kenya was the last of Africa, the last of the exotic for me, for soon I’d be in a new home, and I wondered would people believe me when I tell them these stories? Would I believe them myself?
I thought of how when I leave all of this here, all the stories will recede and recede from memory until one day I’ll come home from a large grocery store to eat in front of a small television to watch reruns of sitcoms, and it will be then that I start to wonder if I really did imagine it all, all those places, all those stories leading up to the last of Africa and all of those stories about Lagos as my home. Will it all become only a dream? And will it be a dream I try to recreate or forget? Will the stories of the next three years or those of the years after that ever compare to the stories of the last three?
I came to Africa starting from scratch, and the adjustment was not always smooth. In a new life, in a new career, starting new again, will I find success? How many times will I have to fail?
As the camel George made its way back to our beach and seesawed down to let me off, I thought of all these questions once more and then put them out of my mind as we walked. For I knew the answers before I asked the questions. I knew the answers to them all.
Unless it has been trained or denaturalized by exposure to man, the lion runs from nothing. This is for two reasons – one vain, the other practical. The first is that the lion is prideful, and it will not deign to be bothered. The second is that the lion cannot run fast, and so why bother?
The lion runs from nothing but neither does the elephant, rhino, water buffalo, or hippo. So why is the lion said to rule? Possibly, one could argue that the lion has been known on rare occasions to attack and kill small elephants, water buffalo, and hippo. But still, even if it attacked the rhino, it could not penetrate the nearly two-inch thick skin. The rhino is impervious to the lion, so there is no reason for the rhino to abdicate the throne.
Also, the lion is an embarrassingly inefficient and incompetent hunter. It succeeds in only about one out of every five attempts to capture its prey. So it fails approximately 80 percent of the time. And if it were left solely to the slower, less agile males with their pretty hair, it would fail even more frequently. Female lions do almost all the hunting. Then the male lion gets first dibs on the kill, taking his “lion’s share” of about 25 percent of the meat. The females then enjoy what’s left of the fruits of their labor, and then finally, the cubs are allowed a spot at the table. How generous and equitable is that?
If a CEO, president, or monarch had a failure rate of 80 to 90 percent, he or she would likely be ousted by termination, impeachment, or coup. On the other hand, the elephant, rhino, water buffalo, and hippo succeed in finding food 99.9 percent of the times in which they go looking for it. Their failure rate is 800 times less than that of the lion.
So what is the justification for simba’s reign? Well, it’s simple, really. It’s the struggle.
The elephant, rhino, water buffalo, and hippo live in an Eden from which the lion has been expelled. Every day they wake up to a veritable cornucopia of the grass, shrubs, and trees that comprise the whole of their diet. They live banal and privileged lives without significant risk. They are the barons of the jungle.
Every day the lion wakes knowing it will have to fight, scrape, and dig to survive, and every time a gazelle jukes it senseless or an impala slips its grasp, it learns. Every time a giraffe scars its belly with a kick or a protective mama elephant charges, it becomes better, smarter in instinct.
On the last day of safari we came across four young male lions not old enough yet to grow manes. “These lions have been kicked out of their pride,” our guide said. “They have to find and take over a new pride soon.”
When the lion succeeds, it does not celebrate. It does not congratulate itself or its fellow lions that participated in the kill. It eats and rests, and begins anew, not out of self-righteous asceticism but out of necessity. It knows that next time it may fail.
When the lion fails, it does not regret. It does not wallow or sulk. It rests and begins anew, not out of self-righteous determination but out of necessity. It knows that next time it may succeed. When the lion is expelled from the pride, forced to start from scratch, it does not spend time on worry or fret. It sets out, searching for possibilities, new options and opportunities to learn, to get better, smarter, and to sharpen instinct. The many failures of the lion are the reason it is king.
|Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Rooster
||[Mar. 18th, 2006|10:21 pm]
|||||Keb Mo, "Mommy, Can I Come Home?"||]|
“Yes, we did indeed underestimate the ferocity and ruthlessness of the jihadists in Iraq. Where, one might inquire, have we not underestimated those forces and their virulence? (We are currently underestimating them in Nigeria, for example, which is plainly next on the Bin Laden hit list and about which I have been boring on ever since Bin Laden was good enough to warn us in the fall of 2004.)”
– Christopher Hitchens, March 1, 2006, in an article in Slate
“Nigeria's similarities to Saudi Arabia are manifold: corruption, oil wealth, a burgeoning Muslim population, and value to the United States as an energy supplier. Osama bin Laden has called Nigeria ‘ripe for liberation.’ [. . .] One particularly ominous scenario looms: rebels may succeed in halting oil extraction in the delta, drying up the revenues on which the northern elites depend. If, in response, a northern Muslim general were to oust the president and seize power, the United States would find itself facing an Islamic population almost five times Saudi Arabia's, radicalized and in control of the abundant oil reserves that America has vowed to protect. Should that day come, it could herald a military intervention far more massive than the Iraqi campaign.”
– Jeffrey Tayler, from “Worse than Iraq?” in the new April 2006 issue of The Atlantic
Lately, there’s been quite the kerfuffle about Nigeria in the international press. So much doom and gloom, in fact, that news of the Gulf of Guinea and the northern poultry markets has attracted even a few minutes of hard-won attention from American mainstream media. This resulted in a slew of emails from folks back home showing somber concern about my safety. While I appreciate receiving even the most detached curiosities about whether Heather and I will make it out of this country with our hearts still beating vigorously in our breasts, I must make an effort to quell your fears. For those of you who have not expressed the slightest concern, I can only assume either that you do not frequently watch the network news or read the papers, or that your curiosity is so detached you cannot be bothered to even yawn it away. As the latter would sorely hurt my
ego feelings, I choose to believe the former. And in believing that, I deem it may be of some use to relate – to the uninformed and ill informed, alike – just what the heck has been going on in Nigeria in the past month and how we’ve been personally affected by bird flu news, theme party milieus, Niger Delta blues, and Muslim cartoon coups.
On February 8, the first confirmed cases of the H5N1 (bird flu) virus were confirmed after tens of thousands of dead chickens made people go hmm in the northern Nigerian state of Kaduna. On that day, I left a pile of work to rot on my desk and came home early to a fabulous dinner of egg drop soup, turkey, rice, and mashed potatoes. I believe afterwards we watched bootleg episodes of “Lost” bought for $1 each at Lekki market and then went to bed early.
The next day the H5N1 virus was confirmed in two more northern Nigerian states, Plateau and Kano, where just three months before I spent my 30th birthday on a Nigerian Field Society trip. The U.S. agreed to pledge $25 million and to send a team armed with 2,000 protective suits from the Center for Disease Control. This made us go hmm. That night we had a talk with our steward and driver, asking them not to handle any fowl, live or dead, and not to allow their children to do so, for their own safety as well as ours. They agreed. We felt satisfied. We watched more bootleg television. We had some wine then, I believe. Yes, I do remember it so.
By Valentine’s Eve, the CDC team from the U.S. had been so successful that poultry farmers and consumers across the North were saying, respectively (and quite literally), “Nobody has told us it is bird flu,” and “I love chicken and I have not stopped eating it.” The Nigerian government was equally helpful in not sending anyone from the ministry of agriculture, but their grandest genius was in offering only 250 naira (less than $2) per chicken in compensation to farmers whose flocks would be killed and burned. Both live and frozen chickens could normally pull in 700 to 1,000 naira each in the market, so farmers were hurrying to sell off their chickens before authorities arrived. Poultry workers began refusing to be tested for symptoms; even were they willing, the World Health Organization had yet to arrive with the requisite kits for blood testing. Meanwhile, two young boys in Kaduna were suspected of being the first human bird flu cases in Africa.
During the interstices between these reports, we did not fret. On the contrary, we busied ourselves in planning a lavish, Gatsbyesque dinner party for our “dinner club” guests. (Yes, that’s correct. I said “dinner club,” in reference to a club of which I am a member. Mind you, back in Texas, had someone approached me inquiring as to whether I might like to join his “dinner club,” I would have brusquely cut him off at the uttering of said phrase and politely yet firmly requested that he never ask me such a question again in public nor private lest I be forced either to engage him in a sudden burst of barbaric pugilism or, more gentlemanly, to challenge him to a duel. Yet alas, I no longer live in Texas, my home, home on the
driving range. I live in Lagos, Nigeria, my home, home of the mange strange, on a ten-acre compound demarcated by cement walls from the top of which jut spikes and pieces of pointed glass. Outside the compound is an environment replete with unremunerated police officers whose professional ethics make it less than convenient to move freely about town to bars and restaurants whose food is less than exquisite, whose service is less than attentive, and whose prices are more than exorbitant. So alas, we are resigned to putting on the airs of affluent host and hostess and joining polite society in the most absurd yet sustainable paradox since a man named Jed struck bubblin’ crude with his hunting rifle and moved West with his jalopy.) It would turn out really quite lovely, indeed.
The premise of this “dinner club,” you see, is to throw extravagant, “themed” parties in which one must not only serve several courses of a certain cultural cuisine to twenty-plus people but also must spend sufficient quantities of time and money (this will be informally judged) on decorations and music and activities representative of this particular culture. The first was of an “Asian” theme yet really more de facto Japanese, since the main course was sushi. All faults and faux pas (of which there were few) at this first dinner party were excused without quibble not only because it set the precedent but also because it is an incredibly complex thing to find ingredients in Lagos for serving edible, non-poisonous sushi to that many people.
Other notable parties followed. At the “White Trash” soiree, a rusted sink, detached from counter and plumbing, greeted guests at the door, and a bathtub, similarly detached and filled with ice and beer, welcomed those guests into a scene of toothless wonder. The main course, brisket, was brought in as a carry-on aboard a plane from Seattle to Lagos (don’t ask – I didn’t) and served not on plates but rectangular tearings of wax paper. The cognitive dissonance in the air became thick and palpable when guests discovered I knew more lines to Garth Brooks’s “Much Too Young To Feel This Damn Old” than was socially acceptable.
At the Nigerian-themed party, titled “Chop and Wipe Mouth,” the electricity was unreliable and so no one needed any wiping of mouth until two hours later than scheduled; yet all enjoyed an excuse to wear their Nigerian Culture Day outfits a second time during the school year. We also “broke kola nut,” a drawn-out and convoluted ritual explained to us by way of the Nigerian mumble, which no Westerner could ever fully decipher even were he fluent in Igbo or Yoruba.
The most recent party was called “Mangiamo!,” which apparently translates to “Let’s eat our collective body weight in lasagna!” It may sound like fun, but, you see, the more one eats, the more body weight one accrues, and it thus becomes a Catch-22 of perpetual, glutinous gorging. To add further harm, there was a large, fresh reproduction of Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” on the wall to mock me, as if to say, this – this! – is how the mid-section of a man’s anatomy should be shaped, grassone! So I sat drinking my wine, wishing I looked like Vitruvian Man – not just in physique, but, you know, it’d also be cool to have four arms and legs.
Ours was held on February 23rd, a few weeks before the Italian party. Having been to Spain during Christmas while also having a deep, intimate, visceral knowledge of Tex-Mex food, we decided to hedge our bets and name our theme “Sexi-Mexi y Latin Love.” The only thing truly Spanish at the party would be the paella (well, that and my matador costume, but I was wearing a sombrero, which killed any aura of authentic Spanish tauromaquia that wasn’t dead already). Still, Heather made up for my shameful appearance by representin’ beautifully in her flamenco dress. For drinks we served approximately 14 pitchers of margaritas, four pitchers of sangria, 60 bottles of Corona, and I don’t want to remember how many chupitos of Jose Cuervo. For appetizers we served shrimp ceviche, empanadas, California quesadillas, taquitos, taco salad, seven-layer dip, and queso. For main courses we served paella and enchiladas, with refried beans and rice. For dessert we served sopaipillas, key lime pie, and vanilla helado. While I prefer to believe it was our magnanimity, it was probably more so our spineless fear of hurting feelings that made us invite not just the twenty people in dinner club but also every other staff member who lives on the compound. We fed thirty-plus people in our tiny flat. The superintendent of our school was the one who broke open the piñata shaped like a bull to release unto the floor all the party favors – plastic, travel-size bottles of every cheap and dirty liquor you can imagine. I thought I would have to break up several fights on the floor before they dispersed, the more adept scramblers finally having taken full possession of the miniature Southern Comforts and Bacardi Rums and Gordon Gins. By the end of the night, it would be the same superintendent who was writhing on the floor in what appeared to be an attempt at playing air guitar along with AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”
Months of planning went into this one night, picking up coasters and moroccas in Spain, and all kinds of knick-knacks along the way. By the second week of February, we began to seriously put together a menu. On Valentine’s Day, there were reports that H5N1 had spread to five other states in Nigeria, sweeping along the North and now heading south as far as Abuja. Indeed, this presented, of course, an enormous inconvenience to our plans and preparations. Dear heavens, what to do?
“We have the turkey from the commissary,” Heather said. “That’s safe. Could we make turkey enchiladas?”
“Nah,” I said. “Just cheese. We’ll just have cheese.”
While the price of a market chicken plummeted, we spent more money on a party than a poultry farmer earns in six months or more. Yet we were much put out in doing so. Indeed, we were. You shall note it. You mustn’t just gloss over that bit of it, now. Be mindful of our plight, as well.
The weekend of our dinner party, we called Heather’s brother Danny just to say hi, to check on her niece and nephew, and, oh yeah, to learn when exactly Danny, her parents, her sister, and her brother-in-law were planning to put the new pergo floors in our house in Vancouver, as they agreed to do for free because they love us so much (and probably also because they are acquiring a son-in-law/brother-in-law with such a broad back that could be useful around their respective houses this summer when we return). During this conversation, Danny was concerned, for he belongs to those of you who watch the news and read the papers. Were we affected, he wanted to know, by the violence going on in Nigeria?
“Uh, what violence would that be?” Heather asked. “Craig, do you know about any violence going on in Nigeria right now?”
“Mmm, nope,” I said. Then I remembered. “Oh, in the delta,” I said. “When is there not violence going on in the delta?” The story on the Internet. It might as well have been on the other side of the globe.
The weekend before his phone call, approximately 200 miles southeast of Lagos, from where I write this, the Militants of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) – who want compensation from the Nigerian government and foreign oil companies for robbing them of oil wealth they believe to be theirs – were raising a ruckus. That Friday, a Nigerian army helicopter on a routine patrol in the delta exchanged gunfire with men who were shielding a boat that was “bunkering” (siphoning crude oil) from a pipeline, a common and dangerous business which results in the perennial problem of oil bandits being killed in explosions. (I wrote about witnessing the aftermath of this my first year here.)
Two days later, the same group decided the Christian Sabbath would be a good day to kidnap nine expatriate oil workers and hold them hostage until the Shell Oil Company paid them $1.5 billion in compensation for pollution of the communities of the delta. The Integrated Regional Information Networks (irinnews.org) reported the militants as saying “Expatriates must realize that they have been caught up in a war and the Nigerian government can do nothing to guarantee the security of anyone. [. . .] They are warned again to leave while the doors are still open.”
The night before the kidnappings, the day after Friday’s attack, Heather and I paid 6,000 naira (a bit more than $40) each to attend the Small World celebration, an annual joint effort by various and sundry women’s groups in Lagos to raise money for various and sundry charities. People pay that much money not only to support charities but also to eat food and drink beer, wine, and spirits from approximately 40 different countries, each with its own booth. Your ticket also buys you a viewing of dance performances from all over the world, but that night there was a terrible downpour. The performances were cancelled. There was nothing to do but drink and eat in damp clothing. Drunk people joked about refunds, but there were impromptu performances anyway. We left early, a little disappointed, but it was a nice time nonetheless. The next day, the day of the kidnappings, we went shopping and then came home to read in the quiet of the afternoon.
Just one day later, the first day of the school week, Muslims in the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri wanted to express their outrage at the prophet Mohammed being depicted as a terrorist in a cartoon in a Danish newspaper, so they protested by killing 17 Christians (including a Catholic priest) and burning 30 Christian churches. That same day, 200 hundred miles inland toward the heart of the country in the mostly Muslim town of Bauchi, five other people were killed in a similar protest. Also on that day, I attended a meeting after school about whether or not our kids were getting safely to their after-school activities. I went home and told John, my steward, that I was tired of having tuna fish sandwiches everyday for lunch, and maybe we can try something different.
On the following day, Tuesday, more than 300 miles toward the equator from Bauchi, more than 500 miles that direction from Maiduguri, in the predominantly Christian, southern town of Onitsha, young Christian men took to the streets with clubs, machetes, and petrol cans in retaliation for the attacks in the North. No specific number of Muslim deaths was reported by IRIN, only “several.” This same day, classes at the school began preparing their “read-a-thon” banners for Dr. Seuss Day, on which all banners would be taped together and rolled from the top of the building down and across the courtyard to show how many books the school had read. For lunch I was given leftover cheese enchiladas from the “pre-party taste testing” done the night before. I was glad not to have tuna fish.
On Wednesday, February 22nd, the killing in Onitsha continued until at least 80 people were dead. By Thursday, the day of our party, IRIN reported at least 123 people had been killed across the country in the religious and sectarian violence. That evening, people began strolling into our flat around 6:30. It took some of the guests a while to notice that I had shaved my beard into a thin Mexican mustache that went down both sides of my mouth to the jawline. After noticing, they had a good laugh. After dinner and quite a few margaritas, I played and sang “La Bamba” on the guitar. There was an encore and I played some Eric Clapton and Tom Petty. Some of the guests said they didn’t know I was so talented. Some guests said that it was the best party they had ever attended in Lagos. Everyone slept in the next day, a Friday, which we had off for what was inexplicably called “Mid-Winter Break.” It was a long and arduous effort waking up the next morning. That day the delta militants released photos of their expat hostages. The following week, as we prepared for Dr. Seuss Day, the Green Eggs and Ham Breakfast had to be cancelled because of the bird flu scare. Can you believe it? Those poor kids. Their parents pay all that money for enriching educational experiences such as this, and third world conditions have to go and ruin everything. But someone outside the literacy committee had an idea.
“You could do Green RICE and Ham!?” she said. Everyone stared without comment, the cognitive dissonance thick and palpable in the air.
Last weekend, on Saturday, March 12, Heather and I went on a Nigerian Field Society trip to Badagary, a former slave port town in the far southwest corner of the country. One of the NFS members had recommended it to us by saying, “There’s not much to Badagary, not much in it, but you take the trip for the boat ride.”
It was just a day trip, leaving Ikoyi Island around 7:30 a.m. and heading west on Five Cowrie Creek to Porto Novo Creek and arriving in Badagary around 9:30. The two-hour boat ride and the fact that I could avoid staying in a Nigerian motel were enticing, but the real reason I wanted to go was to see the former slave port, former slave market, and the slave museum. I signed up as soon as the trip was listed "open."
My fellow NFS member was pleasantly right about the boat ride, which was perfect and soothing. There’s nothing like the fantastical phantasmagoria of the strange and exotic scenes on the shorelines and in the passing canoes interwoven with the somnolent nostalgia in my head while riding under the drone of twin engines and the water breaking fiercely into the wake.
Unfortunately, he was also astonishingly right about Badagary. There’s not much there to preserve its historical legacy. Seeing the former slave port consists of standing on one shore of the creek looking across to where slaves were marched to their doom in the Atlantic. This is called “the point of no return,” and it is marked only by a wooden dock. Granted, while standing on the shore, you can get, for a small dash (tip), an inculcated speech from an impromptu tour guide. But it’s nothing you couldn’t easily look up in a history book, which was what was most disappointing about the museum. Other than some authentic slave chains and some interesting iron sculptures, the slave museum was nothing but halls of blown up pictures (some of them are actually in the U.S. History book with which I teach) and annotations on the walls. Nearby the museum, tourists are taken to the “first two-story house built in Nigeria,” in which you can find the “first Yoruba translation of the Bible.” It is open for touching and page turning. I wanted to check the copyright but didn’t want to be rude.
This is a shame. Although I’ve heard the former slave port and castle and museums in Ghana are much better preserved and interesting, Badagary cannot be allowed to slip into such obscurity. People shouldn’t go to Badagary only for the boat ride.
When I was in grad school, I won first place and $50 at the graduate colloquium for a paper on a slave narrative, The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa. It wasn’t until I moved to Lagos that I realized where Equiano writes about being captured from is modern day Nigeria. He was likely brought right there to Badagary, and he likely moved across that same creek and over the other side to see the ocean for the first time. And now the shore is only a resting point after an enjoyable boat ride.
I recently wrote a letter to the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, in response to Jeffrey Tayler’s informative yet sensationalized article, “Worse Than Iraq?,” about Nigeria’s possible devolution into chaos. I’m glad to see Nigeria get some in-depth attention, I said, but I read this same article three years ago before the previous election, with only a few differing details.
Someone once told me that there are only 13 stories in all the world, that these same 13 stories are told over and over again, only in different derivatives. Wallace Stevens tells me that there are 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, that “whirling in the autumn wind, [the blackbird is] a small part of the pantomime.”
On the way back to the school from the dock on Ikoyi, after the two-hour boat ride home, stuck in a go-slow, I saw probably the largest rooster I’ve ever seen, deliberating about crossing the road in heavy but creeping traffic. He stepped slowly out into the road and then back again to the roadside dirt, while all around him bustled black feet and black ankles. No one bothered to look down at the rooster and only passed it quickly on their hurried ways. Had these black feet and black ankles not read the newspapers? Were they not frightened of the bird flu? Did the rooster not know his power? Apparently not, for after four or five times of venturing out into the road and back again, he retreated for the safety of the ditch.
“I do not know which to prefer,” writes Wally Stevens, “the beauty of inflections/Or the beauty of innuendoes.” I do not know which to prefer, the rooster starting to cross and cockle-doodle-do or just after. But I do know that the rooster is involved in what I know.
I do not know what happened to the two boys suspected of being ill. I do not know what happened to the expatriate oil workers who were held hostage. I do not know what has come of the Muslim killers in the North and the Christian killers in the South. I know not if the families of their victims seek revenge. The news has moved on to new stories.
I do know that the Greece trip leaves on Tuesday, and for once I will not be its leader. There will be no “Homie’s Odyssey, Part III.” I know that in three weeks we will take our spring break to Kenya – Nairobi and the coast. (I have never seen the Indian Ocean.) I know that when we return, we will have two months left before we leave this country, most likely forever. I do not know yet how I feel about that.
I feel a bit like Charles Darnay in A Tale of Two Cities, caught between the aristocracy and the plebian, not knowing yet whether I’ll be condemned or saved. So if you ask me about Nigeria, I cannot tell you its story, for it has 126 million new ones every day. And the rooster is a small part of the pantomime.
For regular news on Nigeria and Africa, visit the following websites:
|Capital Antiguo de mi Corazón
||[Jan. 25th, 2006|04:29 am]
|||||"Lose Again" by Alison Krauss||]|
“Madrid is a strange place anyway. I do not believe any one likes it much when he first goes there. It has none of the look you expect of Spain. It is modern rather than picturesque, no costumes practically no Cordoban hats, except on the heads of phonies, no castanets, and no disgusting fakes like the gypsy caves at Granada. There is not one local-colored place for tourists in the town. Yet when you get to know it, it is the most Spanish of all cities, the best to live in, the finest people, month in and month out the finest climate and while other big cities are all very representative of the province they are in, they are either Andalusian, Catalan, Basque, Aragonese, or otherwise provincial. It is in Madrid only that you get the essence. The essence, when it is the essence, can be in a plain glass bottle and you need no fancy labels, nor in Madrid do you need any national costumes; no matter what sort of building they put up, though the building itself may look like Buenos Aires, when you see it against the sky you know it is Madrid. If it had nothing else than the Prado it would be worth spending a month in every spring, if you have money to spend a month in any European capital. But when you can have the Prado and the bullfight season at the same time with El Escorial not two hours to the north and Toledo to the south, a fine road to Avila and a fine road to Segovia, which is no distance from La Granja, it makes you feel very badly, all questions of immortality aside, to know that you will have to die and never see it again.”
– from Death in the Afternoon
One thing I never would have learned had I not left Texas is that most capital cities of the world are drab, colorless, soporific expanses of concrete expressways and industrial smog, bird-bespattered statues and black business suits, urine-stench side streets and antiseptic government buildings. Many capitals are landlocked by way of centering themselves within their respective countries, and, so to get to the true cultural centers, usually near water, one must travel hours by train and thereby waste most of the day. Were I not interested in history and museums, or were I not curious about the sleek coldness of the inhabitants who seem to have been carved from their city’s winter sludge, I would avoid capitals altogether. But for the tourist’s tourist, why go to Moscow when you can spend more time in St. Petersburg? Warsaw is a diorama compared to Krakow. The Berlin Wall murals are mostly as interesting as their graffiti addenda; tour, instead, the countryside around Frankfurt or Heidelberg. Athens has the Parthenon and high-end shopping, but Crete has Knossos and thousand-year-old olive trees. Why bother with Pretoria when you can drive the Garden Route all the way to Cape Town? Imagine judging the U.S. on a one-stop visit to the District of Columbia and you begin to get my drift. Capitals are the nondescript, operational warehouses of nations. Even here in Nigeria, Abuja is just a one-goat town compared to the clamorous herd of Lagos, its former capital.
Of course, there are exceptions, usually encountered in smaller countries. Neither Prague nor Budapest has the feel of a capital, which may have something to do with the Vltava and Danube rivers, respectively. A river is arguably better for a city than seashore because it is preferable to have fresh water running through town than to have salt water adjacent to the outskirts. Had I remained where I was raised, I would have taken all this for granted and maybe even would have continued to think the opposite of what is true about capitals. For in my own small country, the Republic of Texas, not only is the capital of Austin smack dab on the Colorado River, but there are also seven lakes accessible in less than an hour from downtown (not to mention the Brazos River not far north and the Guadalupe not far south). Not only is Austin the seat of state government, but it is also the cultural, musical, environmental, and intellectual heart of Texas. So if you want to see where the stars at night are big and bright, deep in the hill country is where you want to be.
Still, Austin is an anomaly as a capital city. With the exception of Boston, possibly Atlanta, and maybe Honolulu, you will not find a capital in the U.S. brimming with as much brio as the city formerly named Waterloo, Texas, currently dubbed as “the live music capital of the world.” Even if you’re not familiar with Austin, take a look at a list of state capitals and see if you can find a suitable retort other than the exceptions I just mentioned.
In five short months, I will be a resident of the state of Washington. Do you know its capital? . . . No? . . . Take a guess. . . . Seattle? No, sorry. It’s Olympia. Yes, Olympia. I’ve never been to Olympia, but Courtney Love tells me that when she went to school there, everyone was the same – they looked the same, they talked the same, or so she sang. Not that I would take the word of such a popinjay, but one could hardly make the same claim about Seattle and still be taken seriously. Fifteen minutes south of where I’ll live in Vancouver, Washington, is the state of Oregon. Any guesses on its capital? . . . Portland? That’s what I would have said, too. It should be Portland. One would think so. But no, it’s Salem. . . . Isn’t that in Massachusetts? No, Salem, Oregon. Yeah, I never heard of it, either.
Why is it that so many capital cities across the globe are so bland and devoid of a colorful cultural life? It may be that politicians have an aversion to it. It may be they are afraid of cultures that still have breath in their lungs and blood in their veins. They prefer to observe culture in museums. They prefer to keep that kind of thing locked in the history books, buried among previous protests, revolutions, and coups d'état, and barring that, they keep it out of the capitals.
Yet one cannot say the same about former capitals. St. Petersburg, as Leningrad, was the former capital of Russia. New York was the original capital of the United States. The former capital of Poland was Krakow. In Germany, it was Bonn, birthplace of Beethoven. Old capitals are good for lovers, walking aimlessly, holding hands. New capitals are for senators, walking shamelessly, holding cell phones. In preparation for aptitude tests, they tell the kids that their first choice is usually the best choice.
In the U.S. only seven states have retained their original capitals – Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wyoming. Out of the other 43, Texas has the most former capitals – 10. The most recent was my hometown of Houston, which is often described by visitors and short-timers in the same way I’ve described the current capitals of the world – sprawling, nondescript, flat, boring. The expatriate oil wives are the worst about it. Whenever their husbands are up for a transfer, they say, “I’ll go anywhere in the world except back to Houston.” Of course, these types don’t even want to go back to the U.S. until their husbands retire. “And when we do retire, it won’t be in Houston!” As Nigerians say, Tank Goad for dat.
Though I was born in Dallas, I spent twenty years of my life in Houston. There’s no substitute for that kind of familiarity and intimate knowledge, and I can understand what newcomers to Houston see and what they don’t see. Yet I won’t let the expat wives have the last say, for Houston is one of those cities you must spend many years getting to know. This is because of many reasons, not the least of which is its urban sprawl and its spreading of the fourth largest population in the U.S. over more than 600 square miles. But if you’ve never eaten Mediterranean, listened to a jazzy stand-up bass or mean blues guitar at the Big Easy or had a snakebite at the Ginger Man in Rice Village; if you haven’t taken lunch at Ming’s or Niko Niko’s or had a drink behind a curtain at Marfreless thinking about how as you opened the door to this place you thought you might be walking into a closet; if you haven’t seen everything from Montrose down West Gray to Midtown, from the River Oaks Theatre to the Front Porch Pub; if you haven’t been to Bayou Place or seen a Tom Stoppard play at the Alley Theatre or the symphony at Jones Hall; if you haven’t taken your kids to watch fish while eating fish at the Aquarium or had ribs at Drexler’s or spent New Year’s Eve at the Continental Club or anywhere else in Downtown; if you haven’t had a bean burger at Mama’s or a Kirin and some tiger eye at Miyako’s or seen everything down Westheimer and Richmond or anything else in Uptown; if you haven’t spent an entire afternoon along the Kemah Boardwalk or in Old Town Spring shopping for Amish furniture and Ghanaian beads after a chicken fried steak at Puffabelly’s; if you haven’t seen Junior Brown play some Ernest Tubb at Mucky Duck’s or seen kitschy rockabilly at Blanco’s or been to every hole-in-the-wall joint in the Heights; if you haven’t won $50 at Sam Houston Raceway Park before watching a summer concert or been to Moody Gardens or the Space Center: if you haven’t done any of these things, please think of something better to do other than yawn or cringe and say, uck, the humidity!, when I mention Houston. I know you’ve been to every other fabulous city in the world, Mrs. Chevron-Texaco, but please reserve judgment on my city until you’ve tried all of the above and then some. And if you try them all and still do not find it to your liking, then don’t go out when you’re there but stay in the AC, invite some friends over, and start a goddamned knitting club.
Houston is my litmus test for all other cities, better or worse. When I came to Lagos, my first observation was, hmm, a port town, same weather, big and sprawling – this is just like Houston! I found that Lagos, too, was one of those cities one must open his heart to before it will do the same. Big cities are not always user-friendly.
So during winter break, when I arrived in Madrid, I began to get the same feeling. This was a week and a half before I would own the book in which Hemingway gives a similar impression of 1930s Madrid in the epigram I used to begin this writing. But this impression, especially mine rather than his, really is more a subjective feeling rather than an objective observation. Houston is not anything like Madrid in layout or structure. They are both big cities, true, with both approximately the same population. But their similarity was something more, something in the way its citizens went about their lives. Possibly, for me, it could be the Spanish influence on Mexican culture, and in turn the Mexican influence on Texas culture. I must admit I felt a strong sense of familiarity in hearing the speaking of Spanish again, and it felt good as it began to come back to me and I was able to talk with waitresses and taxi drivers and street vendors in a language other than English or pidgin English.
It was lucky for us that we arrived in Madrid two days before the tour started, for we got to take our time in Madrid and take the bus down to Plaza Mayor and walk around and be on our own.
About four days into the tour, I received two Christmas presents from Heather, one I was expecting and the other I didn’t know existed. The one I was expecting was a copy of Don Quixote in Spanish. I requested it, for it has been a kind of hobby of mine to collect books of each country I visit. In Greece, I bought copies of The Odyssey and The Iliad and a book called Modern Greek Short Stories; in Prague, I bought some Kafka; in Russia, I should have bought some Chekhov (in Russian) but failed to do so; in South Africa, I bought Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom; and I have enough Nigerian Literature to fill a shelf.
The present I didn’t know existed was Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. I had heard of Moveable Feast and knew that Hemingway was once a journalist, but other than that I was not aware that he had written any other non-fiction books. I was so taken with it and thought it one of the best non-fiction books I had read that it colored the rest of my trip with a longing to move about Spain more freely. It did not make me want to be a bullfighter or even to appreciate bullfighting as he did but it did make me want to live in Spain and to see a bullfight as it should be and as he described it. Of course, winter is not the season for bullfighting and even if it were I would not want to see one with a bus full of tourists. I would only want to see a bullfight in a ring in which I would be the only gringo in the stands, one in which the matador does not take for granted the ignorance of the audience.
But the book colored the whole of my trip, even in Portugal and Morocco. Even through the charms of port wine in Lisbon and Barcelona beaches, I wanted to get back to Madrid and move freely north and south. It made me want more time in Seville and Salamanca and even Granada. And when I got to Chapter 7, where it said that I must see a bullfight before reading on, I read on anyway in defiance of the author.
And so at this point it is necessary that you have read the book to understand fully what I am saying. So you may stop here, but if you move on without reading the book then I am not responsible for any negative reactions to the rest of this piece. So from now on it is inferred that you have read the book.
So you read the book. How was it?
Young woman: It was disgusting. How could you read that?
All right, that is an honorable review but no refund. How did you like it?
Old man: It was terrible.
How do you mean, terrible?
Old man: Terrible. Just awful.
All right, you are excused for that. Fair enough. How did it seem to you?
Young man: It bored me to tears. I fell asleep during every chapter.
All right. You can get the hell out of here, then. Didn’t anybody like the book? Didn’t anyone like it at all? . . . Did you sir? I did not. How ‘bout you, Madame? Certainly not!.
Old lady: What is he asking?
Someone near her: He’s asking if anyone liked the book?
Old lady: Oh. I thought he was asking if anyone wanted to see a bullfight.
Did you like the book, Madame?
Old lady: I liked it very much, thank you.
No, Madame, thank you. For we may now move on. . . . Um, have we met before? You are familiar?
Old lady: Well, some used to say I looked like Grace Kelly. Still waiting for my Prince of Monaco, though. Never know, you could . . .
I don’t see the resemblance. No matter. So, you liked the book? Good. What do you think of my essay on capitals?
Old Lady: I’m not much for that kind of geography.
That kind, Madame?
Old Lady: What is the capital of your heart, young man?
The new or old?
Old Lady: Ah, you have former?
Not so much a former but one that has always been. Yet the new and current capital of my heart is the left side of my brain, which has not, until recently, been in proper operational order since 1989. It is the D.C. of me.
Old Lady: And the old capital? What is the Barcelona, the Leningrad, the Krakow of you?
Ah, Madame, we shall come to that.
Amor en la Tarde
It may not have been the strangest dream I ever had, but when I woke in the last hours of Christmas Eve still remembering rather vividly images of an oversized ham sandwich as big as a small boat hovering just above my head – following as I tried to flee, yet retreating just out of reach when I turned to pursue it – it had already been a very strange day. The devil and Freud may care, but I am not one to spend hours in the interpretation of such nonsense. It may well have been the ghost of the sandwich I had the day before, the one made with the famous Serrano ham, cured in salt, costing upward of €300 per pork leg. We’d seen scores of these dark-haired pigs on roadside farms, feasting on a diet exclusively of acorns, and we’d seen their hind legs hanging in stores and restaurants all over the country. Perhaps it was, instead of an appreciation for the delicacy, a sympathy for their slaughter that crept into my psyche, manifesting itself in my dreams as a monstrous apparition of bread and meat. That sounds sufficiently ridiculous, does it not?
The ghost of Christmas lunch was the least of my worries on a day that really began the night before at a Flamenco bar in Seville, Spain. After seeing a show of fantastically sultry dancing at a bar where the drinks were gaspingly weak and expensive, we and a few of the other gringos on the tour decided to join the locals at a small tapas bar next to our hotel on the penultimate night before Christmas.
The bar was owned and operated by a former Flamenco singer, and all night he would break into song as he served tapas and €1 drafts of San Miguel, the Spanish equivalent of Milwaukee’s Best (which is not exactly a denigration). We made friends with some of Seville’s best young citizens that night, one of whom was remarkably tolerant as he listened to me list off all the Spanish curse words I knew from my youth. Another commandeered a guitar from street performer who came in to make a few coins; they took turns playing traditional Castilian songs. At a break in the action, I took up the guitar and played the only Spanish-language song I knew – “La Bamba”! Again, with the magnanimous toleration, these people!
We did not stay to close down the bar at sunrise but we didn’t leave until just after 3 a.m. The next day we woke up craving the grease of fast food. We were a shameful and pitiable sight waiting for Burger King to open at noon, but I defended myself to the Canadians (who were right behind us, by the way) with the reasoning that it is okay for us because we don’t have fast food in Nigeria.
After filling our bellies with so much fat and sugar, we went back to the hotel to exchange our gifts and then sleep off our pain. She got me the books and I got her, in the color of brown and burnt orange, what I can only describe as a gypsy skirt – the long, tiered, crinkly fabric that is all the rage of among bohemia-inspired ladies these days.
It soon became apparent that neither of us would sleep. Heather began having the racing heart rate and palpitations she had been experiencing during the last six months. We tried to take a walk to calm her down, but she eventually could not take it any longer and asked to go to the hospital.
The doctor who saw us did not speak any English, and I don’t speak enough Spanish. So we communicated through a nurse who was fairly proficient. They gave her an EKG, which two other doctors had done previously in Nigeria, and they said her heart was fine, that maybe it was just anxiety, which the doctors in Nigeria had also said; yet none of them gave her a prescription. They gave her a sedative and made her wait until her condition improved.
We thanked the doctor and began our way to the counter thinking this visit would cost the rest of our trip money, but as we were trying in broken Spanish to explain that we needed to pay, a young nurse from the hallway said, “It’s free.” . . . Free? You sure? Oh, uh, okay. “Thank you so much,” we said and walked out of the building.
You gotta love socialized medicine. Still, maybe if we had gone to a private doctor, they could have better diagnosed her condition.
Old lady: Well, is she going to be okay?
Yes, Madame. She is going to be just fine. In fact, right now she is in the U.S., in Washington. She went to see a cardiologist, who finally diagnosed her condition as an electrical malfunction in her heart. It is a benign condition that causes her heart to race and double beat, but she has been prescribed medication for it and feels a lot better to finally know the problem and know that it is not serious.
Old lady: Oh, that’s good news. You must miss her with her being away for so long
I do, Madame.
Old lady: Well, were you both able to enjoy the rest of your holiday?
We did, very much so. I did not care much for Morocco, but that may be just because I was back in Africa – the markets and third-world amenities and such felt too much like Lagos. But our highlights were Lisbon (all of Portugal was so beautiful), Seville, Madrid, and Barcelona. We spent New Year’s Eve in Puerta del Sol, which you might call the Times Square of Madrid, where we ate twelve grapes at midnight and made a wish for each one, in accordance with Spanish custom.
Old lady: Did you see the Prado?
No, regretfully, we did not, but we went to the Reina Sofía in Madrid, where many of Picasso’s works are displayed. Yet that did not compare to the Picasso museum in Barcelona, where we spent the first week of the New Year on our own, away from tours and other people. It was at that museum in Barcelona where we saw “Guernica,” Picasso’s depiction of the Spanish Civil War. I taught Tennessee Williams’s Glass Menagerie for years, reading the protagonist’s line, “In Spain, there was Guernica,” without knowing what it was or bothering to research it. And now I loathe that incuriosity.
We also ate at Botin, the “earliest restaurant in the world,” founded in 1725. This is, of course, where Hemingway went for suckling pig, which is still on the menu, though I did not have it. I had filet mignon, which was good if boring.
But I was most impressed that the restaurant had no trace of Hemingway to be found, not a mention of his name anywhere. It says a lot about a little restaurant that refuses to cash in on that. Even the restaurant down the street had written on its awning, “HEMINGWAY NEVER ATE HERE.” Not as clever as they think it is, I’d say. Still, maybe I should have had the suckling pig.
Old lady: You have regrets?
I’d like to have seen a bullfight.
Old Lady: Would you like to be a bullfighter?
Madame, I am a lover, not a fighter, of bulls.
Old Lady: A lover of bulls?
Yes, Madame. Especially the short ends of their tenderloins, filleted and smothered in mushrooms.
Old lady: You’re being facetious.
Madame, I would never do so with so venerable a woman.
Old lady: No other regrets?
Just one. I usually write in our journal when on holiday – the journal I began in South Africa, at the Cape of Good Hope. I think she was disappointed that I didn’t write something this time. We started talking about poetry at one point, and she said how she’d love it if I wrote a poem for her.
Old lady: Oh, what a lovely idea.
Madame, I must disagree with you. Poetry is for young men and women to write, and I am no longer a young man.
Old lady: You are a young man to me
Madame, Moses is a young man to you.
Old lady: That is an old joke and not a very good one.
But we speak of old things.
Old lady: Poetry is for love.
Poetry is not for love, Madame. Poetry is bacterially infectious to love, and love is viral to poetry.
Old lady: Why, that’s a nasty thing to say.
Remember what Death in the Afternoon had to say about love? He wrote: “All people talk of it, but those who have had it are all marked by it and I would not wish to speak of it further since of all things that is the most ridiculous to talk of and only fools go through it many times. I would sooner have the pox than to fall in love with another woman loving the one I have.”
Old lady: Well, that’s earnest, but not very romantic.
I don’t speak of romance, Madame, I speak of love. Love is like writing – one should show, not tell. Love is behavior; it is action. It is a feeling best expressed in that manner, through the worn path.
Old lady: Well, it would be nice for you to write her a poem.
I will write her a poem, for she may like that. But I don’t want to write a love poem. Simply a poem, for her.
Old lady: That would suffice.
Would you deliver it to her for me?
Old lady: I’d be honored.
Thank you. I am grateful. Please take it to her and tell her to hurry back, that the sugar ants are back in the kitchen, and they are saying that this time it’s personal.
Old lady: Why, whatever do you mean?
Never mind. Just tell her I miss her and that this is a poem for her. Now I must sleep. I leave it in your hands. . . .
This is not a love poem
though it is for you,
whom I love
like the sea loves sky,
which takes in infinitesimal essence
and gives in pure rain.
This is not a love poem,
though I write it for you,
mei sine qua non,
the Latin to my English,
mon raison d'etre,
the countryside in my French,
mia cara, la chiave di casa,
the pasta in my Italian,
the rolling rrrrr on my tongue.
This is not a love poem,
but its center is you,
mi capital antiguo,
la ciudad de mi corazón,
who could not be captured
by Greeks nor Turks,
nor Romans nor Celts,
nor any armies who clash by night,
for they could never reach you
where you’ve always been –
since before their tongues
uttered troglodyte grunts –
in a valley in which travelers walk
unaware of that which they pass
on nearby roads in the crepuscular dusk,
until, finally, serendipitously,
a most lucky traveler of all
stumbles around a corner
to find within himself
what he had not known was there –
the light to home,
my hometown true,
where no one needs a love poem,
but this one is for you.
|All the Pretty Wahala
||[Dec. 10th, 2005|12:55 pm]
|||||"Wildflowers" by Tom Petty||]|
“He had been to Ghana and Kenya and Tanzania, he had read about all the other African countries, their histories, their complexities. You wanted to feel disdain, to show it as you brought his order, because white people who liked Africa too much and who liked Africa too little were the same – condescending.”
– from “You in America” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in Discovering Home, a selection of writings from the 2002 Caine Prize for African Fiction
All big cities bombard their citizens with promotional bombast. Lagos is no different in that respect. Yet in respect to the content of its public advertisements, this city, like no other, never ceases to amuse, amaze, repulse me.
Like the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, billboards haunt passers-by. By public service announcement: A Happy Family is a Worm-Free Family; For Qualitative Education, Pay Your Tax; Malaria Kills – Keep Your Living Space Clean and Dry. By church services promising happiness and blessings: None Shall Be Single – Singles Miracle Anointing Summit; None Shall Be Barren; Eradication of Witchcraft – Are you oppressed, in bondage, afflicted, attacked? Are you a witch or not too sure? Come for Cleanrance! [sic] Tackling Demons. By commercial advertisement: DMT Mobile Toilets – Shit Business is Serious Business! And those that employ Pidgin English: Star-Kist Tuna – Na Correct Feesh O!; Lagos Lottery – Levels Go Change O!; Star Beer – Shine Shine Bobo. Then there is the Magi Cube ad pushing their new bush-meat flavor, and the bank offering a “guaranteed 10 million percent return.” When passing the ad portraying Nigerian parents in traditional wear who, while watching their wide-eyed, wide-mouthed son devour a heavy fork-load of Indomie noodles, are so overzealously joyful that I often wonder 1) if these people live in the same city I do, and 2) if they have ever actually tasted Indomie noodles. And don’t forget the names of the stores that sell many of these products: God’s Favorite Variety Store, Amazing Grace Plaza, etcetera, ad nauseam, ad infinitum.
Ask people who’ve been to Lagos about their first ride from the airport or about driving around the first few weeks they were here, and they all will invariably relate to you the overwhelming visual intake and sensory overload that came to them through the car window. The bustling cluster-crunch of Lagos traffic – dilapidated okadas and danfos crisscrossing in continual succession of near misses. The bizarre bazaar of street vendors weaving through the go-slows, carrying portable shops atop their heads, hawking an eclectic menagerie of wares. Toilet seats, clocks, watches, maps, rat poison (dead rats included to prove efficacy), gum, cigarettes, milk, soda, juice, water in a bag, frozen yogurts, plastic-wrapped entities purported to be sausage rolls, pirated CDs, DVDs, VCDs, children’s toys, strollers, cans of tuna, hair clippers, etcetera, ad nauseam, ad infinitum.
Almost half of the products you could expect to find at your local Wal-Mart or Cost-Co you can buy in a Lagos traffic jam, though they may be only half as good or last half as long. The other half of those items that cannot be found in the go-slows might be found in the markets or the smaller shops that flank the roads, where quite literal menageries are kept – mangy dogs for sale, stray horses and goats suffering from mal-nutrition, African grey parrots in cages, even small monkeys captured from the bush and tied to trees.
Lagos will get your attention, one way or another. Yet after cycling through the numbness of culture shock, the loneliness of unsettling unfamiliarity, the novelty of inevitable acceptance, the stimulation of nascent familiarity, the comforts of intimate knowledge, and the satisfaction of helping others through the same processes, one either decides to plant roots or plan escape. I’m not sure exactly when I started on the latter, but there have been a few times when, in trying to understand those who have made a life of it, I have considered the former. Some expatriates were instilled with it from a young age, having grown up in Lagos or Kano or Abuja, and after finishing boarding school and university in their countries of birth, returning, naturally, in mimetic Diaspora, to the places whence they came, the places of childhood memory.
Others come here later in life and never leave except when on holiday. Some take Nigerian spouses. Some take Nigerian lovers. Some play the expat scene. Some arrive already married yet stay here for a decade while spouse and children remain in their home country. Some couples meet here and buy permanent residences. Some couples, who married in their early twenties and decided, finally, to risk an expatriate position in their forties, are now in their sixties and have been saying since their fifties that they don’t know, they’re not sure, but this really could be their last year in Lagos.
Still others, more common, are the peripatetic expatriates, who have spent four or five years in Europe, then in the Middle East, then in Asia, and, now, after spending four or five years in Lagos, are headed to South America or Australia or some other place in Africa that will take them in for four or five years. (And it is this paradigm I considered most seriously.)
Yet except for smirking at the occasional offbeat billboard, I am no longer moved by the milieus and multitudes of Lagos City, Nigeria. All of these sights that once filled me with anxiety and wonder have long ago lost their novelty. I am no longer baffled by the gritty agglomeration of this sardine-pack of coastal islands. And every Lagos lifer I’ve talked to has said that when you no longer love it, it’s time to go. But it’s not that exactly.
I desperately want to leave here with an appreciation for this place, and I undoubtedly will. Yet I also want to be able to say, when I leave, that I gave something of myself to this city and that it also gave to me. And I will, undoubtedly, be able to say so. But it’s getting harder to live in the now as I enter the anemic malaise days of my last six months on the continent.
A friend and fellow expatriate from back home, who now lives in Baku, Azerbaijan, recently wrote me about a guy she met who just transferred there from Lagos. She has heard me talk about living here, and she reads my journal at least sporadically. After talking to this new guy, she writes that she never knew Lagos was so “corrupt and primitive” yet admits that maybe he is just more pessimistic or close-minded.
“I was telling that guy that you lived there and you never said near the bad things he said about it,” she wrote. “I guess it is a different experience for each person, just like some people think it is just awful here, whereas I think it isn't bad at all.”
This made me feel a bit better about how I portray Lagos to others, but I didn’t exactly refute the other guy’s denigration. The thing is, Lagos is too monstrous and messy and woefully crowded to be the exotic, tropical paradise or the forward-developing metropolis some make it out to be. Yet it is also too vibrant and vigorous and wonderfully corybantic to be the soul-sucking hellhole or heart of darkness so many more people describe it as. I mean, don’t get me wrong. Lagos is a riddle of refuse wrapped in a mystery of mustiness inside a secret of scatological scariness – a decaying steep in a garbage heap inside a shit-box deep. But fighting from underneath all that is an innocence and vulnerability necessary for a purity of heart that enables an enduring spirit.
So I’ve been searching for this again, a way to help my spirit endure for another six months. Looking for a sign, if you will – not from a billboard, but something more tangible. Of course, like Lagos itself, it came in a binary form.
After writing that sometimes I hate this city and that I am ready to leave now-now, a mitigating instruction manual arrived. I was playing cashier for Heather’s hand-made jewelry booth at the South African bazaar when I noticed the woman in the booth next to us selling her photography book called How to Love Lagos. I put off buying it just then, being a bit resistant to the possibility of this having any significance whatsoever. Yet when Heather employed me as cashier in another international bazaar the following weekend, there it was again. And since the lady was kind enough to buy our $125 necklace, we thought we might as well buy her $50 book. She signed it, and as I began to look through it, I found it reassuring, instructive, calming. Lagos really is a thing of beauty, I thought.
A few days later, I walked out of my classroom to another sign – impassioned speeches echoing over a static-afflicted PA system and plumes of black smoke billowing over the school roof.
The address of the American International School of Lagos, the school at which I teach, is “Behind 1004 Federal Estates.” One thousand four, as it’s called, has its eponymous number of flats in about fourteen buildings that are right across the street from the school. I can see at least thirteen of them from my fifth-floor balcony.
Government officials have been trying for months to evict the tenants, low-level government employees who were provided housing there when Lagos was the capital and then allowed to stay when the capital was moved to Abuja. The buildings recently have been sold to the private sector for refurbishing and development, but the tenants are resisting eviction. After months of warning, police are being brought in to remove the remaining tenants by force.
Yesterday, Friday, was the third day this week the school has been shut down. Classes were cancelled Monday as a precaution and resumed on Tuesday. On Wednesday morning, the protests turned from the microphone to the torch. Crowds began burning tires and who knows what else. All students were assembled in the gym until parents or drivers could get to the school, and the school was vacated by noon. Thursday and Friday classes were also cancelled, and us teachers who live on the compound have been placed on “Lock Down,” meaning we are not to leave. Friday morning at 4 a.m. we awoke to a cacophony of the most annoying sounds – shrill whistles, constant hammering on tin metal, arrhythmic beating on drums – meant to disturb the tenants and persuade them to vacate. There are now twenty armed Mo-Pol officers from the U.S. Consulate outside the school for our protection.
In Lagos, this kind of bedlam is called “wahala.” Wahala refers to any kind of troublesome or chaotic situation. It has become a favorite appropriation of the expatriate community, who use it loosely and often incorrectly. It’s a fun word to say, wahala. If a classroom of kids is getting rowdy, a teacher might say, “Stop all this wahala!” Your dog barking loudly for no reason? “Quiet with that wahala!” You walk in on your friends to find them in an argument? “What’s all this wahala about?” See, it’s fun. Now you can try it at home.
Expatriates who love Lagos too much love wahala. They feed on it. It’s their diversion, their pacifier, all the pretty wahala. And so there were two kinds of reactions to the protests and school closings, as there are two kinds of reactions to any wahala. One is to revel in the rather low-key madness, feeding the fire of rumor and speculation, and the other is to register as little reaction as possible. Can you guess which camp I joined? I’ll give you a hint – it’s not the former.
The truth is that I really don’t know how much of a threat it really is. I have no control over it, so until people start hopping our compound walls with AK-47s, I refuse to worry myself sick. We suffer enough psychosomatic valetudinarianism living in such a precarious environment. So now I’m desensitized to it all, and maybe that’s the best evidence that it is time to go. More likely, it’s time for me to leave Lagos not because I “don’t love it anymore” but because I hardly notice anymore the young men and boys with polio who pull themselves through the streets atop wooden planks on wheels. More likely, it’s time for me to leave Lagos because I’m not sad anymore when the little girls and boys press their faces on my car window, putting their hands up to their mouths to ask for food or money. More likely, it’s time for me to leave Lagos because I haven’t the slightest compunction at the sight of prostitutes along the street and at every bar and restaurant I might attend after dark and even on the arms of acquaintances at parties. More likely, it’s time for me to leave Lagos because I am almost always curt and cutthroat with Nigerians who’ve something to sell; I no longer extend proper courtesy or trust. Maybe if I felt comfortable with all this as adaptation or assimilation, it’d mean that I should stay, that I belong. But I’m not comfortable. I’m antsy and frustrated. And maybe it’s time for me to leave Lagos because it has given me all I can take from it, and it has taken all I have to give.
One reason we have been able to take so little notice of this “Lock Down” is because, other than the trips we’ve taken outside of the city, we don’t leave the compound much anymore. Other parts of Nigeria - Idanre, Akure, and the trip we took to Kano and Katsina in the North - were all therapeutic and refreshing. Seeing Kano and Katsina was like seeing another country. It’s entirely different in northern Nigeria, more Arab-influenced, more Islamic, less wahala. And indeed the purpose of our visit was to see the durbar, the celebration of the end of Ramadan in which different ethnic groups from different parts of Nigeria parade through the streets on horseback, followed by the Emir, the Islamic leader of the city. It is truly one of the most impressive spectacles I’ve ever seen. We also visited indigo dye pits in rural villages, where we observed the process of dying cloth different shades of indigo blue. Quite an amazing trip, really, and yet it ended with me yelling at a hotel clerk, who, the night before, quoted us the wrong amount for the next morning’s checkout. It was the night of my 30th birthday, and we would be leaving the next morning. So we spent almost all of our naira, saving only the amount we had been quoted that night. The next morning, the bill came to 2,000 naira more than the clerk had said. He denied it to his superior, I yelled in remonstrance, and we had to borrow the money. (Nigeria, for the most part, is a cash-only society.) Later, at the airport, our flight was delayed two hours because of repairs to potholes on the Lagos airport runway. This forced us to fly a different Nigerian airline, one none of the well-traveled Nigerian Field Society members had ever flown. I tried to take as little notice of all this as possible, but Heather, who was already heavily sedated for the flight, nearly had a full-on anxiety attack. A couple of Lagos lifers, I suppose, would have taken it all in stride.
Next Thursday we catch a plane to Madrid, where we begin a 16-day group tour of Spain, Portugal, and Morocco. (We head into Morocco on Christmas.) After the tour is up, we’ve rented a high-rise flat for six days in Barcelona to recover from our vacation, if you will. It’s going to be amazing, I know. This is why I came to Lagos, I know. This is why I took this job, I know. But forgive me if I’m tempted to call it off and re-destine my ticket to Portland, to be able to finally sleep in the house that takes so much money from my account every month. Forgive me if I entertain fantasies of telling the school board to go to hell, of quitting and going home now to the Northwest and to Texas. Forgive me if I seem ungrateful. Forgive me if I miss the United States, the so-called evil empire, where the billboards are hackneyed and drab and easily ignored. Forgive me if I, just this once, find internationalism irksome and pine for provinciality. Forgive me for wanting the familiar, easy comfort of a place to call home.
“But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic – their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood over the solemn dumping ground.”
- from The Great Gatsby
|May the Stories Never Be Old
||[Oct. 31st, 2005|12:50 am]
|||||"When I Die I May Not Go to Heaven" by Tanya Tucker||]|
“Walking along in the silence, he had no regrets. If he died tomorrow, it would be because God was not willing to change the future. He would at least have died after having crossed the strait, after having worked in a crystal shop, and after having known the silence of the desert and Fatima’s eyes. He had lived every one of his days intensely since he had left home so long ago. If he died tomorrow, he would already have seen more than other shepherds, and he was proud of that.”
– from The Alchemist
Sitting, reading, in the most remote corner of the lobby at the Hilton in Yaoundé, Cameroon, I glanced up to see a man approaching, wielding walkie-talkie, mumbling some unintelligible question.
“What?” I said, not realizing he was speaking French. He repeated his inquiry, not realizing I was speaking English.
When I understood that I would not understand, I said (not ignorant of its ignorance), “No françai.”
Finally settling on my monolingualism as lingua franca, he asked, “Are you waiting for someone from the World Bank?”
I was dressed in faded, frayed jeans and a t-shirt. “World Bank?” I said. “Me? Uh, no.”
A few weeks before, I threw my name in the hat of hopefuls who wished to attend the 2005 Teachers Conference of the Association of International Schools in Africa, held in Yaoundé. The school could afford to send three teachers. The past two conferences were in Accra, Ghana, and Dakar, Senegal, respectively. My first year I was too shell-shocked to be aware of it, and my second year it was “not in the school budget.”
After informing my superintendent and principal that this would be my last year in Lagos, not to mention my last year as a teacher, I was sure I’d just be quietly passed over for selection. But what the hell, I thought, I’ll never get to Cameroon otherwise, and the loopy logic that seems to inform most decisions around campus just might deem me a suitable candidate. It did, and it even made me “team leader” of the trip, though I had the least experience as both teacher and traveler.
So I was soon in Cameroon, apparently impersonating an associate of the World Bank, even as those whom I thought more likely to be such persons criss-crossed the lobby floor in crisp suits or shiny African traditional wear on their way to business meetings or conference talks or brick-bedded siestas.
One group in particular looked even too important for the World Bank as they came striding through, packed in circular arrangement – like a Men in Black marching-band – surrounding a distinguished, gray-headed African man. What the posse lacked in Hollywood cool and hi-tech black sunglasses it made up for in third-world austerity and wires connected from collar to ear. And guns. Less than a minute after bolting through the front doors, they disappeared into the elevators.
Outside, along the hotel driveway, military men carried AK-47s in ready position. This was the first thing we noticed upon arrival, and it worried us a little. Is this really necessary?, we thought. This is supposed to be nice hotel, in a safe place. They don’t even do this in Lagos.
Then we found out that, though we had reservations, rooms might not be available. The local conference coordinator explained that the hotel’s latest guest was Abdou Diouf, who served as president of Senegal from 1981-2000. His handlers didn’t want a lot of traffic or attention in the area and so tried to prevent the delegates of our conference and others from filling up the hotel. Fortunately, our reservations were honored and our rooms ready. Unfortunately, the aforementioned loopy logic that chose me for this trip also planned it.
At the front desk we realized that for four nights at the Hilton our principal had allotted $170 per person, which would not cover one night’s accommodation in the hotel utility closet. Not able to contact Nigeria by phone, we were unsure of what to do. The AISA coordinator suggested we try other, less expensive hotels. My two colleagues – Marilyn, a first grade teacher about to turn 60, and Susan, a kindergarten teacher near 50 – were not having it. They insisted on dialing the superintendent and principal repeatedly in a futile attempt to have someone else deal with it. When Marilyn and Susan realized that we wouldn’t get through to the school, they looked at me as if to say, “You figure it out, ‘team leader’.”
I suggested that we go take a look at another hotel. The coordinator, Betina, offered to give us a ride to the Mercur, part of a French hotel chain, which she said was just “a step down” from the Hilton. Betina, a stocky bulldog of a European lady who worked at the American School of Yaoundé, didn’t seem to go in much for glamour or pleasantries, and that didn’t go over too well with my colleagues. She was pressuring us to change hotels so that she could be done with being responsible for the sassy Americans. My colleagues acquiesced and were sorry for it after we had to play Frogger across an expressway to get to the van, only to be shown dirty hotel beds with four-inch thick mattresses and roaches on the wall. Betina herself said it “would not be safe to walk to the Hilton from here after dark,” but added, “It’s a good hotel.” I was so tired I would have slept on an unmade cot, but Marilyn and Susan were not sold. Back to the Hilton we went.
We decided to pool together the money we had been given (along with some of our per dium as a good faith gesture) and put it down as a deposit at the Hilton. Marilyn and Susan even agreed to share a room. Now all we had to do was get a hold of our superintendent by email and get her to call with a credit card and take care of the bill before checkout in four days. We discussed what needed to be said – how we were all put out and in need of immediate remuneration. Then they had done enough, been through enough. They gave me that look again – “You write it, ‘team leader’.”
Fortunately, though we couldn’t get through to Nigeria, Nigeria got through to us. Susan’s husband called that night. He would get in touch with our superintendent, and my email could just be after the fact, to give more detail. The husband called back with the card number and authorization, but the hotel wouldn’t accept it unless it was faxed. When the fax finally came, it was indirectly from the American embassy as a note slid under our doors, saying “Urgent Message. Please contact Ms. [So-in-so] Hell at the U.S. Embassy A.S.A.P.” (And, yes, that was the actual surname of the contact.)
Marilyn was the first to get the note, and she flipped, immediately assuming something had happened to her daughter back home. We were relieved when we found out the real message. They sent the fax over to the hotel, and we all felt like we could now relax and enjoy the conference. The next day I woke up too early and too tired, but ready to face the day. I went into the bathroom, turned on the faucet, and noticed something different through my sleepy eyes. The water was a dark, dookie brown. I stared at it. I let it run, thinking it might wash itself out like it does sometimes in Lagos. But no, in a few minutes, I had no water at all. I used the half a bottle of water I had left from the night before to brush my teeth and wash my face. Then I went down to breakfast.
By the looks of Marilyn and Susan, their morning showers had been as pleasant as mine. I joined them at their table. We ate quietly, making small talk. When it was 8:30, time for our first session to start, nobody moved. We just sat there sipping our coffee in tacit understanding – we’d be playing hooky this morning. Maybe the water would be back on soon. “This is still better than the Mercur,” Susan said.
Later that day a hotel rep. delivered a note of apology and a plate of fruit to make up for the brown water. Truth is, I really didn’t care that much. It wasn’t your average Hilton, though it had your average Hilton prices, but I’m not sure Paris the Heiress would have found it all that hot. (Of course I’m not sure she would ever set foot on the continent.) I would’ve even stayed at the Mercur; it would have left us more spending money. And it wasn’t much worse than the Jet Hotel that the school booked for us in Douala. Our plane landed there, on the west coast of Cameroon, where we spent one night before we were driven three hours to Yaoundé and then the last night on the way back.
In the little free time we had, we made it to the national museum and artisana market, where I bought a Cameroonian mask and a carved stool made with cowry shells, kobo, and francs. I also bought beads for Heather (she makes jewelry). And we ate some delectable food. Chez Woo, a Chinese restaurant, and Les Jardins des Arts (The Art Garden), with French and Continental Cuisine, were our favorites. The latter allowed us to experience more than just good food and wine, partly by living up to its name and partly because the owner there, Mr. Didier, told us his life story. When he found out we were American, he began to tell us how grateful he was to our country for saving his father in WWII. He was a Russian Jew whose family - in trying to flee the revolution for America in 1918 - only made it as far as France where his father survived the war. Forty years ago he moved to West Africa, met his wife, a Cameroonian, and has been there ever since. In that time, he has amassed a West African art collection that I believe may be unrivaled – by any individual, or any museum. Without exaggeration, I can tell you that his pieces outnumbered and out-valued what we saw at the Musee′ d’Art Camerounais the next day. It was incredible, really.
What he had on display was impressive enough, but then he took us to a veritable warehouse built onto the restaurant where he had stockpiles of masks, drums, tools, instruments. He was willing to sell some pieces to Susan for around $500, but she balked at the thought of getting them out of the country, then having to get them out of Nigeria (where airport customs officials act as though every rinky-dink wood carving you have in your suitcase is a national treasure and then want money when you can’t prove it’s not). Though for one piece he showed us, Nigerian customs officers would have reason to seek a bribe – a large one. Mr. Didier claimed it was more than 1,200 years old. When Susan asked about that purchase price, he estimated its worth at around 10 million Cameroonian francs, or $20,000. And it just sat there, no protective glass, rope, nothing. The doors to the warehouse weren’t even locked. We left the restaurant shaking hands and promising to come back for lunch before leaving Yaoundé. We never did.
I knew when I asked to go that the benefit of such a trip would not be the workshops on how to teach writing and literature but the people whom I’d meet or with whom I’d briefly cross paths. Other than Mr. Didier and a few other locals we met, we also talked with a few interesting people at the hotel, although Susan was constantly poking fun at most of our fellow conference delegates for their “teacher clothes” – you know, moo moos and denim jumpers, she said.
One group in our conference was from Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, where their school went from 450 students to about 30 in the last couple of years because of civil unrest there. We talked with conference keynote speaker, Paul Poole, about his last seven years in Harare, Zimbabwe, of which he was hesitant to be critical in his speech lest his visa be revoked. Even my workshop presenter was cool, though he had never been to Africa. He had just retired from a North Carolina school district after 30 years, and now he traveled around giving workshops sponsored by the College Board. The College Board rep. was an artist from Brooklyn who collected what I can only describe as the imprint of manhole covers from all around the world, employing them in his postmodernism.
When the time came for us to head back to Douala, I was glad to be skipping the conference gala and heading home early. We got on the road around 3:00 p.m. so as not to be on it after sunset. I sat next to a woman named Amy from Ouagadougou (pronounced Wah-ga-doo-goo) in Burkina Faso. She was a pastor’s wife who came to West Africa more than a decade ago to do missionary work. As I began talking to her, I thought she looked and spoke like a typical, peppy suburban mom, with accompanying naïveté. Even what she talked about came across this way. She wanted to know from me, since I play the guitar, whether she should make her son, who is left handed and only eight years old, learn to play the guitar right handed.
“Why would you do that?” I said.
“Well, because someone suggested it because most guitars are right handed and he wouldn’t be able to just pick up his friend’s guitar and start playing if he learned it left handed,” she said.
“Don’t make your son do that,” I said. “If he’s left handed, let him learn left handed. He can string right-handed guitars upside down,” I said.
“Really?” she said.
“Yeah, besides, one of the best guitar players who ever lived was a lefty,” I said.
“Jimi Hendrix,” I said.
“You do know who Jimi Hendrix is, don’t you?” I said.
“Well, I’ve heard of him.”
She promised to look for his music, and we stopped talking after that. Just as I was thinking what a sheltered life she must lead, she turned to an African man sitting in front of us and started speaking some indecipherable language. Their conversation went on for at least twenty minutes. When it was done, I said to her, “That didn’t sound like French.”
“It’s not French,” she said. “I speak French, but that was Dioula, a West African trade language.”
“And you’re fluent in a West African trade language?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I can speak a little Bambara, too, but I’m fluent in French and Dioula.”
Dioula? I better stop making assumptions, I thought, and just enjoy the ride. It was easy to do. The rainforests that make up the Cameroonian roadside from Yaoundé to Douala is more lush and green than anything I’ve seen in Nigeria. The only eyesores were the huge lumber trucks carrying logs as wide as I am tall. We had seen the same thing on the ride inland. At the conference, Susan asked a local man why they were allowed to do that.
“They are only allowed to take the logs on the road at night,” he said.
“But it wasn’t at night,” Susan said. He just smiled and shrugged.
Approaching Douala I was glad we hadn’t beaten the sunset. I missed it on the way out, but coming in to Cameroon’s biggest city you can see Mt. Cameroon, West Africa’s highest peak, in the distance. The pink and purple sky over the mountaintop was a beautiful, peaceful ending to a long, exhausting trip.
We had an uneventful last night and early last morning in Douala. The airport was expectedly frustrating, but we were off on time and into the rainy morning sky on a Bellview 737, landing safe in Lagos on a Thursday and back at work on Friday. Two days later a Bellview 737 crashed 20 miles north of Lagos, killing all 117 people on board, including many Nigerian dignitaries and a U.S. Consular official. It was a sad day.
For about a month now Heather and I have had a trip planned to fly to Kano in northern Nigeria to see the durbar, the end-of-Ramadan festival filled with grand Muslim ceremony. For the past week, I’ve been trying to convince her and myself that it is still safe to do so. We were scheduled through the Nigerian Field Society to fly Bellview, but because they are now one plane short, the airline has cancelled all trips to Kano. We are now scheduled to fly IRS Airlines, another Nigerian carrier.
Boeing investigators are now here, as are U.S. Air Safety inspectors. It was Bellview’s first crash in its twelve-year history. I’m not aware of any IRS crashes. Third-world airlines don’t have the best of safety records. I told Heather that if she was too stressed out about it, we could just not go. But I think we are both resolved to overcome our fears. The best time to fly is after something like this happens because everyone is double-checking safety procedure as to avoid a repeat – this is the rationale we’re going with, anyway. Besides, we head out into Lagos traffic every week without thinking twice, and that’s more dangerous than any other form of transportation, by land, sea, or sky.
We work Monday, and then we leave Tuesday morning, November 1. We were going to have two days off this week anyway because of Eid ul-Fitr, the end of Ramadan. The other two days we’re getting docked for because we didn’t schedule them far enough in advance. But this is our last year, and we’ve heard the durbar is not to be missed.
We’ve both been a bit paranoid as of late, lacking the same sense of adventure we had upon arrival in our first years. We still look forward to the traveling we’ll get to do this year, and we appreciate the fact that we get the opportunity. But I think we’re also ready to get started on our new lives back home. Our house there is sitting empty. Our flat here is crowded and unsettled. I told her recently that we have until June to see more of the world, but by then I think we’ll be ready to stop spinning with it and just ride the rotation from one spot for a while.
But until then we can’t just stay cooped up for fear of life. I'll be 30 years old on Friday, and I look forward to celebrating this milestone in a strange land. It'll sure beat staying here and having a party at my flat. We have to keep moving forward, taking reasonable risks, taking it all in, because the day will soon come when our stories will be old, our memories no longer fresh, and though a high percentage of suburban moms in the Northwest may know intimately the music of Jimi Hendrix, I betcha not a one of ‘em speaks Dioula.
|On the Road to the Cocoa Hills
||[Oct. 3rd, 2005|12:23 am]
|||||"Paid to Smile" by the Lemonheads||]|
“It is about the real modern Nigeria: an enormous, inchoate territory whose ancient
units of tribe and religion are being supplanted by the new patterns of technology—-above all, by the system of rough, weather-pitted roads along which thousands of ramshackle picturesquely named lorries speed goods and passengers.
- Ronald Bryden, in a review of Wole Soyinka’s 1969 play, The Road
“Embedded in [Wole] Soyinka’s dismay is the idea of a country that has accepted chaos as a part of the national culture. In no part of Nigerian life is this clearer than on the road, which is Soyinka’s point. That there is in Nigeria a pervasive risk of being killed or maimed on a road (the government claims one in three Nigerians are annually hurt in accidents, while one in nine die) is difficult to prove to the uninitiated. It means applying images of war to common Nigeria, where cars and petrol tankers casually burn on roadsides [. . .] Nigeria’s roads, even the best, are narrow and the potholes deep enough to consume a car or grab a wheel and fling any vehicle spinning into the bush.”
- Peter Chilson, Professor of English, Washington State University, 1999
It seemed a less than fortuitous start to a Saturday when we woke to a morning downpour. Since arriving more than a month ago, the air had been humid, tepid, the sky bright and clear. Twice we’ve had sprinkles, but not enough even to dampen the cushions of our balcony furniture. All this time spent cooped up, we wanted off the compound – something more than expat bars and market shopping.
Our Nigerian Field Society memberships had run out in December, but a last minute email got us the last two spots on the first outing of the new school year. A four-hour road trip to the towns of Akure and Idanre, northeast of Lagos in Ondo State. We’d driven two hours west over the border into Benin last November, but that did not require leaving Lagos State. Finally, a chance to see more of this country than the smoggy sprawl of its largest city. Finally, an escape of even the outskirts into the unknown, labyrinthine Nigerian interstate highway system. Though the sky doth protest.
This trip fell on an environmental Saturday, which meant no one was to be on the roads before 11 a.m. (Try that in Houston or L.A.) So we got to sleep in a bit, but it was still an early rise for a weekend. The thumping drops on our window woke us, and we lay there awhile listening to the background battering of the roof and pavement, thinking it a nice day for daydreaming and couch reading. Yet soon after, I sat staring at the deluge outside our balcony doors while Heather packed our lunches. Then the paranoia began its course. Don’t go on this trip. Not worth it. Something terrible may happen.
This is something not entirely new to me, though it’s been occurring in increasing intensity for about a year now. I tell myself I’ve got it figured out; I tell myself I can control it because I know from where it stems. When one goes from having nothing to lose to having the most precious thing in the world to lose, he begins to rein in his insouciance. But now, even if she’s gone for longer than expected on some minor errand, I begin my nervous tics of teeth grinding and leg jittering. I’m not quite sure this is normal, but I’ve been able to suffer it so far.
Because we got the last two spots, the trip organizer told us we might have to ride in separate cars. I knew this would not be good for my worry wart-ness, and it began to afflict me as I stared out across the balcony railing at the gushing of the sky. I calmed myself with the rationalization that these were not portents warning me away from destruction but simply inconvenient circumstances extrapolated into unnecessary panic. As with any other time I’ve entered the new and unknown, I needed to force myself forward into small risk lest I never have any big fun. Do away with your silly superstition, I told myself, we’re going to be fine. Heather finished the lunches. “Ready to go?”
I was assigned to a small SUV owned by Gunther, a middle-aged German man in charge of new membership in the Field Society. Gunther and I would share the ride with his driver, a Nigerian whom he called Big Joe, and two middle-aged English women, Christine and Carol. Heather was assigned to a larger SUV owned by Hugh and Robin, two Canadian newlyweds who had known each other in their twenties, reunited in their fifties, and were enjoying the second lives of the Gemini. Hugh has lived in Nigeria nearly thirty years; Robin followed him from Canada two years ago. Joining Heather and the late-life lovebirds was Jenny, a teacher of “maths” at the British International School who cackled gratingly at the most inopportune moments of conversation. I’d met Jenny many times before and knew her to be quiet and tense in mannerism even while trying to chat and relax. A nice enough girl, nonetheless, though it made me feel strangely more comfortable to know I was not the most uptight neurotic of the bunch.
According to Bob, our trip organizer, a total of 47 people of twelve different nationalities loaded up in a “convoy” of ten-plus vehicles. He would have been more correct to say “caravan,” for we were a long line of strangers getting strange looks once outside of Lagos. We must have been quite a sight to the policemen at the checkpoints, who all reacted the same, raising a hand to stop us and then dropping it in realization of how many carloads of oyinbos were barreling through at 120 kilometers per hour. It helped that our own Nigerian policeman had been hired to ride in the lead car.
After all the obligatory exchanges with my travel mates, I opened a book and began to read; I brought along Tom Robbins’s Still Life With Woodpecker, which Heather recommended, thinking I’d have some quiet time in the car. Not only could I not get through the first chapter for all the jolting bumps and potholes, but when we finally reached lesser-worn road the chitchat began again.
Christine and Carol were both teachers, not at BIS but another British primary school. Carol had lived in Houston, where her husband worked in oil, of course. When she learned I’d be returning to my fiancée’s home state instead of mine, she said, “Oh, good choice, there. There’s nothing to do in Houston but shop, and I hate shopping.” She did say, however, that she managed to find a knitting club there to save her from boredom. Too bad I hadn’t any needle and yarn then to spare me the same.
Christine seemed to be patiently waiting her turn, not responding much to Carol, and so I was glad when she began. Gunther was satisfied to punch desultorily into the conversation. They all had been in Lagos as long as I had, and so each spoke of years previous. And in the end, Christine won first place in style and content. She had spent three years in Khartoum, Sudan, where she observed firsthand the injustice done to the people of the Darfur region. Black Sudanese speak the language of their Arab leaders and practice their religion, yet this is not enough for it does not make their skin any lighter. Their crops are destroyed, their women raped, their people massacred while the world objects only passively. I’m not sure which of Christine’s stories was more captivating – the one about her black colleagues at school having their villages burned and being left for dead in the desert by rebels supported by the government, or her tale of furtively buying bootlegged Chinese beer from a member of the Russian mafia. (Alcohol is illegal in the Sudan, an Arabic-speaking, Muslim country.) “They have Sharia law,” she said. “But I never saw anyone walking around with hands chopped off.” What she did see was quite enough.
Soon, having grown weary of talk, we all gazed out the window at pure tropical rainforest to the left and right of the road. “This must be what all of southern Nigeria looked like before colonization,” Gunther said wistfully.
Sporadically, we’d be jerked from our reverie either by swerving in attempt to curtail a pothole or by slamming down into one, having failed in the former. Yet the interstices between were mostly serene, and for a brief moment I was even lulled to sleep by the undulation of the wheels and the muffled sound of wind outside the window, an innate and unfailing reaction to cocooned motion that must stem from some latent memory of the womb.
We began, also, to see vehicles strewn alongside of the highway – some smashed, some burned, all abandoned. Whether they were neglected, infrequent flukes of the road or undeniable harbingers of doom, I chose not to speculate. Yet these littered hunks seemed finally to forge their identity as symbols when we were forced to slow down to maneuver around an Exxon-Mobile tanker that had jackknifed and overturned across both lanes. It was difficult to tell whether the accident had occurred a few hours ago or a few months ago. No witnesses remained to make us the wiser.
Not long after the tanker, in the middle of nowhere, we passed several Nigerians lined up in the center of the highway, moaning loudly at us with outreached hands. “Who are those people?” Gunther asked his driver. “Lepers,” Big Joe said. “The government does not care for them, so they live in the bush and beg on the road.”
About two hours into the trip we stopped at a petrol station for fuel and a WC. Unlike other rural roadside stations I’d seen, this one actually had a proper toilet in the back. The women lined up while most of the men, including me, exploited their lack of modesty in the adjacent field. Heather took pictures of chickens pecking around the base of the fuel pumps. Others bought snacks from the local village women and children selling plantain chips and unripe oranges.
As we neared Akure, fog hung atop distant mountains that were unlike any others I had seen. Heather heard from someone that the mountains of Ondo state were once part of a plateau that sunk and fell away, and what remained were these huge mounds of rock. They were perfectly smooth and rounded, as if they were once giant pebbles whose edges had been worn away by an oceanic river. It seemed as if one could ride down from top to bottom on a bicycle or skateboard, though doing so would give the phrase “terminal velocity” a smack of double entendre.
They must not get many oyinbos in the town of Akure, especially not long caravans of them. As we arrived in the late afternoon and moved in a succession of short spurts through the go-slows, we were received with a variety of looks, though none were of familiarity. Some were startled with curious smiles. Some drew their eyes along the train of vehicles with profound consternation. Some turned and shouted and raised their hands at us as if we were driving away with their belongings. Some didn’t bother to notice us at all.
After arriving at the Akure Plaza Motel, we were assigned rooms and keys and told to wait to see if it was too late to visit the oba (head chief) of Akureland Palace. Upon first inspection of our room, I found it to be as expected. It was Spartan without Spartan efficiency. The noise of the AC drowned out the outside generator so that if you wanted to have intelligible conversation you had to suffer the warmth of Sub-Saharan motel-room temperatures. The only painting on the wall was a surreal image of West African short brooms floating through the air. It hung far too close to the ceiling and near to the corner. The bathroom, like always, contained a bucket in the shower. A new one full of hot water would be delivered the following morning.
Just as soon as Heather and I settled in for a nap, there was a knock at the door to inform us that the palace would receive the group and we were to leave in five minutes. We summoned our second wind and were off to meet the oba.
It wasn’t exactly the oba who would meet us, though, and it wasn’t exactly a palace. Akureland hasn’t had an official oba since the last one died six years ago. So the regent, the late oba’s daughter, is serving as interim oba until a new one can be chosen, which they seem in no hurry to do. Until then, she “has to dress like a man because she performs the duties of a man,” or so was the explanation of our tour guide, one of the chiefs of one of the divisions of Akureland.
We got to meet the other chiefs as well, who were sitting very regally beyond the palace entrance. Our trip organizer, Bob, gave them a thorough introduction to the Nigerian Field Society, along with our appreciation for receiving us, only to find out that none of them understood a word. Luckily, the chief who would be our guide translated in Yoruba, and they all nodded their heads in august acceptance of our sentiments.
Had no one in our group seen the palace before, I don’t believe anyone would have taken notice of it as we passed. It looked, quite simply, like a large, dilapidated, concrete-walled compound, distinguishable only by a large, ornate metal gate along the outside wall, behind which a new palace was to be built whenever it was that they got around to choosing the new oba.
Despite the palace’s lack of palatialness, it was pleasing to find that every space had its purpose. Our tour guide was full of information on protocol, tradition, and ritual, even allowing for our participation. The tour culminated in a viewing of a shrine where the oba (when they have one) comes to pray. Inside the small space of the shrine was an altar on which a sizable stack of cow skulls awaited our respects. Only men were allowed inside, but all could at least step up in front of the shrine, he said, and lay some money down as an offering. “Come, come,” he said, “Pay your respects.” (Pay being the key word here.)
We returned to the motel for dinner, and while the majority of the group gabbed at empty tables we bellied up to the bar for some Star beer. I was starting to feel better about the trip, and it was even more auspicious to enter this bar in this small Nigerian town not known for a large expatriate population to hear the entirety of Don Williams’s Greatest Hits playing loudly for the enjoyment of all motel guests.
“This is like some of your Texas folk music, yes?” Gunther said. Yes, Gunther, something like that.
Morning came early as we piled again into the caravan and were off to a small village outside of Akure to learn how cocoa beans are harvested and processed. West Africa, especially Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire, is the world’s biggest supplier of cocoa. This village depends almost entirely upon the cocoa tree. All Swiss chocolate starts here.
We watched a couple of the villagers cut from the tree and break open the fruit and give us a taste of the ripe and unripe beans yet to be dried. After I surreptitiously spit out my sample (we were supposed to eat it whole), I began to follow the crowd to the front pavement by the road where they would lay the beans to dry in the sun.
Looking back I saw Heather much more enthralled by the village children than by their parents. She kept snapping pictures, and then showing them their images on the camera, at which they would howl in laughter and then cover their faces in embarrassment. Heather was beaming right along. A few days before she had said she felt frustrated, stagnant. Now she asked me, rhetorically, “You ever have one of those days when you just feel glad to be alive?”
Most of the children were scantily clothed, but most of them didn’t mind. They were laughing and following any of the many women who were snapping them. One boy had nothing on but an oversized blue button-up that seemed to consume his whole person except for his tiny head and bright smile.
Another boy, stark naked, was not smiling at all. He followed along with the rest, but was more wary and aloof. He gazed back into the camera with sad, brown, globular eyes set far apart underneath thick lashes, the depth of his stare almost eerie with recondite pathos. Sometimes all a photographer must do to capture such a beautiful image is simply to point the camera at such beauty.
After tasting the dried cocoa nuts, which tasted much more like cocoa than their plucked-from-the-tree predecessors, and handing out candy and small naira bills to the children, the group moved on toward Idanre, the mountain village that would be our last stop.
Idanre is surrounded by the aforementioned smooth and rounded mountains, and atop one of these sits an abandoned village, complete with oba’s “palace” and myths about a naked hermit who still roams and forages there. It would be our long and arduous task to climb the rocky steps to see the view and village. Before we began, the trip leader arranged for five guides to escort us to the top, though one young village woman who had greeted us beforehand offered to be of service as well. Heather gave her a slice of her sandwich and in doing so gained a friend for life. What worried us about her plan to follow us up the mountain was not just that she might expect remuneration, but, even more, it was that she was wearing heels and a wrap-around skirt that was continuously coming undone and nearly falling to the ground.
The wobbly and rusted railing accompanying the rocky steps did not prevent me from nearly slip-sliding to my death more times than I care to mention. Idanre must have had a downpour as well, and it also must have been informed of the ominous boding brought by the Lagos storm, for the water running down the mountain wished to carry me with it. But I refused to let it. I wasn’t going to let it wash away my edges as it had done these mountains.
When we made it to the top, several rest stops later, we were taken aback by the paradisical majesty of the view. We felt accomplished. Heather wondered aloud if it would be possible to camp there overnight. I hoped aloud that this place would forever be kept a secret from resort developers. We could hear Sunday hymns coming from a building far below. We stood there a long time. The group had moved on to the village and left us behind. We lost all track of time. We were lost but not afraid. Standing near the edge, looking over the curved slope, I was glad to have made the effort to get there, glad to have put fear behind me. It was one of those days. I was glad to be alive.
The Friday following the trip we celebrated Nigerian Independence Day at the school. We call it Nigerian Culture Day and we all dress in traditional wear and there are no formal classes but only workshops put on by storytellers and artists and craftsmen.
At one of these workshops a famous Nigerian artist, Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya (whose work has been purchased by the Queen of England, Michael Jordan, and museums all over the world) was talking about a piece he did in honor of Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. I use Soyinka’s work as a supplement to the study of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and so I was curious enough to speak to him afterwards.
“You said you did this piece in honor of Wole Soyinka. Have you met him?”
“Met him? I know him,” he said. “We are friends.”
He gave me a book containing some of his work, as well as Nigerian folk tales and myths. One was an excerpt of Soyinka's work. With my interest piqued, I looked a little further to find that Soyinka felt his creative muse to be the Yoruba deity, Ogun, god of the road, who forced himself into exile in order to force change. “The contradictions in Ogun fascinated me,” Soyinka has said. “God of the lyric and yet god of war, protector of the road, the path finder, an agent of change.”
I’m not Yoruba, and so I have no Ogun. If I do, it’s who I chose as a boy in Catholic catechism – St. Jude, patron saint of hopeless cases. Both are paradoxical figures.
One cannot force upon oneself a lepidopteran change. The only hope is to keep jumping at the sky, flapping the elbows, until the ground falls away. A flapping I go, a Mr. Imago.
“I found other deities too peaceful, too saintly for my temperament. Ogun is an out and out sinner, but one who is able to recognize his weaknesses and try to overcome them, and also his solitude is something else. The kind of solitude I found in the bush, in the forest, I found to be a characteristic of Ogun--the fact that he retires to the mountains after all his blunders around mortals and tries to exorcise the violent side of him. I found a kind of identity, and so he adopted me, or I’ve adopted him.”
“It was inevitable that the Nordic world and the African, especially that part of it which constitutes the Yoruba world - should meet at the crossroads of Sweden. That I am the agent of such a symbolic encounter is due very simply to that my creative Muse is Ogun, the god of creativity and destruction, of the lyric and metallurgy. This deity anticipated your scientist Alfred Nobel at the very beginning of time by clearing a path through primordial chaos, dynamiting his way through the core of earth to open a route for his fellow deities who sought to be reunited with us mortals. I covered that event for my publishers - well, taking a few poetic licenses, naturally - under the title IDANRE.”
-Wole Soyinka, in his Nobel Banquet speech, 1986
|A House of One’s Own: Summer Dreamin’ Deferred
||[Aug. 28th, 2005|08:15 pm]
|||||"Little Pink Houses" by John Mellencamp||]|
“You never finish eating the meat of an elephant.”
-African proverb, found here.
When Thomas Jefferson plagiarized in ink and parchment the words and ideas of John Locke to create the document that would claim a string of colonies on the North Atlantic seaboard as sovereign, he did nothing so different as do my junior high students who skim back and forth from Thesaurus to drafts of school essays looking to supplant the meager offerings of their lexicons with more grandiose parsing. But these kids, again like Jefferson, are the bright ones who grasp intuitively that medium is message, or, at least, that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. (Due props to Mary Poppins.)
Of course, Jefferson could not have been aided by a writing reference not yet in existence, nor did he need one. Yet when the last of the triumvirate “life, liberty, and property” was replaced with “happiness,” it was more paraphrase than emendation. A more grand synonym, happiness transcended property though did not exclude it. If you didn’t have property, as the majority of citizens did not, you did not vote. If you did not own, you did not count. Even as poorer classes and minorities gained suffrage, it was property owners whose lobby had the ear of the legislature. Hence we have forever embedded in the American Dream, forever linked to the ideal of freedom and happiness, the ownership of space.
I suppose I was naïve. I thought I had achieved happiness when I found the love of my life and got to live with her and be around her everyday; I think she, too, thought herself to be fully happy. Yet after talking to many people we have found that we were only as happy as we could be at that time. According to all these other people, we could significantly increase our happiness by giving money to a jeweler to symbolize our love, money to a judge to document it, money to a preacher to bless it, and money to a property owner to celebrate it. So when we found this out, we kind of looked at each other and said, Well, we’re pretty darn happy, but it couldn’t hurt to be more happy. Right?
So we took the plunge. (Into the deeper waters of happiness, that is.) She got a diamond from South Africa in the spring. I picked out a platinum band in L.A. this summer. We booked a spot on a 38-acre estate in Portland for the venue. We have a pastor, who is also a personal friend, to do the ceremony. Our DJ sounds like Casey Casem and is letting us pick all our own songs. Our cake is four-tiered, each tier a different flavor. My future father-in-law, a graphics arts expert, is doing the invitations with a West African insignia to boot. We bought Nigerian wedding beads to include in the ceremony. An environmental school in southern Washington is growing fresh flowers exclusively for our occasion. She chose her dress and veil, which she says are non-traditional yet classy. I chose my tux, which I’ll say is long tie, not bow. We had engagement photos made in a garden of sunflowers and corn. One photo was printed with “Save the Date” information and was sealed on the back with small magnets so you can place it on your refrigerator and be reminded not only of us and our happiness for the next ten months but also of the date on which we will achieve even more happiness.
So we were pretty busy this summer. It was a lot of work, but worth it because I still got to be with the love of my life and live with her and be with her everyday. Plus, I got to see her smile a lot more and look at me in ways she hadn’t looked at me before. It just didn’t seem like life could get any better. Then, after talking and visiting with so many people, they revealed to us that we had yet to reach the pinnacle of happiness. We were only as happy as we could be at this time, they said. We could significantly increase our happiness, they told us, if we would pay a couple thousand dollars to an agent who would then help us become a couple hundred thousand dollars in debt to a housing market in which that amount would get you a single family home the size of a small economy apartment.
When we heard this, we were a little skeptical. We had planned to wait to buy a house until we could save some for a down payment, until the market was not so crazy. Besides, I’ll be trying to make a living as a freelance writer next year, with possibly only a part-time job as supplement. We need a house that’s, maybe, only a hundred thousand. But everyone we talked to was adamant. Ha!, they said, You can’t get an anthill on an eighth-acre for $100,000. Not up here, they said. This ain’t Texas, where you’re from, where there’s 1,000 miles of flatland in all directions and anywhere you look you can see over the horizon into eternity! We got mountains, rivers, ocean, and an environmentally friendly metropolis all within a 40-mile radius. This is the West Coast!, they said. We got moderates, and even liberals! The Northwest is the new California! The market’s a Buster Poindexter song – Hot, Hot, Hot! Trust us, they said, If you buy now, the market’ll keep going up, up, up, and when you come back next year and see the equity you’ve earned you’ll be happy, happy, happy!
After considering a number of such arguments, we looked at each other and said, Well, we’re pretty darn happy right now, but I guess it’s worth a try. I guess it couldn’t hurt to be even more happy than the more happy that we’ve become. Right?
So again with the plunge.
Our best moments in life are, necessarily, brief interstices between longer, more trying times. And just because I’m at the latter bookend of this time loop doesn’t mean I’m not happy. I am. I still get to be with the love of my life and live with her and be with her everyday. Even though we must now despoil ourselves of American consumer culture once again, change our watches and mentalities back to Nigerian time, go back to teaching the uber-wealthy, entitlement-afflicted children of diplomats and oilmen, pray we remain healthy for the next ten months so as to avoid the looney quacks who come here to practice medicine, even though we’re again knee deep in Lagos life, we feel good. We’re somewhat glad to be back in Nigeria, intent on enjoying this last year, seeing a bit more of Africa, and taking in as much as we can.
And why the hell not? We’re coming off a storybook summer. Budapest, Hungary. Krakow, Poland. Warsaw, Poland. The Zacopane Mountains in Poland. The Berlin Wall, Germany. Downtown Frankfurt, Germany. Huntington Beach, California. Los Angeles, California. Pacific Beach outside of San Diego. Portland, Oregon. Winchester Bay on the Oregon Coast. Kalama, Washington. Woodland, Washington. Vancouver, Washington. Houston, Texas. Dallas, Texas. Ennis, Texas. Conroe, Texas. Now back in Lagos. And it’s only one more year. We can coast on this past summer until Christmas when we go to Spain, Portugal, and Morocco, then coast on Christmas until spring break when we go to Kenya, then coast on spring break until summer when we go to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, and then coast on that trip right into wedded bliss.
Of course, bliss has its price. And for a bit more than 1100 square feet of it in Vancouver, Washington, that price is a bit more than $200,000. Three bedrooms, two baths, a double-car garage, a surveillance camera above the garage door, a surveillance TV monitor mounted in the garage corner, faulty siding, a dog run, vaulted ceilings in the living room, a bay window in the living room, sliding patio doors in the master bedroom, purple walls in the master bedroom, a small rock pond with green water and koi fish, atrocious blue carpet, a patch of green in front, and a little larger patch of green in back – all of these included in our package of joy.
It was built in 1994. Initially, we were looking in downtown Vancouver for something quaint from the 1940s. These houses were priced a smidge lower between $160,000 and $180,000. Lots of them needed work, but apparently lots of people didn’t mind. On more than one occasion we’d go into our agent’s office first thing in the morning, and we’d see one or two that had just come on the market a few hours before. He’d call on it right away, and it would already be sold. People were buying houses sight unseen.
Our agent, who (unlike several loan brokers we dealt with) was surprisingly kind, non-threatening, and patient, made a copy of an article printed just a week or so before we started looking for houses. It reported that the market in Vancouver had gone up 25 percent in the last year and seven percent in the last month. Yikes, we thought, we’d better get in now, not just for investment purposes but because we may not be able to afford this area if we wait until next summer.
When we finally arrived at the door of the house that would be ours, we were nearly turned away. A young woman came to the door with her two young daughters. “We’re here to see the house,” our agent said. “Um, well,” said the young woman, “It’s not for sale.”
They had taken it off the market two months prior after having it on for only two weeks, but somehow it was left by mistake in the database. The owner, the young woman’s boyfriend, was beginning to have credit problems and balked at the thought of trying to get into a new place. As we began to leave, the woman said, “Oh, well, you can come in and see it. You came all this way.” Afterwards our agent asked if they were still interested and she talked to her boyfriend and we were on our way.
Great, we thought, where do we sign? Well, so far, it’s been in about 74 places, and I believe at least a couple of those signatures were forfeitures of our first-born child should we miss a payment.
Someone once told me that the two most stressful things you’ll do in your life are buy and sell a house. The real estate market is a zoo, they said. No, it’s a circus. At least in a zoo you don’t have to jump through a hoop for every little scrap of meat.
We are on our third loan broker, and, hopefully, he’s the charm. Though he kept telling us it was “very likely” and he was “very confident” that we’d close before leaving for Lagos on the 18th, there I sat yesterday in my classroom in Lagos printing out the 209-page loan document he sent me. And tomorrow I get to take time off from school to drive down to the Consulate to get these things notarized for $50 per signature and then pay another pretty penny to send them back to the title company in Washington from Lagos by DHL.
Luckily, the couple we bought it from are going to rent it back from us for a few months until they find a new place closer to where the boyfriend was transferred for work. Getting permission to rent it was a whole other headache in itself. We had to write a very deferential and servile letter to the (duh-duh-DUN-DUN) Board of Directors of the Home Owners Association. Our neighborhood is one of those with lots of restrictions in place that exist purportedly to keep people from parking a trailer in their front yards for months on end and from turning their lawns into cornfields and from painting their houses in pastel or neon.
If things go well tomorrow at the Consulate, I may get to send the final docs out by the end of the day. And maybe not this week but next I’ll officially and for the first time be a member of one of the most privileged of classes – property owners of the United States of America. This is exciting to me because I really don’t think they counted my vote last November.
We could not have done it without the family and friends who gave us invaluable advice and support along the way. I remember telling my future brother-in-law, Heather’s younger brother Danny, who is already on his second house, about all the grief we had to go through in getting the house. He just kept shaking his head, giving me these knowing looks and slight smiles as I talked and held his ten-month-old son, Mateo. Danny didn’t say much, just asked me if I was happy with the house and all. I told him I was. Yet he seemed to be holding something back. He seemed also to be saying, by the way he looked at Mateo and I, that he was just going to let me have my moment, my sense of accomplishment, but that he knew something I didn’t. You’re happy now, he seemed to say, and you should enjoy it, but there’s even more happiness to be had. There was something in his eyes that said, You’re only as happy as you can be at this time. You could significantly increase your happiness, he seemed to say, in ways you have yet to imagine.
By God, I wondered, what is he trying to tell me? How many more levels of happiness can there be? When I stopped talking and looked down at Mateo, Danny answered my questions with one of his own.
“So, how many kids do you want?” he said.
|The End of Something(s)
||[Jun. 7th, 2005|04:54 am]
|||||"Float On" by Modest Mouse||]|
“In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.”
-- Ernest Hemingway
The rainy season has arrived in Lagos, and the increasing intensity and frequency of the thundering downpours seem in remonstrance of my remaining here. Don’t worry, I say to the marshy land and dark sky, I’m ready. And come Sunday, I will leave you be to take your rest and wash yourself clean and make yourself new. I need rest, too, you know. I need renewal. We both do.
So as Lagos opens the floodgates to wash away so many foreign faces for the summer, I, too, am in search of things familiar. I, too, am sloughing off the excess. And while doing so has been difficult, it’s given me newfound weightlessness.
The first sandbag I cut loose was my life in university academia, or tenuous ties thereof. After five years of desultory graduate studies, after completing all my coursework, with only my thesis left, I resigned from the English MA program at Sam Houston State University. I feel no regret about this. I got what I needed from it. To go on would be a formality, one in which I’m not particularly interested.
If there were any compunction at all in making this decision, it was that I would disappoint those family and friends who had been rooting for me all along and who had viewed my graduate work as most people view education, as means to professional advancement. I paid for my graduate classes outright, taking a couple loans when things got tight, so I don’t feel as though I owe anyone an explanation. Yet no one in my immediate family has a graduate degree. No one in my mother’s immediate family has a graduate degree. No one in my father’s family, either. Few have bachelor’s degrees. We are working class people (successful working class people by how I judge success), and we are proud of that. But still, me getting an MA would be a source of pride, too, I guessed. I wondered how they’d take it.
I wrote to my mother in Houston first, since she did so much to support my undergraduate studies and was likely to be one of the few people who might have something to say about it. I wrote to my father, who lives outside of Dallas, a version of the same letter. Part of that letter read:
Of course, I would have liked to have finished it. But so many people see a master's degree as a stepping-stone to a better job. I never saw it that way, exactly, especially when I first began. I entertained thoughts of becoming a professor or teaching at a community college, but that just seemed the logical, practical progression for any graduate student in the Humanities. So it was only a stepping-stone in that I learned more about what I really wanted to do.
I began graduate work because I wanted to learn more about literature and writing, and I thought studying in a graduate program would open up doors and worlds that I wouldn't have seen by going it alone. And it did. I grew as a person, as a reader, and as a writer.
When I took my first teaching job, I thought, Well, I can just do this for a year or so until I pay off my credit card bills and then I can get a part-time job and just concentrate on writing.
Six years later, I'm still paying off bills and wishing I had more time to write. But by the end of next school year, I will be debt-free and with a little jingle in my pocket. I will have quit teaching and grad school, and I will focus on what I have always wanted. I will still work 12-hour days, but it will be in pursuit of something I love.
I may still write a book on Raymond Carver someday, but it will not be a thesis that sits cheaply bound in the back of the SHSU library.
Nigerians have a phrase, “Go, Come,” that captures, beautifully, calm acceptance of the cyclical nature of existence. It’s not a caveat, as “What goes around, comes around,” and it’s not as dismissive or nonchalant as “Hakuna Matata.” Rather, it’s closer to the pidgin translation of “Que Sera, Sera” or “C’est la vie” or maybe “Easy come, easy go.” I asked a colleague of mine, who is leaving Lagos after five years, if he was going to miss it and if he were fearful of repatriation. He smiled a subtle smile, shrugged his shoulders and said it. “Go, Come.” And as you express your reservations or say to me, “Might you regret this one day?” – I say to you, “Go, Come.”
And that’s a nice segue into another thing that comes and goes. It’s the second sandbag I cut loose, and a mighty heavy one it was. For the first time in more than ten years, I don’t owe a single damn person a single red cent. Yeah, you read it right. I owe a lot of people a lot of things, but ain’t a one of them things money. Yes. Me. Debt-free. The only thing I still owe is the interest-free loan the school gives its teachers to help with the move to Nigeria, but payment of that is already in the works as well. Everything else – car, credit cards, loans – is paid in full. Now for next year, my last year in Lagos, I can save most of my salary for a down payment on a house, and, by doing so, acquire the biggest chunk of debt of my life. Say it with me now . . . Go, Come!
Another big bulk I’m glad to release into oblivion is the entire 2004-2005 school year. It’s been so many things, but it’s been long for sure. I’ve gained valuable experiences, and I’ve gained twenty pounds. I’ve found the love of my life and future wife, and I’ve found my savings account and credit report. I’ve decided finally to realize my dream of becoming a writer, and so I will realize finally just how few packets of Ramen noodles one man can live on per day. And then the twenty pounds will be gone. Go, Come.
But I’m glad this year has gone, with a new and final year coming. Last year was such a blur that it was difficult for me to take in the necessary nuance. My first day was a series of traumatic events, and from then on I operated on auto-pilot, numb and robotic to my colleagues and students. This year I came in all laissez-faire-like, with not a care in the world. But after I met Heather, I realized, in helping her to adjust and assimilate, how difficult that is made not by Nigerians or Nigeria but by the expatriate culture.
Heather went from teaching kids who didn’t have money to eat, kids to whom she would give clothes that they would dawn proudly the next day, to teaching kids whose parents give them 1,000 euros to spend on a ten-day field trip. I taught in a fairly affluent school district in Houston, but it was modest compared to the American International School of Lagos, where parents pay approximately $13,000 per year, not including a “Building Assessment” fee of $5,000 for new students.
In Houston, I taught high school and was asked to write a lot of recommendations for schools such as the University of Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Sam Houston State, and on rarer occasions I wrote for students applying to NYU, Brown, Columbia, The New School, et al. Yet now I am asked to write recommendations for high schools that cost more and carry more prestige than these universities.
Just two weeks ago, I filled one out for Phillips Academy at Andover, the New England school whose alumni include the current U.S. president, his father, and John F. Kennedy, Jr. Last year, I recommended two brothers and trained them for the entrance exam to Eton College, the English secondary school once attended by Prince William.
The Eton brothers didn’t get in, and the Andover acceptance is still pending. Yet even if they are turned away from schools of royalty, they are easily accepted into Leysin in the Swiss Alps, Tasis in London, or another one of the many extravagant, costly institutions that pander to the wealthy elite.
This is all a bit surreal for me, knowing that my students have that kind of privilege and access to power. One of Heather’s students is one of twenty-seven children belonging to the Vice President of Nigeria (a polygamous Muslim). In my classes I have a senator’s son and a governor’s daughter. Last year I had a tribal chief’s son, Nnanna, who requested that he be addressed as Prince Nnanna. His request was denied.
When Heather’s parents came to visit us in March, the first question they were asked by Heather’s students was, “Did you fly business class or economy [coach]?” When the answer was the latter, looks of disgust were exchanged among haughty, fourth-grade faces.
At the recent junior high Career Day, a local British architect presented with passion his choice of vocation and its challenges and rewards. He forgot to mention money, so that was the first question.
“Well, it varies, depending on what kind of architect you are, and what kind of firm you start with, but, generally, you can start out making as high as $80,000,” the architect said.
“For each building?” another student blurted excitedly.
“No,” the architect said. “That would be your salary.”
The student’s enthusiasm fell from his face. He was unimpressed.
Of course, you all know learning is mimetic and you’ve heard about the apple and its falling from the tree. It’s not enough that we must either combat or tolerate these mentalities during the workday, but we must also confront them throughout cocktail hour, which is a long hour here in Nigeria.
About two weeks ago after a nice teacher appreciation dinner, Heather and I were invited with another couple to have champagne at the residence of a third couple who were throwing a small after-party. It is at gatherings like these where one often wishes he had furtively placed a tape recorder in his pocket. Then again, those bits of quotable material worth recording are hardly forgettable. Still, one can only wade in so much bullshit before he drowns.
I’m not much for small talking at length with people I’ve just met, especially when I anticipate a struggle for common ground. And it seems, also, that I give the impression of someone who does not listen well. This, of course, is a benefit during such times, as well as in my current profession. It was during this particular evening when I was listening to the host – a huckster of environmental services, selling to a country that desperately needs them – talk oil with another oilman about how Nigerians, themselves, are an impediment to their own country and to efficient business.
“If we could just ship them all to Montana,” the oilman said in modest proposal. “And just let them all live there so they won’t be in our way.”
Later in the conversation, Heather was talking with the host. She was interested in his environmental work.
“Oh, that's great,” she said. “You help Nigeria have a cleaner environment?”
“Well, yeah,” he said. “But that’s because it’s what they’re buying right now. That’s what they want. If they wanted me to sell them pollution factories, I’d figure out a way to get them here.”
This man was to have breakfast the next morning with Olusegun Obasanjo, President of Nigeria.
I don’t offer these examples to prove these people culpable or evil but simply to show that we don’t always fit in with the expatriate community. You keep saying to yourself, This is not reality. And yet it is. You keep saying, This is only temporary. People don’t really live like this. People don’t really think like this. And yet they do.
I’m not saying I haven’t met a lot of down-to-earth, good people here, good-hearted oilmen, good-hearted salesmen, but I’ve met a lot more of the other breed. It’s a daily struggle. Sometimes you claim Nigeria as your own, sometimes you love it in the hands of its people, and sometimes it seems men like the aforementioned host and the country’s own leaders are prostituting its resources. Sometimes it seems you could live here forever. And sometimes you just want to go home – now. And now is that time. The dark sky and marshy land tell me so. It is the end of the school year, the end of my graduate career, the end of my debt, yet the beginning of so much more. The rain beats on my window. It is that time. Go, Come.
(Sunday we are off to Budapest for a week, and then to Poland for two weeks. My mother is a full-blooded Polack, so this is a kind of roots trip for me. On June 30, we arrive in Los Angeles to visit my friend Eric-with-a-K. We leave July 7 for Portland, and we are there until the July 29 when we leave for Houston. We will be in Houston through August 18 when we return to Lagos for our last year overseas.)
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