Friday, March 11, 2016

From ‘Looking for transwonderland. Travels in Nigeria’ by Noo Saro-Wiwa

Nigerians like to shout at the tops of our voices, whether we’re telling a joke, praying in church or rocking a baby to sleep ….decades of political corruption have made us deeply suspicious of authority…

We’re constantly wincing at the sight of some of our compatriots, who have committed themselves to presenting us as a nation of ruffians. Their efforts are richly rewarded at airports, where the very nature of such venues ensures that our rowdy reputation enjoys an extensive, global reach.

Nothing ever seemed to change for the better politically or economically in 1980s Nigeria.
I would arrive at an airpot that hadn’t been refurbished in twenty years.

Lagosians will be the first to tell you that their city is a disaster of urban non-planning characterized by overcrowding, aggressive driving, traffic ‘go-shows’, impatience, armed robberies and overflowing sewage, all of it existing alongside pockets of dubiously begotten wealth and splendor. ….Every square metre of the city was scribbled with informal advertising.

Once upon a time, Lagos was a placid cluster of islands and creeks …By the fifteenth century, the area had become a busy slave port. Under British colonial rule it became Nigeria’s economic and political capital.  ….Nobody knows how many people live in Lagos; it could be 10 million, it could be 17 million ….Lagos is a city of the Yoruba, the dominant ethnic group of the south-west.

….I had noticed a contrast between the sluggishness and ineptitude of city workers and the work ethic of traditional village society. City workers operated with a lethargy I often mistook for attitude or laziness.

People were underpaid, I knew, but the extent of their arrears was a revelation…. This culture of late payments – rarely pursued through the slow legal system – bred financial mistrust too. Landlords often demand hefty two-year deposits when renting out property.

Journalism and its pitiful remuneration carries no prestige in Nigeria – telecoms and banking are where the money is.

….the Nigerian propensity for arguing is, in my opinion, one of the finest attributes of our nation.

Lagosians …..perhaps exercising their frustrations in an oppressive society – will participate in any argument on a bus. Rarely do you hear someone interrupting the proceedings with a withering plea to ‘stop arguing’. Everybody takes sides, backing their man or woman, as if they each had a personal stake in the affair. But Lagosian fury dissipates as quickly as it erupts, and beneath the uninhibited displays of anger were ready smiles and a fundamental decency.

Women sold oranges next to ditches filled with evil-looking sewage sludge so black and shiny it was almost beautiful.

Belief, especially self-belief, seems a vital ingredient in helping people get through life in Lagos. There’s no room for equivocation or weakness. People have to compete for what they want in an environment that punishes the unambitious, the sick and the incapacited.

One in five of the barefoot toddlers defecating on the roadsides wont live long enough to start primary school.

Politicians steal ….from Africa …a quarter of the continents GDP – mainly by controlling trade licenses and skimming funds from government contracts. ….every road, school, oil drum, hospital or vaccine shipment is milked for cash. It diminishes the quality and quantity of everything in the country, including our self-esteem.

Until 1960, Nigeria was ruled by the British. They introduced Western education to the south, and also developed it economically, exploiting in ports and oil, but they preserved the north’s pre-colonial emirate systems. The north was divided into several mini-states, each centred around a paramount ruler or emir. This structure made it easy for the British to exercise colonial rule without having to spend money on employing colonial administrators. They interfered little with the emirate system, its sharia law or its traditional Islamic education. Consequently, the north fell behind the south in terms of modern education and economic development.
Because they outnumbered the rest of the country according to the census, northerners were allocated more seats in the Federal Legislature after Nigeria gained independence in 1960. The three main parliamentary parties reflected the dominant ethnic make-up of the century: Muslim Hausas in the north, the Igbos in the south-east and the Yorubas in the south-west. …..By the time Nigeria became a republic in 1963, the tensions caused by ethnic and economic equalities were already surfacing. The less educated northerners feared being dominated in the new, westernized political system. ….during its forty-seven years of independence Nigeria has lurched from one kleptocracy to the next. …..most of these men pocketed billions of the country’s wealth, ruined the infrastructure, devalued the educational system and obliterated Nigerians trust in one another, cultivating a dog-eat-dog attitude in all corners of life. A lack of professionalism characterizes the top echelons of government, and extends down to the ordinary workers …….and nepotism is rife.

…….traffic lights – of which Lagos has only a handful ….

The locals regularly smash holes in the pipes to steal fuel that’s otherwise beyond their purchasing power. Nigeria loses millions of barrels of petroleum every year this way from pipelines around the country. The pipes bleed oil until the professionals can repair them. Carelessly lit cigarettes or paraffin lamps can start such fires.

He was one of the thousands of ethnic Lebanese merchants who came to Nigeria in the early twentieth century, a middle-class stratum that rarely dips its toes in the indigenous gene pool, preferring to marry within itself or fetch partners from the mother country. Their relative wealth and influence, nothing special in absolute terms, shines an embarrassing light on Nigeria’s anaemic economy.

….Ghana was the Gold Coast, further west was the Ivory Coast, while Nigeria was unequivocally titled the Slave Coast.
Slavery underpinned economic life in the Lagos region for centuries, its human cargo crossing Lagos’s harbor almost as frequently as today’s barrels of oil. Badagry, a former slave port forty-five minutes west of Lagos, was the focal point of this human flesh trade …..Between AD 800 and 1900, Muslim empires sought slaves from sub-Saharan Africa and sent them north, to the Middle East and to the Asian subcontinent. Slavery, although a somewhat inaccurate term, was also common among sub-Saharan Africans. Indentured labourers were put to work in the fields, and paid a tribute to their masters. But they usually weren’t the personal property of their masters, and could eventually purchase their freedom

If there’s a country more religious than Nigeria than I haven’t been there. ….years of economic struggle and political corruption seem to have focused Nigerians’ attention on God more strongly than before ….Religion anaesthetizes the pain of bad transport, low wages, stuffed ballot boxes and candlelit nights. ….
Half of Nigeria’s population – concentrated in the north – is Muslim, but among the other half, evangelical Christianity, especially the Pentecostal kind, is thriving. This charismatic, fundamentalist form of Christianity originated in the 1920s. Focusing on a direct relationship with God, its adherents affirm their faith through the baptism of the Holy Spirit and speaking in ‘tongues’, a strange babble understood only by God. Their interpretation of the Bible is a more literal one, with a strong emphasis on abstaining from alcohol, gambling, extramarital sex and other vices.
Charismatic Pentecostalism began to flourish in the 1980s as Nigeria tumbled into an economic abyss.

‘Ninety per cent of literate Nigerians have only ever read the Bible or the Koran,’ my brother told me. Only half of the country is even literate. Most of the books published each year by domestic publishers are religious in some way…..The demand for Christian reading simply obliterates all other genres. …..But for all Nigerian religion’s flaws, I couldn’t imagine Nigerians surviving without it. By following the path of Jesus, people told me, they were paving their way to an afterlife of everlasting peace and happiness. Knowledge of this helps them endure the constant anxiety over financial survival. It makes them very happy…. World Values Survey, …..showed that Nigerians are indeed the most satisfied, contented people on earth; they know that beyond the power cuts and food rationing, bountiful heaven awaits.
Faith in God imbues Nigerians with an optimism that I rarely see anywhere else in the world.

…all this Christian passion still competes with pre-Christian beliefs. Paganism takes time to capitulate completely to Christianity in any society – Americans were still burning ‘witches’ more than 1,000 years after Christianity came to Europe, and Nigerians are unlikely to shake off our paganism only 150 years after the missionaries arrived. While we replaced our benevolent gods with Jesus, we’re still convinced that the traditional, malevolent spirits are out to get us, a part of that universal human obsession with the ‘dark side’. And so Christianity in Nigeria partly supplements our traditional religions; Jesus is often incorporated not as a new belief system but as a potent new force to combat those ancient evil spirits.
Consequently, the lexicon of Nigerian Christianity is highly defensive and combative. Our pastors talk incessantly about ‘satanic agendas’ and ‘war against satanic manipulation’.

Nollywood is still mostly an amateur affair. It barely existed in my childhood. Nigerians watches American films, and they had a curious penchant for Indian Bollywood movies …Bollywood tapped into something they weren’t getting from Hollywood. ….Nollywood had grown into the third largest film industry in the world in terms of output, churning out three movies every day. ….the films are so popular they’re watches across English-speaking Africa. The once-thriving Ghanaian film industry withered in the shadows of Nollywood. Our films play on television screens in Southern Africa and the Caribbean, and Nigerian slang can be heard in the slums of other African cities.
Nollywood is popular despite its startingly shoddy production quality. Convulsive camera work and poor lighting are de rigueur. Tinny, electronic synthesizer music often drowns out the dialogue, recorded without a boom mike. The characters speak with a slightly alien, non-Nigerian vernacular ….The only exceptions to this rule are anger and disdain – Nollywood actors always convey those sentiments convincingly…..The poor standard of these films embarrasses many Nigerians …It is one of Nigeria’s few indigenous, non-oil industries, and it represents a certain independence of mind and spirit….Nigerians will watch Nollywood films, no matter how bad, because everyone likes to see their own culture played back to them.

The Yorubas, Ibadan’s dominant ethnic group, were among the first people to mix with European missionaries, and consequently became the most educated Nigerians.

‘Do Italians like Africans?’ I asked.
‘They hate Nigerians more than anyone else.’ That didn’t surprise me. Nigerians have a special talent for landing in people’s bad books all around the world. We’re louder, brasher, more noticeable than other Africans, who seem mild and timid in comparison. ….
‘Maybe’, I tentatively suggested, ‘the Italians don’t like us because we’ve got a reputation for doing illegal things – like forging immigration documents?’

During the annual week-long Osun Festival in August, Yoruba society throws off its Muslim and Christian top layers and congregates at the shrine to worship the goddess and ask for her blessings.

Abuja was a relatively new metropolis and the cleanest, most orderly one in Nigeria. ….late 1970s, the government anointed it as the new capital city, stripping this status from the incorrigible Yoruba-dominated Lagos, and moving it to a central region not overrun by any of our three biggest ethnic groups. ….local cars’ number plates carry the motto ‘Centre of Unity’,….the city seems to have united Nigerians in the view that it’s the dullest place on earth. … indecently exposed sewage drains …..Islamic, calm, rich, tidy ……populated by transitory government ministers and civil servants, who often prefer to keep their hearts and families in the bedlam of Lagos, where the real partying is done. ….The city is the gateway to the Islamic north of the country ….The Miss World beauty contest, hosted here in 1999, was abandoned after Islamic youths protested violently against the perceived debauchery of the pageant….

….convervative. Most Nigerian parents are. They don’t want you to go into music or sports or anything like that.

…the world’s least corrupt nations tend to have small, homogenous populations in which mutual trust is higher. But Nigeria’s 300-odd ethnic groups were prodded by the British into an arranged marriage to form a ‘unified’ nation state. Thrown into this bonfire were – among others – centralized feudalistic Muslim states, decentralized confederate-style Igbo kingdoms, and cattle-herding nomads, all of whom suddenly became ‘fellow-citizens’ in a political entity represented by an alien coat of arms.
In Europe, the nation state followed ethnic boundaries (established through centuries of war) more closely. But in Nigeria, this nation-state concept has flopped. We haven’t yet dismantled centuries of extended family and ethnic bonds that have served us well through famine and drought.

Nigeria’s cycle of corruption and eroded trust locks the country in a tailspin. Nigerians have become pessimistic about their chances of succeeding through normal channels….

…..the Islamic, northern half of the country….five old Muslim men …..They said I didn’t have to wear a djellaba, but if I respected myself and I wanted respect from others, then I should wear one.

I boarded a Peugoet …bound for Kano, five hours north of Abuja…..Hausa music that jangled from a cassette tape. …The music’s repetitive bassline and percussion were overlain with Hindi-style singing… men ..were all ebony-skinned Muslims, wearing djellabas and kufi hats, and speaking in rapid Hausa filled with Arabic-sounding glottal stops and rolled Rs. Our shared nationality seemed a rather abstract and unreal concept. …Kano is the oldest city in West Africa, a once-glorious ancient city at the crossroads of trans-Saharan trade, established as one of the seven walled city states of the Hausa people more than 1,000 years ago. It became strategically important in the trade route, and established connections with Mali and North Africa. People from these parts and Muslim Fulani herders from the Senegal valley, migrated to Kano, bringing artisanal skills and Islam, which arrived some time between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. The Fulani integrated with the Hausa people as an educated elite. By the sixteenth century the city had become a centre of Islamic scholarship, and was ringed by a large wall. Kano’s traders travelled as far as the Mediterranean, modern-day Ghana and Gabon ….At the height of its powers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the city state was sending 300-camel loads of cloth to Timbuktu. By the nineteenth century, Kano was receiving cloth from Manchester in England, silk and sugar from France, clothing from Tunisia and Egypt, and reading glasses from Venice. ….Kano enjoyed high levels of literacy and architectural sophistication…………
By the year 2000, the city was enforcing Islamic sharia law…… prescribing lashings and amputations for thieves and miscreants. Women were temporarily banned from riding okadas (too much spreading of legs) and ordered to sit at the back of buses instead.

Islam, established here long before Christianity arrived, was an older and more languid affair, free of evangelism’s teenage fervor. Christianity confronted you and pummelled, whereas Islam lay under your feet, underpinning every aspect of society in its quietly dictatorial way. Everyone appeared laid-back.

The toilet was thankfully clean (Nigerian hotels never failed in that area), ….

………mightly Lake Chad, on Nigeria’s north-eastern border …One off the world’s most voluminous bodies of freshwater is being sucked dry by irrigation, dwindling rainfall and desertification caused by the felling of trees. The lake, once an expanse of 26,000 square kilometres in the 1960s, now occupies a humbling 1,500 square kilometres.

The weddings, the humour, the music …..were what made Nigeria special….

South-eastern Nigeria is blessed with some of the most biodiverse land on the planet.

I didn’t know giraffes were even edible. There seems to be a place in Nigerian cooking pots for anything that moves.

In many parts of Nigeria, eating a meal without meat was a pointless, flavourless endeavor ….

The Europeans fomented war between African tribes in order to produce prisoners of war who could become slaves.

There were armed highway robberies and museum thefts, certainly, but pettier theft wasn’t as prevalent as I feared. On my travels, I’d had no qualms about leaving my bags unattended in a minibus on intercity journeys. I am my fellow passengers would disembark the vehicle, its windows left open and eat lunch. Nobody stole our things, not even the almajari street kids who swarm around vehicles in northern towns to beg for food and money.

….Lagos is in fact one of Nigeria’s greatest success stories. Its an achievement when 15 million people across 250 ethnic groups can live together relatively harmoniously in an unstructured, dirty metropolis seemingly governed by no one. Lagos is an anthropological case study in how humans interact with one another when confined in tight, ungoverned spaces.….

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