Home from Africa
edited: Wednesday, January 12, 2011
By Rafika Anderson
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Wednesday, May 28, 2008
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Nigeria is an amazing place, full of paradoxes and contradictions...
Well, I just returned from completing a nearly two-week long field studies sojourn in West Africa--Nigeria to be precise. It has been difficult attempting to decompress for the past four days, while catching up on news stateside and managing the requirements of my domestic life.
Although I loved the people I met in Nigeria, who were warm, kind, generous, open and friendly, for the most part, the trip through Abuja, Kaduna, Jos, Jaji, Bauchi, and Lagos, was an unforgettable, unmitigated nightmare. I don't think it's a place that I'd ever return to willingly, regardless of the beautiful landscapes and the wonderful people we met. The heat and high humidity, horrendous rainstorms, lack of reliable electricity and running water and extraordinary tension in the air everywhere were the least of our worries. It deeply pained me to see people living in the heaps of filth and depths of poverty I witnessed there and to see the widespread disregard held for the 150 million population by some representatives of their own government. Trains that used to carry livestock and food around the country sat idle, while squatters had built small living spaces for themselves along the track or on the bridges along the river. Meanwhile, goods that can no longer reach the outlying areas of the country by rail rot on farms that lose money because they cannot sell their abundant fresh produce. This is just one example of how the infrastructure issues are daunting and generate unintended consequences, especially if one notes that Nigeria used to be a food exporter and now consumes huge amounts of American rice and wheat rather than growing its own. The 12th largest oil producer on the planet, imports its oil for domestic consumption. Less than half the power needs of the people are being met by the utility company and Nigeria is producing less than half the oil that it has the potential to sell due to mismanagement and theft. In the face of the great wealth that petroleum has brought to this nation, the people living in the oil-producing areas subsist in slums suffering the worst conditions known on earth, which has sprouted an insurgency movement in the south against which the federal government struggles daily, considering them a criminal element. Yes, every day there was painful to behold.
To make matters worse, I was rather taken aback more than once by politicians who openly stated that they entered into public "service" to line their pockets rather than to improve the lot of their hardworking and long-suffering people--another case of Bushian democracy gone awry? Goats were eating the newly installed phone lines alongside the road while everyone held the ubiquitous cell phone to his or her ears. Americans we met in Lagos told us that they had lived in Nigeria in the mid-1980s and that the situation had been "much much better then than it is now." We witnessed hordes of visa applicants understandably lined up each day outside the American Consulate in Lagos, while astute vendors hawked their wares--meat pies, bottled water, phone cards, newspapers, tissues, etc. I was amazed at the transactions taking place since the average Nigerian makes less than $1 per day and the newspaper costs approximately $2.50! Belying this contradiction, however, was the evidence of years of successful vendor sales--the 13-foot high mound of trash in front of the consulate building, something I had never witnessed anywhere else in the world. We were informed that there were no landfills in Nigeria, so the trash just piles up on the street, blown by the wind across farms, fields, streams, contributing to dangerously high levels of environmental degradation and pollution as well-meaning citizens burned the piles of trash sending up black plumes of smoke unto the heavens. Plastic was evident in every location we visited throughout the country except the animal reserve, where entrance to the 870-mile national park is controlled.
Interestingly enough, the world is so small that I ran into a family I know in Abuja--American friends from my time in the Arabian Gulf who are serving at the embassy. I attended a dinner at their home and learned about their personal struggles over the past three years that this family of four voluntarily lived there, listening to their first-hand accounts of the rampant corruption, inequity, violence, religious strife, and political turmoil the country is suffering. Their views were shared against the backdrop of Nigeria's enormous oil and mineral wealth and respected leadership position in sub-Saharan Africa and peacekeeping activities worldwide. They told me that Nigeria is a "consumables" post, where Americans receive a cost of living increase because the food prices are so high and they are permitted to import some foodstuffs that are not available on the local market. Americans were victims of increasingly frequent home invasions so severe that even the Marine House and Consul General's residence had been violently invaded a couple of weeks prior to our arrival, with one Marine suffering injuries resulting from gunshot wounds. Their teenaged son and primary-school-aged daughter were delighted when I regaled them with tales of our experiences in what is destined to be their next post in Cairo. My friend's wife spoke of the numbing boredom many embassy families experience in Abuja, where they live, which is a recently developed capital city that is abandoned by the workers each weekend, lacking the vibrancy of other long-established areas of habitation around the country. Locked down by security regulations, these long-time residents in Nigeria had not had the benefit of visiting many of the places that my group had seen during our comparatively brief stay.
I told them that the best part of our trip had been the safari at Yankari Animal Reserve, where I got up close and personal with a young male lion despite having just been informed by the camp's conservationist that all the big cats were extinct in West Africa. Apparently not extinct, they are just rare to capture a glimpse of, having learned to be wary of poachers and visitors. We also spent some time with a magnificent herd of elephants, taking photos and observing them in this incredibly beautiful natural habitat protected by the state government of Bauchi that not too long ago took it over from the federal government. During our two-day stay at the camp, I became the darling of quite a few baboons who imagined that my handbag held a wonder of treats, probably catching the scent of erstwhile breakfast bars and crackers. The worst part of the trip undoubtedly was dealing with the unimaginable challenges that the traffic presented that rivaled if not exceeded Cairo's or DC's issues on a bad day, since some of the roads had deteriorated to the point of being littered with van-sized potholes we had to navigate with the skill of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. The only thing worse was the deplorable toilet facilities or lack thereof, and the man eating, malaria-carrying, malevolent mosquitos that seemed to be mildly entertained, but not deterred by my 90% Deet insect repellant.
Tough trip. Not unlike Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz," I can honestly say that "there's no place like home" and I'm glad to be back, safe and sound, jet lag and stomach upsets notwithstanding. Nigeria was the first country I have ever visited where I had great difficulty communicating with the outside world. The phones only worked intermittently; even the cell and satellite phones were temperamental. In Yankari, I requested pay phone service to call home, having suffered a number of "Malarone"-inspired dreams (a side effect of the anti-malarial medication I was taking) of my daughter needing assistance at home. The young man offering phone service apologized several times that his phone was dead because he had forgotten to plug it in to recharge after the huge thunderstorm storm that drenched our camp overnight, shutting down all operations. Once he did plug in his phone, the power at the camp went out for several hours, so I agreed to come back later. When I returned, there was about a five-minute charge on his phone, which cut short my call home. So, you can imagine that Internet service was out of the question in anywhere except Abuja and Lagos, where slow connections were frustrating, especially when once connected the power would fail. Even the major hotels, which boasted a number of computers upon first inspection, really only had one or two functioning machines, due to the damage caused to their equipment by repeated power surges. The major hotels also had issues with power outages and had their own back-up generators, running on diesel fuel and contributing to the overall noise and pollution. Any business that wanted to stay in business had the same. The grid was unreliable for more than a couple of hours at best and most people in the country were not on it, still resorting to cutting and burning wood to meet their heating and cooking needs. Business executives confessed to us that they had canceled contracts and abandoned plans to do business in Nigeria due to the rampant, unresolved power shortages that will take years of capacity building (generation, transmission and distribution development) in order to correct.
Neither did I enjoy the food during my stay in lovely West Africa. I escaped getting sick for most of the trip because I insisted on eating chicken and rice at every evening meal and stuck to toast and coffee in the mornings. I avoided the goat meat dishes, having seen that the omnipresent goats were acting as the nation's garbage disposals, rummaging through the trash heaps for their daily fare. Our foray into the British standard, fish and chips, was disappointing. The chips were great, but I've heard that one cannot live on chips alone and the fish, instead of being fried, appeared to have been baked and slathered in an amazingly flavorless red sauce. We were to meet that red sauce time and time again during our numerous and persistent attempts to taste the local fare. My favorite food adventure was "Pepper Soup with Cowlegs," which turned out to be an extraordinarily flavorful and spicy broth that I enjoyed immensely (mostly since I was completely dehydrated) with chunks of gristle floating in it in abundance that I managed to fish out and ditch when no one was paying attention. Mealtime, I can safely say, became the period of greatest frustration for our group of 13 travelers as a three-hour wait for a single dish became a common event, despite the many approaches we took to resolving this problem. Lesson learned: eat before you go to the restaurant. I'm glad I had carried breakfast bars in my luggage and I took a bottle of water everywhere I went, whether I drank it or not. The men in our group began to exist solely on Star beer, the local beverage of choice. The two women in our group had to constantly perform advanced calculus regarding our intended fluid intake since there were only tree stops along our five- and seven-hour drives between locations--no public facilities were available or planned for during our trip. This led to serious problems with dehydration. Even many of the men who were stricken with "West Africa disease," requiring frequent stops, resented the lack of toilet facilities. Reaching our destinations didn't improve the situation much, unfortunately. My hotel room in Bauchi had a lock that obviously had been broken into, no bulbs in light fixtures or lamps, a broken TV, no toilet seat in the bathroom, no shower or running water in the tub or toilet (which I had to fill manually from the sink). What it did have was dead ants in the bed and REALLY thin walls that allowed me to appreciate the conversation of my neighbors and their working TV all evening while I laid awake fairly traumatized with well-fortified insomnia waiting for our early morning departure.
As we traversed the countryside going from appointment to appointment, we met some amazingly frank and forthcoming people representing all levels of government and civil society. They included local chieftains of long standing, and starry-eyed grassroots organizers and community leaders, who discussed the successes and failures of local USAID projects with our merry band. They also included senators, military officials, ministry representatives from all elements of the Nigerian cabinet who seemed to fall into one of two groups--the dazed novice trying to do good and the wizened old guard preparing for retirement. The religious icons we met with from various Muslim and Christian sects were irritated that we had brought them together as a group rather than meeting with them separately. They nevertheless waxed eloquent on the subjects of interfaith dialog and religious tolerance in Nigeria. We were astounded by the number of Christian denominations we encountered during our travels. Every five feet there seemed to be another church represented, particularly in Jos--Baptists, Catholics, Charismatics, Seventh Day Adventists, Anglicans, Eckankar, and many more, some of which we might consider cults in the U.S. that appeared to be thriving on Nigerian soil. We actually played a game (mostly in vain) of trying to capture photos of these as our vehicle flew by at 120 km per hour. The further north we ventured, the more mosques we saw and the fewer churches were present. However, people repeatedly warned us that both Islam and Christianity formed a thin veneer covering centuries of animist beliefs and so-called "superstitious" practices, as well as Orisha which still are actively pursued by approximately 20% of the population. I wish I had had more time to explore the spiritual aspect of Nigerian society that seemed to present even greater paradoxes than the political.
These meetings with stakeholders and opinion-makers were eye-opening experiences that greatly enriched our studies of Nigeria's environment and natural resources, human capital, spiritual life, economic conditions, political leadership, and military might. My favorite meetings though were with the media--owners of print, TV and radio outlets--who were wonderfully articulate about Nigeria's current situation and possible future paths to improvement. It's an amazing place with truly mind-boggling challenges. I honestly felt great sympathy for the new civilian government that is tasked with cleaning up the problems left behind by their former colonial and military rulers, neither of which did anything to further the development of the country or to bring it closer to nationhood. I'm not optimistic about their chances for success, but am hopeful that they will be able to make inroads in some areas--such as power, communication, transportation and food production/distribution--that will have a pervasive and long-range positive impact on the country and its people.
Speaking of the Nigerian people, we heard a lot about strife between the more than 250 ethnic groups. Most of the time, people seemed incredibly restrained, but we did experienced a minor incident on our flight from Atlanta to Lagos on which a fight broke out between two Nigerian men who pummeled each other following a rough exchange of words about contact between their two pieces of carry-on luggage. My Nigerian seat mate explained that one of the two combatants was "Hausa" and the other was "Yoruba," which for her explained the fight. I, on the other hand, remained in the dark. Everywhere we went people seemed to have an edge in their communications with one another and appeared ready for a fight with other Nigerians--even our drivers were curt with the police we met along the highway--while, in contrast, they were supremely polite and friendly with us. There was one exception, however, when I failed to receive service in our restaurant in Kaduna where the waitress told me bluntly she was too busy "taking care of these whites" at my table to serve me coffee and toast. When I explained that we were all one group of Americans traveling and paying together, she immediately fulfilled my request. One can only imagine that this negative impact extends to soldiers originating in the north who are sent to the south to control the lucrative piracy of petroleum being siphoned from pipelines in the Delta region and sold off-shore. This strategy of deploying the military has contributed to it being broadly despised by the populace and possessing a reputation for excessive violence, particularly against their own countrymen.
I told many friends upon my return to the U.S. that it would be hard to describe this trip in concise terms. I feel that I could write a book about this deeply moving experience and still have more to say. One is confounded by the question of where to start to try to make repairs--the problems are so huge, the complexities so great. But, that is precisely the type of question I will be asked during my oral exams next month, the final requirements for my master of science degree in strategic studies. What worries me most, however, is that after my exams are long forgotten, the problems most likely will still persist and I will wonder what is happening across the ocean to resolve them and if there is anything that I can do to help.
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|Reviewed by Monette Bebow-Reinhard
|I am both amazed and appalled - but also captivated by your wonderful writing style. It is so sad to hear these countries and how they are caught by capitalist systems without support. Garbage and no landfills? I cannot even fathom on something like that could come about? I did spy a bit of hope in your article, but not enough - to have produce they cannot ship? Why not just go back to raising food for themselves? I am struggling myself - this is on an individual scale now - of wishing to be independent, rather than dependent, and not find a way out of the hole I've dug myself. So I empathize very highly here.|
|Reviewed by Ronald Hull
|This was 2008. I would hope things would be better now, but I think not. I have not visited Nigeria, but Bangladesh and Guatemala give me an idea. I have several naturalized Nigerian friends, universally friendly and sincere. But, as you so eloquently wrote, I have mixed feelings about their motives with so many tribal, religious, and governmental baggage. Thanks for the education. Makes me fear for all of Africa.
|Reviewed by Z McClure
|Welcome back to the good ol' U.S.A., Rafika!
This description of Nigeria sounds like what our America may be like soon, if present trends continue here. I believe our great Nation is like a termite-gutted wall that appears strong on the outside, but is on the verge of crumbling. Your article is very interesting and well-written. I have never been to Africa, so your article is very illuminating to me. Thank you.
a fellow human & poet
|Reviewed by Regis Auffray
|A most informative and poignantly sad account, Rafika. Your article is very well-written and certainly more than worth the time investment in reading. Although it made me sad to realize such conditions exist, I very much enjoyed reading every word. Thank you. Welcome back. Love and best wishes to you,
|Reviewed by Georg Mateos
|Been a few times at Port Harcourt and Lagos.
Welcome back and thanks for informing us of a culture that continues to develop despite tribal conflicts.
|Reviewed by Amber Moonstone
|Welcome back and thank you for this most informative and eye opening account of your trip..I just cannot believe that this can exist in this modern world, I have a fear that our world as we know it is going to come to an end really soon, and we must be ready and prepared for this change. You my friend are a very brave and wonderful woman.
Much peace, love, and light,