Zadie Smith: on the complexities of living and writing now…

Smith’s insights are always precise, yet softly human. I admire her ability to capture the nuanced complexity of the conundrums of existence we all deal with, in this 21st century world.


Keeping Wake in Obubu

10 April 2007 (my flat in New GRA, Benin)

My grandmother, Mewe, died twenty-three years ago and was buried in her home village of Obubu, in Udu Local Government Area. In Urhobo tradition, their daughters are not buried with their husbands, in their husbands’ hometown, as is customary in many other Nigerian communities. Their families return their bodies to their home village. A structure, or dwelling, is constructed over the grave. Mewe’s funeral was an elaborate two-day celebration. I was only eight at the time of that funeral, but it remains vivid in my memory. So many people came, and there was so much food and drink, plenty of music (much of it live), and I remember the exhaustion in the faces of my parents and my aunts and uncles. They had made all the arrangements, welcomed hundreds of visitors, and kept energetic wake through the night in Obubu.

I have just returned from Obubu to bury Mewe’s sister, Mama Beokuta. She was over ninety years old when she died. Her children originally gave her a Christian funeral, even though it was not her wish; she was not a Christian. She wanted to be buried as Mewe was buried, in the traditional way. We returned to Obubu because we learned that we did not in fact bury Beokuta; we had buried the wrong woman. My uncles: Areriobor, Friday, and Newman believe her spirit resisted the Christian funeral by evading identification at the morgue. Apparently another woman named Victoria (Beokuta’s English name), a fair woman with the same birth date as Beokuta, who was also toothless (as was Beokuta), was being kept at the same morgue. Sometimes when the morgue is overcrowded, they rotate storing the bodies in the freezers. Beokuta may not have been in the freezer when Uncle Friday and Cousin Minene went to identify her. In fact, they didn’t really see her at all. When they presented “Victoria,” my uncles and cousin did not recognize their mother; but the birth date was the same, and she was toothless…so, they carried her buried away to bury her. When Victoria’s real family came for their mother, they couldn’t find her. Uncle Friday got the call a few days after the funeral. We had to go to Obubu and return Victoria to her family and bury our own Beokuta.

The women argue over how things should be done.

The women argue over how things should be done.

Since I wasn’t able to attend the Christian funeral, I came along with Uncle Newman and Sissy Mary (my father’s oldest sister) to bury Beokuta in Obubu. I had not been to the village since Mewe’s funeral. Obubu is a small, quiet village and its inhabitants are petite, small-framed people. The women, however, are strong and vocal; they were the ones who came out to greet us and to help us with the burial arrangements. I watched as they prepared the food under a cluster of palm trees just outside Beokuta’s resting place. The children trekked back and forth between the cooking site and the well, carrying large, heavy pails on their heads. When anyone was not immediately at work, they danced to the DJ’s music, which syncopated everyone’s rhythm as we got ready for the funeral: from the smallest of the children to the oldest of the women. The DJ had set up a small canopy with raffia leaves and thick bamboo trunks. Throughout the afternoon, the skies threatened rain as we prepared. I watched and listened, the raspy, rolling sounds of Urhobo floating around me; spice and root smells, mingled with subtle human odor and schnapps, occasionally tickling my nose. I felt at home.

Beokuta’s burial place is just beyond Mewe’s. As I walked past Mewe’s resting place, I was struck first by how far it had deteriorated over the years. The windows and door had long since fallen away, and the walls had not been painted in all these years. Brother Mail performed a quick remembrance ceremony in her resting place, with an offering of rice, kola nut, and libations. Uncle Newman later took us into Mewe’s room to communicate with her. It felt surreal standing over my grandmother, in an empty room and gin splashed on damp cement floor in libation.

Keeping wake...dancing through the night.

Keeping wake…dancing through the night.

Back outside, I gratefully breathed in the fresh air. As night drew near, we began to perform the burial rites for Beokuta. The elderly men began by going out to the edge of the village to welcome Beokuta’s spirit. They call her to come and rest. This is done by setting up a kind of welcoming post, with two lanterns on each side of the path leading to the burial compound. Some rites are performed there to ensure she comes through. Later on, in the night, three fires are set. This is part of the process of settling her to rest. The music plays in the background, and people began to eat and drink. We, her kinsfolk, kept wake throughout the night, as the other rites were performed. A goat was sacrificed to “feed the ground.” The blood of the goat is distributed over her grave. Other offerings are made such as yam and plantain, along with dried fish in fulfillment of the homecoming. I did not witness how or when these offerings were made, however. As we kept wake, we were called three times to dance round the fires, as the men sang out to Beokuta and our other ancestors. The DJ then took over, and we danced and ate throughout the night, keeping ourselves awake in order to keep company with Mama Beokuta.

Groggy and fatigued, we greeted the morning with the final rites. We implored Beokuta to enter her resting place finally. The elder men then led a small procession through the village, a short call and response to accompany our steps. We were announcing Beokuta’s life and death, offering a sip of Ogogoro (a local clear liquor) to bystanders along the way. This concluded the long ceremony. We went round to embrace each other. I breathed in deeply the earthy odors of my kin, trying to create a sensory memento of this experience to keep with me and remember. My life is so far away from this small place, but a piece of it is in me. It is because of this place, these people that I exist.

The Ibadan National Archives

5 April 2007 (Ibadan)

It’s been a lovely couple of weeks, having a routine, some much-needed solitude, and finally getting some good research done. The intense amount of traveling I’ve done over the past several months has really taken its toll on me, and Ruth’s house has been a Godsend. I’ve been hanging out with the other Fellowship scholars, and have gotten particularly close to Helen.* She’s a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, mostly short stories. I like her wit. She’s down-to-earth and has a sophisticated sense of humor. After a long day of staring at documents, it’s nice to unwind with a cold beer and some fresh Suya or Akara.

MLGI try to put in a minimum of five hours at the archives each day, but find that my resolve doesn’t last much beyond four hours. Inconsistent electricity, inadequate lighting, and a fair amount of dust floating around in the air really work to slow me down. Mr. Abraham, a senior staff member here, has been a savior. He checks in on me, making sure I get my documents as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, not all the documents I request actually surface. They are somehow lost in the system, and even though Mr. Abraham puts in a search for them, I don’t have much hope that they will resurface. Some of these are really juicy files too: mostly on grievances lodged against the colonial government by local communities. (I know: I’m a nerd…) I have a clue about how files might easily go missing. Frequently the junior staff are not present in the reading room, leaving the users in the room alone with the documents. I could easily walk out with a file without anyone noticing. There is a television in the reading room (yes) and it is always on (at low volume, of course, but audible none-the-less), and the staff often station themselves in front of it, their backs turned on the readers, to pass the time away. Some mornings, I arrive a bit too early, say, 9 a.m., and I sit out with some of the staff at the entrance to the Archives. I’ve learned that they haven’t received a paycheck since the end of last year. It is clear: morale is low, to say the least.

WP91-2Over time, hovering over documents to snap digital photos can take its toll on one’s back. This, along with the lighting difficulties, makes for a tricky choreography. I’m sure I look comical to the staff, shifting this way and that, sometimes standing on tip-toe to get a good, unobstructed, well-lit shot of the documents. The files often come to me in unruly, jumbled, yet fragile compilations. I am often afraid to handle some of the documents because they are on the verge of disintegrating completely. These are twentieth century documents. They are not old.  And, as I slowly make my way through these files, I observe other users casually, roughly handling similar documents at their tables. Because the staff have not been properly trained, there is no one to advise users on proper handling of the documents. The lack of a controlled environment, along with a lack of institutional support or value is quickly destroying this archive. Everyday, I watch fragments of paper flake onto the tabletops and to the floor without notice. I feel helpless.

I wish I could have begun this work earlier…had not wasted so much time in Benin. But how could I have known that Benin was not the place to start? I try not to panic at the thought that I have yet to begin conducting interviews in the Delta. And I am so far away, here in Ibadan, sifting through documents. Then there is the consistent, nagging doubt that the documents I am going through are the right ones. I constantly question whether I am recording enough information, or selecting the right files. Then there is the awful thought that I may not get enough, that I won’t finish…and then…finally…what if I don’t finish this dissertation? The downward spiral of negative thoughts circle round the stale, fuzzy words on the pages in front of me, and I have to catch my breath; call myself back to the task at hand.

I return to Benin in a couple of days. I have to get back before elections begin. The Archives will close due to the Easter Holiday. They shut down for a Muslim holiday last week and on Monday this week there was another civil servant’s holiday. Early last week, the staff arbitrarily announced, at around noon, that they were going to close the Archives at 1:00 that day. There was no forewarning, no explanation. Come to think of it, the routine I had mentioned earlier really isn’t much of a routine. I just have it in my head that I am on a campus, and that my daily focus is to get as much information from this place as I can.

I dread the upcoming elections. I should have begun my interviews this month, but everyone I’ve spoken to, who are helping me arrange them, have asked me to be patient until elections have passed. I have also been advised to return home, to Benin; it is safer to be in a familiar environment, close to family, than far away in an unfamiliar place. This means two weeks of no work. My mouth gets dry just thinking about it.


* Name changed to protect identity.

Field Trip to Old Oyo

24 March 2007 (Ibadan)

It’s been an adventurous month so far. I’m going to need a few days to recover. Apparently, my body is rebelling. I have a very painful cold sore, my stomach is a disaster, and I’m currently nursing an irritated sunburn from my most recent adventure: a field visit to Old Oyo National Park with Professor Agbaje-Williams, a leading archaeologist in this field, on behalf of the Aluka project. More on that in a second…

The brilliant flamboyant tree just outside the window...

The brilliant flamboyant tree just outside the window…

Last weekend, I had the very good luck to call Ruth; she’s the director of the French Institute here on campus. She is Canadian, but has lived in Europe and Africa for most of her adult life. She’s extremely energetic and full of personality. Her work, from what I’ve gathered in our rapid, fragmented conversations, is a comparative study of youth violence in Cote D’Ivoire, Nigeria (and I forget the third context). She would like to organize a workshop on the Niger Delta, and has asked me to take part. I called her up to let her know I was back in Ibadan, thinking that perhaps we could get started on this project, and instead learned she was leaving for three weeks. Then, out of the blue, she asked if I would like to look after her house while she’s away. Serendipity. She has a beautiful house on campus: a bungalow not far from the archives with screened verandas, up-to-date facilities, and beautiful artwork. There is a garden full of frangipani and flaming flamboyant trees. I jumped at the offer. Three weeks of quiet, and in a beautiful environment. I could get some much-needed solitude and some good work accomplished at the archives. I think my luck is changing… I have spent a very good day just resting, reading a really juicy novel I found on one of Ruth’s bookshelves. Much needed.

Now, back to my three-day adventure to Old Oyo. On our way to the national park our vehicle broke down. Our host, the Director of the Old Oyo National Park loaned us this vehicle. We were supposed to get a jeep for the trip, because the terrain is very rough, and much of it is overgrown with brush. We were also supposed to get lodging near the park, but found that he put us over an hour and a half’s drive away from the park. He was clearly disorganized, and I suspect he is really not committed to this project.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThankfully we broke down near a small village, and hung out with the villagers while our driver fixed the car. We were lucky. This small community had so many children, I noticed; so many more children than adults. There were  a few old people as well. Perhaps all the adults of working age had migrated out to work. Dr. Agbaje-Williams, being ever curious and out-going, immediately set about getting to know the children. They all gathered round us after a short while, and Prof. began a recitation exercise with them. They recited their Arabic numbers and letters in preparation for their Koranic lessons. I especially noticed a bright little girl, who seemed to have such a confidence about her. She out-did all the other children in her recitation. Later, when they posed for pictures, she insisted I capture her, and I did. For most of the children, I took group pictures. I am still struck by her image. She is holding a baby sibling, and her gaze is so intense; so mature for her few years of age.

We finally arrived in a small town called Igbeti, which was the nearest town to the national park. The guest house there was manageable. We woke up very early the next day, bought some tasty Akara (yummy fried bean cakes, which you eat with fresh white bread…so, so, good), and set off for the national park, which was about 10 kilometers away. We had to arrange for motorbikes to take us into the bush, since the station wagon the Director loaned us was clearly not up to the task. We met up with the bikes at Ogundiran camp, which I learned was about 14 kilometers from the site of Old Oyo. I had no idea what I was in for.

On bikes, at the beginning of our ride into the bush.

On bikes, at the beginning of our ride into the bush.

Here I was, in Nigeria, about to embark on a trek into the bush for a day; like a safari trip, but without the big animals and open spaces. This was thick bush. One of the park rangers accompanying us brought along a rifle. I asked him what for; he said it was for the chance encounter of a lion or angry baboon… My heart skipped a beat. (I’m a city girl)

We covered about 17 kilometers to the site. Old Oyo was the former seat of the Oyo Empire, which dates back to the 14th century. I saw the ruins of walls and motes surrounding the ancient city, we went into caves, walked into an old, dried up reservoir, and climbed big boulders. The ruins weren’t as spectacular as I imagined them to be. Prof. explained the degree of deterioration the sites have sustained over several hundred years. It was due in part to the tropical environment, but it was also due to the lack of government support to conserve the site. It is a real problem here in Nigeria. Many of our cultural heritage sites are in danger of being lost forever due to a lack of commitment

One of the ruin walls of Old Oyo...

One of the ruin walls of Old Oyo…

and will on the part of the government to invest in conservation. The Nigerian public is largely unaware of this heritage.

One of the caves we visited had the fresh remains of an antelope. Apparently a mountain lion was keeping it there for a late afternoon snack; so he couldn’t be far off. I immediately started walking in the direction we came, back to the trail where our bikes were. All the men, of course, were amused. They were so sure that because they had a rifle, we were safe. I didn’t want to find out.

The sun and heat, by afternoon, was very intense. I was beginning to feel my skin burn, and the brush whipping my skin only increased the irritation I as beginning to feel. We started heading back in the middle of the afternoon, and stopped in a small Fulani village. It was amazing how they received us. They showed us a shady place to sit, under a mango tree, and offered us water and fresh milk.

We arrived back at Ogundiran camp by late afternoon, sore and exhausted. It was an adventure I wasn’t prepared for, but it is also one of the most unique experiences I’ve had so far. Pretty amazing.

Prof. walking round one of the outer walls of the old city.

Prof. Agbaje-Williams walking round one of the outer walls of the old city.

Conversations with Usman

An example of the Arabic manuscripts in Northern Nigeria.

An example of the Arabic manuscripts in Northern Nigeria.

16 March 2007 (Abuja)

I’ve come to the end of this speaking tour in Northern Nigeria. It has been a wonderful learning experience for me. I never would have had the opportunity, nor would I have taken the time to travel here if it were not for my work with Aluka. My favorite cities were Kaduna and Kano. I really liked the energy and flow of Kano—a very old walled city with a colorful history.

An example of the intricate architectural paintings at the museum in Kano.

An example of the intricate architectural paintings at the museum in Kano.

I indulged in some shopping at a small leather goods market in Kano; we did not get a chance to go to the Old Kano Market, one of the oldest and largest in West Africa. Sokoto and Kano have amazing leather goods, and each city has its own unique aesthetic in terms of styles and designs. In Sokoto, the rich leather mats and floor cushions come in a wide array of colors—burgundy, various greens, indigo, rich ochre, and deep browns—and it is the fashion to embellish them with gold or silver. While they were spectacular I couldn’t bring myself to purchase these; they were just not my style, nor could I afford the prices (even after negotiation). In Kano, I found the same array of color and textures, but instead of gold and silver ornamentation, I found intricate designs, which were often replicated on the ornate buildings around the city, from the Emir’s palace to the fire station. I admired snake-skin bags, dainty leather bangles, and beautiful silver jewelry. I wanted to touch everything, the colors and textures were so rich. I breathed in deeply the rich leather smells.

The most memorable part of this trip will be my conversations with Usman (I have changed his name to protect his identity). Usman was our public relations coordinator. He is originally from Northeastern Nigeria. Usman is an attentive, thoughtful man with a soft face and intense eyes. When he speaks, it is deliberate and soft-spoken. But his softness does not dull the sharp edge of his intellect and passion for thought.

Our conversations started one afternoon at the end of lunch, when he quietly notified me of his interest in speaking with me about the Niger Delta. He knew my personal research focused on the Delta, and it had come up in some of our group conversations in the Embassy van. The militants have been in the news of late, with the recent kidnappings of Filipino hostages. Mr. H. immediately rolled his eyes and insisted on sitting in the front of the van (where he ended up sitting through most of our road travels, quiet and alone); we Nigerians seem to forever be obsessed with politics, according to him. I, in turn, dismissed his comment and smiled broadly, open to some intelligent conversation and engagement with something I think about daily, and care about deeply.

I at first expected a more adversarial conversation, as most conversations on the Niger Delta have so far been with non-Deltans. My other conversations to date usually start out with a question to this effect: “What’s wrong with you people down in the Delta?” or “What’s the real problem down there?” I then feel compelled to disaggregate the actions of the MEND militants from the long-standing and historical struggle of Delta communities against the government and the exploitative multinational companies. Instead of beginning the conversation in the usual way, Usman, with quiet eyes, asked me what I thought about the Niger Delta crisis; that it seems to be more complex than the media portrays it. He wanted to get my take on it. We ended up talking for a solid two hours. We talked about what it meant for this region (at least the Niger Delta, if not the communities in along the entire West African coastline) to live with the legacy of slavery, similar to but unique from the slave societies on the other side of the Atlantic. This is an idea most Nigerians would reject offhand. Usman took it in; had never thought of it in that way before. We talked about the long struggle among Delta communities for basic infrastructure and public services. Usman interjected with his own knowledge of development in the North, and the region’s own legacies of slavery and colonialism there. These legacies, it turns out, are not too distant from each other, the Niger Delta and the Sahel.

We meditated on the effects of intense and complicated systems of patronage, that stretch as far back as at least the 19th century. These systems have become institutionalized in the Niger Delta, and are a widespread feature of the Nigerian political landscape. Usman gave me some insight on the distribution of oil revenue between the oil-producing states and the other states in the federation. These areas used to (I’m not sure if they still do) receive 13% more revenue from oil than the other states. Still, there is a profound lack of development in many areas of the Delta. It is clear that only a few are benefiting from this wealth within the Delta, and in the central government.

One of the Emir of Kano's guards finishing prayers, outer court of the Emir's palace.

One of the Emir of Kano’s guards finishing prayers, outer court of the Emir’s palace.

In the days that followed, Usman and I sought each other out, between our presentations and press conferences, and sat in the back of the Embassy van to discuss many other things. He had some interesting insights on the similarities between Christian and Islāmic belief systems (he had some experience in a Catholic Mission school when he was younger, so he was well-acquainted with their worldview). I learned more about the Islāmic faith, which he was very patient to explain. We talked about his own Fulbe culture, how he would like his children to learn the language and culture despite Hausa dominance in many parts of the North. He explained the difference between Fulbe and Hausa ethnicity. Like other pastoralist groups in Africa it means the difference between those who own/follow cattle and those who don’t.

Usman is both progressive and militant. We talked about relations between men and women; the kinds of power men and women hold; complementarity between the sexes; the ultimate importance of respect between human beings. I found that one of his favorite books was Malcolm X’s autobiography. He was aware of other critical black thinkers of the African Diaspora: Franz Fanon, Walter Rodney, Kwame Toure, C.L.R. James, and others. We talked for hours.

From time to time L. and A. would join in our conversations. L. is Christian and Igbo, who has lived most of her life in the North. Her views also deviated from those of most of the Evangelical Christians I usually meet. She is Anglican and a bit more reserved than our fellow Evangelicals. A. lived through the Civil Rights era, and recalls exchanging with some of the prominent black thinkers and figures of that time. These conversations were very meaningful and satisfying. I learned so much from each of my traveling companions, and we became friends in the process. I will definitely keep up correspondence with Usman. I value his insight and wisdom.

Overall, my experience of the North has been extremely positive. Despite the fatigue of touring, I feel more relaxed. Some of it has to do with getting away from the everyday grind and frustrations of living in Benin. Much of it has to do with the important exchanges I have had with people. I enjoyed the warm hospitality with which people regarded me. I was profoundly challenged on many of the stereotypes I had of this part of the country. I hope to visit again soon and take more time in certain places, especially Kano and Kaduna. Usman has also invited me to his part of the country. I look forward to doing so one day, hopefully before I leave.

Northern Tour

10 March 2007 (Abuja)

This is the 4th day of a two-week speaking tour on preserving the ancient Arabic manuscript tradition in Northern Nigeria. As part of the Aluka initiative, we collaborated on a similar project in Timbuktu, Mali. The U.S. Embassy invited me as a representative for Aluka, along with a librarian with the Library of Congress. Nigeria’s written tradition is long, dating as far back as the tenth century. Many of the manuscripts were written in Arabic, due to the influence of the trans-Saharan trade. The Islamic tradition came long before the nineteenth century jihads and certainly longer than that of Christianity in this region.

Presenting at Ahmadu Bello University

Presenting at Ahmadu Bello University

So far, we’ve traveled between Abuja and Kaduna, for a symposium. Aside from meeting with the American Ambassador, I’ve conversed with governors, Emirs, the Ambassadors from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, IT specialists, NGO representatives, and conservators. It was my first time traveling to the North (beyond Abuja), and I realize that Abuja is not representative of the North at all (perhaps not representative of most of Nigeria…at least not the parts that I’ve so far seen). I expect that as we travel to Sokoto, Kano, and Zaria, I will see and learn a lot. Just in these few days I have had to confront some of the misconceptions that I have held since I was a child about this region. Nigeria is vast and its history is deep.

I’ve really enjoyed my time with my librarian colleague (I shall refer to her as A). We met before in the U.S., and she has been helpful in identifying resources for my dissertation research. For some reason, I can’t stop gazing at her. It has nothing to do with her unique features, but rather her attitude. She’s got a witty, dark humor behind her eyes and at the same time, you know she’s got a lot of wisdom from a life well lived. She is in such possession of herself. I admire that. She also collects and sells art, and has a wonderful eye for things. I am looking forward to shopping with her when we get to Kano. These past four days have really been hectic, and we’ve slowly bonded through the whirlwind of activity and the accompanying fatigue we each feel.

A and I have also become co-conspirators against Mr. H (I shall also abbreviate his name, because my assessment of him has not been positive thus far). Mr. H is our program manager/taskmaster, and “cultural attaché” to the U.S. Ambassador. Before being assigned to this tour, he knew nothing about the Arabic tradition here in Nigeria, nor does he seem to have much interest in it so far; it is just an assignment for him. I also gather that he hasn’t done much traveling to other parts of Nigeria, and his idea of this country in general is that of danger and doom. He certainly has no respect for anything or anyone Nigerian. He is a short man, and I think he tries to compensate for it with his arrogant gait and know-it-all attitude. He swings between high and low moods, and is frequently grumpy.

Liz, James, Sani and Musa—Nigerian staff at the Embassy—did most of the real work of setting up meetings, and organizing the symposium, dinners, and press conferences. They have so far kept us sane. We’ve all had some really interesting conversations and I look forward to learning more from them. Mr. H doesn’t participate in these conversations (which he dismisses as always about politics and religion; they are in fact conversations about life, especially life in Nigeria). Mr. H also doesn’t treat his Nigerian staff very well at all, often barking orders at them, dismissing their professionalism and experience of many years. It is appalling.

A mango tree out on the arid Sahel plain, near Sokoto

A mango tree out on the arid Sahel plain, near Sokoto

The Northern Sahel plains are sparse, not fully desert, with occasional outcroppings of granite boulders and patches of green where farmers have irrigated their land for crops. There are moments where browns and yellows are all around and in the middle of it all is a single, immense, lush mango tree or some other verdant tree of brilliant greens. It is a striking landscape. As we travel from one city to the next, we pass small villages with adobe walls and thatched roofs and granaries that look like giant pots sitting almost as tall as the homes. I saw tall white camels and slow donkeys, I saw giant baobab trees, and herds of cattle which roam for hundreds of miles. Musa, who is Fulbe, told me that part of his extended family now lives in Chad and Cameroon because they had followed their cattle, for hundreds of miles, from what is now Bauchi State (in Northeastern Nigeria). They got tired of roaming and stopped in these places to settle. There were cattle all over the towns, becoming part of the traffic on the roads, even at the busiest of intersections. I couldn’t stop taking pictures. Our long-horned cows are beautiful to look at…graceful creatures… I can see why they are esteemed both here and in other parts of the world.

Gurara Falls

Gurara Falls

Today I got the chance to go on a day trip to Gurara Falls, about an hour outside of Abuja. It was spectacular (the pictures don’t do it justice). Our guide took us down a ravine and we had to climb back up (my legs were up for the challenge, even though I have plumped up a bit over the preceding weeks with all the delicious foods I’ve been eating). On our way back I noticed an expansive clearing. It was an oil pipeline, extending all the way from the Niger Delta up north to Kaduna. Amazing.

We are staying in the Sheraton hotel here in Abuja. It is a whole other world. Expensive too. I took a long, hot shower for the first time in months the day I arrived here. The rooms are like any other such rooms at Sheratons around the world, and when I am here I find it hard to imagine that I am still in Nigeria. In Kaduna, we stayed at a hotel owned by a Lebanese family, and it had internet access (this contradicted one of the perceptions I had of the North: not being as internet savvy as the South. I am finding they may be savvier…you don’t easily find wireless internet access in hotels in Benin or Ibadan). We also ate a lovely meal at a Lebanese restaurant, attached to the Prince Hotel

Major oil pipeline coming from southern Nigeria, cutting through the landscape. It is hundreds of miles long.

Major oil pipeline coming from southern Nigeria, cutting through the landscape. It is hundreds of miles long.

up in Kaduna. There was also a Lebanese/French bakery in Kaduna, and we certainly indulged. Interestingly enough, I don’t see as many Lebanese or South Asians in the Southern cities as I have seen up here. I wonder why that is. It is not that they don’t exist in the South; many own the better restaurants, hotels, and shopping centers in Benin, Warri, and Ibadan. But I don’t see them too often unless I am in the posh neighborhoods. In the North they are more visible. Perhaps my perception is skewed. Or, perhaps it has to do with Islamic cultural landscape and history in the North. I will have to learn more as I continue this adventure.


1 March 2007 (University of Ibadan campus)

Things have really been moving lately, which is good. I am now in Ibadan, staying with Professor Agbaje-Williams (I call him Prof). Prof has been a saving grace these past couple of weeks. He has generously offered me his guest room for as long as I need it, aside from a few weeks in May, free of charge. We get along as if we’ve known each other for a long time, and in a way, he’s adopted me as a kind of daughter. His whole family lives in the U.S., but he has decided to stay in Nigeria. He says living in the U.S. makes him tired. I smile when I think of it…I am so exhausted everyday here. I guess this is a matter of knowing one’s own chaos well.

Dr. Agbaje-Williams is an archaeologist who has worked on sites in Southwestern Nigeria, particularly those related to the Old Kingdom of Oyo, which thrived for five centuries up to the 19th century. I met him through my consultancy work in New York with Aluka. Aluka is a non-profit initiative to build a sustainable, digital scholarly resource on Africa. I developed content for them up until I left for London in August and I continue to consult for them. Part of what Aluka does is document historically and culturally significant sites throughout Africa in digital form and archive it for scholarly use over the long term. It has been such a rewarding project, and it is going to become available in universities and libraries in the U.S., Europe, and Africa very soon. The coolest thing about it is that it will be freely accessible in Africa, as part of Aluka’s mission to bridge the information and digital divide between North and South.

I have finally begun work at the National Archives, and it feels so very good. There is a wealth of material here for my project, and that is gratifying. Every morning, after breakfast, I take a brisk 20-minute walk to the Archives. I have chosen a fairly hilly path. Prof lives on the edge of campus, near the agricultural and veterinary faculties. So, each day, an array of farm smells greet me, and occasionally I sight or nearly run into small cattle herds or a lone mule. The goats are also my fellow pedestrians from time to time. By the time I reach the Archive, my mind is clear and I am ready to work. I am so grateful to be able to really get serious with my research, to be able to look at documents, that I am fairly diligent. I can easily put in a full 5 or 6 hours of concentrated research in a day. Oh, it feels good!

Prof and I traveled to Abuja last week to meet with Nigerian officials in order to introduce them to the Aluka initiative and receive permission to visit the Oyo National Park to assess whether or not we will document it as part of the archive. I had never been to Abuja. In fact, I’ve never been north of Ilorin. Abuja is a seven-hour road trip by car. It would only take us about 4 hours if the road was well maintained, and a bit more direct. In fact, there is a patch of the Abuja road that is particularly treacherous: it twists sharply, and deep ravines line the edge of some sections. As we moved north I noticed the change in scenery: magnificent granite boulders rest on either side of the road with small hamlets nestled between them, some of them built into the sides of these boulders. It is more arid there and the heat is so much more intense. When we crossed the Niger River bend I was in awe of its immensity and its grace. On either side of its banks, farmers were tending lush patties of rice and other grains. In the river, large fishing boats meandered with fishermen casting out their huge nets with a finesse that has been perfected over many generations. It was really something to see.

Mr. Nwaokocha, a colleague and friend of mine in Benin, told me that when I go to Abuja I would get angry. He said it reflects at once Nigeria’s huge potential and the extreme disparity in the country. He was right. I was indeed disturbed, and yes, a little angered by what I saw.

Abuja Skyline

Abuja Skyline

As we approached Abuja, I was struck by the orderliness of the roadways. There were freeways with American-style ramps leading on and off them. The streetlights function. Abuja is a planned city, whereas most Nigerian cities have not been well planned, if planned at all. During our visits I saw spectacular houses: palatial, airy, and architecturally unique. All the streets were paved and manicured, with green areas all around. There was no trash or debris littering the streets or sidewalks, as you will usually find in other cities in Nigeria. In the center of the city I looked up at skyscrapers, which were very much in the same style as those one would find in the U.S., particularly in Texas. I did feel like I was in Houston…the scale is the same.

The National Church and the National Mosque, both gilded with copper, silver and gold paneling, stand out in monumental proportions. Of course, Chevron, Texaco, NNPC (Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation), the Sheraton and Hilton hotels (the best in the country), all the big cell phone companies (most of which are foreign-owned), and all the big banks headquarter here in Abuja. They even have London-style cabs and real

National Mosque

National Mosque

buses, complete with orderly and well-designated bus stops here. Finally, Abuja has a vibrant nightlife, very much like Victoria Island, our oasis in Lagos. Folks stay up and out all night. There is suya to be chewed, drinks to be sloshed, and dancing to be done. I think it was the first time I sat out at night and felt really at ease.

I wondered how all of this could be sustained. Abuja sits in a semi-arid landscape, and I am sure it sucks its water from surrounding areas. In most of the country, including the lush Delta, the grass is yellow due to the Harmattan season. In Abuja, the patches of grass I saw were green. I found out that the population is booming, as more people seek to live and work in this manicured place (they even call it little London; I would argue it’s more like little Houston). My mind kept going to California: California is like this, sucking water from neighboring states, intensifying desertification. Now California cannot even sustain the energy consumption of its population, with fear of power outages, and lack of water. I am not sure the inhabitants of Abuja are thinking through the implications of their lifestyle over the long-term. Like most other Nigerian cities, it may well fall into decay if things are not brought into some kind of balance.

My mind also kept returning to what we don’t have in the Delta. Water and light are still constant issues (Efe, back in Benin, hasn’t seen electricity in four full days…after it rained). The non-federal roads are still a disaster, despite all the promises made by our governors. And of course, one cannot really speak of nightlife due to the tense social and political environment there, and the constant threat of armed robbers that still wrack Benin City, and the outskirts of Warri. After 6 p.m., the streets are dark (no working street lamps), empty, and fairly quiet. The trash on the streets and the general disrepair is frustrating. Of course, I’m angry. The disparity is too stark. The oil the comes out of the soil of the impoverished Delta paid directly for the order and opulence of our capital city.