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DMW 3: Ugbowo

Chicago Hostel, Ugbowo

Chicago Hostel, Ugbowo

16 December 2006 (2 p.m., my flat in Ugbowo)

It’s the middle of the day and it must be well over 90 degrees outside (something like 33 degrees Celsius). I’ve fallen into a kind of rhythm here, in just two weeks, and it feels like I’ve been here for longer. I wake up between 5 and 6 a.m., and have stopped being surprised that most of the people in my compound, including Efe, are also waking up. The roosters begin their crowing well before this time—each having its own distinctive call, which ends up being a kind of chorus. You can only hear this when there is no electricity (a regular occurrence), and all is still and quiet. The Harmattan air is cool and opaque. It’s hard to tell if it is fog or a mixture of smoke, dust, and fumes from the previous day. It can’t be fog, since we haven’t had a drop of rain since I arrived, and we are not expected to for a long while. It is Harmattan – the dry season.

Things really get moving by 7 a.m. By then, you can start to hear car engines revving up in the neighborhood, and people moving about: gates opening and closing, compounds being swept, and various cooking smells emanating from old cooking pots outside on propane burners. We are always in a bit of a rush to take good advantage of the coolness before the real day’s sun rises over us. It is a punishing sun. I find that most of our running about happens before noon, wrapping up most serious movement around town by 2 p.m. in the afternoon. By then the sun is very high and the heat starts to seep into your core. You grow a bit lethargic, with the added weight of sweat mixed with exhaust fumes and dust settling on your skin. It is normal.

My small flat – a studio apartment in a hostel known as Chicago – is equipped with an air conditioner and a big ceiling fan. The curtains are light blue, transforming the wicked light of the day into a tranquil softness. These all create an oasis effect when I come home mid-day. Thankfully, when there is no electricity, a petrol-fueled generator powers the AC and refrigerator. It’s a very loud machine, sounding very much like an industrial lawnmower. I feel guilty for having it. No one else in the compound has one, and when the lights go out, they have to suffer in the heat. The generator emits a profuse amount of fumes and the noise is so loud that at night I insist on keeping it off, despite Efe’s protestations that it is normal. He also tells me not to worry about the others not having one. If they could afford to have one, they wouldn’t be so shy to use it. Efe thought about hooking up our entire floor to the generator (it’s capable of carrying a full house), although he knows from experience that they would not only refuse to contribute to its upkeep and refueling but would also abuse their use of it, attaching any and all appliances they own, forcing it to overload.

My studio apartment in Chicago Hostel

My studio apartment in Chicago Hostel

The compound is a motley collective: an old man who lives alone stays on one end, a few young men and women (some are coupled) who live and work in Benin, and the rest are students who go to school here at the University of Benin (UniBen). Efe has introduced me to some. There are two hefty girls who are my neighbors, but they are not around at the moment, since most students are away for the holidays. We have a cousin, whose name is Sarah. We share a grandfather; her grandmother was one of my grandfather’s several wives. She lives on the corner downstairs. There is a shady character named Jeff, who does his best to present himself as a worldly man of all things American (I often get greetings of “what’s up” or “what’s shaking” when I pass by). There is The Speaker, a zany character with a lazy eye and an abnormally big head. His real name is Emeka, but they call him The Speaker around here because he’s got crazy notions about all sorts of things, constantly having something clever (in his mind, anyway) to say. He’s not aware of the nickname. There are a couple of Hausa men who guard the compound gate at night and who live in the row of ground-level rooms near the compound gate with their wives and children. Every morning at around 6:30am, one of them sweeps the entire compound while I jump rope in the corner. Efe reminds me how to greet in Hausa, but I keep forgetting, so I just say, “good morning.” Then we have Amos, who lives below me. Amos loves his music, and he’s got a real sound system. He’s our entertainer. Whenever there is electricity, he treats us to all sorts of sounds, from Igbo gospel music to Nigerian Hip-Hop, American Ballads, and South African Reggae. However, if there is a song he’s in love with at a given moment, he will repeat it seemingly without end.

Compound in Chicago hostel, Ugbowo.

Compound in Chicago hostel, Ugbowo.

Hyble, a very sweet young man with very fine features (almost feminine), is well-known in the compound. Apparently, he runs most of the errands that need to be run around here. From morning until night, one can hear (not “Hyble,” where you pronounce the “Hy-” as “Hey-,” but…) AaayboAaaaayBOooo… in all sorts of high and low pitches. I had even started to wonder if his name was really Abel, if I was mispronouncing it. He insisted that it was Hyble. I wonder why he doesn’t correct the rest of them. If there were a parrot in the compound it would be well acquainted with this sweet-faced boy, offering him a symphony with multiple arrangements. Hyble fetches water, sweeps out rooms, runs to buy bread, eggs, or tea at the junction, and washes clothes. The funny thing is that none of them pay; none, except Efe and I. What’s worse is the way they call on him and abuse him daily when he doesn’t come as quickly as they want or doesn’t do things the way they like. I don’t know why he does all this for them, and for no pay. According to Efe, he will withdraw his services from the non-paying folk in the New Year.

As for me, Hyble washes my clothes (minus my personals), fetches water when there is no electricity, and runs to the junction for things like eggs, bread, tea. It feels really strange to have someone take care of these things, but it is also unthinkable to folks around here that I do these things for myself. Most of it has to do with status—my skin color, my Americanness, and my income. If I can afford to employ someone to do it (it costs me about $5.00 a week), then I am obligated to enlist these services. Efe also pointed out that none of the girls on my floor fetch their own water; if they don’t why should he let his “white” cousin fetch for herself? To really consider the reality, it takes so much effort to do these basic things—due to lack of running water or electricity or the lack of convenience stores – I wouldn’t have enough time in the day to do these things as well as collect data and do research.

Privilege. I’m very well aware of it.

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