Cockroach Elegy

5 January 2007 (early morning, my flat in Ugbowo)

It is finally morning. It is very cool now, almost cold. Harmattan has really settled in. According to one of my neighbors, it was late in coming. It normally comes in October, but they still had rain then. She says the seasons have been off for the past few years now. (I think: global warming, as seen from this side of the Atlantic.)

I didn’t sleep last night…again. The sound of cockroaches keeps me awake, and no matter how much I meditate, or tell myself how small these little creatures are (especially compared to how big I am) my skin crawls at the thought of them. Now, these are not your average cockroaches, of the kind we see in the U.S. These suckers are monstrous…and they can fly! The scritch-scratch sounds they make on the linoleum are almost unbearable, and the feel of one on the skin is unmentionable. I don’t sleep through the night anymore, and now I am starting to appreciate the student culture here, of staying up all night to study. That is all one can do, really; try to keep the mind occupied to avoid thinking about the critters scampering about at night.

I only hear them when there is no electricity. I now rush to finish all my cooking, cleaning, and bathing before dark so that when they take the light, I won’t have to fumble around with the kerosene lantern in near darkness. When there is light all is well, but I still find myself on edge, wondering when they will take it away again, or I wonder when I will start hearing the scritch-scratch sounds. Let me just say this: I will never think of candle-lit dinners with the same kind of romance again.

Come to think of it, I never really did fall in love with candle-lit romance. Growing up in 1980s Nigeria, when the military took over the country, we had long stretches without electricity. NEPA (the National Electric Power Authority), the partly government-owned, centralized ministry in charge of electricity was being plundered, as with all other government-owned ministries in charge of infrastructure. NEPA was enemy number one in our daily lives growing up. Whenever the darkness and silence suddenly descended upon us, someone would inevitably hail/curse NEPA: “NEPA whuo whuo!” We could never count on electricity. Chunks of hours here and there, sometimes entire days or several days at a stretch of no power. Our refrigerators and freezers were useless. Running water in cities became a problem. We had to “trek” to pump water at community pumps…from the poorest of the poor to the relatively affluent middle class. Increasingly, people went out and got generators. Now, they are ubiquitous. In 2007, Nigeria still has a big problem with electricity. The sound of humming machines sing throughout the night, spewing out all kinds of fumes into the already petrol infused air.

When they bring back the light, a huge wave of relief washes over me; I am not the only one. The relief is felt throughout the neighborhood, as children shout with glee and adults praise God. The music comes back on and people resume activity. When there is no light, the quiet is very tangible, almost loud. Last night, in the midst of that silence, a dog whined and howled for what seemed a good hour, inconsolable. It added to the ominous atmosphere. I really could not sleep.

Our suck-away pit...

Our suck-away pits…

They say it is not normal to have so many cockroaches here in the compound, that it is because the suck-away pit is full and they have nowhere else to go but out through the vent. Suck-away pits handle sewage here. They are big concrete cisterns, usually located in the back of one’s premises and serve to store all the household waste running through the pipes. They are sealed over with cement, with vents at the top (where the cockroaches enter and exit). When it is time to clean them out (about once a year…or a year and a half), the cleaners break it open, scoop it all out, and re-seal it with cement. I imagine you’d have to pay dearly to compel someone to do this kind of job! I asked who does the cleaning, and how much they got paid.  The answer: they are usually deaf or mute people with little hope of getting any other kind of job in this economy. They get paid very poorly, but they say these men do a better job than a sucking machine. The logic disturbs me.

Efe, the default superintendent of this compound, has already called the Lawyer—the real person who is supposedly in charge of managing this place (he doesn’t live here)—to find out when he planned on maintaining the suck-away. Most students are away now for holidays, so it is an ideal time to do it. Apparently, the stench is so overwhelming that it is impossible to stay on the premises when the suck-away is being cleaned; and the stench lasts for days. Efe made that phone call almost two weeks ago. Not surprisingly, when Efe called to tell him that we were fixing the water tank in the compound (most of which I paid for), the Lawyer responded instantly.

This morning, I asked Efe to call the Lawyer again. His phone is switched off. I threatened to speak with him myself if it would make any difference. Efe tells me that would be out of the question; it would only exacerbate the problem. He would delay further out of spite at our audacity. We will have to wait until he has the time, and perhaps even the money to come and take care of the suck-away (mind you, we’ve paid our rent!). I am supremely frustrated.


Neighborhood side street

As I stepped outside this morning, wrapped in my sleeping cloth, I surveyed the compound. Plastic water satchels, black plastic bags, and other debris litter it. There are even filled wastebaskets which have sat there for the past two weeks, left by tenants who left for the holidays but couldn’t be bothered to dispense of their trash. Adamu usually sweeps the compound each morning. We’ve been away for over a week, and he too has decided to take a holiday. I heard a rumor of rats in the bottom corner flat, and as I look round, I am not surprised. I asked Efe if it was possible to call a community meeting to discuss these hygiene issues. He just laughed at me. He and a couple of other tenants tried to address these issues a while back. They didn’t get very far. In fact, he suspects it is the reason the Speaker’s mind went askew. The mentality here, in this little compound is: if it bothers you so much, then take care of it yourself. My neighbors are unwilling to put in the effort or the little money necessary to improve their environment. Looking down Nova road – unpaved, pot-holed, and littered with all sorts of mess – I can’t help but wonder if it is this kind of mentality, writ large, that lies at the root of the decay I see all around. I will have to get another can of Baygon spray to fight another cockroach battle tonight.

A recent, passionate blog post on NEPA (it still riles up all kinds of emotion!)…

…and a NEPA joke (there are many), culled from

United States President George Bush came for an official visit to Nigeria. He asked OBJ why everywhere is in darkness and Obasanjo who felt disgraced kept mum on the issue. A few month later OBJ visited Bush in his country and was looking for a way to nail him back. He requested for a drive round the states and he was busy looking for a house without electricity, On sighting one, he was happy and he asked, smiling, “Bush why is that house in darkness? ” Bush said, “Oh, Sorry I did not tell you, that is the Nigerian embassy.”


New Year in Warri

3 January (9 p.m., my flat, Ugbowo)

It was an emotional trip to Warri. Efe and I left very early on the morning of New Year’s Eve, on the Bob Izua Bus Line from Ring Road at the center of Benin City. Harmattan fog and smoke from burning brush and rubbish filled the morning air. Red earth turned to sulfuric yellow and bauxite gray as we crossed into Delta State. The roads are now paved and smooth, far different from the Lagos-Benin Expressway; and they were not so smooth even a few years ago. We approached a bridge I remember crossing so many times as a child, in our little white Passat. They have since upgraded the bridge, but the scene beyond it is the same: the wide Ethiope river with thick vegetation on either side, morning mist hovering over calm, dark water.

That view has not changed in all these years. It was is reassuring. However, my sense of comfort was abruptly replaced with a deep yearning. I was alone this time. I was not with my father. I had crossed that bridge so many times in the back of his Passat; and when I returned older a few years ago, we had crossed the bridge together, always together. My father and I have not spoken to each other for many months now. As the tears threatened to break through, it was all I could do to breathe through the pressure I felt in my chest. How embarrassing. There I was, in a packed bus with 13 other strangers, already being watched, fighting to keep myself together. Thankfully, I had a handkerchief handy while Efe silently coaxed me back to calmness.

When our bus approached the main roundabout entering Warri Efe and I caught Okadas (motorbike taxis) to Otite’s house, which sits on the outskirts of Warri, in Effurun. Effurun is like a suburb of Warri. It is very quiet there, with small bungalows arranged in neat, walled-in estates. I took note of this, because before, Effurun was separate from Warri, and considered a kind of country backwater. Warri has expanded and improved a lot over the past few years under the leadership of the governor, James Ibori. Although it is well-known that he lines his pockets with oil money, people gratefully acknowledge that he at least makes basic attempts to improve infrastructure to show he is more progressive and more benevolent than his predecessors. There are more tarred, paved, and cleaned roads, and more hotels. The city itself seems far cleaner than I remembered it being in 1997 when I last visited. Folks even look healthier and happier here than people in Benin, a place of dust, potholes and decay. The scorn hurled at the Edo State governor is intense in Benin, a city ravaged by corruption and inept leadership.

Warri is an oil company hub, and the site of one of the last functioning refineries in the country. Here, you see plenty of Europeans and Americans moving about (in their air-conditioned, secured SUV’s). The roads have to be paved, and the city more organized in order for the business of oil extraction to run efficiently. The manicured neighborhoods in the Government Reserved Area (a remnant of colonial era segregation) work well to house these multinationals, and there is a large reservoir of human labor all around to ensure the smooth running of things. I cannot speak yet for the areas surrounding Warri; the villages that actually host the oil rigs and intrusive pipelines, witnesses to the wasteful gas flaring practices of these companies that char farmland and pollute the rivers. None of this is visible in Warri. I will write more on these troubling aspects of life here in the Delta in coming months.

Still, there are some worrisome things I notice about Warri. It is a highly militarized zone, and this is due to extreme episodes of communal violence that broke out in 1999, 2001, and 2003. These clashes threaten to erupt with each election cycle: different factions, dissatisfied with municipal dealings or election results, usually respond with violent civil outbursts. These are usually characterized as ethnic clashes, but I have a hunch there is more to it than ethnic difference. Efe also talks about the rise of robbery and vigilantism in the city. My mother and I witnessed some of this in 2005, when we passed by two bodies, tired and charred at a junction one morning: robbers, caught by a neighborhood watch group, and apparently sentenced to death. A harrowing scene. I observed none of this, this time around, but the tension is palpable with the elections coming up in April. I have to spend more time in Warri to really get a sense of what is going on, where the roots of these tensions lie and what people are really concerned about. The historical roots of these tensions lie at the heart of my research agenda.

White House

White House, c. 1980

I rang in the New Year at White House, the family house Papa (my grandfather) built and named with a healthy sense of humor. Of course, it is white, with pink cement latticework panels over the staircase leading up to the second floor. The colors have always been the same. It is a big structure with three living quarters. The biggest section is the second floor, where Papa’s home was: four bedrooms, two and a half baths, two sitting areas, a dining room, a large kitchen, and a veranda that wraps around the entire front face of the house. The hallways are much shorter than I remember them from childhood. The veranda is itself a kind of room where we spent so many hours as children, running and playing, sitting with our grandparents, and telling stories or sleeping out on mats in cool, harmattan nights. Uncle Newman, my dad’s eldest brother now lives there. He is the current patriarch of the family. Downstairs are two smaller flats and a small shop front. Brother Mail (Dad’s second eldest brother) and Auntie Yeruwa (Dad’s youngest sister) live in the two flats with their children and grandchildren. The shop space is still there. Mama used to sell convenience items, from that shop. It is now boarded up, and the front portion, which used to serve as a resting place to take a drink or have a snack is gone completely. I think Auntie Yeruwa has plans to renovate it and start selling things again.

Mama's Old Storefront

Mama’s Old Storefront

I made the rounds greeting everyone. I digwe for my elders, and the young ones in turn, digwe for me. Digwe is a form of greeting: the younger person greets the elder person, bending or kneeling on one leg, saying “mi gwo” (greetings); the elder responds with “vren do…o ma garhen?” (blessings…how body/are you well?); the younger person responds with a simple “ay” if he/she is well. Uncle Newman re-introduced me to relatives all gathered for the holiday, explaining my position and lineage within the family. I am my father Reriobor’s first child and daughter, come back from America. I am also the eldest female Okoh of my generation (that is, the eldest girl child born to any of Papa’s first wife’s sons…if this clarifies things for you!). Papa had several wives, in different states. He used to carry the nickname, 19 States, because at his prime, when Nigeria only had 19 states, folks speculated he had a wife in each one. I will write more about dear Papa later. So, we finished with greetings and got down to the business of merrymaking: drinks, fresh fish pepper soup, jollof rice, long stories, and music…more music, firecrackers, and church sounds syncopating the night around us.

Me on White House Veranda

Me on White House Veranda

Holiday in Lagos

29 December 2006 (Ikeja, Lagos)

I am spending the Christmas period in Lagos with Aunt and her family. Due to fuel scarcity and its attendant horrors, it has been a tense time. Otite’s driver deposited me in Lagos after battling traffic for hours. Truck breakdowns, overflowing queues at fuel stations, and frenzied travelers either rushing in or out of Lagos for the holiday were the causes of mass confusion. Of course, people do not pay heed to traffic lights (when they function) and traffic conductors only get in the way here. Anything and everything goes on the streets and roads here, like the rest of life in Lagos. It is a collage of energy and potential disaster, all moving to an unfathomable logic. The sheer force with which this place manages to function and even thrive amazes me.

With ready sarcasm, my aunt informed me upon arrival that the fuel scarcity came just in time to spice up the holiday season. We speculate this is an artificial problem, calculated to boost the profits of fuel mongers. This is the eighth largest oil-producing country in the world, and fifth largest supplier of American crude oil. We all know that with American demands, the oil flow from Nigeria is constant. Given these statistics, does it make sense that Nigerians would not have enough petrol to go around at any given time, much less during the holiday season? A logical person would assume that it would be in the government’s and the industry’s best interest to provide fuel during this period because it is good for business: more cars on the road; more people in the air; more business to transact. Ah, but we are in Nigeria, and that kind of logic may not work here. Auntie chalks it up to wickedness…and I am compelled to agree.

Thinking on it more, I wonder if we are not ultimately paying the price for the violence (the kidnappings, bombings, evacuations, pipeline vandalism) in the Delta, which features regularly in the news. Instead of passing it on to consumers in the international community, Nigerians pay for reduced production (25% less due to the above-mentioned violence) by not having enough to go around for the holidays. God forbid they raise the price of oil at gas pumps across the United States…and the oil company executives would loathe taking a cut in their corporate profits. No, Nigerians are paying the price. I wonder if this crosses people’s minds when they either puncture the pipelines or rush to collect the oil in Gerry cans to make some small extra cash on the black market. This is a place of extreme deprivation and the immediacy of survival supersedes any caution or precaution, or any thought of the “larger picture.” It is a complex system, fueled by all kinds of greed and desperation.

As a result of this situation, we have to calculate which outings would be feasible and which we would have to cancel. Auntie’s in-law works for Chevron, an American multinational oil company doing big business in the Niger Delta. We spent an afternoon at the Chevron country club. Very posh. My young cousins brought their swimsuits and while they splashed, we reclined in the shade with soft drinks and bland Jollof Rice. The club sits in an exclusive neighborhood, with gated mansions all around. Inside the premises, manicured walkways and palms border recreational areas: swimming pools, tennis and racquetball courts, drinking bars. The compound is complete with a library, a restaurant, a canteen for the staff, and even a clinic to serve Chevron employees. Our host informed me that these employees preferred Lagos to Warri or Port Harcourt because it was “safer”…at least for the administrative staff. They still cannot protect their workers out in the field. Most of those workers in the field are Nigerians anyway. In the gist of the afternoon, Auntie’s in-law informs us that due to the recent spate of kidnappings near Port Harcourt, Chevron has evacuated all expatriate staff from the region until further notice. I asked how they would manage without this part of their workforce. Nigerian substitutes, of course. Just a few days before, we heard of bombings on two oil campuses in Port Harcourt. I recall that not all the captives of these kidnappings have been European or American. How safe are Chevron’s (Nigerian) employees? I bet the international media is not asking this question. The media gaze continues to focus on European and American captives.

We returned home from our outing, on the day before Christmas, through fairly quiet streets. Auntie told me that this was unusual; that the streets are usually filled with a carnival atmosphere, usually starting a few days before Christmas until the New Year. She was right; I don’t remember the streets of Lagos ever being that sparse. We spent Christmas day in-doors. Auntie cooked a very special pot of Banga Soup, and I hung out with the girls. They are all growing very fast: tall, slender, graceful, all of them. They are very curious about life in the U.S.: what high school is like, boys and dating, fashion and shopping, etc. It was a simple, lovely day.

We woke up the next morning to the horrible news of a pipeline explosion here in Ikeja. People were tapping fuel from a breached pipeline to fuel their vehicles or sell on the black market, when it lit up, killing over 200 people. Hundreds more were injured. The images on the television were horrifying: billowing black smoke, people blindly moving through the area with air masks, either trying to help themselves or help others.

Photo Credit: AFP/Getty

Photo Credit: AFP/Getty

It doesn’t make sense. So much oil and hundreds of people die annually in these kinds of explosions. In the newspaper, we read about the first anniversary of a tragic plane crash (the Sosoliso crash), which occurred exactly one year before. A plane full of school children coming from Abuja went down, with only two survivors. On the television, we watched the news of various accidents on the highways; the same highways I traveled to get to Lagos (I recalled the stalled trucks and buses that littered our journey). The mood has been somber, and we are all silently frustrated with the situation. We say our prayers tonight, thanking God for the most precious of things: life and health.

Article on Democracy Now (with some good analysis) on the 2006 oil pipeline explosion…

Article from the Guardian on the 2006 explosion…

Research Update

21 December 2006 (my flat in Ugbowo)

It just occurred to me that I haven’t yet discussed my research, the main purpose of my being here. This is as good a time as any to take a pit stop, as the week is now ending, and we are preparing for the holiday.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALet me try to sum it all up in few lines. I am trying to construct a history of the Western Niger Delta before the coming of oil, between 1927 and 1960. I want to understand how discourses of ethnicity and minorities developed over this period and came to define how we understand the Niger Delta. I would argue these debates over the attributes of citizenship and the “problem” of minorities (crystallized during the 1950s) set the tone for postcolonial political dynamics in Nigeria. All sorts of other things come into play here, which make the story really interesting: post WWII development ideology, anti-imperialist activism, and nationalism… Let me leave it at that for now…

I decided to come in December because I knew it would take me some time to physically settle in: acclimate, organize my living situation, connect with my extended family, make initial contacts with faculty at the University of Benin and the University of Ibadan, have a look around and get my bearing. I hope to get my research routine started in January. I’m glad I set it up this way. It turns out that the History Department at UniBen (University of Benin), besides botching up my visa, had lost all record of correspondence in the year and a half I have been in contact with them. My primary point of contact with the department, Dr. O, was unreachable up to the day I physically walked into the department in search of him.

That was three Wednesdays ago.

Things have been moving very slowly. Aside from the very real problem of the History department at UniBen carrying out end-of-year examinations, there is plenty of protocol and red tape involved in formalizing my presence here. None of this formalization began until I arrived. It is clear I need to be careful not to bruise egos or to assert myself in any way that may threaten this process. Dr. O informed me (always with an air of contempt) that I had to learn how things are done here; that the situation here is not the same as in the U.S., which he seems very keen to point out regularly. There is a palpable Gentlemen’s Club atmosphere here. Perhaps this is why communicating with the former Head of Department was difficult (Dr. O insisted on leading this discussion as well).

Setting these initial exchanges with the department aside, I did meet up with Dr. C. O., a colleague I had met briefly in London through my mentor. Dr. C. O. teaches at the University of Ibadan. Luckily for me, he is on sabbatical at UniBen this year. This means I will have easy, regular exchange with him while I’m in Benin. His own work looks at the post-independence period. He deals with the effects of oil and criminalization on Niger Delta communities. He is very congenial, and has so far been very helpful. He has also invited me to join the Nigerian Historical Society, and to take part in one of their upcoming conferences in Lagos. This will be a good way to get involved in the local academic/intellectual scene. Better to focus my energies on these sorts of connections.


I have a few other leads, which I will follow in the New Year. I still have to find the Benin City Archives. No one in the History Department seems to know where they are. This is disturbing. It speaks to the degree of decay in the institutions here…at least in Benin. The entire university is a ghost of what it used to be in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was new and vibrant. Many of the windows in the buildings are broken or missing. Most things are covered in dust. Roofs leak. Once manicured lawns, bordered with flowering shrubs and trees, are now dull expanses dried out either from the Harmattan or neglect.

I wonder how this campus compares to that of the University of Ibadan, which still has a fair reputation. All the other American Fellows decided to affiliate there. I now wonder if I made the right decision to come here instead. My project focuses on the Niger Delta, I will be interviewing people based in the Delta, and I will seek local and personal archives here. These are all seemingly logical reasons to base myself here. I will be making periodic trips to Ibadan, to the National Archives. I have a couple of other contacts there. Putting all this together, I will be a busy little bee come 2007! Let’s hope I have the patience and fortitude to get through it all…

Post Script

A comment on gender and sexual relations on many of Nigeria’s university campuses… The difficulty and unease I was feeling at the University of Benin prompted me to have conversations with female students who lived in my neighborhood, in Ugbowo. Every single one of them had stories of sexual harassment: sexual favors for grades, for passing exams, for access to resources. It is a very big problem in the universities and high schools in Nigeria, but this problem has to be understood within a broader context of unequal gender relations in Nigerian society, where patronage and power run rigidly vertical and men are most often at the top. Women and girls have begun to speak out, but there is a long way to go. 

A 2007 LA Times Article on this issue…

A limited but useful paper with good data from the University of Lagos…

On Being a White Oyibo

21 December 2006 (late night, my flat in Ugbowo)

More than once in the past few weeks, people have referred to me as “white”…unequivocally, categorically “white.” Now, I’m used to being hyper-visible when I’m here, and I grew up being called Oyibo whenever we were out in public as a child here. The term Oyibo carries sufficient ambiguity, because the term is applied to a whole range of folk. Aside from a white person, Oyibo could apply to any foreigner/immigrant to Nigeria (i.e. Indian, Lebanese, Chinese, etc.) or multiracial people. Mixed-race people occupy a place – albeit a privileged place – in the structure of this society, and have been a part of its fabric for hundreds of years. So, I am hardly an anomaly. Since Oyibo was a term I heard regularly growing up, I didn’t cultivate any hostility toward it. The term “half-caste” does rub me the wrong way, however; and perhaps it is because it has a darker, heavy colonial history than does the locally derived term Oyibo. Still, during this visit, I have noticed that Oyibo is not the term being applied to me. I am “white.” It jars me every time it touches my ears.

At one point I asked Efe if it was that people mistook me for a real white person, that perhaps they hadn’t gotten a good look at me. Efe assured me this wasn’t so; that I don’t even look like a regular “half-caste”. What did he mean, that I didn’t look like a “regular” half-caste? According to Efe, my skin and eyes are too light to be considered an “ordinary half-caste” and I don’t sound like one either. In fact, I should be considered a “one-and-a-half-caste” (someone who has more white than black blood). I am baffled. I now find myself in conversations where it is imperative for someone (usually someone who knows me) to clarify that I am not a full Oyibo, that I am Nigerian…just a very fair-skinned Nigerian. I have never been confronted with this extreme notion of whiteness here before. Perhaps it is yet another sign that my Americanness has really settled in on me.

How crazy, almost twilight-zonish: in the U.S., I am “black” and here, I am “white.” I used to take refuge in the term Oyibo because of its elasticity. It accommodated my social place in-between white and black, native and foreigner. I used to have a place here. Does being “white” mean that I am no longer at least partly an insider, that I am now a full-fledged stranger? It is amazing how fluid race and racial categories are on a global scale, not just across space, but also over time. I was just an Oyibo here before, in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Now, in 2006, I am a white person. It cuts me.

Not for the first time in my life, I am caught up in other people’s gazes, being seen but not recognized as belonging here. I am hyper-visible…out of place…out of the ordinary. It is here as it was coming of age in all-white Minnesota. How does this lack of recognition map to my earlier rumination on home? It doesn’t diminish my personal sense of belonging (I have cherished memories, my earliest ones were made here). Being seen is an external process, albeit one that has an internal effect. I have no choice but to move along, contradictions in tow. By now, I have become quite comfortable with this state of being, at least in the United States. I suppose this place, or any other place for that matter, holds no exception in this regard. I am a part of and outside of here at once. Nigerian society has its own rules and paradoxes. I have to re-learn them; this time as an adult who has become white, whose blood never the less carries this place in her veins.