Research in Ibadan

16 January 2007 (University of Ibadan Campus, evening)

Efe and I arrived in Ibadan yesterday. What a different place this is, compared to Benin, compared to the Delta. Ibadan sprawls out over several hills and valleys. It is densely populated and the energy here is very different from Benin: more cosmopolitan than provincial, more built-up (paved roads, old Yoruba-styled architecture – 2-storied buildings with large, fettered windows and thick pillars) police functioning less as bullies than as officers of safety, and business transactions taking place all around…constantly. Strikingly, I hear Yoruba spoken more than I hear English or even Pidgin. In fact, just in the couple of days that I’ve been here, my own recollection of Yoruba has improved a bit. It’s a different reality altogether.

Both Efe and I are new to Ibadan, so navigating it has been an edgy experience, packed with adrenaline. Otite, our older cousin, owns a photo lab just opposite the main gate of the University campus. He promised to set up accommodation here, and he led me to believe he had a place all set up before I arrived in Nigeria. This has turned out not to be the case. So, Efe and I spent the rest of the day scrambling to find a hotel to stay at. The other American Fellows have been given a guesthouse on campus, since they are all based at the University of Ibadan (UI). I had asked if there was room for us at the house, as a back-up plan to Otite helping us find a hotel. It is now the plan, at least for tonight. I have to think through finding a place to stay for the three or so months of research at the Nigerian National Archives (they are located on the Ibadan campus). My anger and frustration at Otite is very high at the moment.

I have come to accomplish several things in the next couple of days. I am going to attend a conference, hosted by the UI History Department, on behalf of Obaro Ikime, a retired historian who has worked on ethnicity and intergroup relations over the past several decades. Hopefully, I can get the ball rolling with the Department for a secondary affiliation here, since the UniBen affiliation is turning out to be a disaster. Formal affiliation will facilitate getting access to the archives, and may help with getting accommodation on campus. I would also like to get to know the other American Fellows.

My American cohort lives in a large three-bedroom guesthouse tucked deep in the campus. It has a large kitchen and two bathrooms, regular electricity, and running water. They even have a vacuum cleaner! (Trust me, this is a rare thing in Nigeria.) I am touched with a wee bit of jealousy. Had I made a mistake by basing myself in Benin? Ah, I can’t allow myself to think of that now…

0017  VET MEDICINE   (2)The Ibadan campus is very vibrant. There are new buildings going up all around, old ones, built to last in the 1950s in a modernist architectural style, are freshly painted with all the windows intact. Students stroll leisurely through the thoroughfares, which look well kempt and clean. The classrooms and lecture halls are active. This is starkly different from UniBen. Granted, UniBen is just this week resuming classes, it still feels like a broken down, defeated place. It is a shell of what it used to be. My former primary school looks like an abandoned ranch out in the middle of nowhere. Some of the classrooms are missing roofs and windows; the desks are rusted out and warped; the paint has been peeling for years. Walking by the chemistry lab at UniBen, one has to wonder how any learning takes place in there: the halls are dark, the windows bare and open, the counters are warped and incomplete, with grossly inadequate equipment, much less running water. The state-of-the-art auditorium that was built in the 1980s, in which my mother staged musical productions for packed audiences, has now been converted to a registration hall and computer lab. The top floor of the Arts and Humanities block is completely abandoned: rooms emptied with stacks of papers collecting dust, in rooms of broken furniture and broken glass. I could go on. I constantly wonder how these students learn in such an environment.



UI presents a different scene. Some of the difference has to do with having more active alumni. Another big factor has to do with the fact that its reputation has held up over the years, and scholars from around the world still travel here to do research, teach, and attend conferences. The Nigerian National Archives are also based on this campus, adding to the activity. There is the more visceral feeling that Yorubaland is just a bit more organized, generally, than the Delta.

Back to being here in Ibadan… I am now a month and a half into my stay here and have very little research accomplished. The frustration is mounting, and while I am too caught up in the whirlwind reality of this place to feel real depression, I am definitely growing anxious. The wait is tiring and I wonder if I am doing enough to move things along. I am desperately homesick. Let’s hope things pick up soon…

Postscript (the next morning…)

Efe met me this morning to tell me that his iPod, perfume, and a bit of cash were missing from his bag. We left our overnight bags in Otite’s back office to step out for a bite to eat when we arrived yesterday. We couldn’t have been gone for more than half an hour. We assumed his office was safe. Madness. We’ve just informed Otite of the missing things; he’s now on the warpath with his staff. Hopefully someone comes forward. I feel so bad for Efe.


On Patronage

14 January 2007 (My flat in Ugbowo, Evening)

In an earlier post, I introduced NEPA, the former name of the current power-holding company in the country. NEPA (National Electric Power Authority) used to be government-owned. In the midst of “democratization” NEPA was privatized and is now called the Nigerian Power Holding Company (NPHC). This doesn’t really mean much in the way the corporation is managed or owned. In response to World Bank and IMF directives toward a “free economy” and democratization, the government managed its own version of privatization. The beast is still the same, just new skin. Where military officials sat on managing councils for these types of things—e.g., electricity, petroleum production and distribution, agricultural export—now the very same individuals are found on the boards of these newly refashioned companies. This is as it was during the colonial period, when the heads of trading companies (Thomas Holt and Elder Dempster) had voting rights in the colonial governing structure here. Today we have the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), who is now constructing fueling stations for private profit. It is a private company that channels access through government patronage. Those military officials now turned governors and senators are also the top businessmen in the country.

This is how Nigeria has instituted its version of governmentality: generals exchange their uniforms for agbadas, regale their cronies to dominate the political scene through their one political party, and stage an election where the choices are limited to ex-generals and ex-military cabinet members, and their family members too. Anyone who runs in opposition is subject to intense scrutiny and legal harassment along the lines of corruption, and everyone is corrupt. Obasanjo has been effectively using the tool of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to censor his opponents.  It’s a mockery: IMF, you want free trade, we’ll pose for you; World Bank, you want democracy, we’ll dress the part! I wonder if the IMF and World Bank actually reflect on the implications of their directives, which seem arbitrary to the average person on this end. Without fundamental institutional change from the ground up (and I mean really cleaning house…violent visions occur to me here…), such initiatives get translated through the local grammar, and all we have at the end of the day is a changing same. Perhaps officials in these international bodies also get their own cuts and percentages from such policies in a broader, global network of patronage.

I now personally know “the NEPA guy” in our neighborhood, Mr. Salami. He lives in this neighborhood, and we can easily trek to his office, which is responsible for this section of town. Whenever the light is out for longer than usual, we can call him up and ask; he can tell us what exactly is the problem, and how long it will take to fix it. Upon paying him a New Year visit, with the promise of a bottle of wine and prompt payment, he immediately followed us to Chicago to repair a faulty wire which had left us on the verge of a perpetual power outage. He now expects a visit from us regularly, and in exchange we get quick information about our situation here in the neighborhood. We also hope that he will take special interest in making sure our neighborhood gets more regular electricity.

We personally know the plumber for this compound. His name is Friday and he is constantly making us laugh with his stories about quirky clients. His favorites are either foreigners or “been-to’s” (folks in the diaspora who return to build homes or retire). When he is around, a few other folks in the compound use the opportunity to request repairs. They do not have his number. Somehow, Efe has it. But then again, we pay him promptly and refer him to the others. We have also promised him a New Year drink (no alcohol; just a round of Malta). I think our enjoyment of his stories pleases him as much. Laughter is always a good thing.

Michael, who lives in the back of the compound is a recent graduate and works at Efe’s bank. We usually work through him to speedily process our daily transactions; otherwise, the wait in queue is insufferably long. He and Efe have been friends since Efe moved to the compound. They are of like minds: prompt, courteous, and conscientious. If Michael ever leaves the bank for another, or if Efe moves away, Efe will switch banks. Michael is the main reason for banking at UBA Bank.

Chijoke, my cousin Jite’s colleague and friend is the webmaster at UniBen. He not only helped me get an appointment with the Vice Chancellor, he also helps me get a fast internet connection in his office when NetExpress (my preferred cybercafé) is down and I am desperate. We’ve fast become buddies in the past few weeks. He has really helped to ease my frustration with campus bureaucracy. He has been behind UniBen winning a Commonwealth award for internet accessibility. Chijoke is definitely a diamond in the rough. I don’t know how he copes in this environment of debilitating bureaucracy…he works round the clock to make it happen, in spite of it all.

All of these people form my web of survival. They all greased the daily machination of my existence here. In order to accomplish anything, one must make personal connections. Along the way relationships grow and we all meet each other understanding that we in some way contribute to each other’s wellbeing. This is how one survives. Patronage is varied and deep here. From the president to the common man, we all work within circles of interdependence and patronage. Everyday, I mobilize my various networks, either as client or patron. In the struggle to formalize my presence at UniBen, I had to implore my uncle, with Chijoke’s help, to act on my behalf to meet with the Vice Chancellor (me as client). In our own Chicago hostel, Efe and I are mini-patrons: I am the financial arm and Efe is the brain of our little outfit. In exchange for improving folks’ quality of life with the generator, and personal connections with Mr. Salami and Friday, as well as Efe’s know-how with electronics, we receive general good will and little everyday favors from our neighbors. And so we go along…

To Laugh or Cry

13 January 2007 (my flat in Ugbowo, evening)

Efe and I have been through a lot these past 10 days or so. I feel like I’ve been bled dry financially, and I could probably sleep for days! We have been struggling to get settled once and for all.

Efe installed the last element of our power plan this week: an inverter (or, as they call it, a “silent generator”). Now, I will have two flourescent lights, my fan, and my computer hooked up to the inverter at night, when NEPA strikes, without any noise or pollution. It runs on a truck battery and gives enough energy to power these small electronics for up to 18 hours. It charges when NEPA brings the light back, and the generator can also charge it. We really tested it out this past week, because we only had light for a couple of hours for each of three days. Efe is a genius.

My little Nissan Sunny

My little Nissan Sunny

I also just bought a car. Yes. I will be driving around within Benin and Warri, and Efe will do the long distance trips. Public transport is scary, and when I did the calculations, it is worth getting a car with all the traveling I will be doing in coming months. I need to get around easily, for interviews, to and from archives, and then to carry out daily errands in a timely manner. We will have more control over our time, and can manage it more efficiently…as efficiently as one can in this environment.

The car is a little silver Nissan Sunny. What most folks here consider new cars are really second-hand imports from the U.S., Canada, and Europe via such ports as Cotonou and Lagos. The Sunny is a coup with a manual shift; it has a very strong, little engine. And it is extremely fuel-efficient. All “new” cars, if you want a reasonable price, come without AC or radio/tape deck. Very basic. So, we have to install these gradually, when I recover financially. Ah, but I feel less anxious about traveling now. When I leave, Efe will keep the car.

As you can see in these postings, Efe has been a real blessing. Throughout all these adventures, he manages to maintain a healthy sense of humor. There are so many moments in which the choices are either to break down and cry or laugh hysterically. Efe helps me choose the latter. I don’t feel so alone. Even at the end of a strenuous and frustrating day, we end up somehow laughing ourselves to sleep. Health and sanity. I am extremely grateful.


Efe’s Story

My dear cousin, Efe

My dear cousin, Efe

We have spent the last five years trying to get Efe a visa to study in the U.S. He began a degree in mechanical engineering about 8 years ago, and he has yet to complete it due to exam delays, school shut-downs, cancellations of exam results, and finally his expulsion from UniBen when the administration found out he was trying to complete his studies abroad. Pure wickedness. My mother, over the years has enlisted various friends and family members, along with the help of an immigration lawyer to intervene on his behalf. In each instance the American embassy collects his $100 fee, stamps “DENIED” on his file, and confiscates his passport, usually without so much as a brief interview. We have done everything by the book, and we have met all the requirements—both materially and otherwise—to host him in the U.S. Mom even paid his school fees for an entire year at a private college, accruing serious debt in the process. Other family members have come and gone abroad, contributing to the economies of both countries through hard work and remittances. Our family has set plenty of precedent to warrant trust on the part of the American government. Still, they deny Efe the opportunity.

Mom and I flew to Nigeria in the summer of 2005 to physically intervene on the process. What we witnessed would make anyone’s blood curdle with anger. The embassy packs a couple hundred people into the embassy for each of two appointments set in a day: one at 7am and the other at 11am. It closes down at 3pm. If one calculates the non-refundable $100 fee per application, you’ve got thousands of dollars per day. They do this several times a week. This is serious revenue. Most people travel very long distances to reach the American consulate in Lagos. They are then made to wait outside the embassy doors for hours (many arrive well before the 7am appointment to get ahead in the queue). The day we came, it poured rain in the morning, and the intense sun in the afternoon made it feel like a real steam bath. If you want to use the make-shift shelter across the street, you have to pay some cash (most people, after making the $100 fee, do not have much left over to work with). People are not allowed to queue up until 7am sharp. You can imagine the tension in the air as people calculate how they will maneuver themselves when the time comes.  So, we waited with Efe, and when they called him up we were not allowed to go in with him.

We tried a different approach this time with this process: we would use our positions as American citizens to appeal on his behalf. We walked over to the foreigners’ entrance (segregated from the Nigerian entrance, where guards herded people like cattle). After going through intense scrutiny by the gatekeepers (they had just seen us waiting outside with Efe for several hours), they allowed us to go in. Mom brought a thick folder of the legal documents we had accumulated. The man dealing with us was a small, impish man with a southern drawl. We could tell he didn’t like his job, and we knew he was at the bottom of the diplomatic food chain (why else was he posted in Nigeria?). After morosely waiting for Mom to run through her entire plea, he informed us that there was nothing he could do for us. He was saying this, casually leafing through the file Mom slapped down in front of him. My mom, exasperated, told him how deplorable the conditions were outside for Nigerian citizens, that she was embarrassed to call herself an American with all this suffering. I remember how this little man curled his mouth into a sneer, saying that Nigerians had brought the suffering on themselves. He then looked at me, and asked Mom if I was related. Mom identified me as her daughter. He audaciously declared, “She’s a lucky one.” I imagined myself shattering the glass separating us from him and pummeling that little man’s face bloody! Nothing came from my throat. I had too much anger stuck there. All I could do was glare at him, and my mother cursed him on my behalf before walking out the door.

This is the face of America a good many Nigerians see on this end. Yet, it baffles me to witness the extent to which Nigerians value and revere all things American. Nigerians will go through this nightmare and still come out saying they want to go to America. While there is no explicit law instructing agents to screen Nigerian male applicants between the ages of 18 and 34, this is what is being done in practice. England was bold enough to make this policy into law briefly (they eventually they revoked it for its clear racism). Still, this is the practice. This is how foreigners treat Nigerians on their own soil.

Efe didn’t even get an interview that day. His folder was, once again, taken and stamped, his passport confiscated, and his money ingested. After all this, we could do no more; all of Efe’s talent, all his energy and potential under-utilized.

Efe is a bit of a celebrity around here, at the Chicago hostel. He has now found a way to give everyone in the compound light with the generator, and he will implement this new plan soon. Everyone has agreed to the terms of a payment and schedule for fuel. He is constantly sought after to build and fix computers for students both here and around campus; he is the guy folks call when something goes wrong, because he always has a solution (or knows someone who does). He is taking the entrance exams to the engineering program for the fourth time this spring, hoping to start all over again here at UniBen (UniBen has one of the few Engineering programs in the country). In the meantime, Efe has enrolled in a weekend, part-time course for accounting. This will help him keep a foot in the system, while providing an avenue to make some income on the side. What else can he do? Laugh or cry…

A Low Point

Peaceful morning jog, on UniBen campus

Peaceful morning jog, on UniBen campus

8 January 2007 (My flat in Ugbowo, 4:30 a.m.)

Well, the Lawyer finally came with his cleaning men to empty the suck-away pit. The stench wasn’t as bad as I had imagined; the sounds were much worse. The men, not deaf or mute, appeared able-bodied and sound of mind (contrary to how Efe and the others described them). They came with nothing more than their clothes (clean and whole; not dirty and tattered as I had imagined), their tools, and some buckets. No protective gear whatsoever. I greeted them, grateful that they had finally come to usher out the cockroaches.

The Lawyer, upon meeting me, finally put two and two together; it was clear in his expression when he met me. He now understood why Efe had bought the generator, why the water tank was repaired so quickly, why the suck-away needed to be emptied. If this is what whiteness buys me, then so be it. I am at once annoyed and embarrassed: annoyed that they won’t take anyone seriously without some form of inducement or sign of status – wealth, or whiteness in this case; embarrassed that I am actually participating in it to accomplish things.

I am not sure whether I am depressed or bored. Even though the cockroaches are gone, I still listen for them. I no longer sleep through the night and often wake up before 5:00 a.m. NEPA has seized light consistently for the past four nights. And, except for a couple (and I mean two) hours yesterday afternoon, we have been without electricity. The food in the refrigerator is going bad. My tummy is showing signs that it too is going bad. I try to stay cool despite the fact that my hair is matted with sweat and my body molds a damp impression in my foam mattress.

I haven’t left the house in two days, except for a half hour to go down the road to send a quick e-mail. It is not that I do not want to go out…well, that’s only partially true. I am getting tired of being a spectacle every time I step out the door. I need a break. Efe had to run to Warri without me yesterday. Because of the fuel scarcity and the attendant cost of travel, it didn’t make sense for me to go. Plus, I figure he needs a break from me…or I need a break from him. So, he instructed me to stay indoors, not to even venture out for a walk. I am not allowed to go anywhere unescorted. This was rule number one upon entry, when I met up with my cousins. My uncle backed it up, and if my father were here, I am sure he would also support this. Beyond my hypervisibility, I am an unmarried woman. I know that my unmarried female cousins travel about unaccompanied, so we are left with my hypervisibility and my lack of experience in this environment. Fair enough.

I went into the History Department on Thursday to check on progress with my affiliation status. I have to come back next Wednesday. It’s been about a month since the beginning of this process. Without the letter of introduction from UniBen, I will likely not be allowed access to local archives. Local affiliation helps. So I wait, frustrated, trying to think round this problem. On Monday, I will make some phone calls and persuade Efe to take me to the Edo State Library. We passed it on our way back from Warri, and I was surprised to see it. I might be able to find the Old Benin documents. A thought occurs to me: I need to start mobilizing my own personal networks to get things done. Patronage…it is the only way to maneuver bureaucracy here. On Tuesday, I will see the Vice Chancellor armed with a letter from Uncle Newman. He and my parents know the Vice Chancellor personally. I will also try to get an appointment with another Dr. Osaghae, who is the Vice Chancellor of Igbinedion’s University in nearby Okada. If I can establish a rapport with him, paths could open in being able to get access to palace records and perhaps the Oba himself. Yes, I have a plan to get things moving.

As for today, I am lethargic. I have now just finished my third novel since my arrival. I alternate between reading fiction and working through documents I gathered in England (tedious business). I am also journaling heavily. When Efe returned from Warri yesterday, I was irritable. I felt guilty for even letting my frustration get to me; folks here endure no water, no light, cockroaches and rats, not being able to go to school much less have the time and space to think…all their lives. Who the hell am I to complain?

Nothing is taken for granted here. You are forced to think about the most basic things and what it means to be without them. In the case of light: I wake up each day and calculate when I need to have my washing, cooking, cleaning, and bath done in case NEPA strikes. When there is no electricity, there is no water; we cannot run the pump. This means Hyble has to make several trips up and down the stairs to fetch water from the well. When there is no electricity, my time for working is limited to how far my computer battery can take me; and the server at the neighborhood internet café may also be down, or so slow that it isn’t worth the couple hundred naira you pay for the hour. The implications are serious, when on a mass scale a whole society’s productive potential is so constrained by such an extreme lack of steady or even predictable electricity supply. In some countries, they at least schedule when they will give and take light; here, such a thing would be a massive improvement.

Who am I to complain? I’ve only been here for just over a month. Efe has lived with this reality for all twenty-nine years of his life. I am extremely privileged to have the choice come here or leave.