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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.


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