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.
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
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.