Lazy Rainy Day

29 April 2007

Location: My home, Benin City


The rainy season has begun. I love the smell of oncoming rain, especially when the water meets the air and the thirsty, dry earth. It is a charged smell, almost electric. I ache for the fresh coolness…relief. The rains have come a bit late this year. I look forward to the lushness of green foliage, and the sweetness of fat mangos, my favorite fruit of the season.

I was supposed to begin my interviews this month. I returned to Benin partly to avoid any madness associated with the elections, and partly because I had planned to start talking to people. If I knew better, I would have just stayed in Ibadan, in the sheltered environment of campus. I would have gotten quite far with my documentary research; I left so much undone. I struggle with self-criticism daily. As it is now, I have spent the better part of this month waiting. Uncle Newman and cousin Otite, who are to help me make connections for interviews, had cautioned me to wait until after the elections to start. It is now time to begin.

I have been in contact with a lawyer who has worked with the Delta State government these past few years as the Speaker of the House. He has some experience carrying out oral history for a couple of projects, one of which was led by a well-known Niger Delta historian, E. J. Alagoa. It may be better to work through this man than with my family connections, since he has some experience, and he is not kin. I may be more efficient working with him. He has already drawn up a list of people to speak with, and I have created an introductory letter and questionnaire.

Let’s hope I can get started, regardless of the swearing-ins, and political transitions going on in Abuja. The elections have come and gone, and now people are saying they really won’t be available until after the swearing-in of office, and after the electoral disputes have been settled. So many government positions are under dispute at the moment. It is unclear how they will be resolved. The courts seem to be struggling to stay independent of the politics, and some of the state government positions are under scrutiny. I hope we can start to have a wee bit of faith in at least our judiciary. I might be too optimistic.

I am not sure whether to qualify my stasis as boredom or depression. I have more and more days where I do not feel like getting out of bed, and sometimes I don’t. Part of it has to do with avoiding my hypervisibility when I step out of my front door. I just don’t want to be seen, and therefore targeted for the various kinds of attention and extortion that being “white” carries here. Another part of it has to do with not having the energy to go out there and hustle, as we all must do, everyday. We exert so much energy just to physically get around on these mad streets and through these rotten institutions.

Sorry for the pessimism. I can’t push myself through it right now, and I don’t like myself like this… So, I’m sitting with it until it subsides.


The Ibadan National Archives

5 April 2007 (Ibadan)

It’s been a lovely couple of weeks, having a routine, some much-needed solitude, and finally getting some good research done. The intense amount of traveling I’ve done over the past several months has really taken its toll on me, and Ruth’s house has been a Godsend. I’ve been hanging out with the other Fellowship scholars, and have gotten particularly close to Helen.* She’s a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, mostly short stories. I like her wit. She’s down-to-earth and has a sophisticated sense of humor. After a long day of staring at documents, it’s nice to unwind with a cold beer and some fresh Suya or Akara.

MLGI try to put in a minimum of five hours at the archives each day, but find that my resolve doesn’t last much beyond four hours. Inconsistent electricity, inadequate lighting, and a fair amount of dust floating around in the air really work to slow me down. Mr. Abraham, a senior staff member here, has been a savior. He checks in on me, making sure I get my documents as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, not all the documents I request actually surface. They are somehow lost in the system, and even though Mr. Abraham puts in a search for them, I don’t have much hope that they will resurface. Some of these are really juicy files too: mostly on grievances lodged against the colonial government by local communities. (I know: I’m a nerd…) I have a clue about how files might easily go missing. Frequently the junior staff are not present in the reading room, leaving the users in the room alone with the documents. I could easily walk out with a file without anyone noticing. There is a television in the reading room (yes) and it is always on (at low volume, of course, but audible none-the-less), and the staff often station themselves in front of it, their backs turned on the readers, to pass the time away. Some mornings, I arrive a bit too early, say, 9 a.m., and I sit out with some of the staff at the entrance to the Archives. I’ve learned that they haven’t received a paycheck since the end of last year. It is clear: morale is low, to say the least.

WP91-2Over time, hovering over documents to snap digital photos can take its toll on one’s back. This, along with the lighting difficulties, makes for a tricky choreography. I’m sure I look comical to the staff, shifting this way and that, sometimes standing on tip-toe to get a good, unobstructed, well-lit shot of the documents. The files often come to me in unruly, jumbled, yet fragile compilations. I am often afraid to handle some of the documents because they are on the verge of disintegrating completely. These are twentieth century documents. They are not old.  And, as I slowly make my way through these files, I observe other users casually, roughly handling similar documents at their tables. Because the staff have not been properly trained, there is no one to advise users on proper handling of the documents. The lack of a controlled environment, along with a lack of institutional support or value is quickly destroying this archive. Everyday, I watch fragments of paper flake onto the tabletops and to the floor without notice. I feel helpless.

I wish I could have begun this work earlier…had not wasted so much time in Benin. But how could I have known that Benin was not the place to start? I try not to panic at the thought that I have yet to begin conducting interviews in the Delta. And I am so far away, here in Ibadan, sifting through documents. Then there is the consistent, nagging doubt that the documents I am going through are the right ones. I constantly question whether I am recording enough information, or selecting the right files. Then there is the awful thought that I may not get enough, that I won’t finish…and then…finally…what if I don’t finish this dissertation? The downward spiral of negative thoughts circle round the stale, fuzzy words on the pages in front of me, and I have to catch my breath; call myself back to the task at hand.

I return to Benin in a couple of days. I have to get back before elections begin. The Archives will close due to the Easter Holiday. They shut down for a Muslim holiday last week and on Monday this week there was another civil servant’s holiday. Early last week, the staff arbitrarily announced, at around noon, that they were going to close the Archives at 1:00 that day. There was no forewarning, no explanation. Come to think of it, the routine I had mentioned earlier really isn’t much of a routine. I just have it in my head that I am on a campus, and that my daily focus is to get as much information from this place as I can.

I dread the upcoming elections. I should have begun my interviews this month, but everyone I’ve spoken to, who are helping me arrange them, have asked me to be patient until elections have passed. I have also been advised to return home, to Benin; it is safer to be in a familiar environment, close to family, than far away in an unfamiliar place. This means two weeks of no work. My mouth gets dry just thinking about it.


* Name changed to protect identity.


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.

Abuja Skyline

Abuja Skyline

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

National Mosque

National Mosque

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.

You No Dey Look Road?

1 February 2007 (Ugbowo, evening)

It is the first of the month, the beginning of my third month here, and today I began getting somewhere with the research…well, a very small start anyway. Dr. I., the Chair of the History Department at UniBen made his research assistant (Frank) available to me to see if we could track down Benin municipal documents from the 1930s in the Edo State Archives. The last time we went, a woman security guard, who appeared to have just woken up, with a child on her hip (apparently she lives in the apartment below the offices), stopped us from entering the building. Apparently, the archive staff was not on duty, even though it was a weekday. She was unsure when the staff would be around: either eleven a.m. or one p.m. A two hour chunk of time is a big margin to work with when the heat is intense and there is nothing to do while you wait, so we had to come back another day.

There was also a big funeral procession taking place on the New Lagos Road that day. The owner of one of the major Benin-Lagos transport lines—Edegbe Line—had recently passed away. The roads would be impassable after noon. Frank and I had to get back to campus. We later found out that our President arbitrarily declared Monday a public holiday in order to encourage voter registration, which meant that we would also be on holiday on Tuesday. Whenever the Federal Government declares a holiday, the State Government follows up with one of its own. So, we could not return until Wednesday of the following week…four days of no work. I set my mind on what I could occupy myself with in the meantime. I always have the documents I collected in England to get through.

We returned to the Edo State Archives today. Again, the director was not around, and the sole staff member was unsure of when he would be in the office (this is a government office, mind you). She suggested I write him a note stating my purpose and giving some details of what I was looking for. I did. It was all we could do. I will return in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I must get started at the National Archives in Ibadan. I still have to find a place to stay there. I’m getting nervous. I’ve been here for a solid two months, my money is getting thin, and I have nothing to show for it all.

On our way back to Ugbowo, I had to negotiate a tricky 5-way intersection. There are no traffic lights in this corner of the country. If you are lucky, a traffic warden is available at some point during the day. So, one has to dance with the other motorists when confronted with intersections. I followed suit with my fellow drivers in this situation, slowly inching my way into the intersection until the competing traffic became overwhelmed with our presence to finally allow us to pass. As I was doing so, I didn’t realize the madman behind me—a Túke Túke bus driver—had become impatient, and decided to jump out of the queue to cut me off in the intersection. He must have miscalculated because I was still inching forward when he turned sharply into my front fender. I heard some cracking, and Frank was as stunned as I was. We had to detach ourselves from his vehicle. And, instead of getting a barrage of cuss-words from the madman, he just sat staring at us. He must have known he was wrong, or he must have been calculating how he was going to get out of it…or both. I pulled up ahead and got out of the car. The Túke Túke driver parked his vehicle, packed with passengers, quite far ahead; I would have had to run to catch up to him. By the time I looked up from the damage to my car, he had already taken a quick look at his bus, hopped back into his vehicle and sped off…passengers in tow. I could see the expression on the passengers’ faces as they watched me recede behind them. Some were smirking; others were gawking in surprised entertainment. Two Okada motorists shouted out different things; the one I heard: “Oyibo, you no dey look road?” In my shock, I just watched the rickety bus get smaller and smaller down the road. In my mind, I cursed all of them: God would find them tonight (not tomorrow or the next day) and deal with them…TONIGHT!

A typical Tuke Tuke bus on a not-so congested road...

A typical Tuke Tuke bus on a not-so congested road…

I didn’t expect the man to offer to pay for the damage; after all, he makes a daily pittance. However, I did expect him to at least face what he had done and apologize. He was in the wrong, and there was no two-ways about it. The markings on my car prove it. I was informed later that I should not have taken the time to look at the damage before running up to him and holding him. People around would have been in support at that point, but since I didn’t do anything, no one was willing to stop and back me up. After all, I was entertainment at that point…an Oyibo assumed not to know her way around or through this place…and a woman moreover (women are always assumed to be bad drivers from the start).

Over the course of the afternoon, my heart became bitter. In this environment, it is the person that shows more strength or imposes more violence who is honored in this environment. It doesn’t matter whether that person is wrong in their action; they just have more power. If you are in any way new in this environment, people will take advantage of you to such an extent that you get to understand through the suffering of it. There is no accommodation; you must learn by force…sink or swim, Oyibo or not.

Thankfully, there is a “panel-beater” next to our compound. Within an hour of coming home, he reset the fender and smoothed it over well. He removed most of the paint from the Túke Túke, and only a couple of scratches remain. He did a wonderful job, and because he felt sorry for me, did it for a very small price. I was so grateful. My heart was soothed a bit. And Efe was kind. He said these types of run-ins are common, and it could have happened just as readily to him as to me. I continue to learn.

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…

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.