Keeping Wake in Obubu

10 April 2007 (my flat in New GRA, Benin)

My grandmother, Mewe, died twenty-three years ago and was buried in her home village of Obubu, in Udu Local Government Area. In Urhobo tradition, their daughters are not buried with their husbands, in their husbands’ hometown, as is customary in many other Nigerian communities. Their families return their bodies to their home village. A structure, or dwelling, is constructed over the grave. Mewe’s funeral was an elaborate two-day celebration. I was only eight at the time of that funeral, but it remains vivid in my memory. So many people came, and there was so much food and drink, plenty of music (much of it live), and I remember the exhaustion in the faces of my parents and my aunts and uncles. They had made all the arrangements, welcomed hundreds of visitors, and kept energetic wake through the night in Obubu.

I have just returned from Obubu to bury Mewe’s sister, Mama Beokuta. She was over ninety years old when she died. Her children originally gave her a Christian funeral, even though it was not her wish; she was not a Christian. She wanted to be buried as Mewe was buried, in the traditional way. We returned to Obubu because we learned that we did not in fact bury Beokuta; we had buried the wrong woman. My uncles: Areriobor, Friday, and Newman believe her spirit resisted the Christian funeral by evading identification at the morgue. Apparently another woman named Victoria (Beokuta’s English name), a fair woman with the same birth date as Beokuta, who was also toothless (as was Beokuta), was being kept at the same morgue. Sometimes when the morgue is overcrowded, they rotate storing the bodies in the freezers. Beokuta may not have been in the freezer when Uncle Friday and Cousin Minene went to identify her. In fact, they didn’t really see her at all. When they presented “Victoria,” my uncles and cousin did not recognize their mother; but the birth date was the same, and she was toothless…so, they carried her buried away to bury her. When Victoria’s real family came for their mother, they couldn’t find her. Uncle Friday got the call a few days after the funeral. We had to go to Obubu and return Victoria to her family and bury our own Beokuta.

The women argue over how things should be done.

The women argue over how things should be done.

Since I wasn’t able to attend the Christian funeral, I came along with Uncle Newman and Sissy Mary (my father’s oldest sister) to bury Beokuta in Obubu. I had not been to the village since Mewe’s funeral. Obubu is a small, quiet village and its inhabitants are petite, small-framed people. The women, however, are strong and vocal; they were the ones who came out to greet us and to help us with the burial arrangements. I watched as they prepared the food under a cluster of palm trees just outside Beokuta’s resting place. The children trekked back and forth between the cooking site and the well, carrying large, heavy pails on their heads. When anyone was not immediately at work, they danced to the DJ’s music, which syncopated everyone’s rhythm as we got ready for the funeral: from the smallest of the children to the oldest of the women. The DJ had set up a small canopy with raffia leaves and thick bamboo trunks. Throughout the afternoon, the skies threatened rain as we prepared. I watched and listened, the raspy, rolling sounds of Urhobo floating around me; spice and root smells, mingled with subtle human odor and schnapps, occasionally tickling my nose. I felt at home.

Beokuta’s burial place is just beyond Mewe’s. As I walked past Mewe’s resting place, I was struck first by how far it had deteriorated over the years. The windows and door had long since fallen away, and the walls had not been painted in all these years. Brother Mail performed a quick remembrance ceremony in her resting place, with an offering of rice, kola nut, and libations. Uncle Newman later took us into Mewe’s room to communicate with her. It felt surreal standing over my grandmother, in an empty room and gin splashed on damp cement floor in libation.

Keeping wake...dancing through the night.

Keeping wake…dancing through the night.

Back outside, I gratefully breathed in the fresh air. As night drew near, we began to perform the burial rites for Beokuta. The elderly men began by going out to the edge of the village to welcome Beokuta’s spirit. They call her to come and rest. This is done by setting up a kind of welcoming post, with two lanterns on each side of the path leading to the burial compound. Some rites are performed there to ensure she comes through. Later on, in the night, three fires are set. This is part of the process of settling her to rest. The music plays in the background, and people began to eat and drink. We, her kinsfolk, kept wake throughout the night, as the other rites were performed. A goat was sacrificed to “feed the ground.” The blood of the goat is distributed over her grave. Other offerings are made such as yam and plantain, along with dried fish in fulfillment of the homecoming. I did not witness how or when these offerings were made, however. As we kept wake, we were called three times to dance round the fires, as the men sang out to Beokuta and our other ancestors. The DJ then took over, and we danced and ate throughout the night, keeping ourselves awake in order to keep company with Mama Beokuta.

Groggy and fatigued, we greeted the morning with the final rites. We implored Beokuta to enter her resting place finally. The elder men then led a small procession through the village, a short call and response to accompany our steps. We were announcing Beokuta’s life and death, offering a sip of Ogogoro (a local clear liquor) to bystanders along the way. This concluded the long ceremony. We went round to embrace each other. I breathed in deeply the earthy odors of my kin, trying to create a sensory memento of this experience to keep with me and remember. My life is so far away from this small place, but a piece of it is in me. It is because of this place, these people that I exist.

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Conversations with Usman

An example of the Arabic manuscripts in Northern Nigeria.

An example of the Arabic manuscripts in Northern Nigeria.

16 March 2007 (Abuja)

I’ve come to the end of this speaking tour in Northern Nigeria. It has been a wonderful learning experience for me. I never would have had the opportunity, nor would I have taken the time to travel here if it were not for my work with Aluka. My favorite cities were Kaduna and Kano. I really liked the energy and flow of Kano—a very old walled city with a colorful history.

An example of the intricate architectural paintings at the museum in Kano.

An example of the intricate architectural paintings at the museum in Kano.

I indulged in some shopping at a small leather goods market in Kano; we did not get a chance to go to the Old Kano Market, one of the oldest and largest in West Africa. Sokoto and Kano have amazing leather goods, and each city has its own unique aesthetic in terms of styles and designs. In Sokoto, the rich leather mats and floor cushions come in a wide array of colors—burgundy, various greens, indigo, rich ochre, and deep browns—and it is the fashion to embellish them with gold or silver. While they were spectacular I couldn’t bring myself to purchase these; they were just not my style, nor could I afford the prices (even after negotiation). In Kano, I found the same array of color and textures, but instead of gold and silver ornamentation, I found intricate designs, which were often replicated on the ornate buildings around the city, from the Emir’s palace to the fire station. I admired snake-skin bags, dainty leather bangles, and beautiful silver jewelry. I wanted to touch everything, the colors and textures were so rich. I breathed in deeply the rich leather smells.

The most memorable part of this trip will be my conversations with Usman (I have changed his name to protect his identity). Usman was our public relations coordinator. He is originally from Northeastern Nigeria. Usman is an attentive, thoughtful man with a soft face and intense eyes. When he speaks, it is deliberate and soft-spoken. But his softness does not dull the sharp edge of his intellect and passion for thought.

Our conversations started one afternoon at the end of lunch, when he quietly notified me of his interest in speaking with me about the Niger Delta. He knew my personal research focused on the Delta, and it had come up in some of our group conversations in the Embassy van. The militants have been in the news of late, with the recent kidnappings of Filipino hostages. Mr. H. immediately rolled his eyes and insisted on sitting in the front of the van (where he ended up sitting through most of our road travels, quiet and alone); we Nigerians seem to forever be obsessed with politics, according to him. I, in turn, dismissed his comment and smiled broadly, open to some intelligent conversation and engagement with something I think about daily, and care about deeply.

I at first expected a more adversarial conversation, as most conversations on the Niger Delta have so far been with non-Deltans. My other conversations to date usually start out with a question to this effect: “What’s wrong with you people down in the Delta?” or “What’s the real problem down there?” I then feel compelled to disaggregate the actions of the MEND militants from the long-standing and historical struggle of Delta communities against the government and the exploitative multinational companies. Instead of beginning the conversation in the usual way, Usman, with quiet eyes, asked me what I thought about the Niger Delta crisis; that it seems to be more complex than the media portrays it. He wanted to get my take on it. We ended up talking for a solid two hours. We talked about what it meant for this region (at least the Niger Delta, if not the communities in along the entire West African coastline) to live with the legacy of slavery, similar to but unique from the slave societies on the other side of the Atlantic. This is an idea most Nigerians would reject offhand. Usman took it in; had never thought of it in that way before. We talked about the long struggle among Delta communities for basic infrastructure and public services. Usman interjected with his own knowledge of development in the North, and the region’s own legacies of slavery and colonialism there. These legacies, it turns out, are not too distant from each other, the Niger Delta and the Sahel.

We meditated on the effects of intense and complicated systems of patronage, that stretch as far back as at least the 19th century. These systems have become institutionalized in the Niger Delta, and are a widespread feature of the Nigerian political landscape. Usman gave me some insight on the distribution of oil revenue between the oil-producing states and the other states in the federation. These areas used to (I’m not sure if they still do) receive 13% more revenue from oil than the other states. Still, there is a profound lack of development in many areas of the Delta. It is clear that only a few are benefiting from this wealth within the Delta, and in the central government.

One of the Emir of Kano's guards finishing prayers, outer court of the Emir's palace.

One of the Emir of Kano’s guards finishing prayers, outer court of the Emir’s palace.

In the days that followed, Usman and I sought each other out, between our presentations and press conferences, and sat in the back of the Embassy van to discuss many other things. He had some interesting insights on the similarities between Christian and Islāmic belief systems (he had some experience in a Catholic Mission school when he was younger, so he was well-acquainted with their worldview). I learned more about the Islāmic faith, which he was very patient to explain. We talked about his own Fulbe culture, how he would like his children to learn the language and culture despite Hausa dominance in many parts of the North. He explained the difference between Fulbe and Hausa ethnicity. Like other pastoralist groups in Africa it means the difference between those who own/follow cattle and those who don’t.

Usman is both progressive and militant. We talked about relations between men and women; the kinds of power men and women hold; complementarity between the sexes; the ultimate importance of respect between human beings. I found that one of his favorite books was Malcolm X’s autobiography. He was aware of other critical black thinkers of the African Diaspora: Franz Fanon, Walter Rodney, Kwame Toure, C.L.R. James, and others. We talked for hours.

From time to time L. and A. would join in our conversations. L. is Christian and Igbo, who has lived most of her life in the North. Her views also deviated from those of most of the Evangelical Christians I usually meet. She is Anglican and a bit more reserved than our fellow Evangelicals. A. lived through the Civil Rights era, and recalls exchanging with some of the prominent black thinkers and figures of that time. These conversations were very meaningful and satisfying. I learned so much from each of my traveling companions, and we became friends in the process. I will definitely keep up correspondence with Usman. I value his insight and wisdom.

Overall, my experience of the North has been extremely positive. Despite the fatigue of touring, I feel more relaxed. Some of it has to do with getting away from the everyday grind and frustrations of living in Benin. Much of it has to do with the important exchanges I have had with people. I enjoyed the warm hospitality with which people regarded me. I was profoundly challenged on many of the stereotypes I had of this part of the country. I hope to visit again soon and take more time in certain places, especially Kano and Kaduna. Usman has also invited me to his part of the country. I look forward to doing so one day, hopefully before I leave.

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.

Faculty-of-Management-Science-University-of-Benin

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…

Series 1: Diaries of a Mad Wanderer (or DMW)

To inaugurate my blogging adventure, I’d like to present a series of essays I wrote during a critical eight months of my life in Nigeria, between 2006 and 2007. I had traveled there to carry out my dissertation research. Much of it was spent in my hometowns of Benin City and Warri, with short periods in Ibadan and Lagos. I use the word “hometowns,” because I spent my childhood in these cities. My family left in the mid-1980s, when the military coups were ramping up in frequency and violence, and life had become unbearable for many families. Since our departure, the United States has become my home, but I still have a sense of rootedness in Nigeria. My relationship with Nigeria, and with the Niger Delta more specifically, is complex and complicated. This complexity informs how I move in the world, not claiming to be from any one place while feeling at home in several. This sense of multiple belongings has become a typical mode of being for many people living in the twenty-first century, so my experience is certainly not unique. My awareness of this sensibility was provoked regularly during those eight months between 2006 and 2007, and the essays that follow reflect my observations and ruminations during that time.

I originally sent these essays to a group of close family and friends through emails. It was the most efficient way to send things from Nigeria at the time, where internet connectivity was patchy and electricity was not reliable. The series was not very thoughtfully called “Diaries of a Mad Wanderer” (or DMW), and it was structured as a series of journal entries. I had plenty of down time, and saw so much each day that I documented my experience with great commitment and discipline. What follows are edited versions of these original journal entries, shared with loved ones.