Tuesday, January 25, 2005
Monday, January 24, 2005
Saturday, January 22, 2005
Recovering today from racing around Northern Nigeria with my folks in the past 11 days. Yesterday we went to the old city of Zaria for the Durbar (horse pageant marking Sallah) - see pix above. Our host was the main guy in the picture immediately above (the son-in-law of the Emir).
It was an extremely spectacular event - 1000's of beautiful horses gorgeously adorned, gunshots smoting the air, scowling scary hyenas, camels turding and chewing, maidens a plenty, and serious looking men with huge turbans, all to a pasolini-esque soundtrack of wild oscillating sahel flutes and 8 foot long brass horns rumbling sonic farts into the ether. As close as you can get to an Elizabethan jousting tournement and medieval existence (except that one State Governor arrived in a huge gleaming Hummer, which kindof spoilt things). Folks are in the air back to the UK with super saturated images of West Africa etched indelibly into their minds..
Wednesday, January 12, 2005
Friday 24th December
Arrived in Enugu yesterday after leaving behind mild chaos at Abuja airport. Our plane was delayed for nearly two hours without explanation. Enugu seems tranquil and relaxed, with plenty of shady streets. This morning, after visiting Paul’s primary school, we went to see a family friend of the Kalu’s – Emile. Emile is 50 and comes from Cameroun. Her Nigerian husband died a few years ago, while dancing at a party. She lives in a large compound with imposing sculptures in the driveway. Inside the walls were either dark wood panelled or dark aubergine. There was a large Benin bronze style dog in the reception room. The house was a haven of fun loving women. Emile was wearing very short shorts and claimed to be drunk. There were three or four other women there, with a ceaseless merry banter around the table. Then we went to see Paul’s Aunt Alice (another family friend). Their house is gorgeous, with vertical brise soleil cladding and Corbusier-esque shapes on the room a la Unite d’habitation. The living room on the first floor was a sort of African homage to Corb, with Monsieur Jeanneret chairs everywhere amidst lovely African artworks. Alice is a Swiss lady married to a Nigerian architect. They had two lovely Roman pine Christmas trees. I asked for a brandy; the drinks cabinet opened up like in a James Bond movie. Then on the expansive veranda full of bougainvilleas and more Corb-esque chairs we met the father. He soon launched into war stories (the Biafran war) – regret that the Igbos had not used more hidden rafts against the ‘Nigerian’ ships. There wasn’t time to have a prolonged conversation, but for the first time, I felt the living memory flesh and blood reality of the civil war. Paul told us later his father never talks about the war. He lost two brothers in the violence.
Monday 27th December
Dad is 61 today, over 3000 miles away in cold England. I sent him a text but I’m not sure he got it. We have been in Isiugwu for the past two days. The Kalu’s brought Theophilous, their Beninoise cook, with them. Theophilous is prone to getting miserably drunk. When sober, he likes singing and whistling. He is 59 and lost his wife a few years ago. Isiugwu is the Kalu’s village in the local government area of Ohafia in Abia State, two hours drive from Enugu. It is in the heart of Igboland, typical of the rural setting where Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things Fall Apart is set. It has given us a real taste of traditional rural Igbo life. The family house is set in large grounds, with a disused tennis court and empty swimming pool. The house itself has two floors, with the public living room below the private living room upstairs. Each room has French windows either side which are opened during the day to let in the breeze. The balcony on the first floor has lovely views of the landscape, with jacaranda, flame trees and almond trees in the garden and the blue smudge of far off hills on the horizon. Sunbirds, Africa’s version of humming birds, float and whirr in the trees nearest the balcony. Kites sore and sailing in the sky round about, riding the currents with hardly a flap of wing required. In another tree, I spot a huge beaked hornbill, Africa’s version of the Macaw. In the middle distance, you can just make out the paddy fields. Paul offered us spicy peanut butter and garden eggs (small green aubergines) on a wooden platter made specifically for this traditional Igbo welcome ritual. You cut the garden egg in half then dip into the peppery peanut butter. He also showed us the slab of chalk which is traditionally placed in Igbo homes. Each visitor covers themselves in the chalk as an act of being welcomed.
The village itself is blessed with self-sufficiency; there is a natural spring which feeds the agriculture of the village. As well as rice and plentiful vegetables and fruit, the villagers grew cassava and yam. Yesterday, Paul led us to the ‘yam barns’ beyond the village, where the year’s yam seed are stored until the next year. To get there, we descended into a verdant gully. At the bottom, there is an emerald green pond which the villagers use for bathing and washing clothes. The tall trees surrounding the pond create an amphitheatre out of the frolicking sounds of children. I thought about how those sounds were probably very similar hundreds of years ago, as the spring itself has provided bounty for the villagers for countless generations. A large log was positioned in the pond to give the women a surface for scrubbing the clothes. One woman pulled her laundry out of a Sainsbury’s shopping bag (how far the bag had travelled!) As we walked up and into the shaded corridor of the yam barns, with strips of territory demarcated by bamboo fences, we saw many large brightly coloured butterflies fluttering about. Sometimes it reminded me of Monk’s Walk back in my village in the Midlands in the height of summer; the shadowy light and dry undergrowth underfoot arranged around a winding path. Only the size of the huge leaves and the tropical sounds remind you that this is West Africa.
Later on in the day, we drove to Abriba, a nearby town, to deliver Christmas cards from Paul’s family. Paul explained that the town has a certain reputation based around a refined expertise in importation, often undertaken by not altogether legal means. Those who had profited from this activity had spent their riches building bad taste palaces strewn about the hills. Not content to build ugly monstrosities, the rich 'importers' also name them tacky names. We dropped a card at a place called Noah’s Ark, then drove down the hill to Nymph’s Palace. The town itself was hectic; Aberiba was celebrating the Igba Uche ‘age mate’ festival (see below). Many women wore spiky wigs and garish make-up. The men often wore suits with bowler hats or the latest basketball American. I saw a man with a feather in his bowler hat; Paul explained that this used to signify that the person has cut off a head but is now used to signify age and wisdom. Everywhere there are the Egwuana marquees.
Today it is the turn of Isiugwu to celebrate the Igba Uche. Each family erects a marquee, with the tartan-like cloth of the area creating the covering. Visitors are given drinks or kola-nuts in return for a small donation (each donation is written in a visitors book). Inside, the some of the family’s furniture is positioned to create a living room effect. On the front of the marquee there is often a large photograph of the family’s person of honour who is being celebrated. Each marquee also has its own sound system (or borrowed hi-fi system). With so many marquees jammed together the noise was cacophonous. It is Paul’s Uncle’s turn to be celebrated as the elder of the town. He is usually very involved in the organisation. However this year he has stayed away because some aspects of the ritual offend his Christian faith. We also saw the age-mate promenade. Led by the local chief, the older men and women marched past dancing to the rhythm of the drummers. Apparently this march happens only ever four years. They marched from the market place up through the village to a new building that they had all contributed to building. In the absence of funding from the State and the Local Government, the age-mate ceremony is as much as anything a way of organising and creating public works.
Tuesday 28th December
Today we went trekking out of the village to inspect Paul’s mom’s palm plantation, and soon found ourselves deep in a lush hilly tropical landscape. Mrs Kalu may own the land, but she gains nothing from it, allowing professional farmers to make the most of the red soil. We pass by women farming ugwu (spinach) and water leaf, cutting off plants to take to the market. We walk by bulbous cocoa pods, bushes full of beautiful orange and brown winged butterflies, pineapples with bright red leaves. Down by the palm oil press near the river, we come upon women bathing nearly naked with their children. We see the spiky sweet guanabana (soursap) fruit hanging from trees, as well as the large egusi melons that look like zeppelin airships hanging from the branches. We hear the creaking sound of hornbills high above. We stop for a while and study a river of ants on their way somewhere, the sides of the river guarded by the larger soldier ants. I disturb the ground and some of the ants break out of line. The soldier ants quickly run around them to manouver them back in line. We stop to rest by the glinting emerald river, in the shade of a towering clump of bamboo, all around the music of the forest. On our way back, we walk past the same river of ants, there must have been many millions in the swarm. We walk underneath trees buzzing with bees, the sweet smell of their honey perfuming the air. Finally, we return to the village and walk to the men’s bathing pond, diving into the cool fast flowing water. Some village men are bathing naked there as well, cleaning and cooling themselves off after morning work in the fields. Then the driver Godwin picks us up and takes us back up the winding hill out of the village to a hearty breakfast of porridge, pineapple, baked beans and plantain.
In the afternoon we drove to Amaudo, an hour and a half’s bumpy drive from Isiugwu down an endlessly dusty red track, with sporadic relief provided by the odd stretch of smooth tarmac. Mars has flatter roads. Still, there was plenty of gorgeous wildlife on the way. We saw a bee eater, its breast cobalt blue and with orange wings. Amaudo is a community set up for mentally ill destitutes set up fifteen years ago by an Irish nun named Roz. Roz is the Mother Teresa of Nigeria by all accounts. She speaks fluent Igbo (and is known as Nkechi here) and had run two leper colonies in the East, contributing to the disease disappearing from the country. She set up Amaudo to help those people seen in almost every Nigerian town wandering dirty and naked with wild matted hair. In most cases, the destitutes are suffering from schizophrenia. The Amaudo team go round and find destitutes and offer them to come back to live in the community. Roz fell ill a few years ago and had to return to the UK. Her immune system had been weakened by years of parasites and she fell into a coma caught from a needle left in her arm in the hospital. She is recovering at the moment and her family don’t want her to return to Nigeria. Amaudo is run by volunteers, including an English couple Julian and Poly and another English woman Diane. We arrived at Amaudo with Julian loading a brand new Chinese motorbike onto a pick-up truck. We were given a tour of the community. All the buildings are arranged in a circle to encourage a sense of equality. Each newcomer is taught a trade, shoe-making, carpentry, tailoring etc that they can take away with them when they leave. Most people spend around two years in the community and then are well enough to leave. At the send-off party, they are given the tools of their trade – a sewing machine, tailoring tools etc. Julian is a qualified psychiatrist who used to work in a busy hospital in London; his wife is newly qualified. They do not earn any money at Amaudo, supporting themselves by the small money they make from renting their house in London. Julian explained that schizophrenia is very similar across the world, but that they don’t have enough money to use the latest drugs used in the West. They will leave to go and live in the UK again in the next year or so in order to maintain their careers. Julian told us that there are many more Nigerian psychiatrists in London than there are in the whole of Nigeria. This is because unlike gynaecology or surgery, there is very little money in mental health. Amaudo is a gem of a place that should be given more support. Unfortunately, there is a huge disconnect between genuine projects like Amaudo and the slick NGO pros who swank around Lagos and Abuja.
I woke up and finished making my vegan trifle – surely the first vegan trifle in the East of Nigeria. It didn’t look quite so nice as the usual perfect three-layered object; this because of the adversities of dealing with only deep freezers and no fridges, as well as no whisk, a lack of ingredients and the looming presence of Theophilous the cantankerous cook. But I succeeded in making something that gets 6 out 10. Nearby the house, vultures circled ominously, with their legs dangling beneath them like the undercarriage of a plane. A cow was being killed nearby. Higher above, kites sailed the air – someone was burning the bush again. I finished my book, ‘Waiting for the wild beasts to vote’ by an Ivorian writer Kourouna. It is a bittersweet satire of African leadership told in a mock-mythical narrative style. Towards the end, there is a hilarious account of the country holding a ‘sovereign national conference’ (something Nigerians often talk about having). The conference rapidly descends into tragedy and farce; something which would most probably happen if it were to happen here. The sad thing is that many Nigerians seem to think that it would actually lead to some degree of resolution, rather than intensify the tragic-comic issues that divide the people from each other.
In the afternoon, we drove to the nearby area of Aro-chukwu. Aro-chukwu means the ‘home of God’ – apparently aro is a Hebrew word, confirming yet again that the Igbo’s may have at least some shared ancestry with the Jews (they are often thought of as the Jews of Nigeria, given their propensity to form tight social networks and organise for each other, as well as their dynamic entrepreneurial spirit). We were going to a wedding of a colleague of Rex’s. On the way, from the signboards of the churches, we passed out of Presbytarian territory and into Catholic lands. As we forked off the main road to the wedding, we passed by two black masquerades – men dressed in black with a fizzly mass of thread around their upper body and neck and a mask, making them look like a cross between a gorilla and a baboon. We also went passed a man covered in chalk and feathers – Paul explained he was a ‘dibia’ – a witch-doctor. The wedding was a traditional Igbo wedding, except that Rex’s colleague works in the marketing department of Guinness Nigeria, so there was Guinness bunting everywhere and girls serving Guinness beverages in branded outfits. Rex and Paul wore traditional Igbo red checked cloth outfits, with traditional felt caps (we noted they were made in the Czech Republic). The wedding took place in the compound of the bride. Against a backdrop of palm trees, the marquees were spread across the red earth. The event was billed to start at noon; we arrived at 4pm and the wedding was only just beginning. The groom arrived to the accompaniment of lilting Igbo highlife-style music. He was ‘sprayed’ money. Later the bride appeared. Her hair was done in China bumps with orange beads looped around the mounds of packed in braided hair. She also had words and signs hennad onto her body and forehead for the occasion. The groom hid near us while she did the traditional search for the groom. Once she found him, she had to present him with a glass of liquid twice before they could go off and dance. Some men wore dark velvet tops; some wore bowler hats, some trilby’s, some the traditional Igbo woolly cap. Some of the women wore the Yoruba-import Gele damask headwrap. A bottle of Moet appeared – my first bubbly of the festive period. As the alcohol settled in my body, I started to think about the nature of traditional societies versus modern industrialised societies. I reflected on how people in modern societies often yearn for a return to the intense ritualism all about me at that moment; people dancing and following age old patterns of communication and celebration of a specific event. I thought of how in the West we often feel a deep separation from tradition; a sense that although we may want to return to ritual, it is an impossible journey to make. Perhaps that is the fundamental condition of being a modern; that one is deracinated from tradition and from a deep sense of origin. In Nigeria, most people are under this definition pre-modern; many people have a sense of an origin (often in a village), whether or not they have ever lived there. Even now with many big cities, very few Nigerians define their identity through urban space or urban identity. This is part of the reason why ethnic difference remains entrenched across the country.