Tuesday, August 30, 2005

On the significance of Yoruba metaphysics

I started to think about the relationship between language, matter and spirit within Yoruba culture last night with Bibi. The entrypoint: a simply reflection on the frequency of the word ‘wealth’ (ola) in Yoruba names. Many Yoruba names translate as ‘God gave me wealth’ or ‘A share of God’s wealth’ etc. The thesis here is that the union of spirit and matter written into the Yoruba language creates a unique metaphysical framework in which the material is not divorced from spirit.

In this respect, the Yoruba metaphysical platform is a highly sophisticated one and deserves renewed study internally and externally. The West has been sick with dualism since the late medieval period (and articulated by the philosophy of Rene Descartes): 500 years of a schism between mind and body which has left the West reaching ever skywards in its hatred of the body. Despite the quick monist rejoinders to Descartes by Spinoza and Leibniz, and the twentieth century push by phenomenology to re-enter a spiritualised world of the flesh, AND the late twentieth century scrambled materialism of Giles Deleuze, the West still has not broken back out of a dualist metaphysical paradigm.

Which is precisely why Westerners are so uncomfortable with African Christianity and what appears to be the blatant materialism and a distortion of what is deemed to be the basic Christian message. Prosperity doctrine and the ‘my god is a rich god’ are not mysterious phenomena when put into their socio-cultural context: they are hard-coded into the linguistic dna of various Nigerian languages. As has been said by various anthropologists, the god-wealth nexus is the outcome of pre-modern religious systems still grounded in agrarian-cults: praying for the bounty of the sun, the rain and the earth leading to an equivalence between spiritual and material responses.

Moreover, the discomfort Westerners feel when witnessing sharp-suited more-or-less incoherent Nigerian pastors may also come from a deeper metaphysical frequency: just as western intellectuals have often felt nostalgia for the pre-dualistic dynamic world of the Ancient Greeks, so too some of those intellectuals have sensed that the Yoruba world-view has something of the Greek about it. Just as in the Athens of old, the orishas are ancestral beings: heroic humans who became spiritualised. The ancient Greek gods were themselves taken to be half-human – the memory of their spirits infused space and place. Unlike the schismatic monotheisms that came later where God was expelled from the human world, godliness was inherent in everything: pantheism and animism reverberated throughout the kingdom of being.

Bibi said something very interesting last night on this: that the Yoruba have an innate, but most often inarticulable sense of the metaphysical prowess of the culture. Because there isn’t the language or discourse readily available, this majesty of spirit lies concealed, like a vital spring that doesn’t score the earth’s surface. On the one hand, westerners struggle with the origin of thought: paradox and contradiction and insulate themselves by espousing the law of excluded middle. Meanwhile, the Yoruba deal with contradiction and paradox with ease. Yoruba culture is an interstitial culture: inside and outside, beautiful and ugly, moral and immoral, authenticity and the fake, all mix and reflect each other. Everything takes place in-between, in a celebration of the intermezzo. The Yoruba are the masters of ambiguity, of plural possibilities and multiple interpretations immanent with each present. It is no accident that before the Yoruba pray to their assigned Orisha (whether Sango, Ogun, Obatala etc), they must first acknowledge Eshu Elegba, the mediatory figure, the god of the crossroads, the in-between. It is also no accident that one of the key traffic intersections in Lagos is called Ojuelegba (the ‘eye’ of Eshu).

Westerners yearn for this level of fluid interbeing (they are haunted by the spirit of Eshu’s cousin, Hermes) – again most often without being able to articulate this innermost material-spiritual nexus of desire. Westerners are stuck in the logic of the either or the or; the Yoruba meanwhile are immensely comfortable with contradiction and confusion. It is the source of their power.


Friday, August 26, 2005

British American Tobacco in Nigeria

I'm sure like many others here, it really pisses me off that British American Tobacco are allowed to get away with their "Proudly Nigerian" corporate social responsibility advertising. Although fag companies have been banned from advertising in Nigeria, BAT advertise all kinds of bullshit-cultural stuff under the Proudly Nigerian banner, complete with a large BAT logo. As George Monbiot said of BAT recently:

"Let us begin by examining BAT’s contribution to public health. Smoking, according to the World Health Organisation, “is currently responsible for the death of one in ten adults worldwide … half the people that smoke today – that is about 650 million people – will eventually be killed by tobacco.” BAT sells one sixth of the world’s cigarettes.(3) Were responsibility to be divided according to market share, we could accuse it of causing the deaths of 100 million people."


On AIT this morning

They always have interesting debates on Kakaki (Africa Independent Television) in the mornings. Although a lot of the guests have too much God in their heads and not enough reason, the show is definitely trying to push the envelope for critical discourse here in Naija. This morning, they were talking about what to do about the recent spate of armed robbery attacks on Churches up and down the land. An evangelical pastor started talking about how the evangelical churches are too money-oriented with the dominant 'prosperity doctrine' discourse. For him, the combination of pastors owning fleets of luxury cars and private jets plus extraction of an absolute minimum 10% tithe is a recipe for class conflict. Needless to say, everyone else grew uncomfortable with the pastor's breaching of the reality-illusion gap and he wasnt given time to speak.

Whenever I watch the preachers over here spout meaningless babble which has no relationship to genuine christian values (neighbourly love, humility, compassion), it feels like Jesus has been buried under a huge steaming pile of bullshit. Jesus (if such a figure can be assumed to have existed) was a radical figure from a radical town (Galilee) who wanted the Romans out. The Romans killed him for his troubles. All the stuff about Judas' betrayal was invented by Paul a hundred years later, spinning a Roman-friendly line that spawned the anti-semitic virus that exists until today.

Jesus was not a wealthy man, nor did he ascribe to material wealth. So where exactly does Prosperity Doctrine get off?


Soft Tribe in Accra

When I was in Ghana a few months ago, I had the luck to meet up with Soft Tribe, Accra's leading and most innovative software development company. There's an interesting article on today's World Changing (culled from Timbucktu Chronicles) about how the company has developed and made a huge success out of 'tropically tolerant software'.


Thursday, August 25, 2005

More on banning okadas, street traders etc.

There's quite a few good articles on Gamji.com on the proposed bans on okadas and street trading. Check this one. The idea of depriving millions of Nigerians of a basic livelihood with these bans is both unfeasible and dangerous. The lasting legacy of the decades of military dictatorship in Nigeria is a poor-hating elite with no clue about how to embrace the energy of the masses. Political change will not arrive in Nigeria until we have a leadership who are not afraid of walking amongst the poor.


Another nice Nigerian photo site



More Nigerian blogs

There's a blog I just discovered by a student at the local university: TRAE. His account of student life is tragicomic:

"Having passed through secondary school with ease they think the university will be a piece of cake and that the same last minute preparations for exams/tests will help. In the long run it doesn’t. They neglect their studies and pursue chicks. They might be successful but most often this lays in store, the problem starts. They don’t read thus resort to cheating (during exams or exchanging money for marks) and do poorly in their exams. Dues to their extravagant life styles they’re often broke and into debts, stealing becomes the way out. For some it ends in jail or being shot. Some start doing and/or dealing in drugs. Some join cults or have problem with cult members. Some go down with STDs…pimping has its price. A lot end up never graduating or graduating with 3rd class degrees and fucking up their life for ever."

The youth in Nigeria have been discarded - a lost generation disenfranchised and alienated from society, while old men who fucked it up time and time again buzz around Power like flies around shit.

Another nice naija weblog is Naija Jamz - dedicated to upcoming Nigerian music.


Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Nigeria on flickr

I've created a Flickr group for Nigerian images. The shtick about Flickr groups is to have a store of shared images about a specific topic. So anyone reading this can go to www.flickr.com, register and then upload their Nigerian images.


Fiers d'être capverdiens

Fiers d'être capverdiens
Originally uploaded by inisheer.
Been trawling through www.flickr.com to see what images there are of Africa. Found a series of Cape Verde island images, but nothing on Nigeria. So I'm going to set up a flickr Nigeria group..


Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Different paradigms..

There is a local paper here called The Sun (which has exactly the same logo etc as the UK tabloid). Saturday's edition had a two-page spread on the issue of 'Who owns the boobs?' Of the 15 or so young women interviewed, only one believed that her breasts were her own property. The other 14 believed their tits to be either the property of their baby, or their man, or both.

The fact that 99.99% of women here have internalised a feudal form of patriarchy, such that they think of themselves as the property (or potential property) of a man, is no surprise in what is a pre-modern, pre-industrialised society. What is more shocking is the question itself. It is outside my paradigm to think that a woman's body can be owned by anyone else but herself.

Quite where an enlightened man entering into this society would find a woman who is not docilely colluding with this patriarchal bullshit it would be difficult to say. As usual, B and I are left feeling alienated from this timewarped society: either they are mad or we are.


Friday, August 19, 2005

Nigeria's IT infrastructure problems coming to an end

Project West Africa is a new submarine fibre-optic cable project linking West Africa to Europe and the States. PWA is a welcome move which threatens to subsume the failed SAT3 cable - it should mean that expensive/unreliable VSAT bandwidth in West Africa will be history within 3 years.


Thursday, August 18, 2005

Ethiopia goes broadband

The Ethiopian Govt is spending 10% of its annual GDP on a broadband backbone infrastructure, throwing in a plasma screen for every school for good measure. Nigeria meanwhile continues to try to run before it can walk, by leaping into e-government. Quite how e-govt is supposed to get off the ground without adequate IT infrastructure is anyone's guess.


Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Nigerian blogs

Just joined a naija blog ring. Click here for a list of their Nigerian blogs.


Friday, August 12, 2005

Understanding corruption

Its amazing how much people talk about corruption in Nigeria and yet no one really gets to the bottom of analysing how and why it reproduces itself. People seek absolution in their God on a Friday, a Saturday or a Sunday, without reflecting on what brought them to put their hands in the till the previous Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.

Until an analysis of the cultural and social horizon at work in Nigeria is done, it is difficult to see any change. Part of the problem is that the kinds of people who could provide insight here are not, as they say 'on ground': sociologists, anthropologists, ethnographers and the like (the sociologists they have here for the most part rely on textbooks from the 1970s, if they have textbooks). Here are some pointers:

1. Nigeria has a master-slave economy.
a)Employers often have the attitude that workers should be grateful to have a job. Withholding wages (to spend elsewhere, to accumulate interest, or to stave off cash-flow problems) is not seen as unethical
b)Child-labour is not seen as unethical by many of the god-fearing elite. Having 10 year old girls serving you food is not an issue for comment
c)In the East, descendants of those sent away into slavery (ie the brother or sister's descendants) are STILL treated as outcasts. They have to live in separate areas, cannot get political office or marry out. The wound of the slave trade still festers in Nigeria, although no one ever talks about it. As I understand, although Ghana gets all the weeping-African-American tourist trail glory, many more slaves were sent from Nigerian ports.

The origins of this master-slave economy is another story, and this is a blog and I'm at work so I dont have time to go into this.

2. Wages are too low. For example, a Director General in the Civil Service earns around £400-£600 per month. From an economics point of view, this is of course not a bad thing, especially with the unofficial inflation figure being around 20%. But low wages + a strong normative pressure to reproduce leads to large families with not enough funds to support them. People seek unofficial ways of feeding mouths and paying school fees. Civil servants with rank go to conference and better still, foreign 'training' trips, to bring in lucrative per diem.

3. Among the Yoruba, seniority is a highly significant power dynamic. If you are older, you have power over others. But this power carries expectations along with it. Heads of families, eldest siblings etc etc have to support the younger ones within the compound.

4. Anyone with a respectable-sounding job (doctor, teacher, engineer etc) is seen as having both prestige and money. Poor relatives flock to the door with outstretched hands.

One could go on and on - but the above and other socio-cultural factors are the key dynamics which drive the reproduction of corruption in Nigeria. At present, everyone talks about stopping corruption. Without an adequate analysis of the factors that motivate it, how can anything change?


Nigeria: the Time Machine

Many people have had the idle fantasy of being able to Time Travel: the source of the popularity of H.G. Wells' classic novel. Well, in Nigeria, you dont need future technology to do it. The attitudes, norms and expectations of the people are a snapshot of 1950's England, especially when it comes to gender relations. A rising star of the ngo-world here was interviewed in a local women's magazine, saying that she thought it possible to be strongly feminine and 'submissive' at the same time. This someone who is yet to be 30, is Wharton Business School MBA educated etc.

It takes a few moments to absorb the fact that in Nigeria, many women place a great deal of value on being a submissive wife. To a Brit like myself, it is especially hard given that that value disappeared with my grandparents generation.

Of course, you can't take one comment and generalise it to the whole culture: there are huge differences in gender relations between the three main ethnic groups (hausa, igbo, yoruba), with igbo women perhaps winning the award for most submissive and yoruba women take first prize in least submissive.

The fact remains however that attitudes around gender in Nigeria are decades behind elsewhere in the world. And without an emergent vocal feminism, the equivalent of first and second generation feminist movements in the West, its difficult to see how attitudes will change.


Thursday, August 11, 2005

On the Crusades

I've started reading Amin Maalouf's The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. As with his classic book Leo the African, Maalouf has a genius for narrative and characterisation, immediately drawing you into quite a complex scenario in 1095. Reading the Arab version of events (Maalouf's account is a stitching together of Levantine scribes writing as the events unfolded) has prompted me to go searching for the Western view (its interesting encountering history from a non-western standpoint first). This website gives a comprehensive western perspective.


Wednesday, August 10, 2005

A changing Islam?

Just finished reading The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. It’s a story about a child growing up in 1970’s Afghanistan, seeing his country fall apart with the Russians and then the Taliban taking over, all the time nursing a traumatic childhood regret. Ultimately, the story takes a redemptive turn, and the figure of the kite lifts the spirit of the text upwards.

The portrayal of the Taliban is shocking in its account of their brutality, sadism and sheer hypocrisy. As with the Wahabi virus in Saudi Arabia, one is forced to confront how severely Islam has been bastardised by warped minds and Islamism in the past twenty years. Sometimes it feels that the enlightened Islam that reached its height during the School of Baghdad and Cordoba nearly a millennia ago disappeared when the brutalities committed on the Arabs in Jerusalem during the Crusades pushed the Middle-East into a reactive Jihadism.

However, it looks like there are positive things emerging within global Islam which challenge the Western mindset that Islam is stuck in a medieval pre-scientific world-view. Ziauddin Sadar in this week’s New Statesman reports on his travels round Muslim lands that a progressive, rationalist (ie non-literal) Islam is on the rise, from Morocco to Indonesia. If the shoots he observes continue to grow, together with the united western front against the perverse interpretation of the Koran from the mad mullahs who were allowed for too long to spin their spiel of hatred of the West (all the while claiming unemployment and housing benefit in the UK), a contemporary form of Islam may yet become dominant. An Islam at ease with its own pluralisms, from the intricacies of Sufism to the Shia/Sunni divide. At which point, Abraham's three squabbling monotheistic sons will realise that their similarities and shared history were always much greater than their differences.


Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The proposed ban on okadas

Following a couple of ugly incidents in the past week, both the minister for the Federal Capital Territory and the Lagos State Governor are threatening to ban motorbike taxis (known here as okada). There is a good editorial in today's Nigerian Guardian on the whole caboodle.

The point raised is a familiar one: government rushing to authoritarian threats which are responses to a situation for which they are entirely responsible. Its all very well wanting to have cities that look and work like Milton Keynes or Seattle, but some of the enlarged jobless angry masses will inevitably in their desperation turn to crime. Banning okadas will deprive many young men of employment, without offering an alternative way of scratching a living.

The proposed ban okadas is an impish attack on the symptom, not the cause. What is needed, as the editorial points out, is a planned metro system for both Lagos and Abuja. At the moment, we have posh Western looking bus stops all over central Abuja, but no buses (500 are on the way, apparently). But buses will not be enough. Why not have a light railway linking the satellite towns? Why not have many more of the motorised rickshaws (these are safer than motorbikes and can carry more people)? Why not build safe cycle paths at the side of the roads (like elsewhere, there's enough overweight people in Abuja who would benefit). Or why not think big and develop an underground subway system for Abuja?

By attacking the little guy and going for the quasi-dictatorial masterstroke, those in power appear to be falling for a blinkered short-termism and decision making by executive fiat, at a time when the multitude are seething with anger and resentment. When will a political leadership that cares enough to think about long-term strategies for the benefit of the people emerge in Nigeria?


The illusion of wealth in Nigeria

The famine in Niger has spilled over into Northern Nigeria, which has also been plagued by the rapacious quela quela bird storms. News reports from local tv (Channels) yesterday showed that over 1000 Nigerian mothers with their children have trekked from Katsina over the border to one of the relief camps. There, they were greeted by a Nigerian mission delivering food aid! It would be funny if it werent so tragic.

Rather than admitting that the North has serious problems (desertification, low education standards, fewer natural resources), there is a tendency at work in Nigeria that wants to portray Nigeria as the giant of Africa, when in reality, 70% live on a dollar a day and go hungry.

The same happened after the Tsunami: Nigeria donated over US$50,000 which surely could have been better spent here.

It boils down to the illusion of wealth in Nigeria. The elite have extreme, Saudi-levels of wealth. But this group makes up perhaps 3-5% of the population. At present, Nigeria is a poor country, staring at its vast potential as if looking at a field of fruit the other side of a canyon.


Saturday, August 06, 2005

Checked out Banksy's latest work today - as usual, this subterranean graffiti hero seems to have been having some fun.. Posted by Picasa

His latest and boldest work involved decorating the West Bank Barrier that divides Palestine from Israel. Check this article on the work in The Guardian.


Friday, August 05, 2005


After a few days feeling malarial, I got confirmation that falciparum parasites are swimming in my body. Now I'm floating in a fluffy world, thanks to 250mg of mefloquin and artemisinin. And an agbo steam bath this morning did its best to completely knock me out. Next time I'll try to completely avoid the whitemanpill route.

The good news is that Bibi's blood level has rocketed upwards. This is all thanks to drinking Ugwu every morning for the past few weeks. Ugwu is a magical spinachy drink which needs to be studied for its nutritional properties: it must be at least as beneficial as wheatgrass or spirulina (we're also taking them as well).

Meanwhile, work continues to frustrate. Getting Nigerians to turn up to important meetings (even when there's the promise of rice and chicken) is somewhat difficult. I'm blasting off official warnings to the sinning companies this morning. There is much to do in trying to transform organisational behaviour over here.

The frustrating thing about writing this blog is that there is so much gist which I cannot write about for fear of getting myself into trouble. It will all have to go into my offline diary for future publication I guess.

But amidst all the annoying laxity, there is excitement. Nigeria IS changing, and mostly for the good. There are a thousand shoots appearing which are signalling the transformation: the noise about police/navy brutality in the press in the past couple of weeks is just one amongst many signs. And it does seem that all the radical change agents are assembling...


Monday, August 01, 2005

Human rights abuses in Nigeria

Watching local breakfast tv, two oyinbos from Human Rights Watch were being interviewed about their damning report of Human Rights Abuses by Nigerian Police. You can download the report here.

It contains evidence for instance that around forty people were executed in Kano State Police HQ in the space of just under 2 years. This is just one random example among many. I heard on the tv last week that around 5 people per day are killed by the police around the country. Just as the West has cautioned dealings with China and Turkey over human rights abuses, it now looks like this kind of discourse will now start to apply to Nigeria. One would have hoped that the so-called debt relief would have such conditions written in.


Morality vs Religion

Had an interesting conversation with B's sister last night which reveals a lot about the mentality of both young and old in Nigeria. She is studying Law at Ilorin. As an evangelical christian, we started discussing vegetarianism, pointing to key passages in the Bible which show that Christianity really ought to be fully associated with not eating meat. We pointed out the passage in Genesis which talks about man eating only seeds and fruit, and the celebrated passage in Romans which emphatically denies the validity of eating flesh. F then accused us of taking the text too literally and pointed to the passages being figures of speech. So then I asked her if 'Thou shall not kill' is a figure of speech. Her argument was that killing only applied to humans and that we were interpreting the commandment to our own ends. For her, the deeper meaning of the commandment is to avoid killing humans, and even this can be excused in certain circumstances (self-defence etc).

We moved on to discussing morality and its relationship to religion. She had a hard time understanding that morality could actually exist outside of a religious context. Eventually, she was persuaded that one doesnt need a religious framework to be a moral being (and so not kill etc) but that theology could act as a guide and a corrective.

It seems to me its precisely this difficulty in separating religion from questions of what is right and wrong that erodes any possibility that Nigerians across different ethnicities and belief systems can see each other as moral agents, outside the compass of their faith. Without any common moral glue, Nigerians tend to retribalise themselves around cliques such as their local church. What is needed are citizenship classes which examine morality, rights and duties outside of any religious framework, to demonstrate to young Nigerians that the moral sphere is in fact separate from the private world of faith.



The use of English in Nigeria continues to perplex me. Like Joseph Conrad, there seems to be an underlying motivation to the language that distorts/obscures meaning. Sometimes this results in opacity, sometimes hilarity. Two recent examples:

The Ministry of Information launched on a 'rebrand Nigeria' campaign a while ago. I've learnt in the past 2 years in Nigeria that this is something that different groups of people do every few months or so. Unfortunately, the tagline they came up with was 'laundering the image of Nigeria.' Oh dear. They seem to have forgotten what most people associate the word launder with.

Even more hilarious was a PDP rally in Lagos a week ago (for those that dont know, most of Nigeria is run by the so-called 'People's Democratic Party') - the major exception being Lagos State. The name they gave to the rally? The 'PDP Tsunami'. Now why would a political party want to be associated with a force of nature that less than a year ago killed many thousands of people?


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