An African's Queen

Observations of an African Man's Western Woman

Chapter 3: Oyinbo

This is the third chapter of Sanni and my journey to Lagos, Nigeria. This chapter completes the story of our first full day.  These words are my interpretation only and shouldn’t be taken as anything but my observations of a foreign land that has done everything it can to accept me and I it.

Chapter 3: Oyinbo

We’re ushered in to Grandma’s dark, cramped house sitting for a while as Sanni spoke softly to his mother in Yoruba. I would come to get used to the silence of listening to people speak another language in my company. I do not interrupt or think they should speak English for my benefit, even though English is the national language here. Instead I feel guilty for having not done more to learn before I came, even though I know immersion is always the best teacher.

We moved across to Sanni’s brother, Monsuru’s house next door. First passing the Sanni’s bedroom. Although, I would hardly describe the rectangular room that was no more than two metres wide and four metres in length a room. A large mattress was squashed wall-to-wall, a small analogue TV sat atop a box, clothes hung behind the door. Sanni told me that while the size was the same, nothing else was. It was now Tunde’s room, his friend who was more brother than friend as they grew up. Sanni described how he would spend hours holed up in there. The room darkened by thick curtains, and a large TV and sound system that always played at full volume. I’m told how he and up to eight of his mates could sleep in there at any one time. How baffled me.

In Monsuru’s, we sat in a more spacious living room while I was introduced to other members of the family. I kept wondering how I would remember each of their names, each sounding unique and different. I wished then for a notepad so I could draft the family tree. Sanni left me in their company as he made his greetings to other members of the community.

Unlike Western countries, I was not shown around the rest of the house. It is typical here to never leave the living room, unless you need the toilet. Most cases, I’ll wait until Sanni goes to the toilet first to know whether it’s ok for me to use. After living in Asia for many years I am okay with squatting or using a bowl without seat, but the difficulty has come when the bowl isn’t clean and I have nothing available to make it decent. Sanni knows when it is better for me to simply hold on.

While I am often given toilet paper, its use is uncommon. Instead they use a bucket filled with cold water (there is no hot water unless you are in a hotel) and a small bowl to scoop the water over you – front and back. I never quite feel clean enough and always I am left with a feeling of wet underwear after, it is something that takes a lot of getting used to. Fortunately, no one thinks I’ve wet myself as I joked Sanni had done one day.

Rooms are cordoned off not only by doors but also curtains, made from bedsheet-like material and patterned with bright colours and flowery designs. Beds are often on the floor, or on frames that sit low to the ground. There are usually one or two wardrobes, but rarely a dresser or large mirror. If there is a mirror it is small and attached to the wardrobe door. I haven’t seen myself full length since I arrived.

Grandma had prepared us lunch of amala and spicy turkey stew, a base of tomato with palm oil and chilli. Oh so much chilli. Amala is a Nigerian cuisine made out of yam flour &/or cassava flour. Yam flour is yam that has been peeled, sliced, cleaned, dried and then blended into a flour. Yam is white in colour but it turns into a brownish color after it has been dried; this gives amala its thick brown color (source). The flour is then mixed with boiling water, turning it quickly with a wooden spoon to form a thick dough. It is a similar consistency to bread before it’s cooked. If food is eaten with your hands, it is always with your right. You wash your hand in a bowl of water before taking a small ball of dough and scooping up the stew to put directly in your mouth.

Amala with turkey stew. This photo is borrowed as I didn’t take a photo of it on the day. It looks the same as this.

I am so relieved to have eaten in this traditional style many times before that moment because each family member’s eyes were glued to me. Each person remarked that it was good to see me eating their food. They had been concerned as to what I would eat. I have tried to let people know that it is important to me that I am not treated differently or special but it hasn’t been believed until Sanni explains in Yoruba why. I didn’t marry a man from another culture and travel to the other side of the world to eat what I’ve always eaten nor remain encased in my western way of life.

From Grandma’s we are taken to SS’s home. The journey took over an hour, although the distance as the crow flies is less than 20 minutes. The traffic is chaotic. Here people drive wherever they want, even on marked roads that have concrete barricades directing traffic to drive on the right. If an okada (motorbike taxi) or napep wants to go up your side of the road, as a short cut to a side road, it will. I don’t think we’ve driven above 60km/hr since we’ve arrived.

Even at that speed it feels dangerous because people can step out on to the road without looking, other cars can overtake without regard for oncoming traffic, and okadas can speed between you and an oncoming car. Large trucks can be broken down on the side of the road, which halves the amount of road left for cars, people, motorbikes, napeps, the rare bicycles and carts to navigate around. This is a country where, with the right amount of arrogance, ignorance, stupidity or money, you can park your car in the middle of the road and people would toot their horns, cuss, and then once you’re out of sight, simply go around it like they do everything else.

Learner Driver cars - learning what remains to be sourced!

Learner Driver cars – learning what remains to be sourced!

Of driving a scooter in Cambodia & Thailand, I used to say that it was an organised chaos. To someone who looked down upon an intersection it seemed as though people were going every which way whenever they pleased. Once you’re on the scooter though, you learned that no one was driving that fast and there were rules that were being followed (albeit never all of them). Here I have seen Learner Driver companies but have wondered what they teach because no one seems to be actually following any rules.

The road to SS’s is almost unbearably rough. The car lurched down deep ditches left behind by many years of the wet season softening the soil and cars ploughing through. All the back roads, and a few of the main ones, are just like this. Everyone complains but the government is rarely doing anything about it. Sanni told me that a main road near to where we’ve been staying has been under construction for the last eight years, recalling how it had been started just before he left.

Sanni, impressed by being bogged!

Sanni, impressed by being bogged!

I wasn’t surprised then when, on our way leaving SS’s well after dark, the van got bogged and we were forced to pass the heavy luggage through the car, out the front passenger window, across slippery mud and into a 4WD that I wished we had been in all day. I say ‘we’ like I actually did something. Of course, I didn’t. I was too tired to lift a finger. Let’s face it, you all know I pulled my royal crown down over my eyes to nap while the six very capable men sorted it all out.

As soon as we had arrived to SS’s and introductions were made, I was swept off for a walk around the neighbourhood with his children and those from surrounding homes. Thankfully wearing my Cons, I trudged through the soft soil roads and paths, around the streets and homes. The girls were hyper with excitement, asking me lots of questions, talking about their country and asking me to make comparisons to Australia. Every now and again, we would stop. I would be introduced to someone in the community. I was on display for all to see that SS’s children had a white woman for an aunt. An oyinbo, a white person was in their family.

Everywhere I go I hear people call, “Oyinbo!” So surprised they are that there is a white person in their midst that many children become too shy to talk to me until I lower myself to their level and greet them in simple English. It’s quite endearing to see the warmth from their eyes. They will talk about this day for years to come because most people here, not just the children, have never seen a white person in real life, only on TV.

I continue to be amazed by this but since Nigeria’s Independence in the 1960’s there’s been very little reason for white people to travel to Nigeria, other than for business, educational exchange programs or politics. Rarely do foreigners travel to the outskirts of Lagos, staying instead on Lagos Island (where the money is). There are a few Chinese staying in the hotel we’re in but they’ve not acknowledged me at all. To them, I am a foreigner. We are not foreign together.

One boy I hadn’t seen before stood at the corner of a building as we passed him. I heard him say oyinbo. Quickly I turned smiling, looking him in the eyes before saying, “yes, I’m a white person.” He was so shocked that I understood his Yoruba that he squealed and ran around the side of the building. The girls and I laughed until we cried. One of the girls telling me that he thinks he’s a big man here. When he later introduced himself to me as Stylie, it made sense. This was one of the cool kids in the neighbourhood. How ironic I thought, when I was quite young the cool kids squealed to get away from me then too.

Finally, as the sun began to set, I privately asked Sanni if we were sleeping here. Quietly praying we weren’t. It had been a full day. Had we stayed I wouldn’t have gotten any rest from the excited children, nor privacy from the constancy of a culture that is accustomed to living without it. Sanni assured me his brother, another one, Rahouf, had arranged for us to stay at a guest house.

Guesthouses in this country are not unlike cheap motels that people use only to copulate. There is nothing but a mattress, a side table, a tv, a cupboard (if you’re lucky), and a bathroom with toilet, shower and basin. The lack of privacy means that while these guesthouses are used for prostitution, the most common use is by legitimate couples, usually young, unmarried lovers, to get their shag on away from the reproachful ears of their parents.

I couldn’t have cared less where I slept that night. I was asleep just as soon as my head hit the pillow. I hadn’t eaten dinner. In fact, apart from the food prepared by Grandma, I hadn’t eaten much that day at all. This would become the norm. I rarely eat three times a day and never snack. There’s nothing to snack on. Meals here are heavy foods like the amala and stew I described, there’s very little variety in flavours or cooking techniques.

I wouldn’t have eaten at all if not for needing to take my malaria tablet with food. I was already fast asleep when Sanni returned with something from a fast food restaurant that I think was supposed to be like a knock-off of a pastie or sausage roll. It tasted bland, dry flour and processed something-I-didn’t-want-to-know but I sat up and ate, nodding off between bites only for Sanni to nudge me awake to keep eating.

Stay tuned for Chapter 4: A Whole Lotta Ouchie-Wow-Wow

Photos – The link in the Gallery has now been fixed. Unbeknownst to me, Google had moved Picasa to Google+. Go, see, play. It’s chaotic there.

Got a question to ask or a comment to share? A request?

So far you’ve asked me to:

  • Dress in traditional clothing and eat local food – COMPLETE – See the gallery
  • Francesco: Send a post card home (haven’t seen a post card or even a post office yet)
  • Meg: Bring home traditional and modern Yoruba music (working on it, one of Sanni’s friends is a musician)
  • NEW! Mages: bring something (an object, a photo, a video, a song, etc.) that represents the essence of the journey. (So, Mages, this blog is clearly not enough 😛 I will try but that’s a really hard challenge)

What else would you like guys? Let me know below.

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  1. Pingback: Chapter 6: Summary and Your Questions Answered | An African's Queen

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