Chapter 5: Fields of Dreams
This is the fifth chapter of Sanni and my journey to Lagos, Nigeria. These events happened two weeks ago. This story has been a difficult one to write because it wreaks of so much I still need to understand.
And, it is also a very long post. I am unapologetic about the length of my posts, even though I’ve been asked to write shorter ones. I’m no Seth Godin, Master of the Daily Short Blog, I write what I feel needs to be explained and this one was especially important to keep as a single post. If you don’t have time to read it, that’s ok, keep the browser tab open and come back when you can. Your time is not for me to manage, even though I value you all the more for giving it willingly.
As always, 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 Five: Fields of Dreams
Since Sanni and I met he has been telling me what it is like to live in Nigeria. Theoretically, I understood what he was saying. I could empathise with the hardships he described but he knew that I lacked a certain something in my comprehension.
Sanni described the fields on which he trained since he was a little boy. Barren fields of soft red soil and harsh, dry grasses. He would have to scramble to get a few hundred naira to get there (one more than a 45 minute journey from his home) on an okada (motorbike taxi). The coach would push him and the other 30-odd boys to the best of their ability. They would play a match with no half time, no side lines, hole-riddled goals nets and misshapen, poorly-fitting, coloured team vests.
He described the fans and how they would come to see him train or play a match. Locals, napep or okada drivers, businessmen (or Bosses as they’re also referred to), sometimes only a few, other times, tens of them. It is from these fans that Sanni made his measly income. They – most had little themselves – would give him 50 naira here, 100 there, or more if they were a Boss. This money is what kept Sanni and his friends fed.
Sanni has a charisma that I’ve never fully understood until I saw him among his friends and family. He is not only the peacekeeper settling the squabbles among his friends, he is a man that imparts wisdom. He is someone that easily attracts admiration. His football ability makes many look up to him but it is how humble he has remained in his fame that continues to enamour him to all.
Sanni gives everyone a piece of time, his most valuable resource, and with that time he gives people a voice. He carries people along. His genuine concern for the wellbeing of his closest friends meant that even if he was left with very little, his friends would share in the money the locals would give him. This money begins to tell the story of what was expected of Sanni upon the return to this country and his training fields.
The first one we went to was small and rough. The field belongs to the local state-owned primary school with its board-slat windows, accustomed to a football going array and smashing into them. He greeted the team, one of them asking without pause, “Boss, what have you brought us?”
I have heard this saying often here. But to hear it on this field brought a whole new meaning. Sanni used to be one of these boys. I’ve mentioned before the acclaim and expectation that comes from a fellow African once they’ve lived abroad, but to have lived abroad and played football is to have made it to the big time, even though what he does in Australia is hardly the big time.
At the end of their training game, I watched how the coach organised the teams into two, like halves preparing for another match. The coach stood with his back to them, Sanni faced him. I watched him pull the wad of cash from his bag, giving it to the coach. He then turned and gave me a signal. Even from two hundred metres away, without prior knowledge that I would even receive a signal, I knew he was telling me to get everyone to the car.
I stood, “We are leaving. Sanni has told me to go to the car.” They hadn’t even seen the exchange. I was asked how I knew. I just know my husband’s body language I told them. And it’s true. Just as he knows mine. We can see from afar what the other person is thinking and feeling and we know without speaking what the other needs. We’ve always had an inexplicable way of communicating with each other, but it hasn’t always been this synchronised.
My coming here was never on the cards; Sanni was meant to come alone. He wanted to deal with the business of paying back favours on his own, but he couldn’t imagine coming without me. Despite the fact that this last month has been phenomenally stressful on Sanni, he has protected me from the worst of it. He said often in the second week, “I think, somehow, you are even more beautiful now. I think you like being here.” I would smile and shrug. His charming eyes encouraging me to seek, to ask questions and to learn about his country.
(In truth, I’m treated like a queen! I don’t cook or clean or wash clothing, I don’t have to go grocery shopping. I am completely free of domestic burdens. Of course I’m more beautiful! Silly boy!)
As Sanni’s friends and I were ushered in to the minivan again, Sanni arrived and climbed in. “Let’s go,” he said briskly. “Where is Sunday?” His well-intentioned, big-mouthed but unreliable and selfish friend was still inside the grounds. I could feel the energy in the car escalate. Sanni told me to close my window and lock the door. Sunday arrived, everyone began shouting at him to get in, angry for reasons that weren’t clear. And then, like hyenas to a carcass they swarmed in. The car was surrounded. People shouting things I couldn’t understand through the window. I understood the intention though.
They, the locals, wanted their share. They all wanted their favours repaid. Even those that never gave favours in the first place. They all wanted something from the One-Who-Had-Returned. The car pushed slowly through the crowd of people, it looked like 50 people but it was probably more like 20. Finally the crowd parted and we roared off down the bumpy road, with no regard given for belts not yet buckled or the hitting of heads on the ceiling.
And then there was laughter. Sanni turned to me, clasping my hand, “are you ok?” I smiled, “I’m fine, you told me what to expect.” And I genuinely was ok. I was never in harm’s way. Had Sunday not slipped a few thousand naira out the window then yes, I would’ve been. We would have been trapped. The crowd would’ve simply grown in size and gotten angrier, most likely resulting in the worst case scenario of a mob-mentality pushing of the car, breaking windows and ultimately hurting people. I was warned of that too.
All the theory in the world won’t prepare you for the experience of living through something. And that was exactly the lacking in my comprehension Sanni has felt. It is this experience that has produced a silent, living love between us. A knowledge of how both of our worldviews are now one synchronised story.
The second field, two days later, I was told would be far larger with a lot more people. And, we would be taking a lot more money. This time I would carry it. There was no one else who would be more ‘untouchable’ than me. Like the last field, Sanni intentionally told no one he was coming, to do so would simply cost too much. Word would spread fast enough without giving notice.
Like celebrities we are ushered in to the gate and on to the large grounds. I saw the teams warming up in the distance, crowds milling in the shade of the tall, concrete brick walls, a man standing in the centre looked up and smiled. Sanni’s coach, the man who started it all. I curtseyed as I gave my Yoruba greeting as women do to people of seniority (men bow or touch their ankle, foot or the ground). He smiled and responded in broken English his surprise that I was greeting him traditionally, telling me, “He took after me with a woman like you.” A compliment to Sanni that I had heard often. It meant they approved of me and welcomed me.
Sanni whispered to me, “Ah, they’re going to kill me here today.” I knew he was speaking of the 20,000 naira cash bundles we’d broken into 200 naira lots. “Should I change more?” I asked, even though I knew we couldn’t afford it. He looked at me, that knowledge passing between us. He called to our nephew, Rahmon, a sweet young man who is last-born to Sanni’s eldest sister, “Take her to the bank,” he said in broken English. “Go alone, tell no one.” I was already carrying 50,000 naira (about $300) but I returned to the car and took an extra 20,000. We walked to the bank to change it into 200 naira bundles.
Now, with 70,000 naira in my bag, I felt a sense of fear. The milling crowd had tripled in size. Now there was 100+ people, some of them players, but most locals. They would all have their hands out very soon. I distracted myself by taking photos, teaching Rahmon to look for certain shots and talking to him about his own football passion. It is on fields like this all across Africa that dreams are made. They all want one thing, to play international league football and there are simply too many of them for most to ever achieve it. Sanni represents one that made it – even if he really hasn’t gotten far yet.
After we visited the first field, Sanni described how easy it is to make money off of these dream-filled, naïve boys. He told me that he could take me to another field, in another city. And while I say nothing, he would tell the coach that I am an agent and that we’re there to watch the boys to determine if any are eligible to play for the club I represent. We would watch them play. I would take photos and notes. It would all appear official, even though none of them would know what official looks like.
The next day, Sanni would return and tell the coach which of the boys I’d selected. These boys, excited, hopeful, and daring to believe their dreams had come true would run home and tell their families. Sanni will have told them the cost – usually in excess of 300,000 naira – and from there the families would sell their homes, cars, everything they own to pay for their boys dreams to come true. Sanni would collect the money, we’d bin the sim cards we’d used, and be on the next flight to another field of dreams.
Scams like these happen almost daily somewhere in Africa or elsewhere in the world. Africans, especially Nigerians are viewed as scammers. (Nigerian Prince emails, anyone?!) I have had to install a VPN service just to access some websites from here due to the world’s fear of Nigerians. But, they are not bad people. 99% of the people in Africa (a completely made up statistic) are good, wholesome people who simply want a home, to feed their families and if they’re lucky give their children an education.
This worldview of Africa is perpetuated by a pity party in Western media & business. It is the reason why I only follow Al Jazeera. They are the only international news broadcaster who gives a shit about telling the truth of how it really is here. Take the ridiculous portrayal of the recent Boko Haram monstrosity as an example. One broadcaster used photos that weren’t even connected to the story. And for what, certainly not to help the people of Baga. I bet their advertisers are happy though.
This fear is what makes it impossible for Africans to get ahead, no matter where they live. Simply being African puts a person immediately on the back foot, beneath, or less than someone from Europe, America or other Western-like countries, even Asia is discriminatory to Africans (which has more to do with black skin then their country of origin). The whole reason I started this blog was to speak up about this bullshit – and yes, it makes me fucking angry.
The thing is Nigerians fear themselves too. I have often seen painted on walls and gates to compounds, ‘This house is not for sale, fear the 419,’ – 419 is a universal code for scams – when a home is locked into a nasty family legal dispute and there is concern the house will be sold illegally.
This fear is not without good reason because this is a land where opportunity only comes to those who take it or make it.
Nigerians are the most entrepreneurial people in the world. They can make business out of the smallest thing simply so they can stand on their own to say, ‘I am doing something. I am not begging.’ I am proud to see what Sanni’s family has achieved and what they do on a daily basis to keep their heads above the water. They are an honourable, strong people who work hard and deserve more than the pittance they receive.
Unfortunately, this incredible entrepreneurial spirit can also be used for the evil of taking advantage of others, like these boys. Like what happened to Sanni when I first met him. They are the reason that when Sanni is set with his football goals that he will train to become a qualified FIFA coach and agent. We will set up a not-for-profit to support these boys with the education they need to identify these scams, to help them research clubs and to give them the theoretical knowledge of what Sanni’s experienced firsthand.
As Sanni stood praying with the other 30+ players at the end of the training match, his boots and socks were taken from his feet. As the crowd dispersed and Sanni came to greet me, one of the boys was tugging at the bandage used to wrap his ankles. In an awkward, tripping walk Sanni allowed the bandage to be removed without making him fall. The boy beneath us now removed the second bandage as Sanni looked into my concerned eyes. He smiled assuredly, “It’s ok,” he said. His eyes telling me, ‘this is the way it is, you have to let them take everything because they have nothing.’
A fist fight broke out behind us. Men were shoving each other and shouting aggressively. One of them had blood pouring from his left eye. The other had a cut lip, his eye already swelling. I asked why the two men were fighting only to be told one of them didn’t want the other to talk to Sanni first. They were not fighting because of Sanni, they were fighting to get access to Sanni’s cash first, believing the first person would get more than the others.
And so I watched as Sanni began to walk to the small clusters of people that had organised themselves into their own groups, waiting for what was coming. Sanni would come back to me to get another bundle of cash. The sense of fear I felt at the beginning was now heightened, although, I can honestly say, I was never afraid. The fear, I realised, came from the knowledge that everyone knew who held the money.
I didn’t have Moses there to protect me, Rahmon had left the field midway through the match, and Tunde had his own circle around him trying to take his shorts and sandals. Sandals that belonged to Sanni. Sandals, like the shoes on Sanni’s feet, I had stupidly brought to them when they were both left bare foot after the match. What is on Tunde’s body is considered to be from Sanni, so both lost everything. When someone asked for their pants the joke was, “what and leave here naked?” I have no doubt, were I not there, they probably would’ve left in their underwear.
When I brought the footwear I had made a mistake that took both men a lot to fight for. Tunde stood not far behind me as a young man stood with his outstretched hand resting on Tunde’s shoulder. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I could hear the word ‘sandal’ being said over and over again. I turned to see Tunde shaking his head and the aggression in this man’s face. Something in me broke. I couldn’t remain silent.
I said to the young man, “Are those sandals Tunde’s to give you?” Before he had a chance to get over the shock of my speaking directly to him, I continued, “Those sandals belong to me. Tunde cannot give you what isn’t his. Are you going to ask me for those sandals?” I pause, waiting for him to comprehend my carefully enunciated English. “You can,” I said with a laugh, “but I will say no.” I turned around and continued to watch Sanni across the field as he handed small pieces of cash to people surrounding him.
Behind me I hear the young man say something else to Tunde, again with the word ‘sandal’. I turn abruptly, “Enough!” I say, my voice now serious and authoritative. “My answer is no. Now, leave.” The man’s arm drops from Tunde’s shoulder, his bottom lip fat with disappointment, and his eyes telling me that he’s embarrassed for making the oyinbo upset. In truth, I was angry at his greed. I knew Sanni had already given him money. I had watched him continue to follow Sanni around begging for more, and now he was trying to leech from Tunde. Others were grateful for what small thing they received but this man, like a few others, simply continued to pester for more and more.
They pester like this because most people refuse to believe that we aren’t phenomenally wealthy. It is impossible to comprehend what living abroad truly costs. Anywhere that isn’t Africa is a better place. And coming from the far-off land of Australia, with his white wife, makes Sanni wealthy beyond imagination. To be clear, we are absolutely not wealthy, in fact I’ve struggled to keep us on top of the exorbitant costs. If we were, we would’ve kitted the entire team in new gear and splashed the cash around like confetti and still they would’ve asked for more. It is impossible to consider when a well dries, it really is empty.
I was left with Sunday and his friend to protect me. I told his friend to stay with me, to not leave my side, no matter what. The fear I felt was only of the possibility of being mobbed because I held the cash. I wasn’t afraid because I genuinely didn’t believe that anyone would dare come near me, let alone hurt me. It isn’t just fear of Sanni’s wrath that many would have. His extended family carries a name that even the police fear.
(By the way, the police have the same opportunistic mindset as everyone else, made worse by extremely low salaries. They won’t do anything unless you bribe them. They’ll often conduct road blocks to collect bribes from drivers to let them through. This happened with Sanni & I one day. Sanni told the officer he is the son of XXX (anonymity protected) and with a small bribe we were let go. I could see other cars being emptied of passengers and their belongings, the police looking for something they can take.)
I was ushered to a waiting minivan in which the coach was sitting. Sanni handed the man a large wad of cash before we began to drive a way from the field. Our car left behind. We parked on the opposite side of the road to our car, people began to surround it again. Sanni got out taking the last of the cash. I watched as he & Tunde tried to get in to our car. The doors held open by all the people surrounding it. I watched as they each handed out note after note. We kept waiting for the crowd to disperse but it didn’t seem to abate. Finally their car doors closed, shutting out the people still shouting through the glass.
I sat taking photos and thinking how surreal yet cinematic this experience was. Only in a movie carefully scripted would this be believed. Undoubtedly, even if believed on a theoretical level, it would never be understood without the experience of why the fields of dreams create so much need.
Stay tuned for Chapter 6: Summary and Your questions answered.
Photos are in the Gallery. Go, see, play. It’s chaotic there.
Summary of requests
You asked me to:
- Dress in traditional clothing and eat local food – COMPLETE – See the gallery
- Francesco & Kristini: Send a post card home – Sadly, this is a fail but certainly not for want of trying. They simply don’t have a tourism market, therefore no post cards and they don’t use mail, so no post offices.
- Meg: Bring home traditional and modern Yoruba music – COMPLETE
- NEW! Mages: bring something (an object, a photo, a video, a song, etc.) that represents the essence of the journey. (Yet to be decided on… I’ve got a few ideas rumbling around!)
One final post and then I’m home. Looking forward to a latte from Dom with Aunty Glen, red wine with my girls, stir fried vegetables with Dunc & Cara and reliable electricity.