Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The 152nd good thing about Lagos: Yams get respect

Happy Thanksgiving! I've scheduled this post to publish the day before Thanksgiving, though we'll be travelling at the time. I hope it will work -- I've never done this before -- but I wanted to give you some timely holiday greetings.

Barring changes to our trip itinerary, on Thanksgiving day we will be in Luxor, Egypt, touring the temples of Luxor and Karnak. It should be a very memorable Thanksgiving, though I'm sure we won't have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with the trimmings. Yams, or sweet potatoes, are an important part of my traditional dinner. My mom always candied them with marshmallows on top, and I've always enjoyed them for dinner and also for leftovers.

Yams are an important part of the Nigerian diet, though the African yam is very different from the orange ones that Americans have for Thanksgiving dinner. They are a huge, starchy tuber. We see them all over the markets, piled on wooden tables, or stacked on the ground. They are carted around in wheelbarrows and stored in storerooms.

My driver said that they are relatively expensive in Lagos because they aren't grown here and they have to be transported in. He said he never buys them in Lagos, but when he's home in his village he eats them every day because they grow them for their own use. This vegetable stores very well, which makes it a useful staple in this country where few people have access to refrigeration. My driver said that usually they have enough from their crop to last till the next crop is ready to be harvested. It's planted just before the beginning of the rainy season and harvested around now, at the end of the rainy season.

Preparing yam is a time-consuming process. They are pounded and then fried, boiled or steamed. You can buy pounded yam flour at the grocery stores here, which is labor saving, but, I'm sure, much more expensive than preparing the vegetable from scratch. I thought that there was not a lot of nutritional benefit to yam, that it was just a cheap starch, but Wikipedia set me straight. They say:
Yams are high in Vitamin C, dietary fiber, Vitamin B6, potassium, and manganese;
while being low in saturated fat and sodium. Vitamin C, dietary fiber and Vitamin B6 may all promote good health. Furthermore, a product that is high in potassium and low in sodium is likely to produce a good potassium-sodium balance in the human body, and so protect against osteoporosis and heart disease. Having a low level of saturated fat is also helpful for protection against heart disease. Yam products generally have a lower glycemic index than potato products, which means that they will provide a more sustained form of energy, and give better protection against obesity and diabetes.

Because it's such an important staple in the Nigerian diet, there are Yam festivals in this country and in some areas, the yam is worshipped. When I went to the National Museum recently for a seminar, I received a handout from the lecture the previous week which I was unable to attend. The museum staff member had been speaking about an area called Obowo in Imo State, east of the Niger River, and south of Lagos. In the traditional religion of the Obowo people, they have a god called Uhiajioko who is the god of yam. She says that "when there is a bountiful harvest of yam, the people of Obowo give reverence to Uhiajoko... by singing praises, confessing their sins or injustices, rendering supplications, pouring libation... to him," They believe that their yam god Uhiajoko plays favorites and "indicates a special interest in an individual who will serve him specially, and this individual he in turn blesses exceptionally. This individual... is called Njoku." This chosen Njoku is given special fertile land suitable for growing yams and "a special palm tree." The really interesting part of this report talks about the death of the Njoku. She says "Uhiajioko designs a way of keeping death at bay, if not for eternity, at least for reasonable number of years. According to Obowo people, especially the Njokus, as long as something of the body still exists, such a one is still alive. Therefore when Njoku dies, his head is not allowed to touch the ground. It is a sacrilege for sand to touch Njoku's head when he is dead. If it does, it is believed that all the male children in the entire family will die. Therefore, when burying Njoku, his corpse is not laid horizontally but vertically and his head must be projected above his grave or tomb to avoid sand from touching it. His grave must not be covered because someone must be appointed to be pouring water on the corpse to facilitate the speedy decay of the body while the head is mummified." Can you picture this? The head of this dead guy is above ground and no dirt can touch it, but someone is pouring water on the ground to speed the body's decay (imagine the smell...) while the head is mummified. When the head loses its connection with the corpse and falls off, "the head will be gently carried and hoisted on the roof of [the Njoko's] room. Immediately a drum is beaten and the beating of the drum heralds the emergence of the chief priest who makes incantations, pours libations to Uhiajioko and elaborate ceremony follows suit."

That is quite an interesting burial custom there -- and it's all due to the Obowo's respect for the yam! May your Thanksgiving dinner be bountiful and you have many blessings to praise God for today. And give your yams some respect!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The 151st good thing about Lagos: Thankful thoughts

Today I had my second Thanksgiving dinner here this year (though today it was at lunchtime). My ladies Bible study group had already finished our semester's course of study and so today we planned a Thanksgiving celebration, as the group won't meet next week on the real Thanksgiving day. We had been told to come prepared to tell the group five things that we are thankful for -- and we were supposed to think "outside the box" and not just list the usual stuff. For me, this was a really nice motivation to spend some time this past week thinking about what I would put on my list. Of course, it's difficult to reduce a list of blessings to merely five, but I kept a frequent tally on the back burner of my mind through the week and it made me more aware of how blessed I am as I lived each day. Our group had a sweet time today as we went around the room with everyone sharing their gratitude with each other. Many expressed gratitude for living in Lagos -- not because Lagos is such a great place to live, but because we can learn so much about life from living here. We learn to appreciate things that we once took for granted, but now often have to go without. We learn to be grateful for opportunities we have in life because we were born into more privileged circumstances than most of the people around us. We learn how to give up control, as here we are constantly at the mercy of traffic delays, power outages, plumbing breaks, no water coming through the taps, and so on. It reminds us of the importance of turning our will over to God and letting Him take control of our lives.

I think because I had concentrated for the week on having an "attitude of gratitude," I was really touched by one of the songs we sang today in our music worship time:

Give thanks with a grateful heart,
Give thanks to the Holy One,
For He has given us Jesus Christ, His Son.
And now, let the weak say "I am strong."
Let the poor say "I am rich."
For He has given Jesus Christ, His Son.

We are all strong and rich and blessed through the gift of Jesus Christ. I'd like to encourage my readers who will celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday in a week (and also those who don't celebrate Thanksgiving), to think about what is on your list. What are you most thankful for? Life is sweeter when we live it aware of how blessed we are.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The 150th good thing about Lagos: a visit to the Makoko Stilt Village

[I know I'm overdosing on blog posts right now, but I'm trying to play catch-up and get some planned posts done before I head out of town on our Thanksgiving trip. I'm repeating myself, but it's really wonderful to have the internet back!]

I had been so excited about the opportunity to join in a Nigerian Field Society trip to the Makoko Stilt Village, an area that is visible briefly from the Third Mainland Bridge. But the scheduled trip had to be changed when a fierce thunderstorm arrived right at our scheduled departure time. I was really disappointed when they rescheduled the outing for a day when I had a previous commitment to attend a luncheon honoring the AWC's scholarship students. The student I'm sponsoring was making a 5 hour trip to Lagos to attend the luncheon, and I needed to be there to attend with him and also to give him his next installment payment on his scholarship. So, Brent went on the trip without me and I was glad to at least experience the Stilt Village vicariously through the pictures he took. It's a very interesting place.

The group traveled by boat to the Stilt village.

Boats are the only way to get around in this village, which is built on the water.

The group first had an audience with the Balle, the village chief. He told them about the challenges that face this community. The people who built this village came from the Republic of Benin, a French-speaking country that is a neighbor to Nigeria on the North. Many people living here, even the ones born here, just speak their native dialect and French. Most haven't applied for citizenship and the government doesn't really consider the community's problems to be their problems (not that the Nigerian government really has many worries about the concerns of the millions of poor people in this country). The government provides little, if any, services to the community.

The village has a new building to be proud of -- a community center and future school that is actually built on piles with sand fill. It was built with the support of a couple of Lagos expatriate groups. The school was recently completed and they are trying to get funding to provide some furniture before the school opens. They hope that the student fees will be able to pay for a teacher, so the community will be vested in keeping the school going. The village did put up the sum of 50,000 Naira (about $425) toward the building costs, which is a large sum for these very poor people. The school will be the only one in the village that will provide instruction in English.

After the meeting with the Balle, the group divided up to take tours of the area in local "banana boat" canoes.

There were lots of interesting peeks at the residents of the Stilt Village.

I'm assuming that the proximity of the water beneath all the houses means that it's a convenient toilet. Brent said that there is enough tidal flow in the water that it didn't smell like a sewer.

I don't know why the preview of this video isn't visible -- maybe because it's so brief. Brent didn't realize he was taking video here. But I think it's interesting to watch the children boat-hopping in the background. They are obviously very comfortable in these narrow canoes. There are no "streets" or passages between the houses in the village -- people can walk from house landing to house landing or take a boat if they have to go further. Privacy is obviously at a premium here.

This canoe is filling up tubs of drinking water to bring around to the houses -- it's a water boat.

Brent said that some sights here reminded him of the Floating Market we visited in Thailand. I can easily see why, though it's definitely not as pretty here.

The main industry of the village is, of course, fishing. And they do big business smoking the fish they catch. The picture above shows some stacks of wood ready to be burned in the smoker. We see these curled up smoked fish sold on the street, piled high in baskets on the heads of passers-by. (This picture of the fish I took earlier at the market.)

In this picture, this woman is getting ready to smoke some fish. They don't do any cleaning of the fish at all. After the fish is caught and brought to the village, they pierce it with a skewer so it stays in a rounded shape and then smoke it whole.

They enclose the building while smoking. Brent said that the smoke and odor of smoking fish is thick throughout the entire village.

Boat building is also an important local business. These deeper canoes are used for carrying larger loads.

The sign on this building advertises mobile phone recharge cards. I wonder if there's any place so remote in Nigeria that you can't find somewhere to buy phone time for your cell phone.

The residents were curious to see the visitors, and the feeling was mutual.

Brent was on a boat with a visiting doctor, who was very interested to see the local maternity clinic.

Not many supplies in the clinic's pharmacy. The clinic staff showed the doctor a bag full of medication that somebody had dropped off for a donation. They had only a vague idea what many of the drugs were used for. The doctor advised them to not use some of the medications where they could do more harm than good.

The beds in the labor and recovery room didn't look very comfortable!

Neither did the examination and delivery table.

I really hope that I someday I get a chance to visit the Makoko stilt village for myself!

The 149th good thing about Lagos: a home for unwanted children

The other day I went out to find my way to an orphanage that is a charity sponsored by the American Women's Club. Our member that served as a contact to this charity had moved over the summer, and I needed to check on the charity, as well as to get good directions to give to a club member who had expressed an interest in being the contact for this charity. I had visited this charity on an AWC field trip a year ago, but since I went on a bus, I hadn't really paid attention to where it was. The dirt road to the orphanage was still like a roller coaster and we drove through one deep puddle that had both my driver and me really worried. But we managed to get through it without stalling.

The orphanage had several babies there now, but the matron said they would soon have more because it was getting into the season when many people abandoned their babies. I expressed surprise about that, but she just shrugged and said that when people have financial crunches during the holidays, abandoning their baby was one solution they found. We've been getting security warnings for weeks now reminding us that we're entering the season when there's more frequent robberies on the street, as "hoodlums" (as my driver calls them) turn to that method to get their Christmas shopping money. Yes, some people here have interesting ways of getting into the Christmas spirit. Anyway, the matron said babies come and go quite easily because they are easy to adopt. The older children at the orphanage -- they have over 200 now -- are more permanent residents. But the children were cute as I toured the buildings. They ran up to me for hugs and attention and repeatedly called out "oyibo, oyibo," their word for white person.

They showed off their new boys dormitory building. There were bunks on one side of the rooms and the other side just had thin foam mattresses on the floor. I was a bit concerned that there was no sign anywhere of any bedding. I wonder if they have any sheets or blankets. At least the room was clean and dry.

This boy is 17 years old. He was on his bed and going through a drawer full of books. He said he liked to read. That was the only evidence of personal belongings for the children that I saw. There was one rack with some clothing hanging on it in the room. But they told me that Saturday (the day I was there) was laundry day. They said that the children do their own laundry (and I know they don't mean putting it in a washing machine -- everything would be hand washed here), and there were clothes hanging on the clothesline. This orphanage has really good living conditions compared to many places in Nigeria.

The 148th good thing about Lagos: Choral African music

Another concert in the Muson Festival featured choral music. I love choir singing and any cultural performance here is a treat, because there just aren't a lot of options. The first half was excerpts of the Bach Mass in B minor. It was performed with piano, organ and synthesizer accompanient. Except for the synthesizer, which had really poor sound quality, the performance was just fine. Singers here perform with a lot of power and force, so it was loud and without a lot of finesse, but still enjoyable. I liked even better the second half of the evening which featured African choral music. This is the part where I really wished I was on stage singing with them. It looked like lots of fun. Brent and I both agreed, though, that the two white folk on stage just didn't quite have the motion down like the Nigerians. I wonder if the ability to move like that is genetic?

The 147th good thing about Lagos: Interesting native music

[Wow, the internet's really moving today. I actually got some longer videos uploaded -- maybe more of this concert than you want to see, but they're there if you're interested. I'm excited to know it's possible.]

We recently attended an interesting concert at the Muson Centre of by a group performing music native to Lagos State. There were a number of different "acts".

Amazing drumming:

Music representing the Sea Lords:

Brent was reassured to see that old, fat men can still perform in dance troupes. Nice to know that career possibility is still open to him.

And there was a dance featuring the Eyo Masquerade, which is a social dance from Lagos Island, where the characters have this white draped garment over their body topped with a hat. The program said that the Eyo Masquerade is used for celebrations usually after the demise or during the coronation of a king.

I think it's great to experience this native Nigerian music.