Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The 177th good thing about Lagos: Interesting lectures

I'm going to take a break from final preparations and packing for our trip to South Africa (we leave Friday night and I'm very excited about it!) to write a quick note about a couple of interesting lectures I've just attended. I want to make a record of them so when I have time later I'll be reminded to do a little more research, especially about the festival.

Last night we went to a very interesting slide lecture by a German fellow who is riding a motorcycle all over the world. He showed us slides from and talked about his first trip across Africa, which he took in 2004. He went from north to south - Libya to South Africa, mostly down the eastern side of the country. His current trip started in Alaska and he traveled south to the southern tip of South America in Argentina. He then shipped his bike and himself over to Cape Town and now he is biking Africa from south to north, along the western side of the continent. Sometimes I feel like I am doing some adventurous things living in Nigeria, but my kind of adventure definitely doesn't equal his kind of adventure. If you want to have an adventure by proxy with him and look at some pictures, you can visit his website.

Today a Smithsonian fellow, Eli Bentor, from the United States was speaking at the National Museum about the Aro Ikeji Festival, a rural festival among this people in Southeastern Nigeria. He is writing a book about the festival and has just returned from this year's celebration. If you want to learn more about this festival, you can read an article by him that is online here. Here's some interesting things I learned about this festival:

In Bentor's article, he says "The Aro people, an amalgam of several Igbo, Ibibio, and Cross River ethnic elements, first came together in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century to fight a war against a group of Ibibio people."
The Aro Ikeji festival was originally scheduled in September to celebrate the yam harvest, but now it's been rescheduled for April, mostly for convenience, and celebrates the planting of the yam.

The Aro culture is a trading culture, not an agricultural culture. At this new yam festival, their shrine is to honor the market, the trade, not the yam itself.

The entire festival lasts 24 days, with different activities scheduled for different days. The main celebration with the masquerade happens over 4 days.

On the first significant day of celebration there is a long march that young men make carrying 4 yams on their head to a palace, reenacting the history from which the festival arose.

After a procession to the shrine, the leaders come together to decide on their history and tradition. He said that this is often a very long meeting and the decisions they make about the history are not the same every year. They can make a decision to change a particular tradition, and if nothing bad happens over the ensuing year, that decision can be ratified the next year. If they feel that they have suffered, then they may decide that is because of a particular decision they made last year, and they will decide to change their history and tradition. One very interesting comment Bentor made is "A tradition is sometimes what people hide behind to advance their own interests." I thought that was interesting, thinking about family traditions and which ones we decide to keep in practice and which we decide to leave behind.

In the masquerade, each of the 19 villages of the community have to contribute a dance or masquerade. They are fined if they fail to do this.

He showed some interesting masks and costumes, and mentioned how young men are initiated into the mask society. Some costumes are all raffia and no wood. There are some masqueraders that parade on short stilts and have a high pointed headdress. Others cover their arms and legs with clay mixed with engine oil to make a paste and use that to paint and disguise their body. The masks celebrate their history and their diversity. When a new mask is introduced into the ceremony, there is a whole process of inviting the spirit into the mask. The worst crime is to unmask a masquerader. It is punishable by death.

He says there are questions about the future of the festival. There was a big dispute this year with a power struggle between the different Eze's -- leaders of the villages. One problem is arising from communities splitting up their alliances to make more autonomous communities so there are now many more leaders than there have been in the past, and they each want to have their own say in the decision making about the festival. The Ezes couldn't decide this year on the best date for the big day of the festival -- I think it was between April 16th and 24th. He said they ended up performing on both dates, but he said that all the performances were about which date that particular group had chosen, and he said there were some tense moments as each village argued their position. They want to make this festival a tourist destination, but, like the Eyo festival, there are some things they need to fix before many international tourists will flock there. The first is deciding on a date for the festival more than a week or two in advance.

He showed some interesting pictures of the festival this year -- one showed the clash of modern culture and traditional culture with the cow about to be sacrificed in the village square, surrounded by advertisments for MTN, the sponsor of the festival this year. He also showed a masquerader dancing with a large picture of Obama. ;o)

I'm sure this is more than you ever wanted to know about the Aro Ikeji festival, especially since probably most of you were like me and didn't even know it existed before today. But mostly I wrote this so I could remember what I learned today and I hope I haven't made any huge errors in my report. It looked like a really neat cultural experience that, unfortunately, I likely won't ever get the chance to attend.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The 176th good thing about Lagos: A pleasant alternative when a cultural attraction is declared off limits.

This past Saturday was a big cultural event in Lagos, happening just a short 10-minute drive from our apartment. The Eyo festival has been a once-in-a-long-while masquerade event. It was last staged here in 2003 to celebrate the passing of the late Oba of Lagos. The event has been observed to honor deceased prominent Lagosians or for the celebration of very special occasions. This year it was held to honor the late Theophilous Owolabi Shobowale (T.O.S.) Benson, Nigeria's foremost Minister of Information, Broadcasting and Culture. The first clue to this upcoming event came a couple of weeks ago when these tall, draped figures started appearing at roadside intersections around our area. The masqueraders are typically dressed in all-white.
Information about public events here is hard to come by -- the city needs some help in the PR department, but we started hearing various reports here and there about the festival. I heard that people attending weren't supposed to wear shoes and if they showed up shod, they may be flogged. Other people said that traditionally people came barefoot, but they were trying to make the festival more audience friendly and it would be okay to wear shoes. We also heard that cameras were outlawed (which did lessen my enthusiasm about attending). An article on the internet said umbrellas were banned. Somebody told me that they heard that it would be jam packed with people -- 1/3 would be masqueraders, 1/3 public, and 1/3 robbers (though I guess the proportion of masqueraders is lower and public is higher). Our driver, along with others, said that it wouldn't be safe because the crowds would be so thick and there was potential for violence. In the end, our company security guy said that it was off-limits because of the risks. Although I didn't relish the idea of getting caught up in a huge crowd of people, I really do wish it would have been more visitor-friendly. I really enjoy these kind of cultural celebrations.

This article tells a bit more about the history of the celebration. These Eyo masquerader "speaks a ventriloqual voice, suggesting that he was not human and also that he represents the spirit of a departed person. The Eyo symbolizes the arrival on earth of the spirit."

Here's a picture from a local person who attended the festival and a link to their blog entry with more pictures. I guess it was okay to have cameras there.

The Lagos state government is planning to launch the Eyo Festival as a yearly tourism event in fulfillment of their objective to attract visitors to the city. Of course, before Lagos becomes a tourist destination, there are many things that need to be changed -- people need to be able to get a tourist visa into the country and the security situation needs to be improved so people are comfortable with the idea of visiting the place. I was able to watch some of the festival on TV, and it looked quite interesting, though very crowded. But I haven't heard of any big security problems at the event, so we likely would have been fine if we had gone.

But Saturday we were invited to go to the Total beach house and we jumped at the opportunity to have this outing again, as we enjoyed our day there so much last time. No adventure getting stranded on a sand bar this time, just nice ocean breezes and open spaces and the quiet of getting away from the city. It would have been a memorable experience to go to the Eyo festival, but this was definitely a more restful option!

Friday, April 24, 2009

The 175th good thing about Lagos: A day trip to the city "under the rock"

Last Saturday we joined with other members of the Nigerian Field Society on a day trip to visit Abeokuta --a city whose name means "under the rock." It's a city known for its fabric, especially indigo dyed cloth. The journey took us a little over 2 hours. It's a good road into the city, likely because Abeokuta is the home town of the former Nigerian President, Obasanjo, and he undoubtedly funneled some money that direction. There was a stretch of road that seemed in the middle of nowhere lined with nice street lights (I don't know if they were operational, because it was in the daytime), and there were some big signs welcoming travelers onto the road to the city.
Once into the city, there was the usual traffic chaos and market business.

We passed some hillsides with big boulders and then came to the biggest boulder, Olumo Rock --the one that gives name to the "city under the rock." It was a surprise to find a real tourist attraction here -- it even had toilets (albeit without running water or TP). And it actually had an elevator to the top, but we got some exercise taking the stairs.

We had a guide who told us about the history of Olumo rock, how it served as a hideout during wars between tribes in ancient, as well as more modern times.

There were hollows in the stone where they pounded their yam and ground other food.

On the other side of the rock was a shrine with women priestesses waiting to collect our offerings.

There were also lots of children and goats running around.

On top of the rock was a great view of the city and surrounding countryside.

Our next stop was in town, after walking through the narrow passages of the market area, we reached a place where they were dyeing the cloth - one method of dyeing cloth with indigo is called adire.

In contrast to the dye pits we visited in Kano, these fabric dyers, dip fabrics into pots and barrels instead of holes in the ground. Some weeks ago I had attended a demonstration of indigo dyeing at the museum here in Lagos, where the speaker dyed cloth using indigo leaves and he said that was still done in Abeokuta. But the women dyeing cloth in this place said they were using powdered dye, not leaves.

They spread the cloth out to dry in between dippings in the dye. The fabric is often dipped over a period of days, many times, with the time in the sun a part of the process.

This man is spreading a cassava paste on the fabric before dying it. He is using a comb to pattern the paste, which serves as a resist for the dye.

They also use stencils like this one to place on the fabric and then spread the cassava paste on to pattern the fabric. They sometimes also do a tie dye method, gathering bunches of fabric to make circles where the dye doesn't reach. They also use a wax resist method of fabric decoration here. We also passed women sewing threads to gather and pleating fabric with reeds to make a pattern on the cloth for dyeing (they didn't want their picture taken).

We saw some fabric lying stretched out on the ground with children's dirty footprints across it -- and the chicken in this picture was enjoying having a run across the fabric. I guess it remains to be seen how this contributes to the dyeing process.

There were plenty of children watching us observe the process. They wanted their picture taken -- many of the adults declined my request to take their picture.

They didn't want us to take pictures of the room where workers were pounding the finished cloth with wooden mallets to give it a sheen and then folding it tightly, rubbing it with cakes of wax to "iron" it and stiffen it. Of course the last step was buying cloth at the market. Fabric here is sold in cut lengths of 5-6 yards and costs around $9-14 for each piece. Brent was relieved and I was sorry that our shopping time was so limited. But here's some of the fabric that I came home with. The piece of indigo fabric has both the combed pattern, as well as the stencil method. The other pieces are wax patterned prints. Nigerian fabrics are so beautiful and interesting and I'm getting quite a collection. Someday I'll get busy and sew a quilt with some of them!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The 174th good thing about Lagos: The beautiful country of Ghana is accessible for a long weekend visit

With a 4-day weekend over Easter, we decided to take the opportunity to escape to Ghana. We had a great time seeing some different sights and relaxing at a beautiful beach resort. We found it amazing that two countries, so similar in so many ways, can feel so different. The people in Ghana seem happier, even though many still live in poverty, and it feels much safer and cleaner. We took an early morning flight on Good Friday and our first stop in Accra was to see our church's beautiful temple and complex of buildings, very near to the airport.

We then drove to Teshie, a coastal town in suburban Accra which has become well known for its "fantasy coffins." We stopped at a couple of workshops -- the one pictured here is run by the grandson of the man who started the fantasy coffin practice in this area. People are buried in a coffin that represents their career or an interest or passion. The workshop was busy with many coffins of various shapes being made.

In the showroom in front of the workshop there were several fish, with many fishermen in the area. Behind the fish in this photo is a big Coca Cola bottle. We decided that Brent would be buried in this one -- except it would have to be a Diet Coke bottle. But ultimately we decided not to purchase a coffin as a souvenir.

Being the museum hound that I am, we stopped at the National Museum in Accra before a beautiful 2 hour drive down a coastal road with some really pretty scenery. Our resort was just outside the fishing village of Elmina.

At Coconut Grove, we enjoyed walking along the beach and swimming in the pool.

We ate our meals under the cabanas beside the beach.

And the resort had activities scheduled for the Easter weekend guests, like an evening cultural performance with drummers and dancers.

Saturday we went to Kakum National Park, where we went on a thrilling, but kind of scary, canopy walk with suspended walkways between trees high above the rainforest floor.

On Easter Sunday we went to church in a very nice LDS church building -- we saw many along our drive. Our church has quite a presence in Ghana. Then we toured the two "slave castles" in the area. These buildings were not originally built to house slaves, but during the height of the slave trade, they served as the gathering and waiting areas for slaves before they boarded boats to other countries. These castles are now UNESCO World Heritage sights.

Cape Coast castle was our first stop. It was originally built by the Swedes in the 1600's, then captured by the Danes and then the British. It was built as a defense for the trade in timber and gold before it was used for the slave trade.

The white-washed buildings of the castle led to beautiful vistas of the coastline.

But the tunnels and dungeons below told a different story. In this picture, our guide showed the depth of the excrement that had to be excavated when they cleaned out the slave dungeons, which held hundreds of men for up to 3 months while they waited for the boats to take them away. There were separate dungeons on the other side of the castle for the women.

This is the "door of no return" where the slaves were led to the waiting boats.

There are still boats and a busy seafront on the other side of the door, but now the trade is fish, not people. And on the other side of the door, now it says "door of return" after a symbolic ceremony years ago where African-American descendants of slaves returned to walk through the door in the other direction.

Our next stop was Elmina Castle, or St. George's Castle. This structure is actually the oldest European structure in existence in Africa below the Sahara. It was built by the Portuguese in 1482. In the 17th century, the Dutch seized the port from the Portuguese and continued with the slave trade. In 1871 the fort became a possession of the British Empire, until Ghana received its independence in 1957.

The slave cells were not below ground at this castle, but still weren't pleasant places. The punishment cell had an ominous symbol above the door.
This door led to a passage where the slaves were led to the waiting boats.
They were taken to this room and this was their "door of no return." On this Easter Sunday, ironically, it reminded me of the open door of Christ's tomb. But going through this door led the slaves to more captivity, not to freedom.

On the walls of both the slave castles was this plaque:
It was a memorable Easter Sunday, to be reminded of captivity and freedom and the sobering history of man's inhumanity against man. Christ came to earth that the captive (we sinners) could be made free -- and I am eternally grateful for what his atoning sacrifice means for me -- but that doesn't stop people from committing atrocious acts against their fellow men. I ache when I think of the millions who passed through and suffered in these places and others like them, and either died here, or went on to live their lives in enslavement because of man's selfishness. "May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We, the living, vow to uphold this."

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The 173rd good thing about Lagos: Learning about the Passover gives richer meaning to Easter celebrations

The Thursday morning bible study group I attend recently paused from our current study of the book of Daniel (which I'm really enjoying -- it's so great to get more in depth in the scriptures than time allows in our regular Sunday School classes!) to get ready for Easter with a Passover celebration. A local Israeli Jewish woman, Limon, agreed to lead us. She said she always enjoys doing this because in her regular Passover observance, the ritual is always led by a man and she likes the opportunity to lead a group in the prayers and instruction.

Immediately after our arrival we participated in the ritual of washing of the feet (Limon said that this is not done in the regular Jewish Passover, but our bible study leaders wanted to include it in remembrance of Jesus' Last Supper). My feet were washed -- and massaged (what a treat!) and then we were asked to do the same for another attendee. We sat on cushions on the floor during the ceremony.
Limon had prepared a multi-page handout, with the prayers and recitations written in English and Hebrew, and some of the ceremony is recited in Aramaic, as well. The service included ritual washing of hands -- two times -- and drinking of 4 glasses of red grape juice. In view of the morning hour and the quantity of liquid to be consumed, the bible study leaders had decided to go with non-alcoholic sparkling grape juice instead of wine. I was grateful for that! Limon taught us some of the songs performed and led us in the prayers and we took turns reading the instruction part of the lesson. She taught us some of the songs the Jews would sing on Passover.

We ate matzo - the bread of affliction --, plain and then with horseradish (to remember the bitterness of life in slavery) and parsley dipped in salt water (the parsley is a symbol of spring and hope and the salt water a symbol of the tears shed). After most of the ceremony, we shared in a delicious meal with many of special foods that Jews would be eating at a Passover dinner this week. There was a beautiful spirit among the women as we were taught of some of the ritual and ceremony that has endured through the centuries, some of which Jesus would have experienced at his final Passover celebration right before his death.

My thoughts have been on the final days of my Savior, Jesus Christ, this Holy Week. I was so moved by Elder Jeffrey Holland's talk on this subject at my church's general conference last Sunday. If you haven't listened to or read this powerful talk, I encourage you to do so for an eloquent reminder of the sacrifice and redeeming power of our Savior and what it means for all of us. We're spending Easter weekend in Ghana, and I'm hoping we'll find an Easter Sunday service to attend -- and I wish my Christian readers a happy and meaningful Easter weekend and a wonderful Passover to those of you who may be joining in that celebration. In the meantime, I will reflect on some of these prayers from the Passover celebration:

At the beginning of the service:

"Blessed are you, L-rd, our G-d, King of the universe, who has chosen us ... and made us holy through His commandments and has given us in love, festivals for happiness, feasts and festive seasons for rejoicing.... Blessed are You, G-d, our G-d, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion."

And at the end of the service, after the 4th cup of wine is poured and the door opened:

"May slavery give way to freedom.
May hate give way to love.
May ignorance give way to wisdom.
May despair give way to hope.
Next year, at this time, may everyone, everywhere, be free!"

May this be the prayer of the world this Passover and Easter time!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The 172nd good thing about Lagos: Visiting charities with a surprise cultural performance with cute children!

Last week I helped organize a field trip for some American Women's Club members to visit two of the charities that we sponsor. We organized this trip to acquaint more women in the club with the people doing such great work at these charities, which our funds help to support. We also want them to be aware of the needs there so they are more willing to help out with donations and service. ExxonMobil provided us bus transportion and the women attending donated some goods to bring to the charities at our visit.

Our first stop was Beth Torrey Home for the Handicapped. This home cares for 17 severely mentally and physically handicapped young adults who would otherwise have no where else to go. Their building is very dark inside, but the residents are always dressed in their uniforms and seem well cared-for by the two matrons who have served them for many years.

The residents welcomed us with a song.

Their rooms were spare, but tidy.

The courtyard area is used for cooking, feeding the residents, bathing them and doing the laundry. There isn't much effort to do any physical therapy for the residents. We asked the matrons about what we could bring to help them. We suggested that they might enjoy some balls, and she agreed that some soft balls that they could squeeze or roll might be useful. Their backup generator is broken and they gave us an estimate for the repairs needed. We will help them with that, and also hopefully find some oil cloth that they use under the sheets to protect the mattresses from night-time accidents. The small squares of oil cloth that they were using were in tatters.

It wasn't far in-between the two charities we were visiting that day, but we were passing through a busy market area, so it was slow going on the road.

When we reached Cardoso Catholic Community, we were greeted by Sister Bernadette, a delightful woman who I very much enjoyed meeting when I had previously visited the charity complex.

We thought we were just going to be having a tour of the center, but she rushed us over to the primary school, saying that it was a special cultural day for the students, and they were about to begin their program. We grabbed some of the children's toys that we had brought as gifts and hurried across the sandy courtyard to the school grounds.

We were greeted by a crowd of young children, all dressed up like adults in their finest party clothes.

They greeted us with a song and then we presented them with some stuffed animal gifts.

The first dance they performed for us was definitely not a native Nigerian kind of dance, but it was very cute, nonethelesss.

Then they started kind of a fashion parade, calling groups of children based on their tribe, to have pride in their own style and traditions. The children would come stand in front of the visitor and judge's tent and either stand there a little dazed and confused, others would really jive with the music.

Most of the children glanced at the white-skinned visitors kind of nervously, but this one little boy came over and just stood soberly beside one member of our group. We weren't sure if some teacher nudged him our way, or he just felt like he wanted to come over for a photo-op. If that was the case, he got what he wanted.

Some of the students from the secondary school enjoyed the performance while peering over the wall.

We had to leave the children's performance to take a quick tour of the rest of the community complex. The clinic was a busy place, with many mothers and babies waiting to receive medication at the pharmacy window.

Others were filling the benches of the waiting area.

We looked into some classrooms in the secondary school. The new science lab was looking good, but still without supplies like test tubes and beakers. We're hoping to get some donations of equipment so they can make use of their new facility. They were typing on some old manual typewriters and the computers in their computer lab were so outdated they weren't equipped with CD drives.

This trip I was able to tour the women's vocational training center, which is a main focus of the community.

We toured the classrooms where they practice their cooking lessons. They do have a kitchen, but it's not big enough to handle all the students, so they also mix some recipes on tables in regular classrooms.

The recipes and instructions are written on chalkboards.

They also have a room filled with treadle sewing machines to teach students sewing and tailoring. These are the kind of machines used most often in the country, because of unreliable electrical power.

One seamstress was in the process of sewing a baby cot.

Another classroom was filled with students busily crocheting.

And another classroom was filled with students learning diet and nutrition, taking notes from the chalkboard.

We passed through the back of the school, where they teach crafts such as fabric dying and design, and our last stop was at the hair salon where students learn hair styling skills.

Cardoso is doing a great work to help educate Nigerians of all ages and empower them to better their lives.