Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The 224th good thing about Lagos: Shopping at Marshalls

I had a chance to go to a big fabric market today and had a great time having my senses bombarded with a riot of color and pattern and action. My friend and I were the only oyibos in sight and we found that we had a lot of "friends." "My friend, my friend, come see....." It's always so hard to decide what to purchase when the options are endless. We saw plenty of sights that reminded us that we're in Africa....

Notice the umbrella bra display in this picture -- I always get a chuckle out of these guys (always men) who go through the market surrounded by dangling brassieres. The carts have jerry cans of water for sale.

But we collapsed in laughter when we saw several places in the market these pink Marshalls shopping bags. Marshalls is a store I shop at in Houston where I often find some great bargains.

They were complete with a Marshalls 99 cent price tag, but they were going for only 100 naira at the market today -- less than 70 cents. My guess is that, if I had come carrying my quarters, there would have been no sale. But what a bargain!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The 223rd good thing about Lagos: Seeing some seriously fabulous batik artwork

In January I had the chance to try batik and indigo cloth dyeing myself. The end result of my batik trial was quite crude (it's the last picture in that linked post), but I was proud enough to make a little dress out of my own batiked cloth recently and I wear it with pride, saying "yeah, you can't buy cloth like this anywhere -- it's a one-of-a-kind design." Not that anyone would want to buy cloth like that. But anyway -- you can't. But the experience of trying batik made me appreciate even more the works of a master, which I saw recently.

I got to know the Osogbo artist Shangodare when we visited the Sacred Groves of Osogbo. He was our tour guide through the Groves and we also were able to see one of his batik works while we were viewing the works of Osogbo artists. I was amazed at the sophistication of his work, so I jumped at the chance to view more of his work at an exhibition a week ago.

His work was being shown in the home and garden of a guy who is a South African vineyard owner who has a fabulous art collection of his own. This guy has a lot of seriously great African modern art. It was a bonus treat to see his home and collection along with the works of Shangodare, and also have the chance to talk to Shangodare about his work and his technique.

They said it was all right to take pictures of Shangodare's work. The purpose of the exhibition was to give his work exposure more than to sell pieces, so I didn't hold back on the pictures and thought showing them on my blog would give his work a bit of exposure. This first work is his representation of the Osun festival, for which Osogbo is well-known. The flame from the lanterns in the center is part of the festival celebration. These works I have pictured were the ones outside where, with the light, I could take better pictures, so they are the very large works, maybe 15 x 6 feet.

I don't remember the subject of this next work. But Sangodare knows how many colors are in each of these works -- up to 31, I think. Some of the dyes are natural dyes, from plant roots and leaves. There are some of them that are artificial chemical dyes. The black background is natural indigo dye.

He starts his process, after thinking about his subject and doing some mental planning, by sketching with pencil on the fabric. Then he starts by waxing areas that will show the figures and objects in the work -- everything that will not be part of the black indigo background. The waxed cloth is then dipped many times in the indigo dye to get the rich black background. The temperature of the wax when it is applied is also important because that affects the cracking of the wax. A picture I took turned out blurry so I didn't post it here, but on one work he had a couple of musical instruments, shaker drums covered with shells. I was amazed at how he made the instruments distinct by portraying the shells on one with a lot of the cracking and the other one with barely any at all. That's got to be really tricky.

After dyeing the indigo background, he then starts with applying the color to the other areas of the work. I guess he has to take off the wax first in areas where he starts to color. He said he makes the dye and then uses a stiff brush to brush on the color. He used a brisk rubbing motion rather than the motion that an artist would apply paint to a canvas. So maybe the rubbing will take the wax off in areas where he is coloring -- I'm not sure about that.

But it's clear from looking at his creations that it takes a lot of skill to produce works like these. He said he works on no more than 3 at a time and some can take years before he is finished with them. They didn't have prices on any pieces, but I feel quite certain that they were out of my price range to purchase. They were going to enter some of them in an art auction before too long. I'm sure whoever buys them will appreciate the mastery he has of this medium.

The 222nd good thing about Lagos: Feeling the "sisterhood"

As a Mormon, I'm accustomed to the title of "Sister." In the church, we use the titles of "Brother" and "Sister" instead of saying "Mr." or "Mrs." as a reminder that we are all spiritual children of God and, therefore, brothers and sisters. And sometimes, even when we would call someone by their first name, we choose to put a "Sister" in front of it as kind of an endearing reminder of our spiritual family relationship. I love my sisters in the church here in Nigeria and consider them close relations even though no one would guess it comparing the colors of our skin. We are sisters of the heart.

But today I would like to write some words of tribute to these other sisters, some of whom I've gotten to know in my time here in Nigeria: these sisters of charity, nuns in the Catholic church, who have given over their lives in service to God and mankind. The Catholic church has taken some harsh treatment, probably well-deserved, in the news lately. I don't have any sympathy for child-abusing priests or their church leaders who have protected them. But I do feel confident that they are a small minority of priests and the great majority spend their lives doing things right and good. But I haven't gotten to know any priests here. In my contact with charities, the nuns are the ones I see who are establishing and running needed programs to meet the needs of their communities. They are setting up schools and clinics and orphanages and hospitals, food programs and drug programs and libraries and whatever is needed to meet the many needs of the poor in Nigeria. They do the hard work.

Last Saturday I attended a ceremony where the proceeds of our recent Small World fundraiser were presented to charity recipients. Although the certificates were ceremonial checks, the money was actually being transferred into bank accounts electronically, the occasion was an opportunity to celebrate together the good work being accomplished by the charities who were being awarded their portion of the funds from Small World. I wasn't surprised at all to see that a majority of the charity representatives were nuns in their distinctive habits. There were probably at least 10 different nun's outfits. I wish I could have gotten a group picture of them. When I have the opportunity to see the work they do and the devotion they have to their projects, I am always in awe and full of respect for the selfless sacrifices they offer to make their world a better place. When I've visited Cardoso, a charity that the American Women's club helps support, I've been touched to see the nuns, as they pass by an altar in a small chapel, pause, bow and show respect with the sign of the cross. I was privileged to be there and take part when they pause their work at noon and gather for prayer in the clinic. They have respect for God and for man and show their devotion to God by doing his work in service to him on earth. They inspire me to be a more charitable person and I'm grateful for the work they do and the example they are to me. Thank you, Sisters!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The 221st good thing about Lagos: The 2nd Annual Run for the Cure brings more access to mammograms for Nigerian women

Last year I participated in the first annual Lagos breast cancer charity race and this year I got a second chance at it. The weather here has in general been hotter than usual this time of year, in keeping with the "more extreme than ever" theme that seems to be the state of the planet this year. On Friday, the day before the race, it was so hot and humid I was wondering if I'd survive it, but that night there was a torrential rain storm that cooled the ground and washed away some dust and got the garbage along the road good and soaked so Saturday morning the world was a bit cooler. There was a hazy overcast to weaken the sun and a bit of a breeze, so, in short, the weather was perfect for a nice little alternating jog/stroll/powerwalk/stroll/jog combo. I've done the Race for the Care in Houston many, many times and it was always 5K, so I had assumed that this one was also 5K. Imagine my surprise when I learned that here the race is 6.2 K. I shouldn't be surprised -- everything is harder in Lagos.

Here are some pictures of the race with sights that I never saw along the race route in Houston.

The Houston race is huge, but there's a smaller crowd here, so there's room to breathe when we were waiting for the opening ceremony to start.

I guess there were probably some serious runners at the beginning of the crowd, but most people were just there for a good time and to support a good cause.
The cheering section along the route was almost non-existent, I wonder if many people even knew what was going on with all these people out walking the streets. But these girls were having fun dancing to the music from the wagon that was blasting music during the race.

Some people along the street were going about their regular business.

A line of uniformed police kept the traffic from one lane of this busy road.

I was not in the front of the crowd and not at the tail end, so I was fine with that. We had a good time chatting along the route.

The traffic that was held up at intersections by the police was not having such a good time.

I heard afterward that one okada (motorcycle) driver who broke through the police barricade was caught, pulled off his bike, and beaten up by the police. No ticket writing here.

A line of police led the way when they decided they would let traffic start moving along this road.

Part of the proceeds from last year went to the Susan G. Komen foundation in the United States and it also funded a mammography machine for a hospital in Calabar. This year, Lagos women will have access to a new mammography machine. That's a very good thing.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The 220th good thing about Lagos: Some people here believe in dreaming big

I've seen the sand barges here and heard of this endeavor and just saw another video clip from BBC News about this project that is underway just off Victoria Island, quite close to where we live. They are building a city on reclaimed land, much like the artificial islands that have been built off of Dubai shaped like palm trees and the globe. I hope these engineers are remembering that they are building this in the Atlantic Ocean, not the Persian (Arabian) gulf, which is quite calmer. I've seen waves come up on Bar beach here and knock down rows of shanty homes. I know I wouldn't put my money into this project, or buy property and live on reclaimed land here, no matter the promises of constant power and comforts of life. But I'm all for people who have big dreams and work to make them happen. More power to them! More power to Lagos! I mean that literally -- Lagos needs more power. One major problem here is the power grid which is totally inadequate. It would be great if Lagos could be a model African city. But, in my opinion, they need to start with building a power grid that will allow people who don't have the money for expensive generators to also have access to electricity. In their aims to improve Lagos, I wish they would start with basic things like electrical power for all, not these glitzy projects with wow appeal that seem questionable to ever be actualized. I have my doubts that I'll see the day when Lagos is a model African city, but I certainly would be glad to be surprised.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The 219th good thing about Lagos: US tax dollars at work

We've been the participant recently in a few enjoyable evenings courtesy of the US State Department here in Lagos. I've really enjoyed getting to know our US Consul General here, Donna Blair. She's been very supportive of the American Women's Club and the US expat community in general. For two years now she's even taken a shift at our Small World booth and served up food. She'll be leaving Lagos this summer and I'm hopeful that her replacement will be as supportive to the general US expat community.

In February, we had a fun evening at the Consul General residence celebrating Mardi Gras. We donned colorful strings of beads (it was kind of humorous how our driver was really impressed by our bejeweled bodies when he picked us up after the event), enjoyed New Orleans cuisine and danced and waved white handkerchiefs to the music of the U.S. Navy brass quartet.

Less than two weeks later, we enjoyed America Day at the CG residence. This was our second time at this event, where expats and Nigerians celebrate many things American. The consulate chooses to schedule this in February, as in July many of the US expats are away on summer vacations and also it is rainy season and more difficult to plan an outdoor event. There was a variety of food served at this event, but very popular was the option of KFC. It's probably worthy of a "good thing" post of its own, but recently the first American fast food business opened its doors in Lagos. Yes, there are no McDonalds or Burger Kings here, but now there are a couple of KFC franchises. And it tastes just like US KFC, which is pretty darn good.

The event began with the presentation of the colors. Marines in uniform always look so great!

We had speeches from Donna Blair, our Consul General,

We also heard from the US ambassador to Nigeria, Robin Renee Sanders. It's great that the US is represented here by two strong black women.

We enjoyed music from the high school band from the American school and the evening was capped off by an impressive fireworks display, made even more exciting by one of the blasts which seemed to go off directly into the crowd instead of up in the sky. We were relieved there was a buffer of bodies between us and the explosion, but, despite the alarm, there weren't any injuries.

Less than two weeks after this, we enjoyed an evening of dance from the Brooklyn based dance company "Evidence" which was on the last stop of their African tour which was sponsored by the US State Department as part of their inaugural "DanceMotion USA" program. The goal of DanceMotion USA is to share work by some of America's finest contemporary dance makers and serve as a gateway for cultural exchange. No pictures were allowed during the performance, so you'll have to check out their website to see what they do, but it was modern dance at a very high level and I thoroughly enjoyed the production, which was presented free of charge. I think it's great that dance is used for cultural exchange and the hall was packed with Nigerians who also enjoyed the performance. Maybe some will argue that in these economic hard times tax money shouldn't be used to send dancers to tour around the world, but, because I'm a supporter and enjoyer of the arts, and was also a grateful beneficiary of this program, I'm all for it! And since we are still paying plenty of US taxes, it's nice for us to get a little something back for it.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The 218th good thing about Lagos: Nigeria's heritage of bronze casting continues

In 1994 I was living in Houston and had recently started a volunteer position that I enjoyed for 14 years -- that of being a docent at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. One of my first big blockbuster exhibitions that I led tours on was an exhibition of art, mostly brass castings, from the kingdom of Benin, a kingdom that existed within present-day Nigeria. (Note: this cultural heritage is not part of the present-day nation of Benin.) I bought an exhibition catalog, a book I brought with me on my move to Lagos, and studied it and marveled at the skill and artistic ingenuity of these artisans who were making very sophisticated bronze and brass work using the lost wax method as early as the 16th century. It surprised me that something like that was coming out of Africa that early -- I had expected African art at that time to be more primitive. Anyway, at the time I was studying about this rich cultural heritage that is part of Nigeria's history, I never once had the thought that someday I might be living in Nigeria. Life sometimes throws a surprise at us.

Well, I still haven't had the opportunity to travel to Benin City, though it was one of my goals when we moved here. I would like to do it, but working out the logistics of getting there and getting around while there is a bit of the challenge. And my husband's employer would rather we didn't travel around anywhere in the country (haven't always followed that) and Benin City is getting near to a danger area, though I think the city itself is usually peaceful.

In the meantime, I was very interested to attend a recent Nigerian Field Society lecture given by a Benin City bronze caster who is a descendant in a family that has been making brass sculptures in Benin for generations. I've heard that there is still a street in Benin lined with workshops where artisans are using the same methods that have been used for years. I've had other opportunities here to see artisans using the lost wax method to create items from brass. But this guy was an entertaining speaker and it was also fun for me to see the projected photos showing the process going on in Benin City today -- at least it's a secondhand visit to the place.

The figure he demonstrated his technique on is a traditional Queen mother head, a style often seen in the markets. The mother of the future oba in the early days of the Benin kingdom had a position that was valued and feared. Her influence on the future king was acknowledged and she was seen as an important advisor. But after her son's installation as ruler, her influence on the king was feared too great and she had to be killed "so that she could not start a revolution against the new Oba or use her magical powers against the people." There was an oba in the 16th century who honored his mother by doing away with the practice of killing the mother of the oba (what a nice boy!), and the position of the Queen mother changed. She was given the rights and privileges of a town chief and she made important decisions for the people of the kingdom. But she was sequestered away and it was forbidden for her to see her son, though she did have secondary contact with him through messengers. Either way, it doesn't seem to be an advantageous thing to me to be a Queen Mother in the kingdom of Benin, even though now there are lots of commemorative heads recognizing her power and position.

He displayed the mud core that had been hardened and the process of coating it with a hard layer of wax. He was kind of funny when someone asked where he got the wax. He said something about how it comes from bees, of course, but he just buys it. He says he would never have time to make the sculptures if he participated in every step in the process.

Some decoration and detail is added with the wax layer before it is encased in more mud and fired. They showed photos of the process of draining the wax from the spouts, heating the molten metal which is then poured into the cavity created from the "lost" wax. Of course I'm simplifying the process here -- there's a lot of technical steps involved. But after the metal is cooled and the mold is broken away (each item is unique as the mold can only be used once with this method), the core is dug out of from the brass object, creating a hollow brass sculpture.

Some of the finer detail is added to the cast brass sculpture itself. Among these types of sculptures for sale in markets here, there's lots of traditional figures. The leopard is a common one, as it has symbolism associated with the Oba, or king. It is considered a royal animal with special powers and abilities. Some of the items this artist was selling had a bright brass finish like these leopards.
And some had a finish similar to this large throne -- which I don't think he really was offering for sale. He just brought it to showcase a large brass object that can be cast. Someone asked him why some of the things he makes have this weathered finish, which I believe is created with kind of an acid wash at the end of the process. He kind of gave an embarrassed chuckle and said something about wondering if he should give away trade secrets. He held up one of these objects and said "Well, I made this piece a couple of weeks ago. But you look at it and it looks really old." He said he would never do it, but someone might be tempted to say that this is a historic piece from centuries ago and it should be priced much higher than a new item. So, there you have it -- a news flash! Buyer beware: traders selling in the markets may sometimes not be entirely forthcoming about the value and history of the pieces they are selling!

I did not buy a leopard or Queen Mother figure or large throne. I'm not sure that I really need to have a brass sculpture from here and I haven't decided yet if I will spend the money on one. They are quite expensive. But I did purchase a small letter opener with a Queen mother head as a reminder of the long artistic heritage of Benin brass casting and because I'm also a Queen mother of my own kingdom without the hazards and restrictions involved with Benin queen motherhood. That's a good thing.

Friday, March 05, 2010

The 217th good thing about Lagos: Fresh milk is now available!

Living in Lagos makes expatriates realize how many things they have taken for granted in their home countries. Take fresh milk, for example. When I'm in the States, I may complain about the price of milk when it takes a sudden jump. But I buy it anyway, and never worry about it not being available. In Nigeria, good quality, fresh milk has been unavailable until recently. When I first came here, once or twice I saw fresh milk in the refrigerated section of the supermarket. I bought it once and, even though it was within the freshness date, it was sour. I heard this was a common problem with the milk, with the perils of refrigeration with a unstable electricity supply. So I stocked my shelves with the UHT milk which doesn't need refrigeration. UHT stands for "ultra high temperature." This milk is heated to partially sterilize it to make it shelf-stable. There is only one advantage to this milk, and that is its long shelf life. I can keep it in my kitchen cupboard and when the cold one in my fridge is gone, I always stock enough so I have one on my shelf to take its place. So in that respect it's a great food storage item. But taste is not a plus with this milk. I've gotten accustomed to it on cereal and I don't mind it in cooking, but I would never want to drink a glass of this milk. (There are other brands of this UHT milk -- I took a picture of what was on my shelf. They're all the same blah to me.)

But there's a new dairy in the country that is now delivering fresh milk to one area supermarket on one day of the week. I learned some interesting facts about the dairy industry here recently when the owner of Shonga Dairies came to speak to the American Women's club.

He was a dairyman in Zimbabwe when the government seized his home, land and animals and he left the country with just a suitcase. After some time, he was invited by the governor of Kwara state here in Nigeria (north of Lagos) to start a dairy here. His is just the second dairy in the entire country. Jack said that the average consumption of milk among Nigerians is just 3 liters per year which is incredibly low. He told about the many challenges of getting a dairy going here. Nigerian cows just don't give much milk, so he had to get cows up here from South Africa. It was too far and treacherous by road and he said it would have been cruel to the cows to transport them by ship, so he flew his cows into the country. I'm sure he used some kind of animal transport plane, but I can't help visualizing these cows (flying business class, I'm sure, since they were coming here for work) buckling into their seats and choosing their inflight moooovies. So he made quite an investment in his cows just getting them here, to a country where the climate is quite inhospitable and there are all kinds of diseases and insects that threaten their health. Growing their feed is challenging and, though he has the support of his state government, he said Nigeria has more crazy laws regulating the dairy industry than he's ever seen for a country that doesn't have a dairy industry. He said one of his greatest challenges is training his workers to understand the importance of hygiene in every aspect to guarantee a quality product. So he did a fair amount of complaining about the difficulties of doing this business here, but the Americans at the meeting hope he'll keep at it, because we all lined up to purchase the milk and yogurt he brought to sell to us. He's also doing good things in Kwara State, where he's providing school children with one small sachel of milk on one day a week. That doesn't seem a lot, but I'm sure it's much more than they had been drinking. I'm used to drinking skim milk at home in the States, and here I've bought lowfat UHT milk, but Shonga Dairies just sells whole milk with 3.5% milkfat. He said his cows give milk with 5% fat, so he has to skim some cream off to get his milk within the 3.5% limit that the dairy regulations here require (he didn't know why they have that law -- it was left over from the colonial era.) He also sells cream, but I haven't seen that yet. I can't drink whole milk in the States -- it seems too rich. But, maybe because of the contrast with my available alternative here -- this milk tastes heavenly to me. It only costs about 30% more than the UHT milk, so for me it is well worth it. So, for the next while, I'll be making a point to go to La Pointe supermarket on Wednesdays to get fresh milk -- one to keep in the fridge and a few more for the freezer to last through the week. Now, if I could just find some Oreos to have with it.....

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The 216th good thing about Lagos: Small World was a big success!

It's taken me a week and a half of recovery before I could face revisiting Small World with a blog post. This year was my 3rd experience with Small World and each year my participation has increased. This will likely be my last one, but I was glad to act as the chair for the USA's participation in the event this year, even despite the stress involved. It's a worthy effort and I really enjoyed doing my part to make it happen. But a big fundraiser doesn't happen without a lot of work on the part of many and I enjoyed getting to know so many dedicated women. Each of 27 women's organizations from various country groups decorated a booth and prepared food for 1500 people and many also prepared an entertainment segment for the program. Each women's organization nominates a charity, which is awarded a share of the proceeds of the event to spend on an approved capital expenditure. This year they raised at least 32 million naira -- over $220,000.

My pictures don't do justice to the event -- I was too busy to do much picture taking. It was an exhausting day (and week). There was 60 kilos of boneless chicken cooking -- on event day we warmed up the shredded chicken and mixed with barbeque sauce

Some women sliced rolls for our barbeque sandwiches. Others prepared cole slaw, baked cookies and prepared drinks.
This photo of our booth was during final set-up when the wind was blowing things around.

Our country theme highlighted the immigrant nature of our country (in Obama's inauguration speech he called it our "patchwork heritage) and how we are strengthened by people coming from all over the world to our shores.
Our Obama figure welcoming visitors to our booth was a big hit, and he got his picture taken a lot during the evening.

During Small World, our booth was very busy, outside....

and inside, and our booth workers were kept hopping.

Our chicken barbeque sandwiches topped with cole slaw were a big hit.

After Small World visitors (about 3500 of them) ate and drank themselves silly, everyone was invited to the seats in front of the stage for the entertainment part of the evening. Our USA dance group (pictured here at the dress rehearsal) did a rousing tap number to "I Believe."

But I dressed as a hippie and sang with the UK performance group -- I sing with many of them regularly for fun.

We did some Beatles numbers and looked thoroughly retro.

It was a long day, but lots of fun and I made some good memories and contributed to fundraising for a lot of worthy causes. That's a good thing.