The writer, in her penultimate piece, shares her view on mediocrity within the Nigerian space. Continue reading
The writer, in her penultimate piece, shares her view on mediocrity within the Nigerian space. Continue reading →
The writer still keeps readers guessing on the ‘big question.’ Continue reading →
“I came to realise 419 was a pretty unsuccessful business model…”
The phone rings. Who the hell calls at 3 a.m.? Something terrible must have happened. Unknown number. Even worse. An unfamiliar voice on the other end of the line. Who is this? The question has to be repeated three times before an answer comes: ‘Which of your friends or relatives abroad would call you at this hour?’
419. No need to continue the nocturnal conversation.
Let me come out and say it. Nigerians have disappointed me.
Before coming to this country for the very first time, I religiously studied all known strategies of fraud and deceit. Nigeria is the kingdom of deception, I had been told. Fearful Europeans recounted the conniving ways in which Nigerians are known to swindle the rest of the world’s population, the most common being the sending of e-mails impersonating the desperate heirs to a late father’s/husband’s/uncle’s billions in need of a temporary European bank account. Imagine setting foot in that country of scam artists! Before you know it they’ll have their hands on your money or you’ll find yourself signing contracts transferring your fortune—and that of your family and the three generations after—to a Cayman Island postal box company.
Determined not to get scammed, I prepared myself for the worst. I was not going to be one of those gullible oyinbos. Intent not to trust a single Nigerian soul, I was ready for the confrontation.
How disappointed I was once I arrived in Nigeria!
I met strangers in Ibadan who spent nights by my hospital bed when I was taken ill with severe food poisoning. I befriended Lagosians whom I now trust with my extra set of house keys (as I have a tendency to misplace keys). A girlfriend offered me the use of her Nigerian bank account when I couldn’t yet open my own, and not a single kobo of mine ever went missing. In Sango market, after I bought tomatoes and didn’t realise I’d paid too much, a saleswoman ran after me with my 100 naira change, ‘Madam, I can’t take your money o.’ And I found a two-bedroom Mainland apartment with a landlord who insisted on a tenancy law-abiding contract—even though I still had to pay the two-year rent outlawed in the Lagos tenancy law.
Meanwhile, not a single 419’er has made any believable effort to scam me.
The few times people have tried to pull tricks on me, I saw them coming from miles away. The eyes of the taxi driver clearly read, ‘Would she fall for it?’ when he initially asked for 5,000 naira to take me from Abuja airport to Immigration. The waiter at the hotel bar where I was waiting for a contact dabbled with my change just a little too long for me not to notice he was handing me only half of what he owed. And the stranger’s late night phone call was another example of underwhelming scamming talent. I mean, seriously. What did he hope the victim’s reaction of such a con attempt would be?
‘Yes o, Uncle Henry in America! How you dey? You wan’ send me money? Thank you o, this na be my account number. I need to send you money first? Abeg, tell me quick-quick for where I go do the transfer!’
I came to realise 419 was a pretty unsuccessful business model when I was staying on UI campus in 2009. To check my email, I used to frequent a cybercafé on the ground floor of Agbowo Shopping Complex, across from UI campus. The place was filled with young men sending thousands of messages to what they hoped would be ‘scammable’ white folk in the West. They spent all day sending emails; every day of the week. Realising this was not the only place in Nigeria where such massive attempts at deception were taking place; I concluded the swindling tactics couldn’t be very effective. If they were, much greater numbers of people would fall for them.
I am on to you, Nigerians. Of course, as with any people, there are crooks among you. One could even argue that because there are so many Nigerians, the number of crooks might be considerable. But that doesn’t change the fact that the large majority of Nigerians do not fall into the scammer category. And that I have met more of you whom I’d trust with my house keys than those who have tried to rip me off.
The biggest scam you have managed to pull is leading the world to believe that you are such big scam artists.
‘She’s eating!’ Though I was not the only one having piping hot amala in the local Ebute Metta joint, I did not have to look up from my plate to know the lady’s exclamation was about me. Since my stay in Agege last year I have gotten used to being stared at when I eat Nigerian food. It is the very reason I stopped having draw soup in public: till a certain level I have become immune to attention, but looking up with slimy ogbono threads running down my mouth to be confronted with six curious pairs of eyes upon me still makes me uncomfortable.
This time I was not going to let myself be distracted. I ignored the outcry of the woman who had just entered the busy joint and concentrated on kneading the smooth lumpless amala into a chew sized ball and dipping it in the peppery stew I’d mixed with my efo. When I felt a tap on my right shoulder, I realised this lady was not going to leave me alone. Reluctantly I let go of my perfect amala ball and turned to the lady who had stopped at my table. Her eyelids painted metallic orange and pale blue blinked theatrically as she pointed down at my food in front of me.
‘Can you eat that?’ she inquired. I looked at my food and then back at her.
‘Of course I can. I have a stomach, just like you.’
She laughed and I continued my meal.
‘You eat amala?’ is a very common question I get in Nigeria, second only to ‘Would you marry a Nigerian?’ Few things make Nigerians happier than my response that, yes, I do eat amala, preferably with efo riro or edikaikong. Food is an all round ice breaker here. Tell people you eat amala, and they take an instant liking to you. Tell them you prepare your own moinmoin, and they become your lifelong friend. A Yoruba taxi driver who took me from MM2 to my place phoned his brother and his wife driving 90 kilometres an hour on the expressway to tell them he had an oyinbo customer in his car who claimed she knew how to cook moinmoin.
Now appreciating the local food is a universal way to people’s hearts. If you ever get to the Netherlands and you manage to gobble up a raw herring with onions at one of the street stalls, you will gain popularity among all Dutch witnessing the occasion. And the Eastern Congolese in the Kivus rejoice when they see a foreign visitor devouring a good plate of foufou with sombe – pounded cassava leaves with palm oil and ground peanuts. But the Nigerian culinary pride comes across as even more intense and deep felt than elsewhere.
Admittedly: I have also fallen in love with Naija food. Every day I discover new treasures of the Nigerian cuisine. Only recently I was introduced to the sourishly fresh joy of ijebu-garri mixed with ice cold water on a hot day. (‘She dey chop garri?’ a saleswoman asked my companion when I purchased this grated cassava at my local market.) The simplicity of pepper soup that makes it fit to combine with any thinkable ingredient from snails till fish and cow’s tail (I am planning to travel east to have yam pepper soup sometime soon), ranks it second on my list of Nigerian delicacies that should become worldwide export products. After steamed bean cake, obviously. My moinmoin love affair can hardly have escaped the attention of regular readers. And just last week a Northern friend shared some of his dambun nama with me, another mind blowing culinary invention, like delicate spun sugar in savoury meat form.
Cooking is a hobby of mine and I am trying out all my favourite Nigerian recipes in my doll’s house kitchen. I also love to experiment. By doing so, I unknowingly break the unwritten rules of Naija cuisine. This is where the Nigerian appreciation of my food caprioles usually ends. My unconventional combinations or preparations make the average Nigerian cringe. People are still talking about the day I had moinmoin with my amala (in my defence: there was some vegetable soup involved) as if blasphemy was committed. Most of my Lagos friends shake their heads in disbelief about the way I cook yam, pretending it is potato and using the tuber in every potato dish I can think of, from German potato salad to Spanish tortilla omelette. I hardly dare to mention how one day I am planning to use ijebu-garri to make fried tuna fish cookies… When it comes to their food, often even the most progressive Nigerian thinkers turn out to be ultra orthodox.
I have often wondered how a country that invented such adventurous dishes has become so conservative in its cuisine. Imagine the consequences if the woman who woke up one fine morning and thought ‘Hmmm, I wonder what happens if I grind these beans into a pulp with pepper and onions’ had been told off to do so by her neighbours. The world would never have been blessed with moinmoin!
This afternoon I was driving through a little street in Mushin with a friend who was born and raised in the area. The pool sized potholes slowed my car down to a bare footpace. My friend reminisced how well paved the street used to be in the eighties, a story I have heard in many tones from many Nigerians about many aspects of society. Their love for Nigeria often translates into melancholy, because the here and now does not give them a lot to be proud of. This country is very loveable, but not easy to love.
Maybe that is why the appreciation of Nigerian food runs so deep. NEPA/PHCN will screw up, politicians will steal with impunity, services will deteriorate and buildings will collapse, but you can always count on finding a proper amala joint around the corner with vegetable soup that only your mama could have prepared better.
It might also be the reason why meddling with the traditional menu or recipe is not widely appreciated. The last decades in the Nigerian context change has hardly ever been for the better. I imagine how people wish for at least the food to stay the same: something every Nigerian can be proud of without reservation.
Talk to Femke on Twitter: @femkevanzeijl
‘Salsa tonight?’ The voice on the other end of the line made it sound more like a statement than a question. Which is understandable: since I moved to Lagos last year I have never passed over an opportunity for dancing salsa. It is my way of unwinding after a day of urban excitement, a healthy workout at that. This time though I had to decline the invitation, because I had just returned from hospital after my first malaria. I explained this to my salsa acquaintance, a sweet guy who dresses like a biker, who jokingly replied he would not forgive me if I did not show up that evening. I insisted I was too ill to walk, let alone dance, but I could tell that he did not understand. I imagined him wondering what the big deal was about malaria that I could not come dancing a couple of days later.
That same evening I got a call from my mother in The Netherlands. I had not informed her I had been taken ill, knowing fully well what her reaction would be. I was planning to tell her after I had recovered. But my mum discovered Twitter (the full consequences of which I still have to get to terms with) and had just read one of my malaria tweets. ‘Lieverd, are you ill?’ she inquired. She sounded short of breath, her voice higher-pitched than usual. ‘Mama, I am fine. Don’t worry. Malaria here is regarded as nothing more than a common cold.’
I was not just downplaying my illness to alleviate her anxiety, but also mirroring a common Nigerian reaction to malaria: most people simply do not see it as a very big deal. They have grown up with the illness that in the west sends shivers down people’s spines. In the Netherlands, when they hear you are suffering from malaria, people fear for your life. In Nigeria, when it considers a healthy grown up, they shrug. You are supposed to self medicate, stay in bed maybe for a day or two or show up at the office feeling miserable, and then life continues.
The mosquito net over the queen sized bed in my doll’s house has always been a subject of mockery to my Nigerian friends. Mosquito nets are for babies, they reckon, pleasantly ridiculing my netted bed in the same way they shake their heads when I refuse to drink pure water, fearing my used to nothing stomach will not be able to handle the content of the dodgy little bags. Sometimes my weak constitution irritates me. I long for the moment when I have finally toughened up and gotten used to pure water, malaria and eating fresh salads outdoors (another oyinbo no no). I even tried looking at my first acquaintance with malaria in my life as a Lagos initiation rite, understating the illness as a common cold.
Until I read up on the facts. Truth of the matter is: malaria is not in any way innocent. Malaria is responsible for one out of ten cases of maternal mortality in Nigeria, one out of four of infant mortality and for one third of the deaths of children under the age of five. More people in this country die of malaria than of HIV/AIDS (Nigeria Malaria Fact Sheet). And the disastrous economic, social and health related effects of almost an entire population regularly coming down with the disease are hardly measurable.
The malaria parasite needs two hosts in order to survive: mosquitoes and humans. We play as much a part in the spreading of the disease as those annoying insects (the female ones) do. Simply said: if mosquitoes were to be extinguished, malaria would die along with them. But the same goes for humans.
Now I would not go as far as to advocate the latter, which seems a bit beside the point. But realising my own role in the malaria drama, I do not feel ashamed anymore when I hide under my much ridiculed adult mosquito net at night. I will probably not die of malaria, because I am strong enough and I have access to medication. But the children and pregnant women around me might not be so lucky.
Talk to Femke on Twitter @femkevanzeijl
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