Saturday, July 26, 2014

8 reasons to bid Lagos high (4)

Continuing my series (parts one, two and three here) of random reasons why you should bid Lagos high. I had originally intended this series to be posted all about the same time, but I'm happy now that I've spread it out over my whole tour. I think I've noticed different things and have a whole new perspective on the country after a year and a half than I did at the 5 month mark.

Reason #6 to bid Lagos high - the ocean

Having grown up on a lake, I love, love, love the water. No offense Abuja, but many of my favorite things about Nigeria are actually Lagos specific and the ocean is a big part of that. Most of the best ways to relax and enjoy yourself in Lagos seem to revolve around water. As the most obvious example, there's sailing.
How could I not love this?
Joining the yacht club has given me a great chance each weekend to get some exercise, hang out with a new crowd of people, learn a new skill, and enjoy the sun and the breeze and the water. But you don't have to sail to enjoy the water. I've also gone on a number of boat tours of the channel/harbor. It's fascinating to see the variety of activities taking place in the port.  I'm on the water in some form almost every day and I truly never get sick of it.
There are tiny fishing boats next to gigantic container ships, there are sand dredgers and tug boats, lately there's even an oil platform that appears to be parked in the port for some sort of maintenance. And of course don't forget all the abandoned ships.

There are also some beautiful beaches here - though they are not safe for swimming.
I get out to the beach about once per month and have a good time sunning and grilling with friends. If you wanted to you could go more often. The ocean is also the reason that the community of Makoko exists, and you know how much I loved Makoko.

There's also just something intangible that makes water relaxing.

Speaking of relaxing, happy Eid! We've got two days off next week (though I might be working one of them to help reduce the backlog caused by our recent systems issues) and I plan to do as much relaxing as possible.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

(Nigerian) book review

My apologies, but I just haven't been feeling inspired lately. Or at least, not inspired to write. At least I've been reading a lot though!

And all that downtime I spent reading shouldn't go to waste! I thought I'd share my thoughts on the Nigerian books I've read so far, particularly for those who might be thinking of bidding on Nigeria or who just want to get a broader sense of the culture than what you'd get on TV.

So here are my book reviews - somewhat limited by the fact that I only have so much time for reading and I also kind of like to read books that aren't about Nigeria.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

This is the first and only book that I'm reviewing that I read before I knew I was coming to Nigeria. I almost wish I'd waited because I think I would have noticed more and read a little closer. I remember thinking at the time 'Wow, Nigeria is depressing'. The story mostly centers on a man named Okonkwo and his struggles in the village. I think I'll reread this someday. I recommend it.
The Trouble with Nigeria by Chinua Achebe
I promise I didn't go out looking for a book that picks on Nigeria, but it was in the CLO library and it was nice and short, and by a Nigerian author, so I checked it out. It is by no means one of Achebe's more famous books, but it was worth a read. It turned out to be thought-provoking, particularly because the troubles that Chinua Achebe sees with Nigeria are solidly not the same as the troubles that struck me on first glance. Of course, there is the age-old issue of leadership and political culture but me and Mr. Achebe have different feelings about Nigerian driving skills (see my earlier post about how driving here has been an inspiration for me) and part of me thinks he places too much responsibility for problems on leaders and not enough on the people who are supposed to be keeping those leaders accountable. Anyway, it also got me thinking what he would have written if the book were instead 'The Trouble with America'. (I'm guessing there would have been a lot more pages in that one! Kind of makes you humble, no?)
Ake: The Years of Childhood by Wole Soyinka

This book - by the Nobel Prize winner (who I actually got to see in person earlier this year) - offered a lot of insight into Nigerian culture and family life. It's basically just his autobiography up until he leaves home for boarding school. One of the reviewers on Amazon talked about how it gives a 'flavor' of Nigerian life, and I'd say that's about right. Until reading books like this I really had no idea about the spiritual and traditional beliefs that coexist with all the modern trappings of Nigeria. I recommend it and I'm hoping to read more by Soyinka when I get the chance.

I Do Not Come to You by Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

This one hits particularly close to home. It's about a 419 scammer (419 is the section of Nigerian law that covers fraud, and 419 scams are something I deal with ALL day, every day as an ACS officer in Lagos). I found it interesting, if not exactly a classic, though the ending drove me crazy. Recommended if you're coming to Lagos, especially if you'll be doing consular work.
The Famished Road by Ben Okri

My friends will laugh about me including this, because I've mentioned so many times how much I disliked reading it, but darn it, I want to get some credit for this slog!

So, full disclosure, I thought it was boring and the phrase 'self-indulgent' would probably be best to describe my feelings on the writing style. That said, it echoed a lot of the spiritual/traditional themes from Ake and it certainly did give me some insight into Nigeria, so it wasn't all bad. If you like more mystical writing you may enjoy this one.

My other issue with this one, beyond the style, is that the story was just infuriating. THIS book could really have been the one titled 'the Trouble with Nigeria' as riots and poverty and drinking problems and violence are pretty much the whole story.

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is a collection of short stories. It was ok. And as a bonus, there's a short story called 'The US Embassy'. It is not about a heroic visa officer struggling under the crush of humanity that is the visa line - which is unfortunate, because I think that could be a great short story.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Another by the same author - this one is about the Biafran war. Having heard almost nothing about this conflict before I found out that I was coming to Nigeria I found it interesting. Most of my friends didn't care for it, but I thought it was pretty well-written. If you are looking for something different about the war, try Chinua Achebe's There was a Country.  I do want to see the movie sometime but I'll have to wait until I get back to the states since it's been censored here.
There are still a number of other books I'd like to read by Nigerian authors. We'll see how many I get to (I do have my hands full with Game of Thrones after all) and how many I can actually track down here. Ironically I end up buying most of these on Amazon because book stores are few and far between in Lagos.
Also, I realize there isn't really much non-fiction on the list. What can I say? In my experience, the things I want to know about a foreign country are best discovered through the stories of the people who call that country home.
So on that note, happy reading!

Sunday, July 13, 2014


It has struck me lately that two years is a really long time. Not that I haven't always thought that. The whole 'two ENTIRE years commitment' is the reason I never applied for the Peace Corps. I just couldn't imagine being in the same place for two years. (On purpose!) It's true I did two years in grad school, but I got to travel a bit while I was there, and anyway - grad school was kind of unavoidable.

Then, when I got this job I resigned myself to the possibility that I too might get stuck for 24 months in the same place, over and over and over again. Now that I'm living the dream I can say that while it isn't as bad as I thought, I'd still prefer one year tours - and yes, that means in the easy places as well as the hard places. Around the one year mark at post I started to get itchy feet and now that I only have a little over five months left I'm starting to get truly antsy. I'm still doing all my day to day stuff, of course, but I find myself spending a bit too much time planning out my life six months from now.

For example: I know the movies I'm planning to see and the restaurants I want to try back in DC. I've googled doctors and hairdressers that I'll need to visit. And I've been obsessively searching for the perfect apartment for the 8 months I'll be in DC on training. (Closer to FSI or closer to town? Near the grocery store or the library? Faceless Northern Virginia suburb number one or faceless Northern Virginia suburb number two? The choices are endless ;)  I started thinking that maybe I should start sorting stuff for packout and make a donation pile before I realized it's time to draw the line.

I guess it's good timing that I have a vacation and an R&R still coming up in the next five months. Maybe that will keep the itchy feet at bay until it's time to actually start making departure plans. And if anyone has any good suggestions to keep me focused on Nigeria for the rest of 2014, just let me know!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Happy Independence Day!

I know I'm a few days late, but Happy Independence Day!

I didn't do anything too patriotic for the actual 4th, other than watching Independence Day the movie (doesn't get much more patriotic than that, right?) But on the 5th I made up for it with a very full day of representational event - starting with the inevitable arrival at the event location 7 hours early. I'm pretty sure Lagos' very informal version of the 4th - a 'backyard bbq' theme - isn't typical, but it was a lot of fun. It pretty much poured all night long - but that didn't stop the guests from coming and having a good time. If only the 4th didn't fall smack in the middle of rainy season every year....

I would share what was going on in other news - but frankly I don't have much other news lately. Work's going good. Nigeria is about the same as ever. I haven't been getting out too much (see above, rainy season). I've got less than six months left at post now, so I'm just trying to take stock and see if I can cross anything else off my to-do list. Just to refresh your memory - back in April last year I set myself a list of Nigeria goals. Here's the list:

  • Learn to sail
  • Make homemade cheese
  • Visit at least four other African countries (the short list so far is including Benin, Ghana, Ethiopia and South Africa)
  • Get an article or photograph published - anywhere
  • Grow something from a seed to the point that I can eat it (assuming of course that the something is an edible plant)
  • Learn to play at least a few songs on the piano
  • Read at least six more books by African, especially Nigerian, authors (currently reading Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi, next up The Famished Road - Ben Okri, also want to read another Chinua Achebe, another by Ngozi and some Wole Soyinka)
  • Learn how to cook a Nigerian dish, preferably either Fish Pepper Soup or Suya
  • Conduct an interview in Yoruba (and bonus points for an interview in Igbo)
  • Go to an Eyo festival (see picture below)
  • Go to Calabar, Abuja, or both

I've got many of these done now.
  • I sail regularly and I think in a pinch I could actually rig the boat, launch, and steer on my own (it wouldn't be pretty, but it would be possible).
  • I made ricotta cheese.
  • I've visited more than four other countries (Benin, Togo, Ghana, Liberia, Namibia and South Africa) and I plan to visit Ethiopia in a month.
  • I've grown several herbs and consumed them all - and even one sad little tomato before the plant died.
  • I've read Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi), Ake (Wole Soyinka), The Trouble with Nigeria (Chinua Achebe), I do Not Come to You by Chance (Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani), and I'm almost done with The Famished Road (Ben Okri). While that isn't six, I am also counting the books I've read by other authors from the continent, so there's also Cutting for Stone (Abraham Verghese), Don't Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight (Alexandra Fuller) and When a Crocodile Eats the Sun (Peter Godwin). Each of the books I've read have brought new insights into the country and the region - even the ones that weren't that entertaining to read - and for that reason I'd recommend them.
There are a few that I've technically done - but I'd still like to make more progress.
  • I can play a few songs on the piano, but they're very basic songs and I'm not very good at them, so I still consider this one to be a work in progress.
  • I can cook tomato stew, but it's no suya. Still hoping to make this one happen.
  • I have held some mini-interviews in Yoruba, but always with a Yoruba translator right there next to me to 're-interpret' what I've said. I have only ever said things like 'thank you' and 'goodbye' in Igbo. I'm not real optimistic about the probability that I'll pick up any more foreign language skills in the next few months.
  • I haven't yet had any articles or photographs published. I've only submitted one thing so that might be why. Will have to actually do something about this goal.

Finally, there are the - definitely no progress yet items.
  • I haven't been to Calabar or Abuja and it isn't looking all that likely that I'll get to go. I'll at least request it though.
  • There haven't been any Eyo festivals since I've arrived, so not much I could have done on this front. Here's hoping that they hold one by December!
So there it is! I guess I'd better dive back in if I want to have a respectable amount of progress by December.