Friday, November 28, 2008

A black Black Friday

Thursday, November 27, being the fourth Thursday of November, was Thanksgiving Day in the United States. It is a federal public holiday set aside to commemorate the safe arrival of migrating Europeans in what is now the United States. The first recorded Thanksgiving was held by 600 safe arrivals in Florida in 1565. The purpose was to give thanks to God for protecting the migrants from the perils of the sea and the poisoned darts of Native Indians. Today, Thanksgiving is a big holiday—probably bigger than Christmas or New Year. It’s one time of the year that the family reunites. But not many people remember that it is supposed to be a day for thanking God. I am afraid the day is associated more with eating traditional Thanksgiving food—roasted turkey, mashed potatoes and veggies, than with God and His providence. Worse still, like Christmas, Thanksgiving has received a bad dent from the gush of commercialization.
The day following Thanksgiving is known as Black Friday. It is so called because that day, all retail outlets whose accounts may have been in the red lower prices and get more buyers thus moving the account from red to black. In ‘Black Friday’ is one rare use of the word ‘black’ that actually means something good! This commercial appendage to Thanksgiving is gradually overshadowing the main event. In the days leading to Thanksgiving, I heard more talk about Black Friday than about a people giving thanks or a God receiving thanks.
I witnessed this year’s Black Friday in State College, Pennsylvania. My friend and I went to a store to shop for computers. We were warned to arrive early as the period of grace (sales) would be short and the people would be many. We got to the first store about 4.15 am. What we saw was incredible: there were over 120 people lined up in the frozen weather—it was 0oC or 32oF. We learnt that some people had been there since 10.00 pm of Thursday: they had spent over six hours in that chill! No wonder a lot of smoking had to go on! We moved to another less known store and within minutes even the queue there began to challenge a medium-size train. In some stores, there was real pandemonium. In fact, a news outlet reported that shoppers broke down the doors of a store when it was time to get in. Americans are an interesting people: they’d go through anything to save a few dollars when it comes to buying; but they’d blow all of that on what, to the Nigerian in me, is trivial—such as paying $100 to watch a game of football.
But the Black Friday did actually turn black. In search of my daily dose of Nigerian news, I turned to the Nigerian Tribune online. Of the four news items on its front page, three were records of the needless deaths of scores of people in Nigeria: armed robbers killed several in Ibadan; three more children died from lethal teething drugs; a truck lost control and ran into a full market in Kogi State killing tens of people in the market. In frustration, I turned to the Nigerian Guardian, and Rueben Abati was there describing and lamenting the heartless torture and murder of scores of Akwa Ibom kids who were declared witches (winches) by some rabid pastors and senseless parents. My frustration welled to the brim so I turned to MSNBC online. ‘Enough of Nigeria!’ I screamed. But what did MSNBC offer me: “Wal-Mart worker dies after crowd rushes store” What? American shoppers trampled a sales clerk to death just to save a few bucks? I am done with the news. "Well. Let's see BBC online", I mustered some hope. But I got another stab: Poll riots erupt in Nigerian city BBC declared. Riots in Jos over elections claimed the lives of at least 20 people gruesomely matcheted or burnt to death. "No more!" I resolved. It was indeed a black Black Friday.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Nigerian Higher Education Foundation symposium at New York

On Thursday, 13 November 2008, my colleague and I attended a symposium organised by the Nigeria Higher Education Foundation (NHEF) at Columbia University, New York. In attendance were several distinguished US-based Nigerians in academia holding down important positions in their fields and publishing cutting-edge research. Participants also included people from business and representatives of some higher institutions in Nigeria, including the University of Ibadan. In attendance was the Obi of Onitsha, an alumnus of Columbia University for forty years. (I stand with the Obi in the photo above)

The symposium was on the role of partnerships in African sustainable development. Participating organisations included the Earth Institute, Columbia University. Among the speakers at the symposium--and there were very many of them--were the distinguished Professor of Development Economics, Jeffrey Sachs; the Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Achebe; Anthony Olorunnisola (Penn State University); Ibrahim Gambari (United Nations); Wole Soboyejo (Princeton University); Bola Omoniyi (the Earth Institute); Funmi Olopade (University of Chicago); G.O.S Ekhaguere (University of Ibadan, Nigeria), and Sam Ofodile (UNIPORT, Nigeria). Some presenters shared their research breakthroughs (Prof Ofodile and his team had perfected a method of injecting a substantial quantity of protein into garri!) while others presented the activities of their organisations (Bola Omoniyi talked about the Millennium Villages Project in countries including Nigeria). Everyone stressed how their research or organisations could help, or had been helping, Nigeria especially with regard to attaining the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Presenters however shared their frustrations with the situation in Nigeria: the difficulty in collaborating with Nigerian universities caused by lack of follow up; the daunting problem of bureaucracy in Nigerian universities; and cold reception or even outright opposition from colleagues back home! The problem of infrastructure and
corruption in the nation as a whole also received substantial coverage. (To your left is a discussion panel at the symposium. I stand with Dr Olorunnisola in the photograph below)

This symposium was my first real encounter with brain drain at work. The presenters were first-rate academics, distinguished in every sense of the word, who had left Nigeria years ago out of sheer frustration--unemployment, militarism, poverty, insecurity, corruption--or in search of education. Nigeria's loss is America's gain. It also exposed me to the reality of media bias and stereotypes: in the media we hardly hear of this category of Nigerians in the US; but all the time we hear of a different kind of Nigerians in America: those who defraud others. The symposium also exposed me to a different kind of patriotism. These people left Nigeria years ago but their hearts never left Nigeria. Everyone was driven by one question: "how can we help Nigeria?" In fact, that was the question that led to the birth of NHEF in 2004.

It appears to me that Nigeria has immense resources and an inexhaustible reservoir of goodwill from Nigerians in diaspora--resources which our leaders and administrators have ignored. Will Nigerian academic adminstrators and political leaders respond to the NHEF and diasporic beckon? I am frightened by the obvious answer to this question.

PS: Jeffrey Sachs's wisecrack at the symposium: Each time people complain about corruption in developing countries, I ask, 'Really? You mean there are corrupt people outside of Washington?'

Monday, November 10, 2008

'Yes we can'…it is real

No election ever sapped my physical and emotional energy as much as the recent US presidential elections. After witnessing electoral malpractices of indescribable dimensions and scale in Nigeria, I had come to the conclusion that elections in general are not worth the sweat. And as the US election approached and the dirty, dangerous and desperate fighting by the Republicans got worse, my cynicism turned to fear. That fear gripped me tightly. A few weeks to the election, it was clear that Barack Obama would win; but with the US Republicans, it is not over until they are under. The Republicans brought out all the lethal weapons in their arsenal: Obama’s birth certificate issue; Obama’s pastor, Pastor Wright’s racial venom; Obama’s neighbor, Bill Ayers’s ‘terrorist’ records; Obama Aunt’s illegal residence in the US; Obama’s promise to redistribute wealth which they called socialism; Joe the Plumber; Obama’s anti-Israel friend, Khalid …the list of smear dots was endless. For me, every new day brought fresh fears.

The elections came. I went monitoring and observing the process with two sets of news writing students of my host college, College of Communications. I visited three voting stations: two outside and one on campus. I was stunned by the fact that there was not a single policeman in any voting station; I was stunned that people went to vote carrying their children with them—who could do that in my country where people go to voting stations not sure they would return alive or in one piece. I was stunned by the sheer number of nonpartisan organizations out there to help voters find their way and precinct. I was stunned that elections were handled by the states, and not by the federal government. Therefore each state (even county) designed its ballot papers and voting method. I was stunned that, accompanied by Jennifer Zeigler, a colleague and an instructor in news writing, I was allowed right up to the ballot cubicle though it was obvious that I was not a citizen. I was stunned by the sheer list of things people voted on: it was not just the presidential and congressional candidates. Folks were asked, in Fergusson Township, to vote on tenure elongation for County Council members. That too was on the ballot papers. I was stunned by the spirit which kept people on the queue for five hours plus without them complaining. I was too stunned to write—that is why this piece is coming this late.

I met an old white lady at the voting centre in the HUB at Penn State University. She told me she was 76. She carried candies and water which she generously offered people who queued to vote. She wore Obama signs but her water and candies were for whoever wanted to vote—no matter who was their candidate. She had been there four hours when I got there; and was there standing while I left two hours after.

What was behind this spirit? Another colleague of mine, Dr Jo Dumas, who on that day wore the sign “Poll Monitor”, put it this way: “the message has sunk down into people’s hearts. If you want people, reach for their hearts”. I interpreted “the message” to be Obama’s message of change.

Polls closed in Pennsylvania at 8 pm. CNN began including Pennsylvania results in their announcements from 8:15 pm. Talk about the power of speed and technology. (In Nigeria, it took about a week for the 2007 election result to be released—which is what Professor Maurice Iwu, Nigeria electoral boss, wants the US to learn from us!)

My friends and I did not sleep even after CNN's Wolf Blitzer pronounced Obama winner about 11 pm, Eastern Time. “Was it real? Please pinch me! It’s a dream”, one of my friends said as the announcement was made. It is real.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Halloween & Egungun: norm-suspension or ancestral worship?

Friday, October 31, was Halloween (or Hallowed Evening). Originally, Halloween was a pagan festival in Europe meant to welcome and placate spirits and ghosts who, it was believed, paid homecoming visits to the earth on November 1 each year. But Popes Gregory III and Gregory IV tried to Christianize Halloween and made November 1 the All Saints’ Day, and Halloween became All Saints’ eve. That was about the 9th century. But today, Halloween has little, if any, connection with the church. Rather, it is celebrated in queer ways characterized by the suspension of significant aspects of social norms and control. In fact, a church organised what it named a Christ-Centred Alternative to Halloween to keep members from participating in the pagan fun.

In State College, US, where I witnessed this year’s Halloween, Halloween symbols such as pumpkin and effigies of ghosts and spirits had been on display in schools, shops and private driveways two months before Halloween. I took the picture above from a charter primary/kindergarten school along Science Park Road. Yellow-and-black Halloween candies had been on sale for over two months. A neighbor displayed seven human skulls (not real) in front of his house. There was a general air of an approaching big festival everywhere. The day before Halloween, folks in strange costumes were in many places—they couldn’t wait for Halloween to come. I met a young lady in a supermarket clad in black attires with a two-foot hat. When asked, she proudly announced she was a witch dressed for a Halloween party.

On the Halloween day, schools ran half-day, and held parties. I met a "real" witch in another shopping mall. (See the picture to your left and the next picture). When asked if I could take her picture, she quickly reached for her witch broomstick and posed witchfully for the shot. Staff of a Department at the Penn State University agreed to celebrate this year’s Halloween by dressing, not as spirits, but as workmen—with helmets, boots, workman jeans and calloused gloves to match.

Halloween is a suspension of whatever made you your social you. In the evening, children dressed in Halloween costumes (ghosts, skeletons and the indescribable) went from house to house demanding candies—and people quickly gave them. They threatened a trick—if you refused to give the candies, and a treat—if you gave. These kids are called trick-or-treaters. And children from neighbors who don’t as much as exchange a glance on normal days knock on neighbor’s doors to demand for candies on Halloween. Talk of suspension of the social norms that inhibit us. (I saw a six-footer among the trick-or-treaters in our neighborhood though!)

For a minute I imagined Halloween in Nigeria. And why not? I used to carry, that is bear or wear, our family Egungun masquerade during Egungun festivals. And, though I was in high school, each time I wore the Egungun, even my father prostrated to salute me. I was no longer me; I was his great ancestor who had counted little him worthy of an ancestral visit. (To your right is the picture of a Yoruba Egungun). And my father, my uncles and aunts and our extended family never took that for granted. Flanked by smaller Egunguns, I demanded anything: chicken, pounded yam and gin, and my dad and the entire extended family quickly offered it--to the ancestors of course. Again, it was a momentary suspension of whatever made you your social you. If I knew candies, the youthful 'ancestor' most certainly would have demanded it.

Well, of course, Egungun is denigrated as a fetish ancestral worship. But there is a question. Last year December on a trip from New Malden to London, my friend and I had just passed by a burial ground and lots of folks were there laying wreaths on grave sites of their beloved long-departed. “Isn’t that ancestral worship?” I asked my British friend. “Oh, no. They’re just honoring their dead relatives”. If it were in Africa, it was ancestral worship; in Europe and America, it is fun or “just honoring” the departed and placating them with candies and flowers. Sometimes, it is too obvious that the only way to justifiably hang a dog is to call it a bad name. I think both Halloween and Egungun are, among other things, moments that we, almost justifiably, suspend the norms and our social ego—ironically still within the accepted boundaries of culture—and be who we wish to be but cannot always be.