ThatKellieGirl has been on a life-changing trip to Nigeria! There is something about traveling that truly awakens you to the world—if you are willing to see. More Americans should take the opportunity to travel our country and the world, and to learn about what is happening around the world.
I have always had a fascination and appreciation of Africa since I was a young girl. I learned about Africa in general through books and media, but not until I had several discussions with my fiancé and listened to his family talk about Nigeria, did I begin to gain a better understanding of the country and the continent. Unfortunately, many Americans are only familiar with the negative aspects—corruption, terrorism, lack of infrastructure, poverty, famines, etc. But this is only part of the story. And even as you read this post, it is another part of the story. As with any person, place or idea, you have to bring it all together from multiple sources to get a comprehensive understanding.
My trip to Nigeria was unique because I was there to work. So this post won’t tell you all the latest happening s in Abuja, Nigeria. However, I did notice an event that I would’ve loved to attend called “Runway Abuja” showcasing fashion, art and music. This trip was about seeing Nigeria as a U.S. delegate to provide technical assistance to a Nigerian regulatory agency. And on top of that, I was so proud to be a part of the first all-female delegation in the history of this partnership. I worked with some extraordinary women who had the desire to exchange knowledge and to help Nigeria. And each staff member we met was intelligent and committed to moving Nigeria forward. After four days of intense working sessions, we presented our recommendations and strategic plan to the full agency. And after all the work was over, we celebrated with a beautiful reception with performances, food, awards and dancing!
When I first arrived, I must admit I was quite overwhelmed with the sights, the sounds, the smells and the people. At the airport, people were everywhere—talking, walking, waiting, watching, selling, and assisting. I also was taken a back at the military men wearing berets and military boots who stood on guard. So I will admit I was a little on edge. As I got in line for customs and immigration, I didn’t know what to expect. I approached the glass window to see two gentlemen waiting for me. The older gentlemen peered through his glasses so I thought I would take my chances with the second, younger man. I smiled and he did too. He promptly said “Welcome to Nigeria!” He was very warm and asked how long I would be staying. I said a week and he stated that was too short, and I totally agreed with him. The young man then passed my passport to the senior gentleman for scrutiny and final approval. I finally walk through customs to pick up my bags. I went through another check point to hand over my customs form, and I was finally in Nigeria!
So when we arrived at our hotel, people were buzzing everywhere. The hotel serves travelers and the Nigerian population. Religious services were held at the hotel as well as galas and conferences. The hotel also served as a late night place to have dinner or to gamble at the casino. In the evenings after work, I loved coming back to the hotel to watch television. I couldn’t wait to see what Nigerians were watching on the television. I became very fond of “Nigeria’s Got Talent.” The crowd was just as entertaining to watch as the competitors! I also watched a drama called “Changing Times” that centered around young Africans and their growing pains. The storylines were similar to a soap opera, but I loved watching the diverse cast. And I had to watch their music channels to see the popular artists in Nigeria. Artists that piqued my interest were Mary Sibande, Asa, Toya Delazy and The Golden Child. The music channels rotated between Nigerian and black American music videos. Unfortunately, the videos from black American artists were more sexually graphic in image, sexually explicit and used more profanity in their lyrics compared to the Nigerian videos. This just confirmed that the entertainment industry is perpetuating a horrible image of black American youth throughout the world. I probably watched more positive black images on Nigerian television than on American television.
Another aspect of life in Abuja is the co-existence of Christian and Muslim communities. There is a delicate balance between the groups, but for the most part, it remains due to the respect that Muslims and Christians show towards each other. Abuja has a majority Muslim population. There is a beautiful huge, gold domed mosque that sits right in the center of Abuja with a capacity of 30,000. Every morning, I could faintly hear the Islamic prayers over the loud speakers from the mosque. Once awakened, it actually would lull me back to sleep. Friday is “mosque day”, so most businesses close at noon or 1PM in order for Muslims to attend service. And it is the same for Christians on Sunday. We also saw large Christian churches. It was quite beautiful seeing the men and women dressed up to attend mosque on Friday. They were wearing vivid white caftans and donning their tagiyah (caps). One of the most beautiful things I witnessed was a group of men praying on their mats in the middle of the market. There was a calm and peaceful spirit in the midst of the men praying. That was an example of the true spirit of Islam to me. Unfortunately, the possibility of terrorist attacks from boko haram still looms. But, Abuja has taken many steps to ensure people’s safety. For most establishments, drivers cannot park without a car search and you cannot enter a building without passing through a metal detector.
Folks who know ThatKellieGirl know that I love a good meal. So I was really excited to eat in Nigeria. Each day, our meals usually consisted of two types of rice, chicken, beef, egusi soup with fufu, spinach, coleslaw and fruit. We would at times get an unexpected treat of moin moin, plantains, potatos and carrots, or soup. And I thoroughly enjoyed each bite. After a while, I did feel like I was on a carbohydrate overload, but the fruit and lots of water helped with my digestion. And let me say that was the best fruit I ever had, particularly the pineapple and the papaya. And I loved how fruit is served as the dessert course of your meal. This is a practice I will be implementing immediately. Overall, I loved the spices and rich flavor of the food. So when I returned the states, my fiancé asked what I would like to eat as my first meal back in the states. I was so excited to get some food variety back into my life, so I asked him to order one of my favorite flavorful meals. And as I bit into the food, the only thing I tasted was SALT! This was amazing to me. I literally did not want to eat the food because it lacked the flavor I’d become so accustomed to. It also made me realize that Americans are eating too many foods seasoned with salt. My diet is about to take a radical change. I think it is about time I get those cooking lessons from MamaEmeka!
I also had the opportunity to visit my future in-laws. My cousins came to pick me up to have dinner with the family. I so was surprised to see we had a driver. And even more shocked to see the family had various workers to cook and clean at their home. However, this is common practice in Nigeria. And I found out that it can be very difficult to move up the social ladder.
Our delegation also had a driver who was such a warm and kind man. After two days, I realized he would be our main driver so I decided to ask him his name. I had to loosen up my tongue a bit, but I finally got it. His name is Mr. Babangida. I believe I made his day by just taking the time to learn his name so I could address him appropriately. We became fast friends, and we are now Facebook friends! We had several people who helped us navigate Nigeria. Our hostess, Ms. Daisy treated us so well. We had so much fun getting to know each other. I think we all got a kick out of each other—listening to each other’s accents, and sharing and learning about each other. It was one of the most memorable parts of the trip. And when I told them I was marrying a Nigerian and showed them pictures of me wearing traditional, I was truly welcomed into the family-community. I was even given a Nigerian name, Obidia (pronounced “O-be-de-ah”), meaning heart and soul of my husband. There are so many people that I met, and I will never forget them. Each of them shared their life with me, and I am truly grateful.
Abuja is considered a cosmopolitan city of Nigeria. It is the seat of government, so there is a high concentration of college-educated professionals. Similar to Washington, D.C., many of these professionals work for the Nigerian government. It was fascinating to see a merging of modernity and tradition. When we entered a professional office building, I loved to see people wearing either a western suit or traditional clothing. And both styles were worn impeccably. I think Nigerians have to be the most fashionable people on the planet! Everyone was so fashionable and stylish. Part of this impeccable dressing is due to the fact that many people have their clothes tailored. I was ecstatic when I found out that they were giving us tailored dresses as gifts. I could hardly stand still as the tailor measured me. When we received our dresses, not only were they made with beautiful fabric and decorated with embroidery, the tailor picked colors to complement our skin tones. I wore my dress with such pride and dignity.
The other tradition that I loved was the market place. We went to Wuse Market, which is the main market inside Abuja. At first, I was totally overwhelmed by the market. There were large open spaces as well as narrow alleyways lined with individual stores with so many people packed inside. As we walked into the market, everyone knew we weren’t from Nigeria, so vendors started calling out to us to come inside their shops. The vendors were very aggressive and can be a bit much. We ended up being approached by two men who kept telling us to follow them. So Ms. Daisy said, let’s go see what they want because they aren’t going to leave us alone!! So the two men guided us to various shops, which was beneficial to us and them. We told them what we were looking for, and they would take us to the shop with the specialty item we wanted. If a sale was made, the men would receive a part of the profits. You quickly learn how to bargain if you don’t want to be overcharged for an item. The exchange rate is very good in Nigeria, $100 US dollars equals $15,400 Naira. This was the hotel rate, so the rate was even better with the money changers. (Side note, I now finally understand what the Bible meant when referring to the moneychangers..ijs) I quickly got the hang of things and even made friends with some of the vendors. We were mindful with our bargaining, understanding that we didn’t want to under-sell the vendors. We learned to convert their asking price into US dollars to determine if they really were requesting a fair price. When we were at the market, I must admit I didn’t feel comfortable taking pictures of people. It just seemed intrusive and exploitative to take pictures of people without asking. And I am so glad I followed my instinct. One of the delegates wanted to take picture of a packed bus. It was so packed people were standing in the door ways. As soon as she raised her camera, the people yelled at her and put up their hands to shield their faces. We noticed people doing this throughout the trip. I could see how it could be very annoying to have people take pictures of you like you are an exhibit. Besides, why let someone I don’t know take a picture of me who: 1.) didn’t ask to take my picture; 2.) potentially could profit from my image and not provide a share; and 3.) has total control over the use and context of my image. I mean how would you feel if your picture was taken, and suddenly it is on the cover of some magazine or being used to promote a charity when all you were doing was buying food at the market as you usually do…ijs. So it was important to me to take pictures at the appropriate time and place.
Nigeria was so much more than I could have ever expected. I walked away with a deeper understanding and greater appreciation of Nigeria- Africa. It is more than a Fela party. It is more than the back drop to someone’s video. It is more than an art exhibit. It is more than wearing Afro-centric clothing. It is more than listening to African music. It is about learning and understanding Africa in its richness and complexities. Africa is moving forward, and you can see it all around when you are there. There is so much energy and industry all around. Africa really is the future.
I also encourage black Americans to learn about and to acknowledge their African roots. To know Africa is to know yourself and your history. I believe people who say they don’t have anything in common with Africans are perpetuating self-hate that was taught to us when we first came to North America as enslaved Africans. In our efforts to be accepted into the dominate culture, we have distanced and erased all associations with Africa. I acknowledge and I am proud of my American roots, but I also realize the story didn’t start here.
This is an experience I will never forget. I can’t wait to return to Nigeria, and I plan to visit other African countries too. I have made so many friends and learned so much through this trip about Nigeria– and myself. When we take the opportunity to travel, meet new people and try new things, this is how we grow and live a full life. Travel helps us respect each other and to have an appreciation for diversity. It also improves our ability to learn from others and how to communicate and understand others. It also made me appreciate what I have in America also.
Peace and Blessings, ThatKellieGirl