Growing up in Nigeria

I recently finished reading Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life by Elaine Neil Orr.  It is a memoir of a Missionary Kid (MK) who grew up in Nigeria, West Africa.  She writes it while she is waiting for a kidney transplant and possibly facing death.

I’m still not sure what I think about this book.  I don’t usually identify with MK’s since they often have issues regarding their faith and feelings of abandonment I just don’t relate to.  However, her description of life in Nigeria is beautifully written and brought back a flood of memories for me.  The book is also interesting historically because she lived there during the Nigerian civil war.  The war was all around her.

Elaine was born in Ogbomosho, north of Ibadan in southwestern Nigeria where her parents worked at a mission hospital.  She moved around Nigeria and lived in the east for a while and then during the war she lived in Oshogbo.  The Biafran War lasted from 1967 to 1970.

War is always ugly.  It is estimated three million people lost their lives in the Biafran War.  They mostly died of hunger and disease.  The Igbos, the main tribe living in the Eastern Region, wanted to secede from Nigeria.  The people living in the north and the west did not want this to happen because, among other things, there was oil in the east.  The Igbos lost the war and surrendered to General Yakubu Gowon in 1970.

General Yakubu “Jack” Dan-Yumma Gowon was still Head of State when my family moved to Nigeria in 1972.  There were high hopes for Mr Gowon and his plans for

“Reconciliation, Reconstruction, and Rehabilitation”.  He promised to repair the damage to the economy and infrastructure of the Ibos and the Eastern Region.  This never happened.  Nigeria was an up and coming African country enjoying it’s new wealth with the discovery of oil.  The new capital, Lagos, was an international city and THE place to be in West Africa.

Business was booming.  And so was corruption.  Gowon had promised to return Nigeria to civilian rule in 1976 but in 1974 he made the announcement that Nigeria would not be ready.  That was one of the many things that lead to a coup d’etat in 1975 where General Gowon fled the country never to return.

Welcome to Lagos.
Welcome to Lagos.

Our life in Lagos was not the idyllic life Elaine describes of her childhood in the country.  It was a city plagued by unbelievable population growth coupled with affluence from oil money, which meant new automobiles and motorcycles, shortages of services of all kinds, and congestions beyond imagination.

Lagos is 4 degrees north of the equator and the climate is tropical, hot and humid. People slept outside by the side of the road.  Children ran naked, and played in the open sewers beside the busy and dusty roads.  There were signs all over the city that said “no urinating here” but people paid little attention.  Since most people did not have any plumbing or toilets in their homes, they used either pay public toilets or a ditch for free.  Often the public pay toilet was just an empty lot that somebody patrolled, selling a piece of old newspaper and a spot to relieve oneself.

The heat was a stifling, humid kind that takes your breath away.  The sun rose at 6:30 am and set at 6:30 pm every single day of the year. There were beautiful flowers and vegetation that seemed to grow before your very eyes.  People wore vibrant colored cloth and head wraps and laughed and danced to the ever present loud and monotonous music in the streets.

We lived in a big house on Ikoyi Island right on the bay (the bay no longer exists because they filled it in to build a highway).  It was a perfect tropical house because three sides were windows which, when opened, would catch all the breezes.  The front and back sections were all screened in but the side panel was not.  We rarely opened it because of the mosquitoes but one night it was so hot we decided to chance it.  We were gazing out and admiring the tree that ran along the side of the house when we saw a huge rat crawling along toward the opened window. It was time to suffer the heat after that.

Dye pits with tie-died cloth.
Dye pits with tie-died cloth.

We had rats inside the house too.  The cook was always putting traps out for them and he often caught them.  Once, when we knew there was one around and traps had been set, I got up in the morning and went to put my leather sandals on.  Somebody or something had taken a huge bite out of one of the leather straps – it had teeth marks on it!  I took it down to the cook and showed it to him.  I was freaked out; it not only meant that my sandals were ruined, but a rat (and they were always giant rats in Lagos) had actually been in my room upstairs.  Yuk!!!  The cook, Philip, laughed and laughed.  It was the funniest thing he had seen in a long time.

It wasn’t until we moved upcountry to Ibadan that I started to really appreciate Nigeria.  I was able to get out and see the countryside and travel to other parts of Nigeria.

One summer a friend of mine and I traveled to Kaduna and Kano in northern Nigeria. Kano was on the edge of the Sahara Desert and there was a big camel market just outside town with all kinds of scrawny looking camels.  It was mainly Muslim, and there were several mosques.  We were interested in going into one of these but soon found out that it was not allowed.

We were able to peek inside one and saw lush carpets on the floor and high arched ceilings.  Most of the women on the streets were covered from head to foot in dark burkas. From time to time we would see a woman who was not covered and we asked the driver about these women and who they might be.  He said they were “useless women”.

Example of Adire cloth.
Example of Adire cloth.

The market in Kaduna had large dye pits for dying cloth.  We went deep into the market to see how the women tied the cloth for tie-dyed materials. The finished cloth was called “adire” and was a deep blue color.

When we finally found the place, the women were not covered up.  They were very interested in us and were happy to show us their tying techniques.  They would take small pebbles and tie string around it in a circular pattern.  It was amazing how fast they were.  Adire was also made with stamped designs instead of being tied, and it was all a rich indigo color.

We then travelled to Benin City where there was a small museum near the University with the famous Benin bronze heads and other sculptures.  This was what remained of a culture that flourished between the 1500 and the 1800’s.

The masks had delicate features and the artwork was much more sophisticated than what you saw in most places at the time.  They used a process called the lost wax process and mainly sculpted the heads of royalty.

The village where Elaine lived during the war, Oshogbo, was another interesting place we visited.  It was the center of a women’s fertility ceremony and shrine on the Osun River.  We were allowed into their private area and led down to the river to witness a ritual.

There were many shrines in the area. An Austrian artist named Susan Wenger created sculptures, which were weird things that looked like huts, or female forms.  She revived the area and brought attention to it and today, Oshogbo, Nigeria is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

2 thoughts on “Growing up in Nigeria

  • February 19, 2013 at 9:10 PM

    Nice article. I had forgotten about the civil war there.

  • February 19, 2013 at 5:22 PM

    Nice article, Kathy. Your writing gives us a unique glimpse of life and adventure in a land far away. Thank you for the “mini” vacation.

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