August 31, 2010

That Time I Got Interrogated by the Nigerian Police

As if the stampede wasn’t exciting enough, last night I got dragged to a Nigerian police station. I’m so very glad I get to have all these new experiences before I leave.

I’m still scratching my head about how it all happened. Basically, through a carefully coordinated mix of miscommunications and coincidences, my friend Uche and I were accused of real estate fraud and hauled in for questioning. It played out like this: I had arranged to meet with Uche, a film editor, for dinner, and since I had lost my phone he gave me the address of a large, easy-to-spot house he lived near to meet in front of. When I got there, I didn’t spot Uche so I asked a chap on the sidewalk if he knew him, mentioning we were supposed to meet at this address. As misfortune would have it, the man happened to be the owner of the house, and being a crotchety and generally awful person (and a bit drunk) he leapt to some faulty conclusions.

A widespread phenomenon in Nigeria is “419 fraud,” when a fraudster sells a piece of real estate to someone when it’s not actually for sale. The foolish buyer purchases a house without seeing the inside, and then when he tries moving in he discovers someone else living there who has no intention of leaving. So common is this trick that owners often put signs in front of their homes saying “This house is NOT for sale.”

Well, this paranoid (and a bit drunk) bloke immediately decided I was trying to buy his house. When Uche eventually showed up, he was accosted by the guy and called a criminal. The uproar aroused the curiosity of the entire neighborhood, and soon we were surrounded by a mob of people who thought they could help by all yelling to each other their personal take on the situation. When we tried quietly slipping away, the homeowner cornered us and demanded we go and explain ourselves to the cops. He had a pack of cronies on his side that made it difficult to decline, so off we went. Along the way a woman kept sneaking up behind me and pinching me, and I can’t shake the notion that the homeowner told her to steal one of my hairs and put a hex on me or something.

Unexpectedly, the Nigerian police are the real heroes of the story. As soon as Uche and I calmly explained that we were just trying to get some soup when a crazy man accused us of trying to sell off his house, they rolled their eyes, took all our information, and told everyone to please leave and get on with their lives. Hear, hear.

August 30, 2010

Church

I’ve been trying for weeks to join one of my friends from the film set at his church, and this week he finally wasn't shooting and was able to take me. I’ve heard plenty about the Pentecostal boom in Nigeria, with mega-churches springing up left and right, and I know that Nigerians know how to get down with their praise music, so I was gearing up for some culture shock. What I got instead was reverse culture shock -- I may as well have been visiting a mega-church in Colorado Springs. Besides feeling like I was in a small city (the sanctuary seated several thousand; the church has a fleet of 100 buses to shuttle them there), everything else was familiar: the same praise songs, the same projector screens flashing the day's Bible excerpt, the same fliers listing upcoming events. The most glaring difference was a gigantic crane camera that zoomed over the congregation and intermittently flashed close-ups of people's faces on the big screens as if we were Oscar nominees. Oh, and the massive gospel choir that closed the service totally rocked it.

August 29, 2010

The Osun Festival


The Osun Festival is essentially a communal prayer to Osun, the river goddess. As its main event, the entire city follows a young girl carrying a symbolic calabash from the center of town down to the banks of the river deep within the forest. Along the way, everyone sweeps their hands over their heads to purify themselves for the ceremony. My friends and I arrived a bit late to the procession, which meant there were only, oh, several hundred thousand people between us and the calabash. But Kola and Taofeek were bent on me seeing it, so they started tugging me through the throng. Right at the entrance to the forest a group of VIPs swept past us, parting the crowd like the Red Sea. Kola hatched the idea of jumping in behind them and riding their coattails to the front of the procession. Unfortunately, everyone else around us had the same idea.

In seconds, the crowd crashed back together and it felt like the sea had just collapsed on top of me. I was suddenly in the type of stampede where people don’t just get trampled but where they can suffocate to death. I made it out within a minute, but my phone wasn’t so lucky. While I had had both my hands firmly on my wallet in my right pocket, another pair of hands managed to slip my phone out of my left. I really have to give the thief credit; don't you agree that wrestling a phone out of a denim jean pocket can be a chore even when they’re your own jeans?

Truth is, my phone was on its last legs a year ago and I was on the verge of duct-taping it together, so I’m actually stoked life gave me an excuse to get a new one. And I’m only in Nigeria four more days, so I can manage until then. So I shrugged it off and got back to the festival: lots and lots of drumming and trumpets welcoming manifestations of the Yoruba gods, like the cloaked Eyos:


They used those sticks to beat me back when I got too close with my photographing. Unfortunately, being a white guy also meant it was impossible to walk around the festival without being assaulted for money, usually by the gods themselves. And you really can’t get out of tipping a god. Within seconds of snapping a pic of a fellow on stilts, the guy stomped over, straddled me, and surrounded me with a cabal of drummers who pounded into my ears until I coughed up some change. I think getting pinned down by a guy on stilts was probably more terrifying than the stampede.

August 28, 2010

Oshogbo Sacred Forest



This weekend I escaped Lagos and headed north to attend Nigeria’s biggest cultural event, the Osun Festival. The festival draws thousands of pilgrims every August to the Oshogbo Sacred Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site regarded as the heart of the traditional religion of the Yoruba people. In an odd twist, the sacred space was actually developed by a white Austrian woman. The artist Susanne Wenger came to Nigeria in the 1960s, became a born-again Yoruba priestess and filled the forest with all sorts of eerie wooden sculptures that she called refuges for the Yoruba gods that the modern world had abandoned. During the festival, the Yoruba travel to the forest to pay the gods their respects.

I traveled to Oshogbo via a Dodge Caravan that I hitched a ride with at a Lagos transport hub. Each vehicle in the hub puts a sign on its roof advertising its destination, and it only leaves once it’s filled to capacity. I was the first passenger to arrive, which meant I waited for half an hour while literally everything a person might need was peddled to me: hankies, wristwatches, rat poison, pirated copies of Hannah Montana. And the peddling didn’t stop there; whenever the van drove through any city, it was assailed by hordes of street vendors who literally sprinted alongside it. Sometimes the poor salesmen would be midway through an exchange before the van started speeding up again, which meant they had to dash after it to collect payment. I saw a guy who could quite possibly beat Usain Bolt run down the highway, losing a sandal in the process, just to deliver the proper change. Such is the fate of every Nigerian who falls victim to the country’s 50% unemployment rate: grab a box of cupcakes or pirated CDs and go stand in the middle of the highway.

Once in Oshogbo, I met up with two awesome guys, Kola and Taofeek, who a friend had arranged to be my guides for the weekend. I don’t even know how to explain how great they were—they made it their personal mission to keep me safe and see as much as possible and just keep me company, which any lone traveler probably needs more than anything. They also kept me well-fed even though they were fasting all day for Ramadan; Oshogbo is roughly half Christian and half Muslim, but still 100% traditionally Yoruba.

Our first stop was to the king’s palace. We were walking along when Kola and Taofeek suddenly bent down onto the ground; in front of them sat a wizened old man in a throne, eyeing me skeptically. Kola stood up and frantically whispered, “Prostrate yourself! Prostrate yourself!” So I bowed down and pressed my head to the ground before the king. Add that to the “things I never expected to do in my life” list. He was nice enough to let me snap a photo with him after I stood back up.



Inside his palace was a shrine with a priestess ringing a bell and accepting prayers. Pilgrims prostrated themselves before her and paid money for her to cast a handful of nuts on the ground; how the nuts landed predicted the pilgrim’s fortune.



More on the festival in my next post.

August 27, 2010

Being Mr. President

With only a week to go before I leave, I’ve had to use aggressive tactics to nab interviews with industry bigwigs. I tried chasing down a few guild presidents after a press conference yesterday, and I got about ten minutes with the Creative Designers president before she literally ran away from me. I’ve been doggedly calling Segun Arinze, the Actors Guild President—and an A-list celebrity—and today he finally acquiesced. Well, kind of: he told me I could ride along in his car and throw questions at him as he drove across town. I figured it was better than nothing; I would probably manage fifteen minutes with him before he kicked me out and I had to take a cab back home.

What I didn’t know is that I would actually spend the entire day—from noon to 9 pm—in his passenger seat, hopping around town with him from one appointment to the next. After the third stop, by which point I was on the complete other side of the city from my house, I announced I had been kidnapped.

He kept apologizing exasperatedly for his hectic schedule, but I’m convinced he enjoyed showing off just how in-demand he is. We were frequently assailed by carfuls of women honking and waving, and at one congested intersection Mr. Arinze beckoned over a traffic cop to complain about the holdup. “So sorry, Shegun Arinze!” the cop stammered, rushing to part the traffic and let us through.

At one point along the road he let out a big groan. “I told them I didn’t like my expression in that photo,” he said with utter annoyance, drawing my attention to a gigantic billboard advertisement with his face plastered on it.



“So have you put Omo to the stains test?” I inquired.

“Like you wouldn’t believe.”

I’ll say this for Mr. President (as everyone, everywhere called him) - he can certainly cram a lot into one day:

Stop 1: recording voiceover for a movie trailer. We were in and out in less than 10 minutes after Mr. Arinze read through each line only twice. (“Coming to a theater near you…coming to a theater…near you.”)

Stop 2: filming a scene for a soap opera. Though I didn't know that at the time. We walked into a packed room with ten teenage actors on one end and a long table at the other. We were quickly seated at the table, then someone yelled “Action!” and the ten actors began taking turns approaching the table, stating their names, and shadow-boxing. This all happened within five minutes of our arrival, so I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I finally deduced that they were filming a scene of an audition for a boxing movie, and Mr. Arinze played the director of the movie within the show. Yeah, I was still confused after we left, just half an hour later.

Stop 3: a photoshoot for a juice company. Mr. Arinze and his fake, beautiful family all stood in front of a canvas holding juice bottles and smiling delightedly. Oddly, this took over two hours.



Stop 4: a chicken shack for dinner, inhabited entirely by Nollywood actors who all hailed their chief when he strolled in.

Stop 5: Ojez Nightclub, for an important meeting in the back room to discuss a serious crisis within Actors Guild politics. Or so I presume from all the hushed tones and furrowed brows.

I finally insisted that I needed to get home before they locked me out of the house. Somehow I had started the day begging an A-lister to speak to me, and now I just wanted him to let me go home and sleep. At least he didn't make me pay ransom.

August 25, 2010

Mr. O

Since moving into the "Nigerian Idol" house, I've been living a life of decadence: sinks with flowing water! Fans that stay on all night! Lukewarm showers!

But there are other realities about life here in the compound that make me less comfortable. When I arrived, I learned that my patron had summoned an elderly housekeeper, Mr. O, to come stay with me. I first met Mr. O scrubbing the kitchen floor in his underwear. I learned he lives with his family three hours away, and on Sunday he left at 7 in the morning to travel those three hours to be with them in church.

The day I moved in, my friend Vocal Slender dropped by and told me he wanted to take me to Ajigule, the slum he grew up in. We were in the posh part of town, amid rows of fenced in mansions, so I figured we’d have far to travel to reach the slums. Instead, Slender took me a few paces from my house, turned down a narrow alley made of planks laid over a sewer line, and led me to the banks of a smelly and polluted river. And there, just on the opposite bank, was the sprawling slum. For 10 Naira (6 cents), a punt took us to the other side. I honestly couldn't shake the feeling that Charon was ferrying me across the River Styx. On the opposite bank was the sort of thing I had expected to see in all of Lagos but had remained hidden until now: pollution, desperation, dirt, smells of cooking oil and petrol. This was where clusters of kids squealed “Oyibo!” and followed me around the streets, where I had a delicious meal of pounded yam for $1 at a chop house, and where I got to hear and record Slender and his musician friends improvise a song on their front stoop. “This neighborhood,” Slender explained as we left, “is where all the staff live for the houses across the river."

I returned home to my mansion. Mr. O had washed all the floors, made the bed, and sprayed my room with anti-mosquito spray. When I asked if there was potable water, he dashed out to buy several liters before I could stop him. At first I felt purely guilty; just because I had wanted a few hours of comfort, I had made an old man toil away all day. Then I thought of Nigeria’s staggering unemployment rate, and I wondered: is Mr. O getting paid tonight when he otherwise wouldn’t have? Does he need this extra money to support his family? And I thought of Ajigule; is Mr. O grateful to spend a night in a cool room, with a soft bed? So have I clumsily benefited him or only inconvenienced him? I've decided, for the time being, that these questions are outside of my control, and for the next few days at least, it's best I try not to answer them.

August 23, 2010

GOD SINS AND PRINTING

I spotted the above four words on a street advertisement for a sign-making business, accompanied by a phone number. I think the ad is arguing they can make "good signs." Please take however long you need to appreciate the full range of humor in this.

August 21, 2010

Hero to the rescue

Several weird and wonderful developments have occurred in the last few days and I’m still trying to sort out which is which. In my interviews with the film and music industries, Vocal Slender put me in touch with a multimillionaire heiress, who describes her family name as Nigeria’s version of Trump or Vanderbilt. This woman has spent the last five years creating Nigeria’s first superhero, complete with comic books and action figures, and she wants to put him on the big screen with the backing of a Hollywood studio. Quite frankly, after she gave me a synopsis of the story I was convinced her superhero is pretty awesome, and I’d love to see the movie happen. When she learned about my own Hollywood experience (very little experience, mind you, but I think it’s the Smallville credit that piqued her interest) she invited me to team up with her to make the project happen. Her dream director is Robert Zemeckis, but hey, I say no harm in dreaming big, especially when you’ve got the money. So watch out, Mr. Zemeckis. We’re coming for you.

Meanwhile, in case some of my blog entries this week didn’t tip you off, the continued power outage at my house has been driving me a bit insane. When the superhero creator learned I had been sitting in the dark for six days, she offered to let me stay in her guesthouse. My initial reaction was to thank her for her incredibly generous offer but stay put, since I’ve got a family who takes good care of me at my house even when I don’t have functioning light. But the truth is my host is out of town this weekend, and I could use a few hours of computer time to actually get work done. So here I am, at least for a few days. As it turns out, the guesthouse is a four-bedroom, two-story mansion. When I came in, I found a huge “Idol” logo emblazoned on one wall. Guess what? This was the house used for Nigeria’s version of the Pop Idol & American Idol reality franchise, and here they had the added element of putting all the contestants in a house together for bonus drama, Big Brother style. There are a dozen beds spread between all the bedrooms, but tonight it’s just me. Ridiculous.

August 20, 2010

A Ride to the Bank

It's the rainy season, and last night brought another torrential rain that flooded the streets in my neighborhood with nearly a foot of water in some places. When I walked to the local bank to withdraw cash, I discovered a river blocking my path where a street used to be. On the opposite side, the posse of bank security guards spotted me (the neighborhood oyibo isn't easy to miss) and sprang to action. A guard in galoshes forded the river, turned around, and indicated that I should jump on his back. As far as I can tell, this was in fact the guard's official duty for the day: to give piggy-back rides across the street to customers in need of an ATM.

I guess I was so thrown by the professionalism of it all that I didn't so much as bat an eye before hopping on the guard's back and catching a lift. Once I had taken my cash, I hopped back on and got a ride to the opposite shore. The Nigerians have proven again to be only too willing to oblige.

August 19, 2010

What's there to say except that we're on Day 4 of a power outage, and we had enough fuel for 30 minutes of generator time, which is about how long it took to connect to the internet. Ah, never have I dreamed of high-speed internet so longingly...sorry again for a short post.

August 18, 2010

Before the Generator Dies

I'm here! I'm here! I haven't been kidnapped. (I make sure to wear really ratty T-shirts and ripped jeans everywhere I go anyhow so everyone knows I'm not an oil tycoon. And besides, Lagos is actually probably the safest city in Nigeria, so no need to worry.)

Apologies for the radio silence; I blame a blackout that went on for nearly a week, coupled with a neighborhood fuel shortage that makes it difficult to run the generator. But life in Lagos continues ... I get my daily nutrients at the local fast-food haunt, Chicken Inn (or as I call it, Chicken Inn, Diarrhea Out) and I spend electricity-less nights at the outdoor bar down the street sipping Coke with my host.

Our generator's just shut off, and my computer was already running out of battery life, so I now have 5 minutes to send this off. Here's hoping tomorrow I'll be granted more time to post!

August 2, 2010

It's a Wrap

Our shoot wrapped after just nine days, at which point the director dashed off to his next project. He probably won’t even think about this movie again until the premiere, since he plays no role in the editing process. His job is basically to tell the camera when to start and stop--he didn’t even know the stars of the film until he showed up to shoot.

I thought I had finished all my scenes, but when we were on location at a mall yesterday the director called me over. He realized we needed a scene where Gary’s friend learns about the pregnancy, so we sat down, improvised some dialogue in about 15 seconds, and started shooting. We did a total of three takes: a medium shot, Gary’s close-up, and my close-up. It would have all taken less than five minutes if a woman hadn’t interrupted and insisted she owned the chairs we were sitting on. The director had to negotiate, but fortunately she didn’t want anything other than to meet him and shake his hand. The complications of on-location shooting…

July 30, 2010

Behind the Scenes

Behind the scenes of a Nollywood video shoot:

Day 1, a white kid shows up on set to investigate. He hears about five “Oyibo!”s as he walks in.

The producer asks him, “Have you ever been in a Nollywood movie before?” The white kid shakes his head.

“Oh, we’ll put you in the film then.” She turns to the scriptwriter, her sister. “We can fit him in somewhere, right?”

The director, an industry heavyweight, shows up late to make sure everyone knows who’s boss. He sizes up the oyibo. “Is this guy acting in the movie?”

“Yes,” says the producer. “But we’re not sure where to put him yet.”

“Make him Gary’s friend from America. He’ll bring him along to Nigeria when he comes for his brother’s wedding.” And it’s decided. They’ll figure out some lines for him when it’s time to shoot.

Incidentally, the actor playing Gary is a newbie to the biz, and he got the role by having a friend call the producer and put in a good word. He has yet to prove himself though, and after a day of filming, it’s clear his acting skills aren’t going to cut it. A simple dinner scene featuring him and the Executive Producer (cf. below) just about drives the director berserk. The one saving grace is the white kid’s line, “Mmm, these plantains sure are delicious,” which, he is told, he delivered sufficiently.

Without any time to recast, the director steps into Gary’s shoes. This will cause its own complications, since Gary plays the crucial role in the story of accidentally impregnating his brother’s fiancĂ©e. This gives Gary considerable screentime, such as a scene in which his irate brother, learning the cruel truth, knocks the living daylights out of him.

The house we’ve stumbled upon (thanks to a 16-year-old guitarist whose parents are out, cf. below) has a swimming pool out back, and so it’s decided the brothers’ fistfight should send them into the water. And before the engaged brother can drown poor Gary in his rage, Gary’s American friend had better jump into the pool too to pull them apart.

Each actor has only one costume (the white kid has no other clothes but the ones he came in), so we’ve really only got one chance to get this right. There's not even time for a quick rehearsal. The real pressure is on the crewmembers, who may have to suppress their laughter; the director and lead actor are both over 6’ tall and considerably hefty, and the scrawny white kid trying to yank them off each other may turn the movie into a comedy. I wish I could describe for you how it looked when the oyibo ran to the edge of the pool, started feebly yelling “Hey guys, get off! Cut it out! You stop that!” and jumped in to try nosing between them. But since a picture is worth a thousand words, and a video surely worth so much more, you’ll just have to wait for the release to DVD.

July 29, 2010

Money Buys Everything

The production that I’ve been visiting is financed by a 27-year-old American immigrant from Sierra Leone, who’s saved up his money working as a nurse in New Hampshire to invest in Nollywood movies. His dream is to be a movie star, so his stipulation for funding the film is that he's cast in a supporting role. Trouble is, he can’t really act. The poor director has to do about a dozen takes of each of his lines, begging him after each one to demonstrate some form of emotional expression. Everyone’s patient with him, but also brutally honest. The director: “I know you’re going to cut my artist’s fee for saying this, but please try to act for the next shot.” The producer: “You’re my man! …Off-camera.” The make-up guy, touching him up after a take: “That last time you almost made us proud!”

July 28, 2010

Busted

This week an incredibly generous producer, Emem Isong, invited me onto the set of her latest film so I could witness the magic happen. Rumors that Nollywood prefers improvising on the job to all that pesky planning ahead have proven delightfully true. On the first day, the director and producer arrived at the mansion that they had arranged to use as the main location, only to decide it wouldn’t suit their needs. So they began walking down the street of the wealthy neighborhood, ringing doorbells. Soon they met a teenager whose parents weren’t home. It seemed this youngster was an aspiring musician, and he offered the filmmakers a deal: he’d hand over the house to them if the director agreed to shoot a music video for him, free of charge, and make a cameo in it, along with the film’s A-list lead actor. Already hours behind schedule, the filmmakers hastily agreed. Oh, and the kid had one more stipulation: everyone had to be out of the house by 8:00.

Well, 8:00 came and went, and we still had four scenes to shoot. That’s when we heard a car pulling into the driveway. A production assistant rushed inside: “It’s the parents! The parents are home!” We were all about to be caught like sitcom teenagers whose parents left town for the weekend but, due to bad weather or a change of plans or what have you, come home early to find half the high school doing keg stands in their living room. Frantically, the director pushed the lead actor out the front door to intercept the parents in the driveway, where he delivered an Oscar-worthy performance about how grateful the crew was for their generosity. For a Nigerian, this would roughly be the equivalent of coming home from work and having Brad Pitt walk out of your house to thank you for the sodas he found in the fridge. The actor's charm did the trick; we stayed until 11 pm and finished off Day 1 of a ten-day shoot.

Seen on a Storefront Sign in Lagos

"Saloon For Men: Offering Haircuts, Shaving, and Beard Trimming." Whoops!

July 25, 2010

At 66, my dad's still got it

Well, Nigeria never ceases to surprise me. I was showing off family photos to my hostess Moji and her friend Bose. At a picture of the Paulsons at my brother’s wedding, Bose made me stop. “Your father is so handsome. He looks so young. Tell your mother not to let him travel to Nigeria. I will snatch him.” Mind you, Bose is in many men's minds the most beautiful and desirable woman in the whole neighborhood.

Moji, on the other hand, had a different opinion: “I like your brother.” (beat) “I like him so much.” (another beat) “Never bring him to Nigeria. It would end my marriage. I’m serious.” I think she really was. In fact, she paused again to weigh just how much her husband meant to her. “Actually, you should bring him. Bring your brother.” Good grief.

Below, my mother's rival followed by my sister-in-law's.


July 22, 2010

So glad I wasn't watching Saw 17 or whatever we're up to

Today I was able to tick off one of my lifetime to-dos: seeing a movie and being the only person in the entire theater. I was insanely ready to sit in a very cold room for several hours, so I payed my 1000 Naira to see Hollywood’s version of “Death at a Funeral.” I was a big fan of having the place all to myself, slurping my soda as loudly as possible, right up until there was a blackout and I was suddenly drowned in pitch blackness all by my lonesome. They turned the generators on five minutes later and the film started up again where it left off.

July 21, 2010

The music industry



I think I’ve been researching the wrong industry. I wanted to get a broader perspective on my research, and since I had met the musician Vocal Slender on my flight, I thought he could introduce me to some people in the music biz. Yesterday he took me to meet the producers and managers of some of the big names in Nigerian music, and their level of hospitality and eagerness to help floored me. From every person, I either got tons of free CDs and/or a free meal. I was speaking with a band manager when someone brought in his dinner. I made to leave, and he said, “Wait, you’re not eating with me?” Suddenly I was served the biggest and most delicious meal I’ve had yet in this country. He also gave me both a Coke and a beer, which I didn’t entirely know what to do with. The oddest bit though was that he just turned on the TV to MTV music videos and stopped talking. “You can turn your chair around to watch,” he instructed. So we just sat together watching Usher and 50 Cent videos in silence until we were both finished.

When I went to the next producer’s office, there were two men idling in the lobby; one was a photographer, and the other a documentary filmmaker, neither of whom had found work that day. So when my interview began, suddenly it was being filmed and meticulously photographed. There are probably about 25 extreme close-ups of my face as I ask, “So how long have you been in the business?” Afterward, everyone wanted photos, so we spent maybe half an hour rearranging ourselves in every possible group combination.

July 19, 2010

Big Brother Africa

I was horrified to learn that America’s most popular cultural import to Nigeria is the reality show “Girls of the Playboy Mansion.” Good grief, if my only image of the US was topless, busty blondes bouncing down inflatable water slides giggling stupidly, I might have a mind to come and blow the place up myself. I was surprised to discover, though, that Africa has its own line of inane reality programming that complements the Playboy girls just fine. Last night was the fifth-season premiere of Big Brother Africa—their own version of the depraved reality staple that makes Survivor look like high art. And, for better or for worse, it seems they’ve remained remarkably faithful to the original in tone and complexity. They’ve still got the vacuous sound bites: “My strategy is I’m here to win!” And the stubborn egotism of competitors: “I’m just gonna be myself in the house. Because that’s what I’m about.”

From what I can tell, the show is quite a phenomenon across the continent; a timer in the corner of the TV screen had counted down to the premiere for weeks. On one hand, I’m relieved this show exists: in a Nigerian TV lineup, Playboy Girls following this doesn’t look quite so bad anymore. And the Pan-African dimension of the show is intriguing; contestants come from 14 different countries, so each country has their own housemate to stoke nationalist sentiment, while at the same time the show’s popularity is pulling the continent closer together. On the other hand, the fact that this show was imported from the West (it was originally created in the Netherlands) is living proof that Africa needs to be spared from the ills of any more cultural imperialism as fast as possible. Thank goodness for Nollywood.

July 17, 2010

On the market

Uh-oh. Nigeria has started its quest to find me a girlfriend. Two blunders on my part have conspired against me: first, for some reason (misplaced honesty) I said I was single when questioned; second, I remarked that Nigerian girls were “very beautiful.” (Fact!) My singlehood has confounded many Nigerians; apparently such a thing just doesn’t exist here, as a person simply hops from one relationship to the next.

A Muslim man bragging to me about his two wives went a step further and asked if I was a virgin. “Well, yes; I’m not married, after all,” I responded. I learned this answer was not an appropriate one. There was a general uproar among the men I was seated with, and Bose, whose shop we were chatting in front of, had to intervene: “What Cole is trying to say is he doesn’t have a girlfriend back home. I’m sure he’s not a virgin.” Heaven forbid. (I thought this country was populated by devout Pentecostal Christians and sharia-abiding Muslims?) “What you need to do,” the Muslim man, Mufi, lectured, “is after you find yourself a Nigerian girl, drink a lot of palm wine. It will be the best sex you’ll ever have.” All the men nodded their heads vigorously. “Palm wine. A Nigerian treasure.”

July 16, 2010

Night in the Museum

With nothing else planned today, I headed to the National Museum. It turned out to be a depressing place. The staff looked annoyed to see me; I asked for an entry ticket and the woman sighed and finally stood up to dig one out of the bottom of her drawer. I probably saw ten times as many employees in the museum as I did visitors; I imagine that, like in similarly populous India, the overabundance of labor makes it cheap, and with unemployment so high, why not hire one more woman to sleep in the corner of the Weaponry room? At one point the electricity cut out, plunging the corridor I stood into pitch blackness. “Everyone please stay where you are,” boomed a voice in the distance, routinely, like he had said this quite a few times. I definitely didn’t want to blindly crash into a glass display case, so I obeyed; about a minute later light was back.

What the ell?

Okay, I demand an explanation! It’s taken me a week to figure out a linguistic quirk when Lagosians speak English. My host sister told me she “hates rice” and “hates yam,” so I was a bit surprised when she kept serving rice and yam. Then she asked me how I was coping with the “eat,” and when I said it was delicious she looked very confused. It’s finally dawned on me that she switches the pronunciation of words starting with “h” and words starting with a vowel. So she “eats” rice and yam and is concerned how I’m faring with the “heat.” I’ve noticed it when speaking to plenty of other Nigerians, but I can’t come up with a possible explanation. Anybody?

July 15, 2010

Soyinka's Birthday


I was invited to a performance on Lagos Island tonight in honor of Nigerian playwright and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka on his 76th birthday. Truthfully I had no idea what the evening would involve until I arrived. The festivities began with a red carpet of Nigerian stars—76 of them—each appearing in character to recite a line from one of Soyinka’s plays. It was quite a grand affair; Nigeria knows how to pull out the stops when it wants to. A gigantic crane with a spotlight followed the actors; a booming emcee introduced each celeb while another instructed us all to applaud at the right times; and schoolchildren in uniform were even carefully placed along the red carpet route to convey, oh, whatever children convey: education, the future, wide-eyed wonder.

The play itself, I discovered, was actually presented by an American collegiate troupe touring Nigeria on a cultural exchange. To my disappointment, the play, about a heated encounter between an African Muslim immigrant in NYC and a virulently racist/xenophobic cop, didn’t have much to say except that there are racist/xenophobic cops. And we knew that already, didn’t we? There’s not much more need, in my opinion, to “expose” the crazy hate-filled people among us who would have been KKK members in another era. It’s the more subtle, bubbling-under-the-surface-just-out-of-sight racism in all of us that we need to shine a light on. I couldn’t help thinking that presenting to Africans this play that rails against card-carrying American bigots can be just as harmful as Hollywood flicks that dwell on Muslim terrorists.

I was caught off guard, and I’m sure the cast was too, when the Nigerian audience began to burst out laughing at the hatemonger’s antics. The cop pulled a gun on our Muslim protagonist, and the audience whooped and hollered; he went on to label him a terrorist, an inferior, backward savage, and the audience couldn’t contain themselves. It was as if they were watching a farce. As the play went on, I decided that the audience may be on to something; after all, extreme racist hate is so senseless and illogical that at some point it reaches the level of the absurd. As this cop exposed his blind thinking more and more, the audience had little choice but to laugh at the fool.

Um, Si

Today, the soldiers guarding the ATM guessed that I was Spanish. I broke the truth to them, explaining there aren’t many blond Spaniards. They were clearly disappointed; they had wanted to congratulate me on World Cup victory. Curse my honesty, I thought. For once in my life I could have been cool enough to be Spanish, and a World Cup champion. In the future I think I’ll choose whom to correct based on the awesomeness of their first guess.

July 14, 2010

Bose and Her Husbands

My hostess Moji took me to the Moshi neighborhood this afternoon so I could order business cards and fool those Presidents into thinking I'm a professional. We walked past dirt mounds, cement block houses, and dozens of children playing in their skivvies, then teetered across a plank that spanned a ditch of stagnant water to find a wooden, shed-size structure that offers everything Kinko’s does. After placing our order and making a deposit, we took a quick okada ride (motorcycle taxis = NOT safe over long distances) to visit Moji’s friend, Bose, at her streetside convenience store.



Bose is the beautiful and compassionate girl next door that every teenage guy wished he had grown up alongside. Her convenience store (a shed with a patio out front) doubles as an all-day party zone for the young men in the neighborhood who sit outside and keep Bose company. She calls them all her “husbands.” The group gladly welcomed me into their circle, and before I knew it they were uncorking a bottle of wine on my behalf and toasting that I “find success in my research and stay away from the mosquitoes.” I think this crew jumps at any chance to uncork a bottle of wine, but I wasn't going to quibble.

I was grateful not only for the group’s hospitality, but for their candidness. Some of the questions I was soon fielding: “What are the perceptions of Nigeria in America?” (I answered honestly and was quickly inundated with passionate protests to Nigeria’s scam reputation) and then “So what do you think about black people?” Like most other people I’ve encountered, the gang wasn’t hostile to an oyibo in Nigeria, but they were all very, very determined for me to hear and understand what they had to say about development, democracy, and Nigeria's place in the world. Oh, and they wanted to know if Lady Gaga was a witch of the occult. I did my best just to listen, and to assure them that Lady Gaga was mostly harmless. (Lying for the sake of diplomacy?)

Local Fauna


I haven’t seen much wildlife in Lagos, but the precautions against it are everywhere: my instructions to always wear flip-flops around the house to protect from tapeworms; a lid that comes with every drink at a restaurant to keep out flies; and the mosquito net over my bed, which has so far been great fun since I feel like I’m 5 again sitting in a blanket fort.

Here's the Catch

Nollywood Review Log: The movie I watched tonight read like a Biblical parable, though set in the modern day--and to this Western oyibo audience member--it just came off as tragic and unsettling. A wealthy plantation owner wants to reclaim his heritage as king of his village, despite resistance from the village council. His daughter tells him to visit church and pray for God’s help. When he does, the pastor has him make a pact with God: if God grants his wish, the plantation owner will give anything God asks of him in return. Soon after, the man becomes king. But that night, God sends him a vision: he must give his daughter to God and send her to a nunnery. He’s understandably upset, but he knows he must oblige; he breaks the news to his daughter, who’s none too pleased with him. After shedding tears over a husband and children she’ll never have, she gets into the pastor’s waiting car and is carted off to join the nuns.

The lesson here is that we must follow God’s will, no matter what sacrifices he may ask of us. Yet I couldn’t help thinking how the story would have played out the exact same way had the plantation owner not made a pact with God, but with the Devil: in a Faustian deal, the Devil gives him everything he ever wanted, but then demands his daughter as payment. In this version it’s all well and good, since the daughter will dedicate her life to the Lord’s work--but I didn't see the part where God checked in with her to see if she was okay with the idea.

July 11, 2010

To life!

My host Yomi left the house Friday afternoon for a party his friend was hosting. I asked him what the occasion was. He said his friend's grandma had died. She had lived to a ripe old age of 92, he explained, something which is worth celebrating. I respect a culture that celebrates a life well-lived rather than moping around in black contemplating death. I've been invited to a burial party on the 31st, and my hostess Moji is even sewing me a suit for the occasion!

July 10, 2010

Yes, It's Called "White Hunters"


“Desperate babes on the prowl! In search of a whitie (whitie!) (whitie!)”

My hostess insisted I would love this flick: “White Hunters” is about a group of Nigerian women determined to find and marry white men. Not that they’re particularly attracted to our pasty flesh; it seems that to be accepted by the other Nigerian gals at their posh salon, they’ve got to prove they too can nab a whitie. Interestingly, in Nigeria being “white” doesn’t mean you’re European, but includes Indians, Asians, and even mixed-race Africans.

After our protagonists try online dating (alas, he’s a 72-year-old lying about his age) and throwing themselves at a poor unsuspecting Indian dude on the street (he’s willing, but they can’t handle his garlic breath), in desperation they summon a witch doctor to help. His prescription for winning the love of a white guy: bury alive a human baby. Thankfully the girls pay their dues; after some accidental love potion hijinks ensue a la A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the cops show up and arrest them for murder. I would have appreciated someone also finding true love in a local African stud and realizing the important lesson that love is color-blind, but at least these girls were presented as pretty mockable.

Hilariously, the white men who were the objects of their wooing were all middle-aged, plump Lebanese or Indian guys who, from the look of it, had never acted a day in their lives. I’m guessing the casting directors had to get a bit desperate. Hm, I should send out some head shots…

Rubbing Too Many Elbows

Today I either hit the jackpot for my Nollywood thesis, or I completely forfeited my whole summer.

I had read that all the Nollywood glitterati congregate in the evenings at Wini’s bar and restaurant. When an actor I had gotten in touch with invited me to meet him there tonight, I learned that this evaluation of Wini’s is somehow an understatement. The actor, Rykardo, took me around to introduce me "to a few friends” on the grounds. Within ten seconds I was suddenly shaking hands with the President of the Producers Association, the President of the Directors Association, and the President of the Marketers Association. Basically, all the most elite figures in the industry who I was planning on spending an entire summer hunting down. My thesis was standing right in front of me, looking somewhat bemused at the sweaty white kid in a T-shirt.

I realized at some point that they expected me to speak. I stuttered my name and explained that I was here to study “Nigeria movies. Nollywood Nigerian industry.” Oy. The Presidents just blinked at me, a bit annoyed, then they all started insisting simultaneously that I needed to speak to the other two presidents, trying to pass me off to each other. Encouraging. Somehow I stammered that I would chase them all down for interviews, if of course they had a free moment and it wouldn’t be trouble, and excused myself. I’m pretty sure I intimidated them with my journalistic steely resolve. We'll see if I ever get any of them to talk to me again.

Oyibo Alert

Occasionally I get stopped on the street by people who want to guess where I’m from. Guesses have so far included Germany and France; “because of your haircut,” the man explained. But the thing I hear most is just an exclamation of “Oyibo!” from a passing motorcyclist or someone sticking their head out of a bus window. It’s essentially just an observation: “White person!” The neighborhoods I frequent so rarely see a white face that passersby, my hostess has explained, are just shouting their surprise. But I hear it so much—easily an Oyibo! a minute, if not more—that it sounds almost like a greeting. “White person!” To which I respond, “E ka ro! And good day to you too!”

All Aboard


Who needs amusement parks when you have Lagos public transportation? I had seen yellow Volkswagen minibuses whizzing by constantly, packed to the brim with people sitting on top of people on top of chickens, and always with someone standing and leaning out the side door like a trash collector. When my hostess explained these were public buses, and we’d be taking one home, I was a bit thrown off. They operate like this: there are no “bus stops,” but passengers flag the minibuses down like they would a taxi. The man hanging out the side door is the “conductor,” and he takes 50 Naira from you and asks where you’re headed. You then squeeze in, somehow, and sit tight until the bus has gotten near enough your destination, at which point the conductor bangs on the bus roof and the driver pulls over and gives you about five seconds to jump. I’ve seen conductors racing after their own buses that start driving off without them.

Won't Be a White Wedding

My hosts are avid Nollywood fans, which is both a gift and a curse. Obviously it will be a boon to my research to witness the “consumption” side of Nollywood economics, but it also means I have to endure lots of Nollywood movies. I sat through my first full movie today and agonizingly prayed for it to end. “Forbidden Fruit” was about a despicable man and woman on their wedding day, a day on which suddenly all their misdeeds—including a few murders and many, many infidelities—come to the surface, forcing them to pay their dues and ruining a perfectly good wedding. It’s all about teaching the audience a moral lesson, but after the groom had impregnated two sisters, hidden the body of a third mistress, and been blackmailed into a threesome by a fourth, all while the bride was busy sleeping with the best man, I was morally exhausted.

Waka Waka

The US is really not on board with this World Cup thing. I mean sure, I had heard of it once or twice before this year, but I didn’t realize that it was a life-or-death, all-consuming battle that takes precedence over all else for a month until I lived in England and then Nigeria. I remember studying in my basement room at Oxford during an English match and hearing a sudden roar across the entire city that told me the country had scored. Precisely the same thing happened tonight, only this time Nigeria wasn’t cheering for its own team, but for Ghana’s—the continent’s last remaining team, and perhaps its first chance to reach the semi-finals. Tonight, as the Nigerian TV anchor has repeatedly stated, every African is Ghanaian.

Let There Be Light

I needed to hear it a few times to understand that the constant question “Is there light?” means “Is the electricity still on?” Blackouts are a constant threat of everyday life and doing business, and my host says the reason that the cost of living is so expensive here is because a shop has to own a pricey generator to get anything done. It also means you can’t buy anything from the grocery store that has to be chilled; thus no milk, only powdered milk. There are simply too many people in Lagos for the limited electric grid, so neighborhoods have to take shifts with limited energy; we don’t get electricity in the early afternoon, for example, along with any times (at least three a day) the electricity decides to give out on its own.

Meeting Mr. Slender Himself

Somehow I managed to kick-start my research, and meet a local celebrity, before even arriving in Lagos. After arriving in Tripoli, Libya for a 3-hour layover, I watched Obama make a speech on immigration on TV for a bit before taking a tour of the waiting room: a blend of North Africans and black Africans, some women in headscarves, others in full hijab, others with perfectly straightened locks out on display. I passed a prayer room with the fives times for prayer posted on a board (I also took note of a compass application on the airplane screen that always tells you the direction of Mecca, and an audio channel offering a reading of the Quran). A massive, almost caricature-like portrait of Qaddafi was framed in the center of the room.

I spied a comfy chair, sat down, and there seated right next to me was Vocal Slender, a newly-minted international celebrity of sorts after featuring in the BBC doc “Welcome to Lagos” that just premiered. I recognized him instantly and recalled his story: living in the massive Lagos dump picking through trash for salvageable items to resell in order to fund his aspirational music career. None of his friends in the music industry, including his manager and producer, knew what his day job was, and the documentary crew had to hound him for permission to follow his story. Now that half of England has seen his story, his secret’s out at home, but his career has exploded. When I introduced myself, he told me he was flying back from London—his very first flight, and his first trip abroad—after shooting a music video and receiving $200,000 from the doc producers after the film’s success.

Vocal Slender (his real name is Eric, which he told me as if imparting a secret) is remarkably humble after his sudden rise to fame. He seemed to take his month in England completely in stride, remarking that he found the country “very safe” but “dirtier than he expected,” and he didn’t care for the food, looking forward to coming back to Lagos. Rather than telling me about his exploits and travels, he earnestly wanted to tell me his wish for my film career, and with it, his personal philosophy. And funnily enough, it’s my philosophy too: the two most important things a human can do is to love, and to create.

We continued talking the entire flight to Lagos after switching seats to sit with each other. He stared transfixed at the flight path map, reading the names of all the cities we flew over. I told him I had studied in Italy and he said, “You study a lot, don’t you?” Then he reminded me that I had an enormous responsibility to follow through on my education – to my parents, my scholarship sponsors, my government for their loans. This is someone who spent his college-age years salvaging scrap metal in a landfill, and I felt ashamed that he needed to remind me how valuable an education is.

In another twist, his manager who traveled with him works in Nollywood, in the official Lagos film office that grants shooting permits – precisely the thing I’m here to study. I got loads of names and contacts and plenty of advice. After worrying that I hadn’t prepared sufficiently to start my research when I got here, I ended up starting it in Libya, before even landing in Nigeria!

Slender made sure I met up with my host at the airport. He's a 50-something journalist for a political magazine and incredibly friendly and accommodating. After a short drive to his house (he put me in the backseat "to avoid attention") I’m safe in my rented room now—a palace, at least in my mind, that reminds me in all the best ways of my room in India. An air conditioner is roaring deafeningly, and comfortingly, and I’m about to collapse on a sheetless bed. He's promised to purchase a mosquito net tomorrow.