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


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


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…