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This is the second most common question I am asked in Nigeria. I work in the U.S Embassy’s consular section, so the number one question should be pretty obvious. But if people don’t know who I am, “is that your hair?” jumps to the top of the list.
I should explain. A couple of years ago, I decided to go natural. That’s right: no hot combs, no relaxers, no chemicals. I didn’t make this decision lightly. I loved my straight hair and often received compliments on it. But a few years ago, I discovered that cancer drugs and relaxers don’t mix. My hair was breaking. And since not taking the cancer meds was not an option for me, I decided to drop the relaxers. I also found out my next overseas assignment would be in Abuja, Nigeria and I thought going natural would be easier in this environment. I assumed – incorrectly, as it turns out – that most Nigerian women were “natural curlies” too, so I’d have a lot of local resources.
Truthfully, going natural wasn’t that hard. Some women will figuratively take the plunge and do a “big chop” – they cut off all of the relaxed hair, leaving a teeny weeny afro of natural hair behind. I wasn’t that brave, so I transitioned gradually. I stopped putting the straightening chemicals in my hair and changed my hairstyle to mask the kinky roots and the straight ends. Once my roots grew out a bit, I started wearing my hair in two-strand twists. (Look it up).
At the same time, I did a lot of research about the best products to use on my hair. I read a lot. I Googled a lot. Everyone’s hair is different, so even with the research, it’s trial and error. How does this product make my hair feel? Is it shiny or dull? How does my hair respond to humidity? Is this conditioner too heavy or not heavy enough? And on and on.
Anyway, as I noted above, I incorrectly assumed most Nigerian women be natural like me. Why did I assume that? I think I was basing that assumption on the number of African braiding salons in the DC area, but it really made no sense. I arrived in Nigeria and found the same things I found at home: relaxers, extensions, and weaves. A few naturals too, but mostly relaxers, extensions, and weaves. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It just meant that I wasn’t going to have all the local expertise that I thought I would.
I’m three years into this natural thing, and I love it. I love trying new styles, I love trying different products, and I love watching my hair grow as it gets healthier. Sometimes I twist it, sometimes I braid it, and occasionally I blow it out to see how long it has gotten. I’ve used almond oil, olive oil, coconut milk, and honey on my hair with amazing results, but I’ve also used store-bought conditioners and shampoos. It just depends on my mood. Over the years, I’ve figured out what works for me and my hair.
Which brings me back to the title of this post. I can’t tell you how many times Nigerian women have approached me and asked, “Is that your hair?” Then we spend a couple of minutes talking about how I style it, what products I use, and how easy it is. I’m determined to make a few converts.
So, to answer that question: Yes. It’s all mine. And I love it.
I may have mentioned before that Nigeria is a challenging place to live. The traffic. The scams. The many grocery stores one must visit to find all the things you can find in one trip to Safeway. (By the way, I did find a grocery store that has artichoke hearts. They cost a fortune, but what are you going to do?)
Last weekend, my survival skills were really tested. It’s rainy season, and a big storm blew through. So big that it knocked out the satellite that gives us access to the American Forces Network (AFN to those of you in the know). Which meant that I couldn’t watch all of my favorite shows. Which – yes, I watch too much television and this was an opportunity for me to read more, knit more, ponder the universe more. Whatever. “Elementary” you guys. Is that asking too much? This is really not a problem, right? Because I have internet. And I have a VPN, which allows me to access Netflix and Hulu and if worse comes to worse, I could always buy the episode of that show I really want to watch on iTunes.
Except my internet service was spotty. The light, that light on the router, the one that is supposed to be just a steady blue light: it’s blinking. It’s not supposed to do that. Blinking light = no internet. Okay, this is not ideal, but I can handle it. I will go shopping. Or go to a movie. Or have lunch at a restaurant.
Except my car battery is dead. It’s Saturday afternoon. My car battery is dead. Dammit!
And that’s when I learned the value of having “a guy.” My neighbors have “a guy.” When their car needs an oil change or a tire rotation or even some body work, they call the guy. The guy comes and picks up the car at the Embassy, does what needs to be done, and returns it before the end of the day. This is a good guy, a great guy. They gave me this guy’s number. These are good neighbors, sharing his number, because I kind of feel like I would want to keep this guy all to myself. I called him last Saturday at around noon, explained my situation, and asked him for help. He said, “What time do you want me to come over?” I said, hesitantly, “1:00PM?” He said, “Okay.” And here’s the kicker: he was here at 1:00PM! You have no idea how rare that is in Nigeria. (I cannot tell you the number of times I have been told “I’ll be there in 5 minutes.” I finally figured out that “5 minutes” means like half an hour in Nigeria-speak). He was on time. He. Was. On. Time. He looked at my car. He said, “It’s the battery. I’ll be back in 20 minutes.” He left. Twenty minutes later (just like he said!), he returned with a new battery. He installed said battery. I paid him. He left. I now have a guy to handle all the car stuff. Tomorrow, he’s coming to the Embassy to pick up my car and change the oil. I have a guy.
I have another guy. This guy’s number is saved in my phone as “AFN Tech.” I called him. “I have an unstable signal,” I said. “I cannot watch AFN.” (“Elementary,” I did not say). He understands my plight. “I will have to reset the satellite,” he responded. He came. He reset the satellite or whatever it is that they do. It didn’t work the first time. He came back and jiggled the handle or whatever it is that they do. And AFN is back. “Elementary,” y’all. I have another guy and he totally gets me.
I’m on a roll. On to the internet! Well, actually, I don’t have a guy for internet. That problem resolved itself on its own. Would it surprise you if I told you that when the blue light is blinking, you have to turn the router off and then turn it back on? (Why is it that the solution to most things computer-related is to turn the device off, and then turn it back on?) So I turned it off, and turned it on, and now I have internet.
Nine months into this adventure, and I learned something. Yes, Nigeria is challenging. Yes, these people are probably the worst drivers on the planet. Yes, many Nigerians have a very fluid concept of time. But if you have a guy (or two or three!), all things are possible. If you have a guy, your problems will be solved. If you have a guy, you will survive this crazy, amazing, wonderful country.
I may have mentioned (a few times) that Abuja can start to get to you – especially if your movement is restricted to the city and that city doesn’t have a whole heck of a lot ot offer. I finally decided I had had enough: I needed to get out of Dodge for a few days. Abuja is not easy to fly into or out of – there aren’t a lot of choices here. Europe is six hours away and six hours on a plane each way seemed like way too much torture. My needs were simple: something not too far away (1-2 hours by plane); resort hotel with room service (this is so key); stuff to do. Accra, Ghana met all of my requirements.
Unfortunately for me – and fortunately for you because you get to read about all the crazy shiz that happens to me – the trip did not start well. The flight was late. I should be used to this by now. This is normal for Nigeria. But it still drives me crazy. We were supposed to arrive around 7:15PM but I think we arrived closer to 8:30/8:45PM. Okay. Not a big deal. Except it appears that the Kotoka International Airport is renovating…which means that the customs/immigration area is about the size of my office…which ain’t big. So the 100 or so people on my flight are trying to cram themselves into this room – not air conditioned because if Ghanaians are anything like Nigerians (and Italians for that matter), they hate a/c. And did I mention how humid Accra is? Even at night? But I’m getting ahead of myself. So we are crammed into this little room, inching our way forward. Slowly. I finally make it to the front of the line and the first Ghanaian government official I talk to is a health officer. A HEALTH officer. Guess what the health officer (HEALTH officer) asks me for? My yellow card. For those of you who may not be familiar, the “yellow card” is the immunization card issued by the World Health Organization. Your health care practitioner records all of your immunizations on this card. Everyone who works for an NGO has one for sure, and I’d venture to guess that most – if not all – U.S. foreign service officers have them too. I have one. They are also apparently the immunization record of choice in Africa, which makes sense. And it’s yellow, so “yellow card.”
So the Ghanaian health officer asks for my yellow card. Guess which dumbass doesn’t have hers? Look, I’ve never lived in a place where I’m expected to have my immunization records with me at all times. I’m an American, dammit! Of course I’ve been immunized. (Although, with the recent measles outbreaks in the U.S., I guess health authorities can’t rely on one’s nationality to confirm their immunization). So I was basically screwed. Until I wasn’t. The health officer sent me to another line with other passengers – because apparently I wasn’t the only one without her yellow card – to wait. And wait. Until she finally decided that I looked healthy enough to enter Ghana. I was very appreciative because I was not looking forward to spending the night at Kotoka International Airport, waiting for the return flight to Nigeria the following morning. The takeaway from this: the Ghanaian government is freaking serious about protecting the health of its citizens, so bring your yellow card.
Okay, I’m in. I’ve cleared immigration. I’m good. The hotel’s driver should be waiting outside for me with a sign. I step out into the humid Accra night and am immediately accosted by taxi drivers – do I need a taxi? No, no thank you. Where is my driver? No driver. No sign. Shit. Okay, I am a seasoned international traveler. I do not panic. I call the hotel. I inquire about my driver. I am told “he is there. In the parking lot.” It’s a big parking lot. It is dark. I have no intention of stumbling around the Kotoka International Airport parking lot by myself. So I politely ask if the hotel could call the driver and ask him to drive up to where I am? Of course! Problem solved. Except he does not drive up. He walks up. But he has a sign! He grabs my bag from my hand and starts walking – towards the hotel’s van, I presume?
Here’s where I have to take a break in my story and tell you how wonderful and helpful Nigerians can be. As it turns out, a Nigerian businessman (and a contact for my Embassy) was on my flight. We chatted before boarding, and ended up exiting the airport at the same time. Now, he had a driver waiting for him. But he refused to leave until he made sure that I found my driver and was on my way.
So back to my driver, who I am now following because he has my bag and is leading me to an air conditioned vehicle that will take me to this luxury beach hotel that I booked, right? He is talking, talking, talking on his cell phone – in Hausa, a language found in many parts of West Africa, including Nigeria. My friend, the Nigerian businessman, walks with us. Then he starts speaking in Hausa to the driver. I do not speak or understand Hausa – one of my many short-comings. I have no idea what is being said. They are shouting at each other. I have to go to the bathroom, so I am really hoping that this works out for me. Finally, the driver tells me (in English!) that he’s supposed to pick up a couple of people flying in on British Airways. Their flight lands in a couple of hours. He must wait for them. This is not looking good for me or my bladder. The hotel has arranged for another vehicle to pick me up. It’s on its way. Note: the Ghanaian “on its way,” I discover, is much like the Nigerian “five minutes.” Five minutes means more like 30; on its way means more like it’ll get here when it gets here. The driver spends the next 20 minutes or so yelling via cell phone at the driver who is “on his way” – again in Hausa, but I assume he was telling the guy to hurry up. It was a long, humid, and uncomfortable 20 minutes during which I saw way more of the Kotoka International Airport parking lot than I ever wanted to.
But finally the car arrives, with the driver! Hurray! Do you know my Nigerian friend stayed with me that entire time? I may complain (more than I should) about Abuja, but the Nigerian people are just wonderful aren’t they? This man I had met only once before would not leave me to fend for myself in a strange land. Say what you will about Nigeria’s long and storied history of scams and fraud, the Nigerian people are first rate.
So I made it. No accidents (auto or bladder) on the way to the hotel. My plan upon arrival was to read the riot act to the hotel reception desk. But then they offered me a glass of sparkling wine, and suddenly all was right with the world. The rest of the weekend was smooth sailing. Saturday: me, eating a yummy breakfast at the hotel restaurant; me, sprawled out on a poolside lounge chair drinking long island iced teas; me, walking on the beach; me, enjoying a lovely white wine with my dinner. On Sunday, I decided to get off the lounge chair and tour the city.
So what’s the takeaway from this trip?
- If you’re flying from Nigeria, expect delays.
- Bring your yellow card – I cannot stress this enough. The Ghanaian government does. not. play.
- Learning Hausa could be useful, unless you have a Hausa speaker with you.
- Sparkling wine makes everything better.
- Accra is definitely worth a visit.
It’s a brand new year. I have officially been in Abuja, Nigeria for five months (minus a few trips out of the country to preserve my sanity). In that short time, I’ve learned a few things along the way – some good, some…not so good – that are key to survival.
The…Not So Good
In a previous post, I touched on the crazy driving. Every time you’re on the road, it’s like you entered Death Race. The goal is not to kill as many pedestrians as possible, but it seems to be to get ahead of everyone else on the road by any means necessary. You’re sharing the road with cars, trucks, taxis, tuk-tuks, pedestrians, and sometimes cattle. The roads themselves don’t help matters – street signs are rare, traffic lights either don’t work or are ignored, and on/off ramps are dangerously short. If you aren’t sure of where you’re going, I find it’s best to take a passenger; that way, you (the driver) can focus on the traffic and your passenger can keep eyes out for your destination.
It’s Harmattan y’all. This is the time of year when the winds pick up and the sands blow in from the Sahara. What does that mean for us? It means hazy skies, cooler temperatures, and interesting sunsets. It also means dust everywhere – on your clothes, in your hair, and lots and lots of it in your home. Constant vigilance (i.e., regular dusting) is required in order to keep your home from looking like some abandoned haunted house.
Electricity and water: two things we “first-worlders” take for granted. And let’s be honest, I still take it for granted here. But it’s not paradise. Even on my secure government compound, electricity and water are not guaranteed. The generators kick in regularly to keep the juice flowing. In fact, I can hear them now. Water supply – or rather, delivery – is touch and go. Since December, we’ve been experiencing fairly regular water outages, which is inconvenient when you want to do laundry, wash dishes, or take a shower after a workout. As I said, it’s not a question of supply but delivery. I don’t know all the details…something about needing new parts for the water pump system, those parts have to be ordered from Israel, and how it takes forever to delivery. I’ve learned that it’s best not to wait: if you were thinking about taking a shower later, and the water is running now – take that shower. You might not get another chance.
It’s impossible to ignore the security situation here; it’s visible everywhere. You want to park in that lot? Let security inspect your car first. Headed into that mall? Make sure you walk through the metal detector. Meeting friends for drinks at the Hilton? Well, you’re going to be late because the police have set up a road block on Shehu Shagari. Planning on exploring the countryside? Not so fast: we’re not allowed to go outside the city limits without a security escort. It’s a shame, and it’s easy to get cabin fever. That’s why we all try to leave the country every few months. I’m not sure you can understand the simple joy of strolling through a city, window shopping (or shopping-shopping), changing directions at a whim, or hopping into your car and driving with no set destination until you’re not able to do it. Leaving here for a few days to do those things is absolutely restorative.
And there’s a lot of good here. In my work, I talk to Nigerians every day. And let’s face it: many of them may feel perfectly justified in doing whatever it takes to get a U.S. visa. It would be easy to take that personally. That’s a trap. I think Nigerians are great people. Friendly. Resourceful. Intelligent. This country has a lot of potential and there are people here who are really doing some amazing things.
Even though (or maybe because) I grew up in the Midwest, which experiences its fair share of winter storms, I prefer warm weather. I love stepping out of an air-conditioned building into the warmth and humidity of a DC summer. Right now in Abuja, the temperature is hovering around the high 80s/low 90s. Later this year, the temperature will climb and the average will be high 90s. And I am 100 percent okay with that.
Before I got here, people told me that the internet service was spotty and slow. Yes, I’d be able to send and receive emails and log into Facebook or whatever social media site, but streaming videos would not be possible. Wrong! Streaming is definitely possible. I’ve done it many times. The internet may not be perfect here, but it’s certainly not as bad as you may have heard.
I found prosecco here. And prosciutto. And parmegiano reggiano. Let me repeat that: I found prosecco, prosciutto, and parmegiano here…in Abuja. I not only found it, I bought it. It was delicious. It made my day. Here’s the point: in a place like this you have to find the little things that make like a little better. It can be anything and can change over time. Today, it’s the bread at the French bakery; tomorrow it’s the tabouleh at that great Lebanese restaurant. For me, on that day, it was the prosecco (and the prosciutto, and the parm). Figure out what your thing is today, and go get it.
So, to sum up here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Drive to win.
2. Accept the fact that dust will be your constant companion, at least at this time of year.
3. Got water? Shower now!
4. The security situation presents its own special challenges. Resistance is futile. Start planning your next vacation now.
5. Anything is possible here.
6. If you love the sun, this is your spot.
7. In case of emergency, internet, internet, internet.
8. If you’ve got prosecco, prosciutto, and parmegiano, you’ve got civilization. Mangia!
I’m tired, you guys. On a Saturday afternoon. In Abuja. I’m too tired to use all my fingers to type. I’m too tired to figure out if this post has a point. All I know is, I was talking with my dad last night and he hinted that it had been a while since I’d posted. So here I am.
So why am I tired? This place is exhausting. I woke up early this morning to take my car in for repairs. First mistake? I forgot to factor in Nigeria time. The mechanic was supposed to meet me at the Embassy at 8AM, so I was there at 8AM. The mechanic is not there. I cannot reach him on the phone. I wait 20 minutes. I finally decide to go into my office to do some actual work. I call Motorpool to inquire about the whereabouts of the mechanic. I am told “he is coming.” It’s after 9AM now. He eventually appears, though I am not sure when. Around 10:45, I head down to the garage, hoping the work is done. The hood is up on my car; the mechanic is there – eating. Breakfast? Lunch? I don’t know. I ask for a progress report. Another hour he says. I leave, wondering if work has even begun but I’m too afraid to ask. An hour later, my car is ready. Hooray!
Next stop: grocery store. There are many small to medium sized grocery stores in Abuja. This is good, because one must inevitably go to several different ones to buy all the things one needs. I’m trying a new one today. I arrive at the worst possible time: noon. I find it’s best to go as soon as the store opens – it’s less crowded and the shelves are stocked – but I had no choice today. Since this is my first time here, I don’t know my way around. It’s crowded. I snag a basket. The aisles are narrow. I am navigating around other customers and staff who are mopping the floors or moving merchandise. I look at my list: heavy cream – nope; artichokes – haha, dreamer; parmesan cheese – again no. I do spot some cheddar, which I’m tempted to buy (you would not believe what one small package of cheddar cheese costs here), but it looks like it might have melted a bit en route to the store. I decide to pass. Back to the list: Coca-Cola – yes! Chicken breasts – no, too late. Milk – UHT of course. I snag a couple of bottles of hard cider on my way to the checkout line; I earned it. The checkout line is its own special hell. Nigerians aren’t 100% committed to the concept of a line, so I have to defend my place in line. I get to the front, I pay, and I carry my purchases to the door where a security guard pretends to check my receipt against what’s in the bags. Back to the car.
Traffic is the next challenge. Nigerians aren’t 100% committed to lanes either. It’s like speed racer on heroin or something. Weave in, weave out, speed up, slow down. I have a decision to make. Should I go home, or should I try another grocery store? I really need some of that stuff on my list, so I suck it up and head to my regular store. Traffic is awful. It’s one lane each way, no traffic lights. Traffic comes to a halt while several cars ahead of me try to turn left. The police officer who is supposed to be directing traffic isn’t much help. I realize that I have a headache. Too late to turn back now. Frankly, I couldn’t turn back even if I wanted to. Eventually, we start moving. I make it to the parking lot and I find a spot right away. I pass through the metal detectors and show my purse to the security guard. I’m in. It’s crazy crowded. Sigh. I find heavy cream. I find chicken breasts. I even find fresh parmesan cheese, and I accept the fact that I will have to pay through the nose for it. No artichokes, so I buy chickpeas instead (I’ll make hummus). I snag a few more items and once again, stand in the checkout line forever. I pay, I show my receipt to the security guard at the door, and I get back in my car. Now comes the hard part: I need to turn left out of the parking lot, but there are no traffic lights to manage the traffic flow. And of course, no one is willing to let the left-turners merge in. But I’ve learned a thing or two in my three months here: Nigerian drivers are brave (and crazy). The car ahead of me eases further and further out into traffic, I come up on his right a little behind him. I figure this way, his car will absorb most of the force if we’re t-boned by oncoming traffic. The oncoming cars recognize our determination and let us in. I begin the long slog home (in truth it’s probably no more than 2 miles, but it takes forever).
Finally, I am home. I am sweaty. It’s hot out here people. Africa hot. I am tired. But I have my chicken breasts. And heavy cream. And chickpeas. I will sleep well tonight.
But right now, I need a cocktail.
Here I am. I am here. Abuja, Nigeria. Where I wanted to be. I’ve been doing this work for a while, this moving and settling and waiting and adjusting. I should be used to this by now. And I am, sort of.
But I have discovered, after one week in this country, that I am not immune. I suffer from First World Problems. You know what those are: complaining about things that we take for granted in the First World that we can’t have here – wherever “here” is. I was warned. My colleagues told me this place, this residential compound, this apartment would be challenging. “You will place a lot of work orders,” they said. (Work orders are what we submit when we need something done – repair this, move that).
I have the standard American-style electric stove in my apartment. Last weekend, I started to make some pasta. I decided to be fancy and heat the sauce on the stove instead of the microwave, and added some fresh green peppers. The pasta is boiling. BOOM! Power outage. Not unusual here. I stand still and wait for the generators to kick in. I hear them, churning. But nothing. Oooo-kay. I wait a bit longer. I look outside my window. My neighbors have power. Why don’t I have power? I am confused. I consider just going to bed. But I am hungry.
I do not “do” electricity. Anything I touch will electrocute me, I think. I steel myself and head to the fuse box. The breakers are in the “on” position; everything looks okay, but what do I know? I flip a few switches. It does not kill me. Also, I still have no power. I find the flyer that was taped to my door, which provided the after-hours emergency number. Does this qualify? Yes, I decide.
The facilities guy comes pretty quickly. Abuja is not that big. Through trial and error he determines that there’s something wrong with two of the burners on the stove. If I turn them on, the power goes out. So don’t use them. Someone will have to come and look at it. You still have two burners to use.
This is definitely a First World Problem. I want four burners, you see. Four. I would argue that it is my right to have four. What if I wanted to fry an egg and make a grilled cheese sandwich to go along with my pasta and sauce? What if I wanted to put the kettle on and make some rice, AND boil an egg AND make some stir fry? Can’t be done. At least, not all at the same time.
But let’s get real for a minute. I still have two burners. Inside my apartment. On a residential compound. Surrounded by high walls and patrolled by guards. In my one week here, I have seen Nigerians living with far, far less. I need to get over myself and put it all in perspective.
So I smile. I thank the gentleman for turning the lights back on and apologize for calling him out on a Sunday night. “It is my duty,” he says. The next day, I dutifully submit my work order. Until the repairman comes, I will make due with my two burners.
I shudder to think what will happen if I turn on the oven…