To coincide with the G8 summit and the make poverty history campaign, I am submitting part of the diary I kept recently of my trip to Nigeria. It emphasises the day to day reality of how people live survive and die in Africa. It is a very personal account for me and may or may not be appreciated in some parts but I believe my role as a journalist, is to report the truth as I see fit and relay the information to people who want to take notice. I think it is time that a lot of people do take notice, especially with Africa.
OUT OF AFRICA: THE RETURN
I’m Catherine Emenike and my parents were born in Nigeria. The first time I went to Nigeria, I was 12 years old and could not handle the culture shock of a hot country, weird food and weird customs. Fast forward to 20 years later and the return with my mother, to the fatherland is a humbling,unforgettable and enigmatic expeirence. Here are a few extracts from my journal of that time.
Saturday, January 8th 2005.
My father’s house in the village of Umahia is near the entrance of the compound and the house is quite big so it does attract a lot of the rural Africans. Since I got here a week ago, the people of the village have made me feel so welcome. They have welcomed me into their homes and their culture, reminding me that this is my spiritual home. Although, there are many discontented young people in the village that yearn for a better life in the West. People here are incredibly poor and their way of life is so different from that of London, the term culture shock does not suffice, the real difference between the two cultures.
Every morning most of the compound wakes up around 6am to go to the stream and collect water and firewood to wash and make breakfast. I have already seen a young boy of 12 carry what seems to be 5 litres of water on his head and a young lady of 14 carry enough logs on her head that weigh a ton, at least (that’s not an exaggeration!). I have even tried on occasion to lift a keg of water with my bare hands and am unable to do it. Apparently if I had done for long enough my body would be used to it by now. But they are. They have to be otherwise they would not survive. Speaking of logs, I went on an errand to collect some. My young friend, Nkechi left Blessing, her young baby girl, sleeping in the compound with her husband to assist me. Blessing is a wonderful child. The first day I got here I became acquainted with the young family as they live opposite my father. At five months old, Blessing is already a very inquisitive young lady. When I hold her in my arms she rubs her head against mine and I can tell she has taken a shine to me as I have to her. As we collected the wood, there was a woman’s meeting group by the road side in front of a huge tree stump, a regular meeting place for the elder women of the compound. They were called to remember the two elderly people who had died the night before.
The landscape of the village is amazing. Within the compound, you have self made huts made out of a mixture of corrugated iron and concrete. These can be found on the inside of the village. Step a few yards away and you find yourself in an endless maze of pure jungle filtered with iroko trees and other high trees that contain a wonder of fruits including apples, oranges, mangoes and bananas amongst others.
This evening, there was a gathering of the women of the village in my father’s front yard, to celebrate our visit. It was quite an emotoinal experience as the women prayed and gave thanks to “Chineke” (God the Almighty). My mother gave them stock fish (dried fish), opara (a very hot, sweet sauce) amd fried meat with a traditional Nigerian dish called hot pepper stew. This is a stew which consists of cow meat and boiled meat. As is tradition, my mother and I provided 2 huge sacks of rice to be shared with each of the families in the compound. The women, including the chief’s wife blessed us and thanked us for our gift.
Thursday, January 13th 2005.
At 11.30 am we set off for the Umahia War Museum situated on the outskits of Umahia Town, in Abia State, one of the major communities of the Igbo state of Nigeria. The scenic view of the town is breathtaking. Vast reams of plantation composed with the searing heat add up to equal a feeling of sheer awe.
The museum itself is not what you would expect. It begins with the weapons of war used in Egyptian times combined with th Amazon and Roman invasions and how Africans not just Nigerians defended themselves. The large room was concocted of various spears and arrows and shields and other archaic military might. We then went through history and discovered defence and attack offensives used in the Zulu War, the Carthingan War and up to the Second World War and the Nigerian Civil War.
Another part of the museum involved the Nigeria’s army including it’s air force, navy and ground capability. I also managed to learn about certain chiefs and commanders who had a significant impact on the national army.
Every day I check on Nkechi and her six monh old bundle of joy, Blessing. If Nkechi needs to go on some errand I will sit and hold the little one for a while. For the first half hour she is ok and then when she realises Mummy has gone, she begins to cry for Mummy to come back! I think she is beginining to understand who I am though, because when she sees me she smiles. I am totally in love with her.
In my father’s house after the sun sets, the family sits down to a traditional meal of grounded rice and soup. A few of the residents have televisions but we have not got one yet, as we are renovating the house. There’s not much else to do other then to talk to each other. There is nothing like sitting out on the front porch, under a sky full of bright stars, having a heated debate with my father. Amongst other things, this included a conversation about how while visiting one of my mother’s cousins, her great aunt had just passed away. She was 135 years old. Fact. She was born on 29th June 1869 and her name was Mgbocha Elyna Utuni. My father then relayed a story to me that my uncle had revealed to me earlier on in the day, about how people in the southern town of Calabar, used to live to 200 years old surviving on a good healthy diet and palm wine, an African traditional drink.
Sunday, January 16th 2005
I went to church today. In my mother’s compound of Amakama, the whole family attended the local church (of which there are many and counting!), the one my mother went to as a child. She used to sing in the choir. Church in Nigeria is somewhat different to going to church in London. After welcoming the congregation and giving a sermon, the priest went on to invite the crowd to debate about the passage in the bible he had just articulated and people were questioning why pastors always ask for money for the church and what it was really going towards. My mother nudged me to take part and I said I better not cos I can’t speak the language!
In the village it is compulsory for the whole compound to attend church of a Sunday, it is their way of saying thank you. Think of how going to church in the 50’s was in England, how everyone went to church and that is the norm in most parts of Nigeria in modern times. In a recent survey of what countries were the most content and happy with their lives, Nigeria was in the top three. Most Nigerians are poor and struggle to survive. Yet they are thankful for what they have. After some songs of praise, the pastor then ordered mother and I and our compound to come up to the front so he could pray for us. Everyone was singing and dancing as we walked up the aisle. There is a presence of real love there, that is difficult to explain.
In the evening, my cousin took me for a tour around the town of Umahia and I saw the main hotel with a gym and a swimming pool that looked like something out of a 50 Cent video. In the middle of an African village. Which was weird. There are many secrets about Igboland that many people are still discovering as Nigeria is beginning once again to become an important part of global business with its many resources and different business opportunities that are available.
Sunday, January 23rd 2005
And so began the long and arduous trip to Abuja, the capital city of the Federal State of Nigeria. If you have a lot of money it is easier to catch a plane from Port Harcourt in the south up to Abuja in the north. It takes approximately 2 hours to get there. However, my mother and I decided to take the long way around. And what an experience it is. This involved a bus trip instead of a plane ride. 8 hours of bumps in the road and trees and forest and mountains and bulls and Pepsi and other things. From Umahia up to the north of Nigeria taking in the River Jeba, the Niger Delta and the River Benue condensed with bull herding, dense jungle, mosques and streams, the scenic view is breathtaking.
Abuja is a very modern city compared to Lagos. Aunty Anne lives in the heart of Abuja and it is impressive. The houses here are like the loft apartments that you would find in New York City and the compound where our relatives are is huge. Many of the residents are Muslim and just before tea-time, as we arrived, we heard the muezzin sing the call to prayer which I found to be an illuminating experience.
Amongst the other urban areas I’ve been to including Aba town and Port Harcourt, Abuja is just as impressive. It still has a long way to go to establish itself as the major interaction between Nigeria and the rest of the world, and with time and progression this will hopefully happen.
Sunday 30th January 2005
Almost forgot to write in my diary, tonight. Perhaps it’s the thought of leaving thats making me forgetful.
It is hot. Unbelievably hot. Seethingly hot. We are talking lets-rip-our-skin-never-mind-our-clothes-off hot. As always I must have my fill of sun before I have to return to the chill factor. So in the early afternoon you will find me right under the sun, sweating it out in the heat. I do have to work on my tan after all!!
Ligjhtning is different in Africa. Rather than great howls of thunder, you get seconds of light flashes like there’s a flash photograph being taken in the sky. And sitting in it underneath a blanket of stars is amazing.
My little angel, Blessing is sick. At the monent she seems to be teething and she keeps puking up. I nearly died when I saw her. Her eyes and face were puffed up and she looked so ill. I hope she gets better soon. As it’s only teething she should be ok in a few days.
A baby who was just three months old died tonight of pneumonia. The boy was in the built house next to my father’s house. The compound is shocked and disturbed. All the little one needed was some medication.
Tuesday 1st February
Nkechi’s little daughter, Blessing died this morning. We think it may have been pneumonia, like the boy. I am heartbroken. Words fail me. If there had been adequate medication, Blessing would not have died. She was 6 months old. And so to my last night in Nigeria nd what a solemn one it is. All day, death has cast it’s insidious shadow over the compound and all our hearts are numb. I’ve told my father to keep me informed about Nkechi and how she is coping when I return to England. Which will be later on tonight. My time in Africa is now at an end and I have had a profound experience. Nigeria is a land that is so full of wonder and awe and beautiful, honest people. I would recommend anyone to go away to a remote place and engage with the culture of that country for a month, just to live a different way as it enhances your outlook on the world and your life.
by Catherine Emenike