Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Africans in The Hippie House.

Our house in Mallorca went by many different names: Ca'an Descombros or Sa Cosa Nova, for reasons described here. Mayan calendar devotees who camped in our backyard for the Day Out of Time called it Temple 13. Other folks dubbed it the Hippie House, due to the various people we let live, conduct classes or throw parties there before we renovated. With a huge open entrada originally meant for a horse and carriage, a big terrace out back, no nice furniture (or nice anything), and plenty of privacy, it was a great spot for either a quiet group meditation or raucous New Year's Eve party. At one point we had two Muslim Moroccans living there (one devout, the other decidedly not), a homeless woman from Barcelona, and two Nigerians. The most interesting  interlopers though, were the Nigerians.
Bona lots
One big happy family.

Africans and Moroccans were emigrating to Spain en masse 10 years ago; their cheap labor helped fuel the housing boom sweeping the country at the time. My wife met a Nigerian at the large finca where she worked; he was living in a tent in a cemetery. She told him he could stay at our ramshackle house for the winter, since we would be returning to our apartment in the village when the cold weather came. Immigration laws were lax; a fixed address registered at a town hall was the only requirement needed to work. Two Nigerians lived at our house; 16 claimed residence. They were all God-fearing men from the Igbo tribe; the majority didn't drink, smoke or swear. Needless to say, I had little in common with them. We didn't charge rent due to the primitive living conditions, but were treated to copious amounts of delicious banku to eat in exchange.

A Mallorcan delicacy is baby goat, slow-cooked in a stone oven. The Nigerians claimed it was wasteful to eat such a small animal. To prove their point, they went to a farm and bought a six-year-old male goat, had it slaughtered and cooked it. The significance of bygone, quaint euphemisms like "You smell like a goat" suddenly became luminescently clear. Innocuous adjectives such as 'smell' or 'odor' are too timid--these animals stink to high heaven. A rutting male goat can be smelled a quarter-mile away.

We parked at the far end of our driveway and were walking to the house when the first noxious vapors wafted over. We immediately opened every window in the house. They were boiling the meat in large cauldrons of water. My wife's sister and husband took one look in the pot and made a quick exit. Insisting that we partake in the feast, I was served a plate overflowing with unidentifiable offal, assorted organs and animal parts; I could discern an ear with some remaining fur on it, along with billowy organ parts, valves and vital connectors still attached. Fortunately there was a bottle of wine; we immediately started quaffing with abandon. My wife took a few sips of broth and declared herself stuffed to the gills. Engaging in an intense mental exercise--mind over matter--I finished the entire plate, one awful bite at a time. It was by far the worst thing I'd ever eaten. Asked if I was ready for another heaping plateful, I insisted I was quite sated, incapable of ingesting another morsel.

urban trash, nigeria
Smoldering trash on the outskirts of Onicha.
Apart from that meal, we became enamored with the stories of Nigerian village life, and were determined to visit the country ourselves. We needed visas to enter the country, requiring a trip to the Nigerian embassy in Madrid. The consulate official didn't believe it was for a vacation; tourism was nonexistent. He insisted I was conducting business, and demanded to know what it was. After 10 minutes of redundant questioning, our meeting was going nowhere. I wondered if I was supposed to bribe him, and muttered in Igbo that we'd get to Nigeria with God's grace. The official paused, raising his eyebrows; he asked me to repeat the native phrase. Hearing it again, he was suddenly satisfied; he offered me something to drink, and said our visas would be ready within the hour.

Although I wouldn't call the trip a mistake, it taught me that experiencing a non-western reality can be a sobering experience. Lagos is one of the armpits of the world. Disembarking from the plane, the first thing I noticed was the dim light. It wasn't exactly cloudy, but the sun seemed to be obscured by a thin grey patina, with a feint smell of sulfur in the air. It was dense, impenetrable smog, permeating the city around the clock. Ancient trucks belched black diesel smoke, sitting hopelessly trapped in midday traffic. With no municipal disposal/pickup services, trash burned in large piles in indiscriminate places. On the major thoroughfares, six lane highways were reduced to two lanes; rusting hulks inhabited the other four. Traffic lights were smashed, presumably destroyed in some long ago riot or coup. Potholes were so large and unavoidable that drivers simply drove down into them, cautiously emerging on the other side. Side roads were unpaved dirt, which became large untraversable lakes during rainy season. All vehicles had every distinguishable panel and part etched with the license plate number, to avoid theft. Overburdened telephone poles sagged with the weight of hundreds of cables precariously intertwined; electricity in banks and other businesses flickered on and off all day. All buildings were walled off with doubled razor wire or broken glass shards. Even small fast food restaurants had armed security.

Local children always
gathered around us.
Children played in open sewers running in front of their homes. We saw scattered fist fights in the middle of streets. Through it all, crowds appeared immediately around us. Many had never seen white people. "White man! Welcome to Nigeria! You are welcome here!" Local children pressed in to touch my four-year-old daughter's hair.

We drove seven hours out to Anambra state, to the village of Igbo Ukwu. Every twenty miles or so, we'd encountered ad hoc roadblocks made from stones and old tires. Policemen holding automatic weapons stood solemnly waiting. For 10 or 20 cents, we were allowed to pass through. We passed through Onicha, another large, dirty city sorely lacking basic services. The village, however, was a revelation.

To be continued...