By Sheryl Aronson
Visiting with my dear friend, Actor /Model Henry Gee, has taken me far from Hollywood to Lagos, Nigeria three times. I absolutely love being immersed in a culture that is so foreign to my own, because I can absorb and learn about another way of life. On one of my trips there, I actually booked a commercial for Fidelity Bank. Henry had taken me to an audition, and I booked a part as a banker. Here are some of my impressions of being a foreigner in the lovely yet challenging city of Lagos, Nigeria.
As soon as I step aboard the plane to Lagos Nigeria I enter foreign territory where my light colored hair and blue eyes, white skin and western clothes now seem strange and unusual. Brilliant colors of the rainbow burst forth in the African style of dress, long braided hair crown the women’s heads, men wear flamboyant colored, long, loose fitting shirts with matching trousers, babies are wrapped on the mother’s back secure in her warmth and love. The lilt of the West African accent sounds like their happy, bouncy rhythmic music where they mix the native tongue with English.
My seat is in the back, therefore I must pass everyone. Although some people smile, mostly I am looked at with curiosity and surprise. Even the flight attendants, who are from Atlanta, want to know, “Why are you going to Lagos?”,with puzzlement in their eyes. “What are you going to do there?” One tapped me on the shoulder when I was returning to my seat and said, “My spirit wanted to tell you to be careful. Know where the American Embassy is so if anything happens…” If I were traveling to Paris, none of these words would ever be spoken. I’m a stranger in a strange land but I plan on grokking (becoming one with) the culture, especially the music.
I have travelled the world and the one rule I follow: adapt to the culture you are visiting. Respect the traditions and norms as much as possible. Let go of the American mentality because there are many other ways of living. Yet I admit, I felt extremely challenged at times during my journey, adhering to my open book philosophy. My acclimatization skills were challenged to the max.
When going through Customs, one doesn’t deal with just one officer. First someone looks at the passport, then right next to that booth, one is sent to another officer, then before your luggage is retrieved your passport/Visa is looked at one more time so you can pass through to baggage claim. Somewhat like Israel, soldiers and police with rifles and pistols are evident as they guard the corridors. The moist heat sinks slowly onto your skin…. right and left taxi drivers and other people who want to assist you carrying your luggage bombard your personal space…and when exiting the terminal you must show the ticket for the luggage. (Never happens at LAX anymore)
As I stand outside looking for my contact in Lagos, hundreds of people are standing behind barriers being carefully watched by the police. One must trust that whoever is waiting for you will be able to spot your presence in the crowd. The cacophony of honking horns barrage the eardrums because that is the only way drivers create space for their vehicles on roads that have no lanes and thousands of other cars compete for your spot. Somehow the collective unconscious of Nigerian motorists synchronizes their commuter dance of insane transport across the city without crashing into one another. Even I, who drives fast on the freeway, shudder in the backseat. My eyes shut tight with trepidation that at any moment an accident will occur. Yet, by the grace of God, not one collision stops the flow.
The greeting one receives from friends, “We appreciate you…” is a lovely welcome. Immediately I feel embraced by these words. And one must return the warm inclusive phrase to show respect. There are over 500 tribes in Nigeria, but the three main ones are Igbo (the G sound is silent), Hausa and Yoraba. The three tribes have their native language but all speak a Pidgin English, which intermixes English with an African dialect. My head spins trying to understand the conversations going on around me because at first I comprehend nothing then I suddenly pick up small phrases of English, which disappear again into the foreign tongue.
Although the pace of the Lagos (pronounced Legos) is fast and furious, I notice most people’s demeanor remain calm and centered. Here’s why. To go anywhere or accomplish anything takes an inordinate amount of time. To travel a mere 10 to 15 miles can take hours. From early morning to late into the night, traffic floods the roads. Plus paved infrastructures equal one quarter of the transport ways; many times the driver maneuvers the car over potholes and bumpy clumps of muddy streets.
To arrange a taxi might require at least 15 to 30 minutes of bargaining time. There’s never one set price. The fare depends on many factors such as whether it has air conditioning or is the car old or new, the time of day changes the price as well because to get from Lagos Island to the mainland at certain times is impossible, and sometimes the driver doesn’t want to enter a certain section of the city because he has driven too far, and even when you think an arrangement has been agreed upon, depending on circumstances at any given moment, the price may change again, with more discussion. Diplomacy and negotiating skills are necessary at all times because passionate debates erupt. What I might interpret as an aggressive fight is only a typical exchange of friendly debate.
Another factor which delays time is the police or soldiers may randomly stop the vehicle at any given moment. The first time I visited, Man of God’s (the name of the Pastor hosting me) van was pulled over as we crossed a bridge coming back from the Island. Money had to be given to the Police and I later found out the conversation went like this. The Policeman says as the van doors open and he sees the family and I sitting in the back seats, “Oh it looks like you’re having a good time today and I’d like to have a good time too.” He sticks out his hand. On this trip, the police stopped the taxi driver because he had a new car and they wanted to make sure his papers were in order. We sat for 30 minutes while negotiations took place as to how much money the driver had to pay before the police allowed him to go. This is common practice.
Honestly, I must close my eyes and go into meditation to calm my spirit down because my Western- self jumps up and down with irritation and the beginnings of intolerance as to how the system operates. I am overwhelmed with frustration, because our life in the USA is easy and carefree compared to the Nigerian lifestyle. We move freely amongst our surroundings and although there can be tenuous traffic jams, nothing compares to the complete destabilization of their traffic. I feel a balloon of emotion building inside threatening my enjoyment of being here so I decide surrendering is the solution.
Still there are more challenges.
The electricity flow isn’t stable and continuously shuts on and off resulting in darkness when you are in the precarious position of going to the bathroom or taking a shower, you get kicked off the internet and can’t recharge your electronics, and the air conditioning shuts off and the room swelters with heat. After a few days I accept that this is just a part of existing here.
A bathroom can mean no toilet paper…your shower and toilet share the same space so if there is paper, it gets wet, and if there is no hot water, you boil it then put the water in a bucket with cold water then throw the water over your body with a bowl. One towel is given. The act of taking a shower becomes more like a cleansing ritual, which feels tribal and sacred.
Now the food is fresh, no artificial ingredients…chicken, fish, turkey, red meat and goat. Healthy wheat bread, white soft delicious loafs baked daily; but the main sides served with the food are yams (which are the size of clubs before cooked and taste like potatoes), rice (white, spicy red sauce, or fried with egg) and FUFU. Fufu is a staple and it looks like a large lump of dough but is made by boiling starchy food crops like cassava, yams or cooking plantains and cocoyam then pounding them into a dough-like consistency. Fufu is eaten with the fingers, and a small ball of it can be dipped into an accompanying soup or sauce. The soup or sauce ranges 8 to 10 on the spicy Richter Scale and I often can’t eat a single bite. My tongue burns, my eyes glaze over with tears and my friends shake their heads at me as they continue enjoying the meal. Forks and knives are sometimes not offered and eating is done with the hands. A bowl of water sits on the table at each meal so you wash before. during and after eating. Napkins need to be specially requested. Eating Catfish is a treat and enjoyed like the most delicious dessert Speaking of desserts…there are none. When eating chicken the bones are eaten as well. I never crunched on any but sat in amazement watching my friend chomp away with his very strong teeth.
There is no frozen yogurt, no Starbucks, (Yeah!) coffee is Nescafé (it will do), no Italian, Mexican, Chinese or Japanese food, no bagels, no hamburgers, but there is KFC, Dominos Pizza and Coldstone Ice Cream – a tiny oasis of Americana.
There’s no beer but a drink made out of hops is offered that tastes like the medicine man conjured it up and I’m told it clears out your system, which I believe. In other words it tastes nasty! I drank a few sips…my hair stood on end but I didn’t hallucinate.
Pollution from cars coats the air, and mostly all buildings are covered in a grimy dust; windows look like blind eyes, inside of structures with no coverings; very few trees provide the green grace of beauty; stalls selling fruit and vegetables, clothing, sundry items, create the marketplaces. Lagos looks like one large village untouched by the modern world.
As I gradually and reluctantly slip off my western world garments of societal norms and preconceived notions of how the world should look, taste and feel, there is one area of life here that is not foreign to me at all. My body and soul recognize they’re home when the wild, primitive rhythms of the local West African music seize control. Deep inside of me a switch turns on and my body responds as if I have lived here all my life with hips swaying, feet pounding the earth, arms raised and swinging with each beat. I dance for hours on the warm sand and in the surf of a Lagos Island beach as outdoor discos detonate the airwaves with non-stop sound.
The African sunset is glorious saturating the sky in a pink glow and it feels so incredible to immerse oneself in the joy of the world’s beauty… no matter where you find yourself on this planet earth.
Photos by Sheryl Aronson and Henry Gee
The Hollywood 360’s Sheryl Aronson , modeling fashions made by Oby African Fashions (Owned by Henrys sister)