Archive for the ‘Travels’ Category

What I Learnt At Brighton Pride 2014

August 22, 2014

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I went to watch the Brighton Pride parade on August 2. Coming from Nigeria where homosexuality was recently criminalised and many homosexuals live furtive double lives, I really needed to witness gay people openly and proudly proclaiming their right to breath the same air.

I used to read about Pride events in the Newsweek and Time magazines my father bought every week when I was growing up in Umuaka.   I knew what the Bible said about homosexaulity and I knew what the school said about it but I also knew that discrimination was wrong and the Bible wasn’t always right.

I didn’t know any openly gay person back then but I did know that there was a whole lot of consensual same sex shagging going on among pre-teens and teens especially girls. I went to a convent school. The sisters said ‘kpokokpi’ was a sin. It did’t stop it from happening. I also heard rumours about a lot of non-consensual same sex going on especially at boys schools.

Then AIDS happened. Religious fundamentalists sold it to their followers as special retribution from God against homosexuals and later fornication when infection rates among women soared ahead of rates among gay men.  Many seemingly enlightened men and women expressed un-informed homophobic views so anachronistic I had to check the date and pinch myself to be sure I wasn’t dreaming or time travelling.

Then in 2006 I met Oludare Odumuye while working at Ashoka, he was made an Ashoka fellow for his ground breaking work for gay rights in Nigeria.  We talked. We became great friends. I used to challenge him to organise a Pride event in Nigeria.  He always insisted the time wasn’t right.  Or that he couldn’t get the funding.

Have you ever heard of the Stonewall Riots? I never had. According to this first hand account  it was the inspiration for the first gay pride march in New York 1970.  This documentary tells the story.

Gay Nigerians and human rights activists act like the agitation for gay rights ended in the United States (where it started) and is a foregone conclusion every where else. No my gay brothers and sisters you have to fight and hit the street and some of you may even have to die. But hey, you are dying now at the hands of the gay bashers.  Being lynched even. And the mobs being led by the leaders you elected.

What I saw at Brighton Pride was community, business and government coming out to say we accept and respect diversity. It took a whole lot of work to get there.

Brighton 2014

Brighton 2014  – Copyright Lesley Agams

 

 

 

An English Summer

July 25, 2014

Last year I observed and marvelled at British sun worship. That particular god must be very happy. I even witnessed one of their pagan solar ceremonies at Stonehenge.  This year I marvel at their complete unpreparedness for extreme hot weather. (Almost as bad as their admitted lack of preparedness for extreme cold weather during the coldest winter in London so far).  But what a human sacrifice – heartsickness, skin ageing and cancer.

No one has air-conditioning.  No one has ice in their freezer.  These English people sef.  They’re idea of cool down is sipping tepid Pimm’s’ in the garden. In the sun. And what is it with the Pimm’s anyway? I mean it tastes fine but whats the story behind it. Ask ‘What would you like to drink?’ and a chorus responds with childish eagerness “Pimm’s!” The solar nectar perhaps?

I saw some fit middle aged white dude looking very orange and sitting in the full sun in the garden of The Bull.  Ditchling. Population 2,400. A house here could easily set you back £1,000,000. The cars parked in front of the The Bull are usually Ferrari’s, Bentleys and Aston Martin’s.  Vintage. They don’t have air-conditioning at home.

Everyone is running around in as little clothing as possible.  It can get quite amusing.  If you glimpse a fully clothed figure closer inspection will reveal a female with brown skin already and obviously not in need of a tan or air on their skin for that matter.  I wrote a really bad poem last year asking if they were ashamed of their skin. I was just wondering. It didn’t win any awards.

In the tropics you avoid going outside or doing much when the sun is at its highest – usually between 11am and 5pm. By 6pm you can be sure the sun is waning and venture outside. No such luck in England. The sun comes out a 4am, its already hot by 8am and it doesn’t begin to wane till 9pm.  Vampires must hate summer.

The natives always plan all sorts of events for the summer. Brighton Pride Parade is in a few days.   There was a Naked Bike Ride last month. And there is a naturist beach nearby. What better way to overcome inhibitions about your body than to hang out with lots of other naked people. I might even finally get that all over even tan I been missing since I moved out of Lagos.  Eleko Beach used to be great for sun bathing.

Another summer observing the natives. Should be fascinating.

Copyright Lesley Agams

Copyright Lesley Agams

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Look Back the Way Which You Have Come

January 8, 2014

 

With my niece in Moscow Sept 2013

Selfie with my niece in Moscow Sept 2013

I’m still in a nostalgic and reflective mood. I think about the future I want. I think about going back to Nigeria. I think about my year abroad. I go through the souvenirs I squirrelled away this past year. Leaves from Moscow painstakingly dried in between the pages of my aunt’s big fat encyclopaedia. Match books and match boxes from hotels and restaurant in Moscow and St. Pete’s. Post cards from touristy land marks littered across the Sussex country side.

 

A pebble from Salisbury cathedral, a stone from one-thousand year old St. Martins in Westmeston, paper book marks from libraries and summer book fairs, my mother’s old frying pan, set of lead crystal goblets purchased at a farmers market in Ditchling. Coasters from quaint English pubs with names like The Bull, The White Horse and The Lone Hare & Rabbit. Pine cones. Old pictures to fill the gaps in my family album. Lots of new pictures. I feel very rich indeed.

 

I go through the memories and the experiences and I feel even richer.

 

How I walked the wind-blown South Downs and enjoyed the freedom of living without bars on the windows and doors. Cooking with new vegetables whose names I never heard of before – like kolhrabi, salsify and who knew there is such a thing as blue potatoes? I ate a lot of lamb, and salmon and scones filled with strawberry jam and cream. I ate a lot of cheesecake, and black bread, and KFC chicken. I ate lots and lots of blueberries, and I drank lots and lots of ale and Cherry Coke. And I gained 10 kilograms!

 

I went to Stonehenge for the summer solstice and danced all night on the sacred stone till the sun came up with my epiphany. I met some really cool people there. I visited broken down castles and forts in Sussex and heard echoes of lives past. I sang Christmas carols with the natives (I mean locals) at the village pub, volunteered to help the homeless. I enjoyed going out and blending in instead of sticking out like a sore thumb on a white man.

 

In Moscow I plugged into my matrix and visited my mother’s grave so many times she asked me to stay with the living for a while. But I went and visited Peter the Greats palace on the Ural seas, hung out for a bit in his back yard and had lunch with the ghosts that prowl Petergof instead.  My horoscope says I should live in the city of my birth for good health, long life and vitality. I will think about it.

 

I’ve also completed the first draft of the historical family saga I am writing. I visited lots of libraries, read lots of books about 19th century Igbo land. I even read an original 1829 account of an expedition to the Niger. I copied strange old school English names off tomb stones in ancient church cemeteries to populate my story with authenticity.

 

Not bad.

Selfie

Selfie -January 5, 2014 

Encounters Between Cultures – Oyibo in Africa VI

November 7, 2013

The other side of cooking for a multitude was eating like a multitude. An African feast is the closest thing to an all-you-can-eat buffet that you can find in rural Africa. Each person that came for a feast was just another mouth and stomach. The idea was to eat so much collectively that afterwards you and your kin could brag that the hosts were open handed and cooked so much that you and the rest of the guests couldn’t finish the food or to yap that they were stingy and did not cook enough. Everyone expected to take a doggy bag home, women came with big bags. Mine was the biggest, I actually had dogs, and most of the time the food was only fit for dogs anyway, delicately flavored with eau de perspiration.

Sharing the food to the collective generated a lot of commotion, the eldest got food before the youngest and if you let someone younger than you take food or drink before you, you would quickly lose respect so you had to make a big fuss if such a gross breach of protocol occurred. The age of co-wives was determined by date of marriage not date of birth.  Sometimes I gave my share to one of my co-wives, one in particular who was big, bad and mean. This ensured her allegiance and if anyone attacked me in the village (including the Three Witches) she would immediately leap to defend my skinny ass for which I am eternally grateful. My evolutionary reaction is flight not fight, I’m complete chicken shit when it comes to getting violently physical.

The size of the food box used to bring food to your group and the amount of drinks you got is a measure of your status and respect so if someone thought that what they received as a group was not commensurate to their status there were very vocal complaints, threats and no consumption until more was provided. If no more was forth coming the group would quietly eat what they got and then yap the hosts for the next year or so at every given opportunity. “Humph, there’s Beatrice trying to look important. Don’t mind her, do you know that when we went for her daughter’s wedding last year she couldn’t even feed us.”

My efforts at staying slim were mostly scorned. I used to get seriously berated for not eating enough! “Eat more girl you have to help us finish all the food.” Fat was good because it meant your husband provided well. Such logic survived the fact that one of the fattest wives in my kin group was married to one of my poorest ‘husbands’. They had six or seven children, I stopped counting. My attempts to talk to them about the virtues of contraception were dismissed with a casual “That is oyibo thing”. Children are an investment; you can never tell what they will be tomorrow. Nowadays they spend most their time moaning about how nobody wants to help send their children to school.

Feasting in Igbo Nigeria Copyright Lesley Agams

Feasting in Igbo Nigeria Copyright Lesley Agams

Encounters Between Cultures – Oyibo in Africa V

November 5, 2013

Another unique aspect of food culture in Igbo-Nigeria are the attitudes and conventions around large scale feasts. There are only feasts in Igbo-Nigeria, nothing like inviting ten for dinner that is an oyibo thing practiced only by the elite as part of their elitism. In the village a normal meal is usually for ten or even twenty depending on the size of your household.  The Igbo-Nigerian believes that anything worth celebrating deserves a feast and whether you invite them or not the whole village will come so plan to cook for several hundreds. A catering nightmare you might think, well the Igbo-Nigerian solved the problem long ago; communal gang labor.

I never quite understood all those people in Africa and in the West that romanticize communal life. It’s not as much fun as it sounds unless you are a child. Among other things it means that you have to get up at the crack of dawn, when you might just rather be sleeping, every time there is an event in your lineage that requires large scale cooking.  All married women of the lineage are required to attend. Mind you never the daughters of the lineage, they sit around on their fat asses waiting for you to finish cooking and serve them the best parts of the meat.

You might think this is good community relations and they’ll help you when you need to feed a multitude. You’re wrong, the amount of acrimony and conflict these cookouts generate is not worth whatever advantage the sociologists think come from communal living (not to mention the amount of sweat that streams straight into the food). As a matter of fact these enforced mass cookouts are a strain on human relations, a definite diplomatic failure. The same people in the village presently hyping the virtues of the traditional communal lifestyle hire caterers to cook their feasts as soon as they have enough money to behave like a ‘Big Man’.

I avoided being conscripted into these forced labor cookouts as tactfully as possible and  if I did go I behaved like I was completely incompetent, the oyibo that couldn’t peel an onion. It always worked. Before long some sucker would invariably come along, shoo me away and take over the chore assigned to me.  After a while sitting around doing nothing I’d be told I could go home. Did I mind? Of course not! I did not find it necessary to socialize with vulgar village women. Associating with them was an ordeal. They did not shave, they did not use deodorant or perfume, I was not always certain that they used soap.

And what could I possibly discuss with them? The arrival of the newest variety of disease resistant cassava cuttings? The proper way to balance ten pounds on my head on a 10 kilometer journey? How to make the Husband happy or how to wean a baby? How could an unwashed, smelly, hairy, illiterate village woman possibly give me advice about my husband or my baby? I was completely superficial. However my co-wives (because that is what they were called) enjoyed doing my chores because I would give whoever did my chores my small portion of the bar soap, snuff, white powder or meat we invariably shared after wards.

Abacha Ncha from http://www.dobbyssignature.com/

Abacha Ncha usually served at all Igbo-Nigerian feasts (from http://www.dobbyssignature.com/)

Encounters Between Cultures – Oyibo in Africa IV

November 3, 2013

If you live with your husband’s relatives in the family compound in the village they’ll try to take the best parts of the meat in whatever you are cooking. Should you attempt to stop them they will retort saying their ‘brother’ owns you, the pot and the soup. In order to preserve the integrity of your soup pot you must be able to fight with them and win. To avoid the indignity of getting your ass whipped or if you are not ready to engage in daily war fare, physical or verbal,  you either resign yourself to cooking for twenty or cook so badly no one wants to eat your food. Do not bother to complain to your husband, he is helpless to do anything other than make ineffectual noises. Matter of fact most Igbo-Nigerian men secretly desire strong wives to battle their relatives and keep them out of the soup pot.

Moving far away from the in-laws to town will not solve the problem.  They will come looking for your trouble. Under Igbo-Nigerian tribal laws not cooking for any one of your ‘husbands’ if they took it upon themselves to visit you is enough grounds for divorce. It is very important to know which of the myriad of relatives merited your retiring immediately to the kitchen to slaughter the fattest chicken you owned (if you owned such a thing) and prepare pounded yam and soup from scratch and those that could be served yesterday’s leftovers. Such knowledge could be the difference between ‘I am married’ and ‘I was married’. Village meetings have been summoned as a consequence.

“Okoro can you imagine! I went to my grandfathers’ brothers’ cousins sons house uninvited in the middle of the week and his wife who was leaving for work refused to make pounded yam and oha soup from scratch for me saying she was late for work. She sent her house girl to give me 2 slices of bread and an egg with tea. Please we must call a village meeting immediately and send her back to her father. What kind of wife is that!”

Being extremely lazy and self centered when most of my in-laws come I rarely remember to ask them about their families and events in the village much less if they are hungry. This is the height of bad manners. But then I really don’t care if they think I’m bad mannered. I moved out of the village to get away from them. Coming to my house uninvited with enough luggage for a month is bad manners where I come from and since I’m not complaining neither should they. Asking them to go is out of the question though, even your husband will draw the line there, they could ostracize him for that. The thought is tempting.

However, there are a few of the in laws  who are very dear to me (did I mention there are hundreds of in laws and husbands?). When they arrive I immediately order pizza and beer, they enjoy the oyibo food and treatment and quickly return to te village to share the news with the others.

‘Our wife Chinwe doesn’t joke with me o. As soon as I arrive she gives me beer and she only gives me oyibo food.l She knows I don’t have time for your local food when I visit her.’

Oha Soup from http://www.dobbyssignature.com/

Oha Soup and pounded yam from http://www.dobbyssignature.com/

 

 

 

Encounters Between Cultures – Oyibo in Africa III

October 31, 2013

Not morsel of food goes to waste in a Igbo-Nigerian village kitchen. Not one grain of rice. I used to think it absurd the way women spent valuable time chasing after the last grain of rice or the last piece of crayfish in the washing bowl to add to the pot.  If it found its way to the soot covered floor it would be picked up, washed with great care and put in the pot. I wondered how much of a difference that really made. Conservation wasn’t a fad, it was a way of life.  I was less careful during food preparation, I was used to wasting food, I grew up in prosperous overfed America. Surely, it didn’t matter if a few grains of rice or crayfish fed the ants, the flies and the cockroaches, there was lots of food to go round and they were God creatures too!

I certainly didn’t think throwing out the entrails of a chicken mattered, no not the heart gizzard and liver, the intestines. But it did, and I got into trouble for it. A considerate woman calls the local urchins and gives it to them in exchange for help with some household chore like washing the pestle and mortar or fetching firewood and saw dust for the burner. They would carefully wash and clean them, roll them on sticks and roast them in the fire with salt and pepper. Anyone familiar with Nigerian cuisine knows every part of the cow is eaten too. A Igbo-Nigerian delicacy I don’t see made any more involved catching the blood of a slaughtered goat in a bowl of salt water, letting it congeal slightly, pouring it into the clean stomach sac, boiling and slicing it up into the pepper soup.

I was usually in too much of a hurry to finish cooking and do important things, like listen to music, write poems, read books and day dream, to obsess over a few grains of rice or chicken entrails. My aunts and my mother in law were not impressed, I was not considered good wife material. I was also reluctant to use fish and meat in the same pot of soup much less snails and bush meat too.  I was assured that this was very very bad for the long term success of my marriage. The way to a Nigerian man’s heart was definitely through his stomach I was told. Pot bellies were not only a sign of affluence they were also a sign of a loving attentive wife.

Long after I learned to make the kind of soup that single urban Nigerian women now use to woo potential suitors, my husband, a finicky picky eater, stayed resolutely skinny.  No amount of assurances or tearful denials on my part could convince anyone that I wasn’t deliberately starving him or that I wasn’t a bad wife. You had to be a bad wife if your husband did not gain weight after marrying you, even worse was if he lost weight after marrying you then you weren’t just a bad wife you were an amusu or a witch that sucked his blood. His mother and sisters felt obligated to torment you for trying to kill their son and brother, just in case you were.

8873-open-fire

Encounters Between Cultures – Oyibo in Africa II

October 29, 2013

I was treated with less privilege at the boarding school where I was eventually sent to acquire some much needed survival skills. It was a struggle for first second and third place in the food line and so on till the last place.  I always found myself last. It wasn’t polite to push and shove now was it?  At least that was what I had been taught so I hung back and was pushed and shoved right into starvation.  If you are last in line you get the meanest part of the food, the charred scrapings off the bottom of the pot. Your growth is stunted and you could become a moron from the lack of nutrients and iodine to your brain. I never forgave my father for sending me there and denying me an additional 3 inches and 10 IQ points.

This unseemly rush for food was absurdly followed with lessons on the proper use of cutlery. We stood round long tables (all the chairs were broken or stolen) and I learnt to press my charred rice grains onto the back of a fork with a table knife from the nuns that ran the school. Sometimes they tried to bring order into the food line with long supple canes. This was for me an invaluable lesson; Americans just shovel food into their mouth with fork, spoon and even knife. Still, the school was more like a Victorian orphanage from a Charles Dickens novel than a Swiss finishing school; primitive facilities, brutal adults, rigid discipline, mean unruly students, forced prayers and false piety.

My education in African food etiquette continued when I got married. I married early to escape my fathers’ tyranny, only to discover that all Igbo-Nigerian men are tyrants especially when they are in the role of husband. And I did not have just one husband. According to the Igbo rules all my husbands’ relatives, male and female were considered my husbands. While it had nothing to do with sex it did mean that I was expected to treat them subserviently like I was expected to treat my husband and that included feeding them. The most entitled of the lot were my husbands’ sisters, before long I was thinking of them as the Three Witches and myself as poor Cinderella. (I had a melodramatic victim mentality back then.)

Anyway before I learnt my lesson many a household fight had ensued over the fact that I failed to distribute some dish I cooked to all my numerous ‘husbands’. Mind you I did not begrudge any one food, it just didn’t occur to me to cook for ten or twenty every single time I made a snack especially when there was already enough food in the kitchen to feed a football team. But it was the ‘principle’ of the thing. I wasn’t ‘sharing’. The Three Witches took sharing very seriously, so seriously in fact that they frequently helped themselves to their share of whatever it was they felt entitled to including my clothes, the car, money and of course the food, leaving the rest of us to eat without meat.

Food worth fighting over (From Google Images)

Food is definitely worth fighting over (From Google Images)

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Encounters Between Cultures – Oyibo in Africa I

October 27, 2013

It never occurred to me that something as basic and simple as food and eating it could provide so much insight into culture, sociology, history, psychology, and any other -ology social scientists have made up recently till I came to Nigeria.

Until The Great Homecoming my eating experience with The Parents was each of us with individual plates round the table once a day at dinner except on Sundays when we had two meals together (they were working students).  If visitors arrived during a meal they waited till we finished eating.  Invitations to eat were issued only out of courtesy (a quintessentially oyibo virtue) if at all and not accepted by equally courteous guests unless they had been invited at least a week before to share that particular meal in which case Step-Mother brought out the good china. Bad manners were accepting an invitation to a meal to which you had not been previously invited.

It was therefore a surprise when during one of my first meals in my fathers’ village in south east Nigeria after the Great Homecoming an aunt unleashed a scathing attack on me for being a terribly bad mannered child for not inviting her to come and eat. Ground open and let me fall in. The last thing on my mind was to offend. Please eat it all! But that was not the point. In Igbo-Nigeria food is shared, sharing is caring. Even if it is a spoonful of rice it is obligatory to share it with whoever is present. Children will share a spoonful of rice one grain at a time! Meat is shredded and shared strand by strand. That is good manners in Igbo-Nigeria.

I frequently forget even 30 odd years later to issue the obligatory invitation to share my food though its no longer a the faux pas it used to be. Just like I sometimes forget that seniors are expected to leave food on the plate for the juniors that will wash them. Step-Mother taught me to take only as much as I could eat and eat everything that I took. Left overs got scrapped into the trash, considered a hideous waste of food so there could be no left overs. In the village all leftover food on is eaten and therefore it is good manners not to mess the food around on the plate. I was once denounced for eating like a dog once because I picked at my food, making any left overs unappealing.

Children usually ate from one plate. Eating from one plate was an important part of socialization and family bonding.  Only the Father of the House had the privilege of getting his food served separately. However, someone noticed that I didn’t keep up with half dozen hands scrambling in one plate and had exempted me. I ate slowly, unused to competing with others. Here the fast and furious ate the most. The slow and weak starved i guess. Bullies ate the most meat. But it was also customary for the youngest to get the last morsel and the pleasure of licking the plate clean after which they had to wash it. Washing plates was a great privilege.

From Google Images

From Google Images

Black Bread and the Motherland

October 20, 2013

I know I love black bread even though I have not had any in 30 years. My 8 year old self assures me of this with a memory of me sitting in front of the toaster demolishing a whole loaf with lavish amounts of butter. It is a cherished memory, a happy memory from the time before The Great Upheaval. One of the memories I keep like a secret treasure in a box and pull out when the darkness threatens, to reassure myself I once had a normal life. And in that assurance find a promise that it can be normal again.  Memories I never share least a careless word and the harsh reality of a merciless life in the village tarnish them, diminish them make them seem less real or less relevant, bright points of solace in a frightening strange world that I bring out with all the care and secrecy of a miser gloating over his gold.

And so at my first meal in Russia more than 30 years later when I reach for the black bread it is with some fear. Will it taste the same? Will it live up to that cherished memory? I cling to memories desperately; I cling to my past self resolutely despite the deliberate and merciless efforts to obliterate it, to make me finally and unequivocally an Igbo girl, a Nigerian. I put a piece on my plate and stare at it, it’s like a test. A test of whether what I remember is real or just my imagination because I really don’t remember all the people that surround me at the table. But I remember black bread.  I stare at it, afraid to test the memory against the reality before me. Afraid I will be disappointed and the precious memory will lose its lustre and shine.

Bread to the Motherland - Old Soviet Era Poster

Bread to the Motherland – Old Soviet Era Poster

Bread isn’t just bread in Russia, bread is life – “Bread Is a Head to Everything” Russians say. They believe that people who share bread will be friends forever. Russians welcome guests with a presentation of bread and salt.  An old Russian saying warns that when you die, all the bread you’ve ever wasted will be weighed and if it weighs more than your body you will go to Hell. “The quality of bread is the quality of our life! …The culture and civility of a people is defined by its relationship to bread… Bread will always live and be animated by our memory and consciousness, this bitter and sweet bread of our whole life and history… To be with bread is constantly to feel the warmth of life.”

I take the first bite without butter, I taste the rich, nutty, slightly sour flavour, it is dense, moist and chewy, and it fills my mouth and my mind. For a moment I panic, then I cover the slice with butter and take another bite and everything is alright. My old aunt dislikes black bread, when it’s mentioned or put on the table she squeezes her face in a way that makes me wonder what memories it conjures for her. During Russia’s numerous wars black bread was sometimes the only thing that kept people from starving. Some consider it coarse bread for serfs, peasants and the lower classes. At tea my aunt wonders how I could possibly prefer it to sweet pastries.

I’m learning to identify the different types of black bread and learning about the one in my youthful memory called borodinsky the only one I eat now, but most of all I’m learning to cherish my box of memories without a fear of sharing them.

Russian Black Bread

Russian Black Bread