LETTER FROM NIGERIA
Lagos and Kano, Nigeria — Each day in Lagos is a delight of African color and fashion. It may be one of the few place in the world where the plumage of people outdazzles the colors of nature.
The pastel cream and apricot flowers of the frangipani seem washed out compated with the vibrantly colored Nigerian costume. Even the traffic policement wear vivid orange shirts.
In Lagos, men stride in flowing cotton or linen robes that billow in the wind. Their heads are covered in lacy, crocheted skullcaps or in the tall, cylindrically shaped hats made famous by Nigeria's former President, Shehu Shagari.
Women wear elaborate headdresses and exotically colored, tiered dresses. Some have babies strapped to their backs and it's not uncommon to see a woman balancing four differently shaped pots, one on top of another, on her head. These women carry themselves, as do the men, with pride.
One Nigerian says that when he and a friend, both dressed in Western clothes, were in Nairobi once, a group of Kenyans stopped them in the street and said: "You must be Nigerians." When asked how they knew, they Kenyans replied, "Because you look so confident."
True, tourists thrill to the East African sights of elephants charging in Kenyan game reserves and to the towering Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. But to people who know this vast continent, the real Africa lies due west.
There was no foreign settler community in West Africa, as there was in the east, and so West Africa retains it distinctive character.
European and Arab slave traders took human booty from West African states like Ghana and Nigeria and packed them into stifling ships. Colonial powers also exploited this region's dense tropical jungles for palm oil, cocoa, and rubber. But they never settled here. So the west remains very African.
And Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, is the continent's most African city -- a giant, noisy mass market throbbing with life and music and so chaotic that the orderly Western mind often feels intimidated by it. In contrast, East Africa's premier city, Nairobi, is essentially a neatly arranged European-looking city.
East Africans may speak in their native Swahili and other tribal languages. For the most part, though, they have been Europeanized. They have no native dress.
Many urban West Africans adopt Western dress, too. Yet the overwhelming impression of visiting Nigeria is of a people resplendent in their native dress.
The voices of Nigeria's men are deep and sonorous; the "o" vowel is strongly emphasized and is uttered with an almost Caribbean cadence. It seems to crop up in almost every sentence. Even words spelled with an "o" but pronouced in English as "u" -- asin "other" and "mother" -- remain implacably "o" sounding here.
Words such as successful and drugs are spoken with an "o" is particularly evident in Yoruba, the predominant language of Lagos state and the other three Yoruba state: Ondo, Oyo, and Ogun.
Oyibo,m take note: When the oyibom is used, it refers to white men. When pressed for the literal meaning of the word, a Nigerian with just the trace of a smile says, "Literally, it means the 'peeled on.'"
Lagos residents have to cope with intense heat, high prices, open sewers, constant power failures, armed robberies, and "go-slows." Go-slow is the Nigerian term for the horrendous traffic jam in Lagos, a city that is widely regarded as an urban nightmare.
Commuters sometimes leave home at 5:00 in the morning because it may take three hours to reach work. Their journey will invariably be interrupted by go-slows. It's a frazzling experience. It's also a golden opportunity for thousands of hawkers who line the roads. These small-time entrepreneurs, mostly boys, line up along the roadside like crowds waiting ot greet a visiting head of state:
They pounce on drivers the second traffic grinds to a halt, leaning into open car windows to try to sell their wares.
The practice is, of course, illegal. But nothing is done to stop it. In a 200 -yard stretch of urban highway reduced to a slow, stop, slow, stop, inch-forward progression, these items were proffered in rapid succession:
Cellophane-wrapped packets of sugar, an ironing board, a hot water bottle, a gray telephone, a yellow telephone, bright blue and red plastic coathangers, Swiss watches (or so the vendors said), a bottle opener, a tie rack, cans of soda, cassette tapes, calculators, lengths of fabrics, flashlights, laxatives, and boxes of toothpicks.
"If you get a go-slow -- I mean a really good one -- you can do your week's shopping," says an Englishman, who adds that the goods are sometimes of dubious origin.
"One day you'll come out on the road and everybody will be selling towels and they'll say, 'It's towels today." You know jolly well it's a load that fell off a truck.
This is the time of the year when Nigerians -- and all West Africans for that matter -- breathe a sigh of relief. The intense temperatures moderate somewhat because of the influence of the harmattan, the dry wind that blows in from the Sahara at this time. It blows dust and sand into the air, which forms a layer of pollution that acts as an insulator, screening the earth from the hot rays of the sun. Until the sun burns through (usually in the early afternoon), West Africans get the benefit of a cloudy and therefore cooler day.
But the harmattan can also be an ill wind that doesn't blow any good. Sometimes it whips up violent sandstorms that sting the eyes and reduce visibility to a few yards. It can frequently cause cancellation of air flights to the north.
A French Canadian engineer on assignment in Senegal recalls seeing the harmattan sandblast a grounded commerical airliner, pitting it so badly that it obliterated the name on the side of the plane.
Seven hundred miles notheast of Lagos lies kano, the largest city of the arid , Muslim North.
In the intense dry heat of this region, the stately white minarets and pastel green dome of Kano's mosque look as cool and refreshing as ice cream.
The mosque dominates a tummultuous area of bleating goats and thousands of Nigerians who are buying and selling at stalls the size of closets. Adjacent to the emir's palace, the mosque overlooks a dusty playing field vibrant with Sunday afternoon activity.
Men squat on their haunches or get down on their knees to wash clothes at a communal open-air laundry. Three barefoot youths improvise a gam e of soccer, erecting two sticks for a goal of tying a bundle of old clothes to simulate a ball. Two smaller boys play racing drivers with a homemade car made out of a 44 -gallon oil drum sliced lengthways, children's bicycle tires, and a hinged piece of wood for a brake.
On the far corner of the playing field, right up against a busy intersection, three rows of solemn men, heads covered, raise their arms to Allah, chant, and drop reverently to their knees before touching their foreheads on their prayer mats. At the end of the cereony a man in a long white robe walks exactly four paces forward and returns to his profession: selling rice at his assigned spot. Kano is also the site of some of Africa's oldest dye pits: small indigo-blue pools that resemble witches' cauldrons.
A wizened man clambers tohis feet, adjusts the sunglasses that threaten to fall off his nose, and tightens his grip on a visitor's arm lest the visitor escape.
He points to the inklyblue cauldron below his feet. It is heated naturally by the sun's hot rays. "Natural indigo from the bush. We grow it. We put in. Wood Ash. We put in. Potash, the white one, we put in. Limestone. We put in. then cold water. Five days it come to the ready. We watch for foaming blue bubbles to come to the surface. Then we inhale. If it brings a few drops to the eyes the indigo dye is ready."
This place, he says, with a sweep of the hand, is more than 1,000 years old and all those that work them have inherited their sites "from father to son, from father to son, from father to son, from father to son."
"This place very famous. Over there," he says, pointing, "the Queen of England came. She waves with a white glove. I show her."
He tugs the visitor and stands over another dye pit. "Right where you stand [ former] Vice-President [Walter] Mondale of United States, he stands. Everything I told you I told him four years ago."