Saturday, October 6, 2012

Happy Birthday Nigeria

On Monday, Nigeria celebrated 52 years of independence from Great Britain. It's like the 4th of July for Nigeria....minus the fireworks and watermelon of course.  Since we are always up for a party, we were eager to join the celebration with our new country.  Unfortunately, we had to stay put because Independence day here became tainted when two years ago a bomb went off in Eagle-Square, the venue for the celebratory events. I pass the square nearly every day and have heard first hand accounts from a friend and a driver recounting how that explosion has effected their individual lives.  One lost a family friend, and the other feels lucky that her husband was late getting to the event and narrowly missed the explosion.   Because of the risk of this kind of violence at public venues during celebrations, we memorialized the day by hanging in our Pajamas, overeating   and decorating the house for Halloween (I guess  I should have warned our housekeeper about Halloween because she arrived the following morning while I was out, only to be greeted by decorative skeletons, plastic mice and Jackolanterns.  Poor Immaculata received a shocking introduction to our macabre October tradition).  Luckily, we were able to join in the festivities the following day in a special Nigerian Day Celebration at the international school our kids attend. 

The Nigerian Day tradition includes wearing traditional Nigerian attire and eating Nigerian food while enjoying African music and dance. A few weeks back I became aware of the upcoming celebration and learned the importance of getting  'Nigerian attire' for the family.  I knew all the kids at school would be clad in their regalia and we needed to be as well.  Unfortunately, you can't exactly stop by the Mall and pick up something to wear for the big day because there aren't many "ready-made" clothes for sale here, and definitely no Target, Walmart, or anything resembling mass-production.  If you want something, you either make it or get it made. 

My first step was finding the fabric for our clothes and the best bet was the Wuse Market.  I ended up going with a friend who is from Camaroon and has lived in Nigeria for a few years.  She grew up in Africa, meaning that she has been bargaining since birth.  Her negotiation skills as well as her sense of direction were beyond helpful as we searched for just the right patterns and colors in stack of African fabric.  All fabric here is sold in a 6-yard piece.  It makes it simple knowing that each bundle is long enough to make a dress for even the most "ample" woman.  It's a bit frustrating though, when all you want is a few inches for a trim or accent and you are stuck buying enough fabric to cover all the windows in the house!  I'm sure the 6-yard standard is also the reason I've seen so many husbands and wives walking down the street wearing matching outfits. It is not uncommon to see entire families clad in identical fabric.  I guess the thought is, that if you have six yards of the stuff, you ought to many things as possible to insure you get your money's worth! 
So basically, the wife picks out fabric that will look good on her
....the husband is stuck wearing it too!  He's one of the lucky ones
 because I've seen men wearing floral pastels. 
Tyson would sooner have his fingers gnawed off by a wild animal than dress as "twinners"!

We had a very similar picture growing up... I'll have to have my mom find it!  We are all wearing twinner shirts!

Being the one foreigner at the market adds an additional measure of difficulty.  For some reason, the Nigerians erroneously think that just because I'm from the US, I must have wheelbarrows of money. Actually, to buy anything substantial here, you really do need to use bags, or boxes of money to do your transactions since the highest denomination here is the 1000 Naira bill.  Sounds like a lot, but it is only $7.00 US,  and nothing is done by check, credit or debit.   So, when Tyson bought both of our cars, and had to make the transaction carrying all of the cash in huge stacks of $7 bills, you can only imagine the awkwardness of the's a bit reminiscent of a gangster movie with a briefcase full of bills! When checking out of the hotel he stayed in for several weeks when he first arrived in town, Tyson told me it was also important not to let anyone know when he was leaving.  This is because it is not unusual for someone to be robbed the night before they leave a hotel because everyone knows they would be carrying hundreds of thousands of Naira in order to settle the bill.  I'm feeling more comfortable using Naira and doing the computations in my mind, but I still feel like I'm using Monopoly money around town because anytime I spend 100,000 of anything, it doesn't seem quite real.
Stacks of Naira....Since N1000 ($7) is the highest have to carry alot to make any transaction....
Nothing is done in Credit, check or Debit! 
Why rob a bank when you can rob the man leaving a bank oh his way to pay his rent!
Sorry, I got off track!... Because I'm foreign, I was followed by so many vendors,  each pushing their wares into my face hoping to make a few Naira.  Not only was I pounced on by peanut vendors, watch salesmen and kids selling gum, I had women willing to braid my hair for 4 hours for the cost of about a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk.... The hardest part for me is all the maimed and crippled beggars  that swarm.  There are some of the most physically disabled people, who kneel down on the ground uttering prayers with arms outstretched for a handout.  This is kind of stuff that kills me and makes me question the right way to handle each situation.  My thoughts tend to linger on the individual wondering about their family, or where they sleep, and mostly I wonder about whether or not they feel lost and forgotten in this world of so many.  Each encounter is an internal ethical struggle.  I often wonder,  will helping people actually hurt them more in the long run.... or does doing a little for one person even make a difference?  It is severely overwhelming when as far as my eyes can see in all directions are people who don't have enough.  The most difficult part for me is seeing the sweet little children who start life at the bottom of a barrel, with not a morsel of possibility to achieve the greatness they would be capable of if born in a different situation. 
I'm off the topic again, but that really is where my mind floats to much of the time here......
After a little shopping, some negotiating and hassling, I emerged with the fabric needed to make Nigerian clothes for the family.  I ended up spending $6,800 Naira, or about $60.  If we all wanted to go as quintuplets, I could have gotten out of there spending half that! 
Piles of fabric at the Wuse Market....each six yards long!
My heart can't handle it.
The next step was finding a tailor.  There is no shortage of tailors in Abuja.  I see them walking all over town, carrying what seems like the same model Singer sewing machine that I remember seeing at my grandma's house 30 years ago.  Since everyone has their clothes made, everyone has a tailor, but not all are willing to lend you theirs!.... Women are funny like that!  I' decided to ask a girl at church who is always well dressed in her Nigerian clothes to take me to her tailor.   I didn't realize we would find him in a tiny closet sized work shop located in the back of an alley in a place called Garki. Had I known, the neighborhood we were headed to, I may have reconsidered.  The neighborhood was the type that accepted all forms of "currency" after dark!  It was more than a bit sketchy, but I hit it off with Abdul the tailor right away and found him trust-worthy.   Like most tailors here, Abdul doesn't use any patterns, just draw sketches in his notebook and listens.  I explained the look I was after and he came up with a picture that fairly accurately resembled what I had in mind.  Since the kids were in school...not that I would have brought them to this hovel anyway, Abdul made measurements from their clothes I'd brought with me.  Abdul agreed to make a dress and headwrap for Alexis, Skirt, top, and headwrap for me, and Kaftan shirts with embroidery for each of the boys and Tyson.  I  was nervous to hear the grand total for all 8 items, suddenly afraid I'd gotten myself financially over my head.  For Sewing all the clothes for the entire family, including the cost of zippers, buttons, and embroidery on the Kaftans, he asked $13,000 Naira.  I interrupted Re'joice as she began to negotiate a lower price and was more than happy to pay the $91 asked.  What a bargain for hours and hours of work!!  I like getting a good deal like anyone, but when it comes down to the difference of a few dollars, it doesn't make sense.  $5 to Abdul would mean dinners for a week, whereas $5 to me means so much less.  After paying half off the agreed amount I let Abdul know that if he did a really nice job I would bring him 3 friends from the embassy who were currently looking for a tailor for their families.
Within a few days, Abdul was done, meaning I had to make my way back to the "shop" to retrieve my things.  Abdul was very accommodating, and happy to make any adjustments needed later.  He also sent me home with a bag of scraps from all of the dresses he had made recently so I could construct my own patchwork skirt.  He'd seen me admiring the one he was making and talked me through how to make it myself.  I will definitely bring my friends back....... and probably a large man with me when I go!
Abdul in his little workshop!  He arrives at 6am and leaves at 8pm every day. 
The Nigeria day celebration at school was set to start at noon, so I scheduled a driver to pick me up at 11:30.  Most of the time I drive myself, but I have a couple of hundred pre-paid vouchers for the embassy motor pool that I use when I don't want to deal with a particular area of town, or difficult parking situations, or when I just want to sit in the back seat and help the kids with their homework rather than stress over Abuja traffic.  Each ticket gives me access to a driver who will pick us up in an SUV and drive us around for an hour at a time.  Very handy.  Anyway, the driver was late and I was getting stressed.  I knew Alexis was dancing in the show and would be devastated if I missed it.  I kept waiting because I knew that at this point if I drove myself I would surely be late because I would have to park and walk from the car-park to the school, rather than being dropped at the entrance.  When the driver finally arrived, I let him know how serious it would be if a seven year old dancing on stage looked across the audience and couldn't find her mom!.  Im not sure Ibrahim really understood what I was saying, but he definitely felt my urgency and did his best to get me there before the crazy white lady had a melt down in his suburban.  Well, he took full advantage of the red diplomatic license plates that mean we couldn't be pulled over, and got to the school within 15 min.  I ran with Sawyer through the security  line to have my bag checked and then sprinted to the cafeteria in my full Nigerian Dress. 
As I ran in my Nigerian get-up, I heard the music "We are Africa" coming from the multipurpose room.  Just in time!  She was only 30 seconds into her dance and her eyes met mine as she spun around with the other second graders.  For all she knew, I'd been there the entire time.  Alexis is definitely no stranger to the stage.  Although she has been in more dance competitions and recitals than I can count,  I have never seen anything quite like what I saw on-stage that afternoon.  She was insane!  Seriously, she was tearing-up the African dance moves like nothing I've ever seen!  The best part was, she was having a blast!   Several strangers and teachers came up to me afterwards and commented on her African dance ability.  Who knew our little 'goldie-locks' could move like that!  I really wish I had video of it.  I will have to track down a parent who taped it and get a copy.  It was Hilarious and stunning at the same time! 
Alexis modeling her traditional
Nigerian Dress made by Abdul!

At school in our Nigerian Attire...  Alexis is wearing her dance costume.
One of the other school moms.

Other dances were performed to highlight the three major tribes and languages that make up Nigeria.  The Hausa, Igbo, and Yuroba.  Finally, there was a fashion show of parents and students exhibiting different traditional Nigerian wear.   Some of the women's outfits were stunning, especially the Geles (head wraps) which appeared be gravity defying.  Everyone in the audience was dressed to the nines.  We were dressed traditionally of course, but in daily attire, not formal wear like many of the others.  Most were dressed in green and white regalia, the colors of the Nigerian flag. 

No celebration would be complete without a feast afterwards.  The Nigerian parents treated the rest of the school to an amazing spread sorts of things I didn't recognize and can't pronounce the names of anyway.  All of the dishes were traditional Nigerian food such as suya, yams, rice, kabobs, plantains etc.  The rush on the food was insane!  I haven't seen pushing and shoving like that since the line for BYU Fudge during Education Week!!  Seriously, it was worse than any ward pot-luck I'd ever seen....Like flies on....well, Like flies on Nigerian food!   It seems that there are different social norms in Nigeria...  Apparently, here it is acceptable to trample small children as long as fried dough balls and Kabobs are at stake. 

Puff Puffs...The last thing Alexis ate before
 vomiting all over the house...coincidence??

Finally, we ended the day by making cookies for the guards and police men that watch our compound.  I'm sure they would much rather be home with their families than hanging out watching the Woodruff kids play (and fight with eachother).  We gave them each a plate of triple chocolate cookies and told them how much we appreciated them.  Since most Nigerian treats aren't exactly sweet, their bodies probably didn't know how to react to the sudden sugar overload!  Since they were back at work the following day, they obviously survived the insulin surge!

Several gaurds rotate watch on our compound....  Thanks for even working on your holiday!!!  This is one of the guards that accompanies the kids to school. 
Well Happy Birthday Nigeria!  You throw one heck of a party!

On another note, Independence day wasn't all celebration here in Nigeria.  The following day I saw the news about a horrific event that happened that day.  Only click on the link if you have the stomach for it.  Otherwise, ignore it.


  1. I loved reading this post. I wish I could have seen your girl dance. So fun.

  2. We love your Nigerian outfits! Another amazing, fantastic experience - all of it! We're hoping there's a way to see Alexis' dance - sounds like she's definitely in her element on the Nigerian stage!

  3. I can totally see you hitting it off with the Nigerian tailor in that shady neighborhood. And, I echo the other two...I am dying to see Alexis's African dance moves!!!

    I clicked on the link and saw enough in the first 10 seconds. So tragic and scary. Stay safe!