Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Dirtly little scandal

This morning I committed a horrific social blunder here in Nigeria although I am somewhat used to shocking those around me. Being one of a handful of white people in the entire country, I expect a fair amount of staring, and pointing. But my skin color (or extreme lack there of) is only one reason I stand out.  Culturally, I do things differently.... I do things the American way which doesn't always mesh with how things are done here. 
What I did this morning created a huge stir in our compound.  My housekeeper begged me not to do it, saying I would embarrass my family.  I laughed and headed outside anyway.  I knew it would be and uncommon sight, but I didn't expect the gardeners to stop trimming shrubs, and the construction workers on the nearby roof to stop hammering, and the guards to stop walking the property all to watch the crazy American woman.  Pretending not to notice the commotion, I continued my task at hand with our maid staring in horror from the front window.  Finally I stopped when the pool boy and the gardener approached me together begging me to stop saying "Madame, please!  We would not allow our mother or sister to do this, it is shameful!  Please Madame, Please!!"
Clearly I had crossed a social boundary and was causing everyone around me serious distress.  So, I relented in order to save others from the discomfort they were feeling.  From the uproar around me, you must think I was mowing the lawn naked, or drowning defenseless animals in the pool, or possibly selling narcotics to kids from the porch.  No, I was doing none of this things.  My huge offense was doing a "man's job".  I had a rag and a bucket and was washing my car!!
Can you imagine?!  Well, now I have the Gardener scheduled to wash my car every Monday morning for 1000 Naira....to keep my car clean without shaming my family!  While Fazouk busied himself soaping up my vehicle I ran inside and grabbed my laptop and brought it outside.  I did a quick youtube search and found a video of a car going through an automatic carwash to show him how I washed my car at home.  He nearly fell over with disbelief that a car could drive into a raining room with spinning brushes and come out clean!   He wouldn't have been more surprised if I had told him that everyone in America has Robotic- Maids from 'outer-space'!!
If traffic is bad enough, you can hop out of you car and give it a brisk wash while you wait!...as long as you are not female
My blunder this morning reminded me of a few other 'social faux-pas' I have committed since being here....
Well, on my first day here, I went running with a British group and got terribly lost...Looking back on that event I realize that being lost in a foreign land wasn't my only problem.....My other  major problem, my tank top and shorty-shorts were lacking 2-3 yards of fabric to be considered decent in a predominately Muslim community!   Ooops, I was probably seen as a lost, crazy, white, naked running harlot!!! I guess there are worse things to be known as!:)

My next 'Faux Pas' was while shopping I sincerely complemented a Nigerian friend on her lean physique,  the type of athletic figure I am constantly striving for.  Ooops again!  How was I supposed to know I was insulting her!  Since she was a friend, she explained to me that having a fuller figure is desirable for her.  She said, "I would never want to be mistaken for the 'house-help'"!  She said she was currently trying to "increase" (their term for gaining weight). In fact, Nigeria still has Fattening Rooms for women to gain weight prior to their weddings to be more desirable to their husbands.  It's like the opposite of a Fat-Camp.  You spend up to six months doing little more than eating, sleeping and bathing.  These fattening rooms are used mainly by the wealthy of certain tribes to get their women up to par.  You can read a BBC article on this topic by clicking this link.. Fattening rooms in Calabar Nigeria.  Some woman have been able to double their weight in 6 months by strict adherance to the prescribed program.  It's these attitudes that make exercising seem unnecessary and even counter productive to some.  My housekeeper thinks I have a few screws loose each time I hop on the treadmill or head out for a jog! 
The body image here is a bit refreshing though, as most body types are appreciated and there doesn't seem to be an agreed upon 'ideal body image'. When I asked a Nigerian woman about the "ideal" body type in her country, she answered by saying, "Only you Americans and Europeans worry about your weight.  What a luxury to have nothing else to be concerned with except how much you weigh.  You have no problems so you have to create things to be unhappy about!" 
That sure made me think!
A betrothed bride gorging herself for beauty!  I remember trying to lose a lb or two before my big day to be sure my dress fit right! 

Fashion magazines reflect this attitudes as well.  You don't have to live on nothing but celery and rice-cakes to grace the cover of a Nigerian fashion magazine.  All beautiful women are welcome!

Here is another taboo that I learned (the hard way of course).  Don't use your left hand at all.  The left hand is considered unclean and shouldn't be used to eat, or to give or receive anything. You shouldn't give or receive anything with your left hand, unless you must use both hands to hold it.  No amount of soap or hand sanitizer can convince the population here that both hands can be germ-free!  I guess 'South-Paws'  are not highly regarded here, possibly one more reason my parents (both lefties) will never come visit us. This left hand rule is quite frustrating when I'm shopping, holding bags and have Sawyer on my hip with only my left hand free for the transaction.  The Naira I'm paying with is a filthy as a sewer anyway, so it frustrates me to have to set down everything I am holding in order to avoid paying with a hand that is perceived as dirty.
Remember to only use this 'clean' right hand for eating!!

Also when greeting someone, I should not be offended if a man shakes the hands of all the men around me but doesn't shake mine.  Some muslim men don't touch females.  (I'm not sure if this is out of respect or if  more than just my left hand is seen as filthy in this case).  Either way, im fine keeping my hands to myself!  Some people wont make eye contact as it is seen as intrusive.  Instead they lower their eyes and bow their head. (The cleaning staff and gardeners always do this to show of respect, which honestly makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.) 
It's my style to wave and loudly exclaim good morning friend as I walk by, but greetings are taken very seriously here and are not to be rushed.  I also like to get right down to business when I see someone, but it is considered very rude not to ask about their health and the health of each member of their family before taking the conversation any further.  A quick wave or 'hello' doesn't cut it here, and a proper greeting is expected by each person you run into.  I've learned the names of the children of the woman I buy bread and peanuts from so I can inquire after each of them every time I see her.

Another stark difference is brought to my attention every time I'm in public.  People swarm around Sawyer talking to him and touching him, but inevitably, ask the following question..."Is your boy ill?  Why is he not in school?"  The first few hundred times people asked this question, I just assumed they thought my hefty Super-Chunk was much older than his 2 years.  The common response to me explaining that he was a baby of 2 years, was "well he should be in school or he will never learn!"  Apparently it is common place to put children as young as 6-9 months in 'primary schools' here.  They are sent off to get started in their education at a very young age.  I have been berated regularly by well-intentioned Nigerian mothers that I am too soft and selfish keeping my child at home and will cause him to be disadvantaged in the future.  The women here don't beat around the bush either when they want to tell you how to do something....I've had people be pretty much in my face giving me "wonderful" parenting advice about how the 'American Way' is too soft.  It has taken serious restraint at times to keep from barking back rude politically charged comments, or just punching someone (what would be the point?)!  Instead, I smile and squeeze my chubby guy and say I can't dare part with him for another couple of years.  In the mean time I just make it a game to see how many people accost me daily to chastise me on my ignorant parenting.
I'm not ready for school!  I just wanna hang out with my mom and play Angry Birds!
Well, It's clear that Im constantly doing things that seem a strange to those around me.   Some of them are cultural, and I'm sure some are just me being me! Either way, we are all welcome to our own views....as silly as they seem to others.



  1. You had me at "lost, crazy, white, naked running harlot." :) Love your updates DKSW. :)

  2. Hilarious! That car cleaning episode could be in a movie! I actually do like that any body type is great though (except for slender!) Very intriguing mentality.

  3. I love how you write, Diana! Reading this brings back so many memories of us living in Dubai. Well just the Muslim cultural stuff :) The fattening rooms blow me away. It really does make you think. Thanks for all your updates. I feel like I am there!

  4. I would LOVE to be in a foreign land with you! It would be an honor! You make me laugh my head off!

  5. Hi DD. Love the update. You're a great story teller. Gill and I were on the edge of our chairs, waiting to read what completely "taboo" thing you had done.

  6. I read this post to my sweet wife Kathy, and we both had a good laugh. Our only complaint about your blog is that you don't post often enough. More, more, more!!

  7. Diana, I love your writing style! It is so fun to read about your adventures!

  8. Wow, that was so funny about the washing of the car! Hilarious! And the whole left hand thing- they had that in India too. Weird how that tradition has spilled it's way throughout that part of the world. Love reading all these experiences Diana. Please send me an invite too if you do go private :) fowlerfam at gmail dot com.