Nigeria: A Newcomer’s First Impressions

After several years of living in Africa, I never thought I’d say this, but I’m having a bit of culture shock.

I’ve been in Nigeria for a little over a week. And it would appear that this country is rather like sub-Saharan Africa on steroids. The volume of voices a little louder, the tolerance for n’importe quoi greater and the prevalence of enterprising crime more frequent. Nigerians like to think that they are “the Americans of Africa,” – Noisy. Impolite. Industrious. Resilient.

However, such generalizations are never fair or accurate. As I'm quickly learning, this is a vast, multi-dimensional country encompassing a wide spectrum of cultures, socio-economic levels, belief systems, languages and climates. Based on my very limited experience in country, here are some observations.

Nigeria (red) is 1.3 times the size of Texas (blue, left) and 1.5 times the size of France (blue, right).

First of all, Nigeria is gigantic. This past week, I flew from Abuja in the center of the country, to Owerri in Imo State. While it might seem like a small distance on the map, the flight was one hour. Here are a couple size comparators to put things in perspective.

Naturally the sheer geographical size of Nigeria translates to climate variations. A scorching sun, dry heat and savannah grasslands embrace the nation’s capital, Abuja. Meanwhile, the southeast is graced with slightly cooler temperature, greater humidity and lush tropical vegetation. This week, the average temperature in Abuja is 35C/95F, in Owerri 30C/86F.

Nigeria hosts vast array of ethnic diversity. Between 250 and 500 ethnic groups lie within the country’s borders, including the Hausa and Fulani 29%, Yoruba 21%, Igbo 18%, Ijaw 10%, Kanuri 4%, Ibibio 3.5% and Tiv 2.5%. Of the main languages illustrated in this map, there are an estimated 500 dialects.

Main languages of Nigeria (Photo: Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection)

English is also widely spoken throughout the country. But those with an American accent be warned! You’ll be more easily understood if you imitate a British accent. "I’d like a bottle of wha-tuh." "I read the news pay-puh."

The range of economic levels in Nigeria is as vast as its cultures. On the African continent, Nigeria’s GDP is second only to South Africa’s and is expected surpass its southern rival within the next decade. Nigeria boasts a 6% growth rate compared to South Africa’s 2%.

Despite the perception of its market being risk prone, Nigeria is ripe for investment. Forbes magazine recently compared the country’s economy to Brazil’s, "rich in petroleum but blessed with an abundance of other resources and a population that is only now starting to live up to their potential as consumers."

Signs of affluence are clearly visible in Abuja. Million-dollar cars pepper the streets and designer bags the likes of New York’s Fifth Avenue grace women’s shoulders. Last month, Lagos hosted its third annual Fashion and Design Week, an event sponsored by several multi-national companies that showcased the work of Nigerian designers to the new, wealthy elite with Naira (Nigerian currency) burning in their pockets.

Abuja's ridiculous highways, reminiscent of southern California (Photo: beyond the petrol-financed, intertwining highways of Abuja and the glitz of Lagos lie a host of slums and people living in poverty. Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics determined that in 2010 61% of the country was living in poverty. That rate is increasing annually.

Lack of affordable housing in Abuja and other major cities has pushed much of the working class into overcrowded settlements, lacking latrines and running water. The UN Agency for Human Settlement estimates that half the country (71 million people) live in slums.

Indeed such rifts have caused great factions in Nigerian society. This, however, is a topic best saved for next time. Now, if you'll excuse me, I’m off to have my di-nuh (dinner).


Brief Thoughts on Typhoon Haiyan

While I've never been to the Visays Region where Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, it behooves me to say a few things about this catastrophic storm and its aftermath.

The Washington Post, which seems to like maps as much as I, published a collection of 8 maps, visualizing why the destruction of Typhoon Haiyan was so insurmountable. One image was particularly profound in demonstrating Typhoon Haiyan's monstrosity:

Philippines (in red) and the storm, shown to scale with the U.S. (Image: The New Republic)The largess of the storm covered an area nearly equivalent to the entirety of U.S. states south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Typhoon Haiyan was felt throughout the archipelago's 3,000-plus islands. And as it hit the Philippines, the storm had escalated to category 5.

Perhaps this will be a wake up call for the Philippine government to take a more active role in ensuring that its people are better prepared for storms to come.

There's a Filipino proverb that says: As long as there is life, there is still hope.



Benin vs. Burundi: A Comparative Case Study of Two Tiny Countries

Total airtime from Burundi to Benin: 12 hours.It appears that I'm destined for tiny countries that start with "B".

I've moved from Burundi in East Africa to Benin in West Africa. It's easy to forget how big the African Continent is. Though the distance on the map might not seem far, my total air time (not including stopovers) from Burundi to Benin was 12 hours. 

Many have asked about the differences between the two countries. Given my limited knowledge and time spent in Burundi and Benin (I've in Benin less than one week), here is a synthesis of what I've been told by Burundian and Beninois people and what I've seen firsthand.

The largest city in Benin is Cotonou. Compared to Burundi's capital, Bujumbura, Cotonou is a bustling, expansive city with people out at all hours of the night. Street vendors selling corn, electronics, tupperware, watches, posters and just about anything else you can imagine weave in and out, between the vehicles stopped in traffic.

 Compared to Bujumbura, Cotonou is much older. It's beginnings date back to 1830, when the King of Dahomey (now Benin) established the fishing village of Cotonou as a slave trading post. While the slave trade only lasted two decades, Cotonou quickly grew into a major trading hub for palm oil and cotton. Cotonou boomed into a major city after the port was established in 1908. Today Cotonou hosts some of the greatest trading activity in the West African region.

Paris-based Beninois photographer, Mayeul Akpovi, captures the hustle and bustle of Cotonou in this time-lapse video.

Bujumbura on the other hand, was largely uninhabited until the 1870s, when invaders from Zanzibar settled in the area and engaged in slave trade and commerce. In 1897, German settlers moved to the area and established a port along Lake Tanganyika, as well as adminstrative offices, residences and a prison. It quickly became an important post for traders from present-day Congo and other areas bordering the lake. Nonetheless until the 1950s, the town consisted primarily of a handful of dirt roads, administrative buildings and houses. In fact, it wasn't until 2009 that most of Bujumbura's roads were paved.

Left: Bujumbura in the 1950s (Photo: Unknown). Right: Bujumbura on newly paved roads in 2011 (Photo: Yogesh Masuria).

In part because Burundi's past has been riddled with conflict, Bujumbura remains a sleepy, little town. It's streets are empty and quiet after 9pm - a throwback to the days of the most recent emergency. I suspect that Bujumbura will look like Cotonou in a couple decades, if it succeeds in staying away from armed violence and can move past its crippling corruption towards a greater level of formalized trade.

More differences will undoubtedly appear in time. I've been in Benin less than one week and have only begun to scratch the surface.


The Batwa

Batwa children. (Photo:“Before, we had no dignity. Now we can afford proper clothing, make a decent living, and hold our heads high,” said the leader of a Batwa community outside of Bujumbura.

A couple weeks ago, I visited a village that is home to the Batwa, a traditional, hunter-gatherer community of pygmy origins, which comprises 1% of Burundi’s population. The Batwa are spread across Central Africa, from Uganda in the east to Angola in the west. They were the first to inhabit the land that today comprises Burundi. They are also the most marginalized, vulnerable community in the country.

Burundi’s heavy dependence on land has resulted in massive deforestation and reduced availability of land. Such conditions have made it difficult for the Batwa to continue their traditional hunter-gatherer life. The typical Batwa today struggles to put food on the table by either tilling land that belongs to others (read: indentured servitude) or selling clay pots used for cooking at a rate far cheaper than the amount of labor that goes into making them.

However all is not lost for the Batwa. Several have “made it,” achieving a university education and holding steady, well-paid jobs in Bujumbura and the larger towns. A handful even hold high-level posts in the government.

The reception my team received when visiting the Batwa community was exhilarating and humbling. The women of the village sang and danced their hearts out. It was a moving expression of gratitude for how far they had come. Here is a video of the reception they gave us:

This community has ameliorated their living conditions and has been relatively successful in earning a living through agriculture and small-animal husbandry. Unlike many other Batwa, this community was not trapped in feudal farming, nor struggling to eat. But they reminded us that there remained dozens of other communities scattered across Burundi that still lived in destitution and should not be forgotten.


Central Market Fire Burundi's "World Trade Center Bombing"

Central Market fire in Bujumbura, Burundi (Photo: Brice Niyondiko)Burundi: A week ago, the capital's Central Market burned to the ground. Now the tiny East African nation is struggling with rapid inflation and price hikes as rumors circle about the cause of the fire.

On the morning of Sunday, January 27, smoke filled the otherwise clear sky in Burundi's capital Bujumbura as its Central Market burned to the ground.

The market was the epicenter of the nation’s economy, providing goods to the entire country, as well as neighboring DRC and Rwanda. Food products, manufactured goods, beverages, clothing, construction materials and equipment sold at the market generated about $4 million per day.

For the past week, all of that activity has been at a standstill.

Many say the fire’s economic impact will be just as devastating as was the bombing of New York’s World Trade Center.

Burundi doesn’t often make an appearance on the world stage. Nestled in east Africa between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Tanzania, it’s one of the smallest countries on the continent, about the size of Maryland. It is also one of the poorest. The average Burundian makes about $600 a year. Decades of ethnic conflict between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi have set back the economy considerably.

While its 10.5 million people have enjoyed peace and steady economic growth in the past few years, signs abound that the fire has weakened the country’s already fragile economy.

Though the fire was spotted at 6:30 a.m., the fire department didn’t arrive until one hour later, at which point they passively watched the blaze mount up to 20 meters (65 feet) tall, while attempting to retrieve non-existent water from their pumps. The fire started to diminish at 1 p.m. when neighboring Rwanda sent helicopters in with buckets of water. But by then it was too late. The market was already demolished, along with millions of dollars worth of merchandise and local currency.

Of the 5,000 merchants employed by the Central Market, only 10% had their products insured. Taxation up of to 53% on high-volume bank accounts meant that many merchants stored life savings in cash at their market stalls. Most of that money has been burnt to ash.

Alongside dozens of other merchants, one woman ran into the fire with her baby strapped to her back in an attempt to retrieve 500 million Burundian Francs (BIF) / $312,000 she had kept in her stand. She and her baby died in the blaze.

Burundi’s inflation, normally 11.8%, is expected to skyrocket further. Banks and exchange companies are reluctant to part with United States Dollars (USD), a currency heavily relied on for its stability and necessary to conduct business with DRC.

Signs indicate that Burundi’s currency is already headed towards a crash. The day before the Central Market fire, the exchange rate was 1515 BIF to 1 USD. At the time of publication one week later, the rate was 1572 BIF.

Burundi to U.S. Dollar rates spike after the June 27 fire.

Further exacerbating inflation is the limited availability of goods. It’s increasingly difficult to acquire food products and manufactured goods. Prices have soared since the fire. Before the fire for example a pair of mangoes was 1,000 BIF. One week after the fire, the price was 4,000 BIF.

The country-wide transportation system has also been affected. The main station with bus lines running throughout the country and neighboring countries was previously located at the market. It has now been relocated at the edge of town, making it difficult to access and causing a decline in the number of passengers. Trips throughout the country and the region have decreased, causing a reduction in transport of goods and trading revenue.

All of these factors will devastate Burundi’s nascent economy.

“What we have now is a lot of desperate people, willing to do desperate things,” said Jacques Mukozi*, a facilities manager based in Bujumbura.

In a country familiar with violence, corruption and stifling political dialogue, distrust runs high and rumors abound as to the cause of the fire, now widely believed to be arson.

Bujumbura’s Central Market fire was just one of many fires which have demolished Burundi’s markets in recent years. In January 2012, Kamenge Market, in northern Bujumbura caught fire. In 2011, Kayogoro Market and Nyanza-Lac Market in the southern Makamba Province, as well as Bururi Market in Bururi Province all witnessed fires. And in December 2010, Mutaho Market in the central Gitega Province was destroyed by a fire.

Though market fires are common in Burundi, people are struggling to understand the motivations behind Bujumbura’s Central Market fire. “Whatever someone was hoping to gain by this was just plain stupid because the economic repercussions are immense,” says Mukozi.

Like many Burundians, Mukozi hopes the country will bounce back from the fire, rather than fall into the kind of chaos the country has seen during less peaceful times.

*Not his real name.