While on my six month Practicum, I need to write monthly on various topics and post it on our class Wiki. For instance, this month we were asked to write about a variety of cultural topics as they relate to our respective countries. I wanted to share some sections of that post here, both for friends and family to learn more about my life in Ife, and for those who may be moving to Nigeria and are interested in learning a bit about the culture. I do so with a disclaimer: Nigeria is an incredibly diverse and complex country, and I do not presume to have it all figured out or nailed down, particularly after living here for only two months. Though I sincerely believe and hope what I have written is accurate, I very well may not be seeing the whole picture. Every day is a learning experience! Furthermore, just as there are distinct and unique aspects of culture in Houston, San Francisco, Denver, rural Montana, and New York City, so there is great diversity of cultures in various parts of Nigeria. Thus, what I'm writing about Yoruba culture in Ife (and in the university setting, at that) may or may not apply to Igbos in Port Harcourt or Hausas in Kaduna. While those are the three major tribes, there are more than 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria, and they really can be as different as Italians and Germans, from language to food to traditions to religion.
With that disclaimer, a few of my thoughts on culture in Ife:
The Yoruba people have a greeting for everything. Ev. er. y. thing. They don’t simply have good morning, good afternoon, good evening- the day is divided into SIX different time periods with different greetings. Plus, I keep learning new greetings for different situations- if you meet someone who is standing, or sitting, if they’re carrying water, or if they’re eating, there are different ways to great the person. Nigerians in general and Yorubas in particular are incredibly relational people, and when I’m with my supervisor we can’t go more than 30 seconds without running into someone he knows. And you have to stop and go through the multiple greetings and welcomes, the bowing and formalities, and then have a conversation. There also is a phrase that means “well done” that is said when you greet someone and throughout a conversation. Repeatedly. Like, I walk in a room, and people say “well done.” I'm sorry, what? I didn't do anything. But thanks? The phrase can also mean “sorry,” so it’s doubly confusing.
Nigerians are also rowdy. I knew this somewhat from relationships with Nigerians in Romania, but man, living in Nigeria takes it to a whole new level. People are loud, speak their mind, laugh heartily and loudly, and just generally are assertive and opinionated. About everything. People tell you if they think you’re too fat or too skinny, if you should eat more or less, if a shirt looks good or not good on you, if they think you should join X or Y club/program/project, and on and on. Nigerians will readily admit their rowdiness and outspokenness, and are proud of it. Coming from New York City, a place that is filled with loud and assertive people, I feel right at home.
On a similar note, Nigerians are a celebratory people. Ah man, they celebrate each occasion as if it was The Most Important Occasion Ever. Weddings are huge, of course, but so are birthdays, funerals, and graduations. Last week was the University ceremony to induct the 200 graduating medical doctors, and I’m not joking when I say that EVERY one of them gets a canopy and cook and has a massive party, and you go from party to party all afternoon/evening. On a Wednesday. When a person dies (particularly an old person), it can take a month to prepare everything, and it’s a huuuuuuge celebration. “Big” birthdays (like 50 or 75) are massive celebrations, often with hundreds of people. Lots of food, lots of dancing, lots of thanksgiving and singing. I love it.
One aspect of the culture that has been quite an adjustment is how highly hierarchical society is. That certainly is that case in many countries, but it’s my first experience with it. Men bow and women curtsy when they meet an elder, and in really traditional settings or when it’s a really old and/or important person, men will lie prostrate on the ground and women will get down on both knees to greet the person. When speaking to an elder almost every sentence is followed by “sah” or “mah,” accordingly. You don’t interrupt an elder, you don’t contradict them, and you don’t correct them. Especially in a University setting, professors are extremely respected. Professors who are Medical Doctors? You might as well just not say anything, because they are definitely always right. So, people are really outspoken, except to elders. I’m still sorting out my place in all of that, especially in professional settings. I want to be culturally appropriate, but it feels wrong not to respectfully speak up when something is said that is obviously wrong or not efficient/effective.
I think that is enough for now. Feel free to comment to add to these thoughts. As I said earlier, I probably only see part of the picture, and I'm eager to grow in my understanding of this complex and wonderful country!