Today we went on a site visit to Iyora Village, about two miles away from us. The purpose of these excursions is to gain insight into traditional rural African life.
Iyora is decidedly more organized and structured than some villages. It incorporates principles that were only re-discovered by urban planners in the 1970s. Ages-old concepts of village squares, public spaces, and shared private space are brilliantly woven into the layout of Iyora. Cars are forbidden, which means the main street is partly a greenspace, area for public gathering, and marketplace.
Like much of Anam, Iyora is predominately an agricultural town. Most of the buildings were large residences holding 2-3 families (each family averaging 8 people in size). Many had nearby “urban” gardens that contained a mixture of yam, cassava, corn, pineapple, and pepper, among other plants that I couldn’t identify. They certainly have polyculture farming (the practice of planting multiple species in one area in a complementary fashion) down pat.
Also note in the picture below the three typical levels of house quality.
We caused quite the stir. Waves of children followed us around constantly, joined by the occasional curious chaperone. They are equally shy and relentlessly outgoing. When you pull out a camera, they crowd together and jostle for an opportunity to have their photo taken. It was actually quite difficult to get good pictures of single children or buildings because of this behavior. A few turned out quite well. Here’s my favorite:
Darling, aren’t they?
We received warm welcomes from several figureheads of the community. First, a group of women (presumably affiliated with the church) that performed a rousing song with makeshift percussion instruments and lots of clapping. One woman worked in some great dancing. I wanted to join in – there was sufficient energy in the crowd to make it spread – but it was hard to tell if it was a performance or a general public event.
Second, speaking with the elders. Our translator and general handyman, Bob, conveyed their welcome (“we greet you with both hands”) and in turn spoke on our behalf of our gratitude for their hospitality.
Third, an elite of the village (who also gave us a tour of the town), who is a contractor, I believe. His house was still under construction, but he welcomed us inside at the end of our excursion. We took an afternoon break from the heat in an upstairs entertaining room filled with chairs. None of this is particularly noteworthy, except for the following: he offered us Coca-Cola beverages. (Bum bum BUMMM!)
As some of you know, I swore off Coca-Cola about two years ago upon realizing their despicable track record re: corporate responsibility. (For starters, look up their entry on Wikipedia some time.) As an added benefit to not offering patronage to corrupt organizations, I also cut out a significant source of sugar intake and other miscellaneous chemicals.
Of course, offering a crate of Coca-Cola beverages is a rather large gesture in rural Nigeria. I was not about to offend him by declining. I must say: while I have kicked any desire for Coca-Cola in the states (where other tastier, natural, and more socially responsible colas are available), the biting, sweet taste of a coke on a thirsty and humid African afternoon was damn good.
(As you will read later, I drank another couple the following day as my only source of liquid sugar and carbonation to help with my convalescence from food poisoning. Guess I’m putting the cola kaibosh on hiatus.)
A curious aspect is the huge age gap between young and old. There is an abundance of children (many care for one another), and elderly people, but hardly any middle-aged (i.e. 30ish) individuals. I saw maybe seven people who were middle-aged, while I came across probably 120+ children and 15+ elders.
We did not figure out the cause of this phenomenon, but our best guess is they have moved to the city for more job opportunities. After all, Iyora is only an agricultural town; save for a few sundries shops, the only occupations are raising crops and caring for children. And due to the lack of adults, the latter job usually falls to the children. This boy is carrying the baby on his back.
The age gap raises some key challenges with sustainability. We were delighted with Iyora village as a hopeful example of “living off the land” in “vibrant communities” for “sustained prosperity.” All the usual buzz phrases of the sustainability movement. Meanwhile, villagers with the means get the hell out of Dodge, likely seeking the bustle, employment potential, and stimulus of urban life. Iyora is a quaint place, certainly not engaging enough for the anxious teenager or aspiring young adult. It’s not exactly a paradigm of a perfect life – while the community does sustain itself, there is no clinic (read: health problems), unemployment is probably around 80%, and hardship is no doubt a common part of life.
As well-intentioned development organizations and entrepreneurs have realized in the past decade, these people do not necessarily want what will improve their life. (When you think for a second, it’s silly we ever made that mistake: our track record for wanting what is better for our lives is piss-poor.) Instead, people are interested in what we already have: cars, cell phones, laptops, AC units, instant foods… The typical trappings of a “modern” life. They don’t want bicycles because they are low tech and associated with poverty. They are leery of biogas, viewing it as “cooking with shit-gas.” How tragic that the breakthroughs in reconfiguring waste streams and infrastructure often stem from traditional practices; the association makes them a hard sell to those that are already engaged in traditional – albeit less sustainable – practices.
How can we convince them that it’s really not worth it? That they are empty lies that will suck dry your soul and homeland? That we are here to help you avoid our pitfalls rather than exclude you from modernized life?
Create a sustainable future while satisfying the human desire for “modernity.”
That seems to be the challenge that is before us. Just one problem: at the end of the day, most (all?) aspects of modernity aren’t sustainable.