During my field research in Ogoniland I came across a cultural practice I haven’t encountered anywhere else in Africa. In some Ogoni communities of Rivers State the oldest or only daughter in a family is not permitted to marry or leave her father’s house, and she is socially (not physically) wedded to her father for life. She produces offspring with one or several male community members, offspring who take her own father’s name and become his heirs. The purpose of this is for her to have as many children as possible so they can work the family’s plot of land. Children are labor, labor generates income, and so fathers’ keeping their daughters at home is an income-generating practice. The tradition is called “Sira” and these daughters are described by some as having “Sira syndrome.”
I have spent some time thinking about the origins of Sira. I briefly hypothesized that perhaps in past generations male mortality rates were so much higher than that of women that there simply were not enough men to go around as legal husbands for single women, which is the historical explanation for the implementation of Islamic polygamy after many Muslim fighters died in religious battles in the 7th century. But if this was the case, why didn’t the practice spread to neighboring communities with a similar sex imbalance? Also, I think it is safe to say most men would like more family income, so why is it a uniquely Ogoni tradition? I haven’t found any answers to this question of how it originated.
Currently, the dynamics of the Sira households with which I am familiar vary. The woman may or may not have say over with which men she procreates, and the woman’s own father may be the one to make the decision. In some instances Siras freely take on one informal “husband” who fathers all or most of her offspring, while in other homes Siras have different fathers for each of her children. It is my understanding that in some communities, men may bring an offering or there can be a ceremony when a Sira “matches,” while in others it is strictly a numbers game in which the greater the sexual partners the greater the chance she will have many labor-producing progeny. Since such courtship is a delicate matter to discuss so I wasn’t able to learn much about how Siras match with their sexual partners.
It did seem fairly clear to me however that the practice is slowing dying out. Like most social changes I observed in Nigeria, rapid urbanization undermines such a tradition. Women moving into the city of Port Harcourt for work would be logistically unable to maintain the institution of Sira, and such a life experience would possibly alter their views of their filial obligations to stay as the social property of their fathers. I have noticed that rural-to-urban migrants also may distance themselves from traditional practices they consider too “bush-like” (their term, not mine). The gender differential in rural Rivers State, in which men have left farms in droves to seek city employment, may also affect how Sira is practiced, as women outnumber men in rural areas. Additionally, some I spoke to described the Sira practice as unchristian, as in, “This village stopped practicing Sira because we are Christians and the Bible says one man and one woman should marry.”
The practice of Sira presents a paradox in which culture is simultaneously a constricting but in a sense almost (but not quite) privileging force. It fundamentally violates the daughters’ right to choose their partners and have autonomy over their bodies. It is an oppressive practice because it infantilizes adult women. Being socially married to their fathers limits their choices, and for students of development theory, choices = development. Having their fathers’ determining their sexual partners violates their dignity, and for students of human rights theory, dignity = human rights. Yet at the same time, being a Sira did not appear, to me anyway, to be considered shameful. Ogonis did not speak of Siras in derogatory terms, nor did Siras complain to me about their status (although a life without many life choices often teaches us to accept our lot). I have met Siras with university degrees, some who work white-collar jobs, and others who have led protests and are politically conscious. Could these particular women have actually experienced more personal freedoms because they did not have a legal husband making demands on them? It also occurred to me that being a Sira could be a partially beneficial status because it is a purely Ogoni practice, so perhaps this status makes such women symbols of their ethnic group’s character, unique bearers of collective identity in their communities. As a self-identified feminist I maintain that the practice is detrimental to the status of women and I look forward to a time when the institution no longer exists; however, I have to admit that there are plenty of women in Africa and across the globe who have freely chosen their husbands and currently live under more subjugating conditions than some of the Siras I encountered.
The lesson for me: The tradition of Sira and similar practices of controlling women’s sexual behavior does not oppress such women on its own, but rather poverty, lack of education, misogyny and patriarchy combine to oppress women, and such practices are actually an effect of such oppression and not a cause.
Thoughts? I would love to learn more from my Nigerian readers who might be able to add any detail or illuminate any of the questions I asked above.
There is a trend among Nigerian women that I have lamented in passing in but never spent much time thinking about—skin bleaching. Teenage boys hawk skin lightening creams to passing cars on the freeways, and such creams are available in every beauty salon or beauty supply store I have entered. I had always thought of such beauty practices as being most common in India, however the World Health Organized (WHO) published that 77% of women in Nigeria use skin-lightening products, the world’s highest percentage. That compares with 59% in Togo, and 27% in Senegal. Last week, The Economist ran this fascinating story:
“Skin-lightening products are so popular in Nigeria they have given rise to their own terminology in Pidgin English. “Some people have a Fanta face from using bleaching products,” explains Esther, a shop attendant showing Baobab around the skin-lightening products that take up two aisles of the small cosmetic section in a minimarket in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. ‘Fanta face, coca cola legs’ she explains, describes the mottled complexion of someone who uses skin-lightening products on their face but not their body, which maintains its darker shade.
‘I don’t use them, I prefer to be chocolate,’ says Esther, ‘but some people use them so other people don’t think they work outside all day.’ Fairer skin is equated with wealth and working in plush air-conditioned offices, not toiling in fields and open-air markets under the blazing hot sun.
Nothing new there—Queen Elizabeth I of England famously used lead as a skin whitener. It became an increasingly popular practice among African women in the late 1950s. And it is a lucrative business. The industry is set to be worth $10bn globally by 2015, according to a recent report by Global Industry Analysts. In Nigeria, skin lightening can cost anything from a few dollars for a cream or soap to hundreds of dollars for a treatment in a beauty parlour, and the increasing westernisation of young Nigerian women has bolstered the demand for more expensive products.
But the trend comes with hazardous health consequences. Many products contain mercury and hydroquinone, which can lead to kidney damage, skin rashes, discolouration and scarring. Excessive use may even cause psychological problems, according to the WHO report. Worryingly, some women in Nigeria actively seek out products that contain these harmful ingredients, as they are perceived to be more effective. But often those that do contain harmful substances, do not list them as ingredients.
In India, where nearly two-thirds of the dermatological market consists of skin-lightening products, a whitening wash for intimate female areas was launched this year. It provoked international outrage when a television advert implied that women who used it would be more attractive to men. When Baobab asked some Nigerian women whether they would try such a product, they replied with raucous laughter.
For some, the teasing these products can induce just is not worth it. “When people have this patchy face we call them bingo face,” explains Julie Ogidi, a cook, ‘Bingo—like the dog.'”
Watching cable in Port Harcourt, I used to see this commercial often, and it still fascinates me. There are many scenes familiar to Nigerians—congested go-slows (traffic jams), the broken down bus, and the city-dwelling relative coming home to his rural family bearing gifts. The two most salient themes for me are those of urbanization and masculinity. The male breadwinner of the family moves into the city to try to make his fortune, earning the respect of his family, thus urbanization creates not only potential financial capital but social capital as well. Femi buys his younger brother a bus ticket when he sees him as “man enough” to make it in the city. The men are constructing their masculinity by through earning money. I heard that Guinness made this commercial in the Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo languages as well, possibly changing the man’s name from Femi (a Yoruba name) to a Hausa or Igbo name for the ad to have more resonance among respective ethnic groups. I think Guinness really did its marketing research with this one:
One of Africa’s oldest and best-known slums is being dismantled
Aug 18th 2012 | LAGOS
“PADDLES splash through oily water and propel dugouts along narrow channels separating wooden shacks on stilts far out in the shallow lagoon on which much of Lagos, Nigeria’s business hub, was built. A quarter of a million people live in Makoko, learn to swim before they have walked on land, go to school, buy goods from traders drifting down the main channels, build fishing boats and go to sea. A few narrow bridges connect elevated platforms anchored, like everything else, six feet below the waterline. They say the only thing you won’t find in Makoko is a grave.
Or the government. For more than 120 years the fishing community has been left largely to its own devices. But that changed last month when a hundred officials with chainsaws razed dozens of shacks. Lacking property deeds, residents were given only 72 hours notice to go. One died in a clash with police. Steve Adji, an indignant community chief, says, ‘The government speaks of shanties but these are homes.’
Lagos has long been a byword for urban chaos. Traffic is legendarily bad, crime is a perennial sore and public services reach few. Re-elected last year, the city government is striving to change all this. It has commissioned a rail network, tried to control unruly motorbike taxis and invested in roads. The clearing of slums is part of its effort to unclog the city and spur the economy. But all too often it is the poor who pay the price.”
With an ever-increasing population of 163 million people, Nigeria has a lot of consumers. Nigeria also has a lot of business entrepreneurs. Nigeria also has a lot of money. So how is it that people with all the ingredients for developing their economy still live on an average of $2 a day?
In The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, Hernando de Soto Polar has an idea. He argues that a lack of legally protected property rights in the global south impedes people’s ability to transform their meager assets into greater capital. Poor countries have the “stuff” necessary to not be poor, but because their stuff isn’t legally legitimate they can’t buy, sell, or trade that stuff in order to build up the economy. They remain in this rut of dead capital. For example, the rural-to-urban migrants living in self-made islands around Lagos may have shacks worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars, but because they do not legally own that property in the eyes of the state, they cannot take out loans against their property in order to make larger investments.
In contrast, property rights in Western law create beneficial economic effects that undergird the health of European and the American economies. He writes that Western law fixes the value of assets, puts all asset information in one place, tracks and protects transactions, and makes assets “fungible,” meaning that they can be modified to suit different types of transactions. Additionally, it networks business agents so they can engage in transactions that build more capital as well as makes business people accountable for their practices, accountability that is sorely lacking in Nigeria.
In reading, I wondered how I could apply his argument to my analysis of law in rural Niger Delta. I remembered that one of the common themes in my interviews with protesting women was their sense of injustice that the state and oil companies had extracted crude on their property without consulting or compensating them. When I asked them if they owned the land, a first cluster of women said that they did, but their grandfather has passed away and he was the last elder who could attest to it, or they had lost their deeds decades ago, or that they had inherited it based on a public agreement.
A second cluster didn’t have titles per say, but that it was theirs “collectively” as Ogoni people. I wondered why in their minds it didn’t belong to just the people of the village, or Rivers State people, or Niger Delta people. Some also said that the land was theirs personally because their family had farmed on it for many years. As an urban American, I didn’t understand these responses initially.
The answer is social contract. Property and rights are socially constructed first, and then legitimated in formal written law second. In rural villages property disputes are resolved by asking the eldest community member where they remember boundaries being drawn or which family they remember as being the owner; land titles filed with the state are not the basis of ownership necessarily. For the second cluster, this land was “Ogoni property” long before the advent of the post-independence Nigeria legal system, and for them their ownership based on social contract will always remain more salient that the modern state’s claim to that same land. When the federal government or oil companies use that land as if it belonged to the state, Nigerians view that property use as illegitimate and thus engage in collective action.
The women who claimed to own their land because they had farmed it are in good company. When settlers were initially dividing up vast tracts of American land two centuries ago, they gained official titles based on the idea that the land belonged to them because they had made use of it. However, American pioneers had the benefit of staking claim to virgin territory in the legal sense. Deltans’s claims are obfuscated by legal pluralism, their pre-existing social contracts co-existing with formal Nigerian law derived from British common law as well as foreign companies’ claims to access that land. It is therefore not surprising that such frustration and feelings of violation would have lead to collective demonstrations in the area over the past twenty years.
To de Soto’s point, Deltans have assets, e.g. huts, houses, farmland, etc. But, they can’t officially prove so because they long ago lost their titles or don’t have the literacy necessary to file paperwork, or most commonly, because Nigerian government bureaucracy is so unnavigable that people are forced to work and live extralegally. Functioning outside of the protections of law limits their ability to utilize their property in ways that drive the economy, e.g. they can’t use property as collateral on a loan or apply to open a legal business if they don’t “own” the property. Law is supposed to fit the needs of its people, but Nigerians have been forced to fit into the confines of a post-independence legal order that does not have a foundation in social practices. And that, it could be argued, is a big part of why so many Nigerians are still so poor.
For a critical look at de Soto Polar’s book, see the New York Times Book Reviews.
Protesters Bury Jonathan in Lagos During Occupy Nigeria:
Since 2009, there have been ongoing demonstrations by shantytown residents against Governor Amaechi’s plan to tear down 40 waterfront slums in Port Harcourt. Around 200,000 residents live in these slums, making the area the most densely populated part of the city. State security forces have used extreme force in both their evictions and their reactions to the demonstrations. The justification for this use of force is the demolitions are part of the state’s effort at “urban renewal” and the police have argued that the waterfront is the epicenter of urban crime in Rivers State. Protestors have asked, “Do criminals stop being criminals because you destroy their home?” “Won’t making people homeless force them into criminality in order to survive?” While the state is framing its arguments in terms of modernization and public safety, the waterfront tenants are framing theirs in terms of individual human rights. Ultimately, the conflict arises from the singular challenge facing Port Harcourt and all Nigerian cities: overpopulation in a climate of scant resources.
In trying to project what the future of Port Harcourt living may look like, it seems helpful to look to its far larger neighbor Lagos. A few decades ago Lagos had the same population as Port Harcourt has today, 3 million. Port Harcourt’s port, the second busiest in the country, and may in the future compete with that of Lagos. Both cities span across various islands and continually struggle with land erosion into the sea. Their dense populations create issues of housing scarcity and debilitating traffic. Today’s problems in Lagos could very well be those of Port Harcourt tomorrow.
Is Lagos the future of coastal urbanization in Nigeria?
There is truly no other place like Lagos, for now at least. It is the largest city in sub-Saharan Africa one of the fastest growing in the world. Less than fifty years ago, a scenic Lagos had a population of 300,000. There was a highly suspect census conducted a few years ago indicating that the current population was 9 million, but that even government officials admitted that was impossible. Today the population is at least 16 million. In ten years, Nigeria’s largest city will have 25 million residents, making it one of the planet’s top five megacities.
The main problem for Lagos is that that although 600,000 people move there every year, there is physically nowhere for them to go because the city is a collection of islands. The scant land that exists is swampy and unstable, easily eroding away during harsh weather. Nigerians are survivors though, highly adept at making it through the most adverse conditions, so some of the ¾ of the city population that live in shantytowns have responded by building floating slums out of garbage. Lagos produces hundreds of tons of garbage every day. One source said that it was 300, another 9000, so let us assume it is somewhere in between. Some of the new arrivees have devised an ingenious system of creating their own new land based on all this garbage. They dump (or pay someone a small fee to dump) the rubbish to float on the water where they wish to expand onto. Then they gather sawdust from the local timber yard (Lagos has the largest one in West Africa) and leave it on top of the floating rubbish for six months to help it decompose. Then, bucket by bucket, they place sand on top of the sawdust and when that is packed down, the rubbish/sawdust/sand layers become stable enough to build a home on. It is an incredibly resourceful system of land-filling.
The largest slum, Makoko, built half and mile into the water of Lagos Lagoon, is home to 100,000 people who live in homes perched on stilts. There, everything from taxing people to selling herbal medicines is done on canoes. Residents use larger canoes to transport children to school, ferry commuters to their day jobs on the mainland, and even move machinery and building supplies. They are some of the few Lagos inhabitants who may be able to avoid the infamous traffic, including the single 12-mile long go-slow that forms every morning and evening every weekday on one of the city’s three main bridges.
It is not unusual to spend 4-5 hours per day stuck in traffic in Lagos. It is just part of living there. The only way to avoid it is to have the good fortune to be able to live and work on the same island, which is really only a possibility for the wealthy. One solution is to take often dangerous okadas (motorcycle taxis) but riders must be willing to arrive at their destination dirty, sweaty or wet from rain. The traffic problem is so bad that it is part of the reason that the country capital was moved from Lagos to Abuja in 1991. Here is a video on the city problems, of which there are many. In all fairness however, there is never a dull moment in Lagos, and it can offer some of the most memorable scenes to be witnessed in Africa, e.g. a calf strapped to the back of a bicycle, a multi-million dollar yacht sailing past beach shantytowns, hundreds of Muslims wordlessly and simultaneously stopping their bartering to pray together amidst freeway traffic. Fascinating place to visit, less than optimal place to live:
One problem that isn’t discussed enough here is the way that climate change will negatively impact Nigeria’s coastal cities, specifically Lagos and Port Harcourt. The slums were built by rural farmers from inland Nigeria who couldn’t make ends meet in the countryside and came to find economic opportunities in the big city. West Africa has been suffering from an unprecedented drought for a decade now, attributed by many scholars to global warming-induced desertification of agricultural land. At the same time, rising sea levels are pushing Lagos residents farther inland as they try to avoid flooding. Although sporadic at the moment, clashes over land and resources will only increase in the coming years as these two groups are forced into conflict with each other.
Even after years of living in these conditions, many of the rural-to-urban migrants speak with yearning of their home village, and maintain the hope that they will save enough money to return one day. These conversations make one wonder why the state doesn’t invest in making villages more livable, instead of trying to accommodate the influx of arrivees in cities. Rather than perpetually building and rebuilding urban roads, an ongoing financial drain, those funds could be used to improve key national highways that allow the non-urban to better transport their agricultural goods to market. Rather than building new university campuses where the flood of aspiring students are, it makes much more sense to build a university in a smaller town where students will move to and can have a more affordable cost of living anyway. The government should be responding to the Lagos population crisis reactively instead of proactively, and in a way that gives Nigerians a positive incentive to leave the cities if they wish to.