Monthly Archives: October 2012

Sira Syndrome among the Ogonis

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.

No weddings for Siras…

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.

Discussion on Boko Haram [video]

This video link is to a frank discussion on the future of Boko Haram’s terrorism, and what it means to security and stability across the country.

Boko Haram

Here is quick coverage of the latest attack on a northern school:

Nigerian women and conceptions of beauty

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.’”

 

All-natural beauties.

 

Democracy Now’s Video on Kiobel

Along with same-sex marriage and affirmative action, the Supreme Court will re-examine the issue of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) as means for foreigners to sue American corporation in U.S. courts. The new 8-month session began this week and the Kiobel case remains on the docket, in which 12 Niger Deltan petitioners are suing Royal Dutch Shell Petroleum. This case has been discussed in previous posts here.

Can Kenya make the “youth bulge” a source of strength, not a threat?

Originally posted on Africa Health Dialogue:

Population momentum: Fertility rates fall, but global population explosion goes on

The reality of falling fertility rates while global ‘population explosion’ goes on is depicted in the Figure above. The relentless growth in population might seem paradoxical given that the world’s average birth-rate has been slowly falling for decades. Humanity’s numbers continue to climb because of what scientists call population momentum. As a result of unchecked fertility in decades past, coupled with reduced child mortality, many people are now in their prime reproductive years, making even modest rates of fertility yield huge population increases. This according to John Bongaarts of Population Council in New York translates to adding more than 70 million people to the planet every year, which has been happening since the 1970s. The African continent is expected to double in population by the middle of this century, adding 1 billion people despite the ravages of AIDS and…

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Falling birth rates across the world, some more than others

I am currently in Italy analyzing the field data I gathered last year in the Niger Delta.  The transition has clearly been challenging, as I am re-adjusting to being a place with clear rules, and where I can spend more time being professionally productive and less time “surviving,” e.g. finding potable water, clean food, sources of electricity, etc.  However, one of the more startling thoughts I had my first week here occurred to me when I was roaming through the streets of Florence among a sea of silver-haired adults. I realized that I was only seeing perhaps one baby per day during my daily commute, and almost all of them were with mothers who had clearly immigrated to Italy from another country.  I asked myself, “Where are all the babies?”

In subsequent research, I have learned that Italy has the second lowest birth rate in Western Europe this year, at 1.4 children per woman. The CIA World Factbook, a reliable statistical source, says:

A rate of two children per woman is considered the replacement rate for a population, resulting in relative stability in terms of total numbers. Rates above two children indicate populations growing in size and whose median age is declining. Higher rates may also indicate difficulties for families, in some situations, to feed and educate their children and for women to enter the labor force. Rates below two children indicate populations decreasing in size and growing older. Global fertility rates are in general decline and this trend is most pronounced in industrialized countries, especially Western Europe, where populations are projected to decline dramatically over the next 50 years.

In stark contrast, Nigeria has a birth rate of 5. 38 children per woman, almost four times that of Italy. Nigeria has the 13th highest birth rate in the world, in country that is already the most populous in Africa. This average probably would show a stark contrast between low rates in major cities and high ones in villages. As an anecdote,  the women I interviewed in rural areas typically said they had 6-9 living children.   Just from my observations, I recall that between 1/4 and 1/3 of rural Niger Deltan women I’d see would be carrying a pekin (baby) in a wrapper on their back. No wonder I noticed the missing babies here in Italy.

Italy’s low birth rate is coupled with a low mortality rate and longer expected life spans. The life expectancy in Italy is almost 82 years. Conversely, in Nigeria it is just over 51 years. Italians get 60% more life than Nigerians! Sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing a youth bulge and has been for decades; it is one of the driving explanations for ongoing violent conflicts in the region.  Europe, Asia and Russia do not even have replacement birthrates. While African governments struggle with feeding, educating and housing booming populations, Europeans and Asians are worried about who will pay into the social security necessary to care for aging populations.

The stress of the youth bulge: Lots of young people without older ones to help ensure stability.

Sociologists and economists hypothesize that the poor financial state Italy, Spain, and the U.S. are the reason for plummeting birth rates in those countries, but I will add a caveat.  In modern industrialized countries, I will buy the argument that people have less babies during times of economic strain, because in those societies children are financial burdens.  However, birth rates in developing African countries remain high because children there are not just burdens, they are also viewed as labor for rural families.  In agricultural areas, it makes just as much sense for families to actually produce more children during times of economic hardship, under the belief that they children’s labor will overall produce more resources than the children will consume. This is the reason that I don’t buy the historical argument I have read that the American birth rate in the U.S. went down during the Great Depression because of economic conditions; at that time, as is true in rural Africa today, children could create capital through their labor. The relationship between birth rates and the economy is not so clear to me.

Have any thoughts on this?

Italy’s population

Nigeria’s population

Sons of Iraq vs. Niger Delta Amnesty Program

I have been in correspondence with a Polish conflict researcher who has asked me some interesting questions about the Niger Delta Amnesty Program (NDAP) and that in Iraq, called the Sons of Iraq. Drawn from the Awakening Council, the Sons are Sunni former insurgents in Anbar Province who have been paid stipends by the U.S. military and the Iraqi government to now maintain security against both Shiite and Sunni militants who are still fighting against the American occupation and the new Iraqi political leadership. Although it would seem counter intuitive to arm and pay fighters who had been attacking American forces, the Bush administration reasoned that this tactic would both reduce the number of anti-American militants and help curtail the strength of Shiite forces backed by Iran.

 

Son of Iraq on patrol.

 

Niger Delta Amnesty Program

 

There are similarities between the two efforts.  Both in Nigeria and Iraq the governments have created “jobs for the boys” programs that aim to turn insurgents into members of a citizens’ patrol, from aggressors against foreigners and the government to defenders of them. Also, both programs are prone to immense instability and fraction, but for different reasons as I explain below.

However, I see immense differences in comparing the Sons of Iraq and the NDAP.  These variations between the two seem to be based on 24 years of stable dictatorship, the presence of the American military, the suddenness of political instability, and over millennial religious tensions in Iraq, all of which are not conditions found in Nigeria.  In contrast, Nigeria’s political history is one of perpetual coups and constant abnegation of foreign interference, and is defined almost solely by its status as an oil state suffering from the resource curse. Some differences that I can note:

1. Iraqi Sons are ideologically and religiously motivated in (large) part. The Sons must battle anti-American Shiites on a large-scale, and there is also infighting between pro-American Sunnis and suspicious-of-American Sunnis within the employment program itself. ND rebels today are not ideologically nor religiously motivated in that same way, but fight to steal oil and kidnap to get money. As opposed to the Sons, ND militants are more like a mafia that uses violence to make money, i.e. they engage in extortion. There would be security issues in Iraq with or without the Awakening, but ND rebels are the ones actually making the security problems to begin with. So, with that said, ND militants receiving Amnesty benefits are absolutely not maintaining any form of security like the Sons, but rather are being paid to stop stealing oil and committing violence. As one of my interview subjects aptly phrased it, “It reduces crime and since we have the money, it is OK.  You pay them to reduce the violence in the country.” In Nigeria, there is perhaps a price on peace.
2. Transparency: Presumable Awakening fighters trust that U.S. forces will pay them when promised, and the program is comparably fiscally transparent. One of the reasons that Nigerians are suspicious of the NDAP is that a) the government cannot be trusted to pay fighters as on time or even at all, and b) exact amounts being transferred are unclear, so there is probably much more corruption in the ND program in Nigeria than that in Iraq.

3. I don’t know exactly how the U.S. pays fighters in Iraq, but a big problem in Nigeria is that the most violent kingpins like Tompolo and Dokubo are being paid huge sums, and then very little is actually being given directly to lower-level fighters. In Iraq I suspect there is more equity in payment amounts among various fighters but in ND the money is concentrated in few hands, and that creates problems when lower-level fighters feel a sense of unfairness that leads to greater violence.

4. In Iraq there is a clear enemy that the U.S. and the U.S.-installed government hope their employment program will weaken: Al Qaeda.  In contrast, there is no clear enemy in the Niger Delta Amnesty Program for participants to battle, as the biggest threat is the factitious insurgency itself, the very men being paid and trained in the program.

5. As reported several years ago, the most salient concern for the U.S. and the Iraqi government is that the Sons of Iraq program may backfire and end up just giving newer and better arms to former insurgents who could do an about-face, thus fueling a prolonged civil conflict to a greater degree. They have publicly stated that a priority is disallow the Sons to gain enough power to become an independent authority, which was a possibly after the U.S. made the mistake of disbanding the Iraq military after its invasion. However, although ND militants have firepower that competes with that of the Nigerian military, insurgents there do not seem to have the desire to overtake the military particularly. Relinquishing arms is a large part of the NDAP mandate, with the goal that former fighters gain training abroad to come home as welders, electricians, carpenters, etc. In Iraq the participants receive training to become better fighters against threats to security in Andar, not to have a professional trade that would benefit them after the war ends.

This leads one to wonder about what all the Sons of Iraq (and NDAP participants) will do once  their stipends dry up.  Years of fighting, and being trained to do so, often do not translate into stability for soldiers when a conflict ends.