LAGOS — It has been another tough year for Nigerians. They have seen inflation erode the value of their currency by more than six percent; they have seen their naira lose value by more than 300 to the American dollar. Still, there is a life that must be lived.
After some 230 working days of braving the narrow roads of Lagos, spending a cumulative four hours in traffic to go to and from work; after living under the tension of high security alerts in Abuja, the capital, people must let down their hair and just be grateful to see another 365 days walk past. Entertainment sellers take advantage of this inevitable need, one that must be fulfilled even at the cost of going into debt to cram loads of events into “Detty December” — having fun during yuletide.
Not all the events will be held in concert halls and theaters, soaking up Afrobeat vibes and pieces of relived/reimagined life; many people will be on the road to the hinterlands in the east. For some, it is a choice, an “omenala” — Igbo tradition — that should be kept. For others, it is a must: a burial, “celebration of life” or a wedding. It is the latter for Maryann Okoli, a corporate communications expert based in Lagos.
Okoli’s head is aching from the stress of figuring out how she and her family will get to her village in rural Imo State in the southeast.
“Nigeria is riding on an inflation donkey,” she told PassBlue from Lagos. “This donkey just keeps going up an inflation hill and nothing changes. Nigeria defies the law of gravity, when something goes up, it never comes down.” Okoli has plans to fly for her wedding in Imo, but she is flustered about coughing up the equivalent of about $400 for a one-way ticket. Just a month before, it was exactly half the price. If she was not planning a traditional wedding, she would still have had to find that flight money. Okoli grew up in Abuja, in central Nigeria. Since she relocated to Lagos for school and work, she has rarely missed an opportunity to spend time with her parents at year’s end in Imo.
That is how Isaiah Oluwatobi likes to mark the end of the year and the beginning of another. Oluwatobi is from the southwest; his mother and three siblings are based in Lagos. There is no need for him to make any trips.
“I don’t travel during the yuletide,” he said. “I stay at home with my siblings as one big family. Later in the day, I could go out to visit friends.”
Since Okoli’s parents are 446 miles away from her, those new year memories keep her going through the rest of the year. Just like Oluwatobi, she visits with childhood friends who are still in the neighborhood. Okoli’s parents are aging, and she loves spending time learning at the feet of her father. There is a ritual she would not miss even if there is hyperinflation.
“Every 31st of December, my father draws us round and does a toast to the new year,” Okoli said. He prays in a way that she says is peculiar to the Igbos. It is a supplicatory conversation with the supreme being, Chukwu Abiama.
“We have come to the end of another year, my family and I. We are not the best, we are not different, but you have chosen to keep us alive,” Okoli recited the prayer. “Once it is 12 A.M., the eldest son opens a bottle of wine and fills everyone’s cup.” Besides prayers, some Igbo men welcome the year with a gun salute.
If you live in Lagos and you do not know that Christmas and the New Year are approaching, the sound of firecrackers reminds you. From the end of November until the first week of January, children and teens create memories by lighting up what Nigerians refer to as “banger.” The culture persists, especially on the stroke of midnight, Jan. 1, though it has reduced a bit in intensity from earlier years.
“Growing up, one of the fun stuff we used to do at this time of the year is throw bangers,” Oluwatobi told PassBlue. “I remember we used to have banger fights. Houses adjacent to each other would throw bangers into each other’s compound.” The police often issue orders outlawing the sale of firecrackers. With mobile phones and Internet connectivity, the phenomenon has waned.
Emeka Onyeagwa, like many Nigerians, left for the United States almost 10 years ago. He still has a feeling for home and tries to satiate it when a series of factors align: the schedule of everyone in his household and finances. The last time everything aligned was 2019.
“It reminded me of when I used to visit Nigeria with my dad,” Onyeagwa told PassBlue from New York City. His trip to Nigeria last aligned during the Easter holidays. “My dad worked in government, we used to drive round the country together. When my daughter landed in Lagos, she said it reminded her of New York.” Onyeagwa grew up in Lagos. After visiting a few friends during his last trip, he found his way to Enugu in the southeast, where his mother lives.
That journey was made by road. The route from Lagos to the southeast has been largely insecure in recent times, with a spate of herdsmen-related attacks and kidnappings in communities bordering the roads. One notorious area of concern is the Benin bypass. Onyeagwa took the leap of faith. The east has been prone to attacks and a high military presence, since the arrest of Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the outlawed separatist Indigenous People of Biafra, in October 2015.
“I got a couple of relatives who followed us around,” Onyeagwa said. “We would have called attention to ourselves if we went around with a security detail. I know people that come from the US who do that though.”
Despite the security challenges, Onyeagwa had plans to fly into Nigeria for New Year festivities this year, but he was foiled by inflation in the US. On top of the high prices of groceries, Onyeagwa has to deal with demands from Nigeria, where prices defy the law of gravity.
“Everyone has a problem,” he said. “You’re suffering in Nigeria; America also has inflation. It used to be rare that I’ll walk into a store and I’ll pay $400 to $500.” During his 2019 trip, Onyeagwa took his family to Dubai on their way back from Nigeria, just to relieve some stress. When he returned to New York City, he turned off all mobile devices and spent the rest of the week sleeping.
Onyeagwa’s trip cost $3,000 over his budget. Much of it was spent settling with officials, who harangue Nigerian travelers at the airport, paying black taxes and organizing intrastate travel. He wishes Nigerians were comfortable enough to pick up the tab for visiting relatives and make the trip more relaxing.
“Everybody’s complaining, you’re trying to be happy and everybody is complaining,” he said. “No one is trying to buy you beer, no one is trying to buy you suya” — roasted meat on a stick. “I just wish people were a lot more welcoming. The biggest thing is the amount of stress you’re going to face and how you’d navigate that stress.”
Around festive holidays in Nigeria, inflation is always high. There is increased demand and purchases must be made. Oluwatobi, from the southwest, spends money buying clothes and wigs for his siblings. It is his responsibility to provide the “delicacies” that would be cooked on Christmas and New Year, like jollof rice and fried rice.
Okoli has to raise money for airfares and settle bills when she gets home to Lagos. Onyeagwa has demands of close to $4,000 almost every other month. In Nigeria, January is a dry time not only in terms of weather but also fiscally, thanks to the expenses made to mark the new year.
As Onyeagwa said, “It’s money I’ll spend every time.”
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Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.